An American Professor in Europe 
Summer, 2012
 
Punting on the Cam                                                                                                                                                                  
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Searching for Descartes in France...again!                                             11 to 15 July
Paris, Tours, Poitiers, La Haye-Descartes
    

Arrival in Paris One Night

Update - 11 July
    Took the Eurostar to return to Paris again for my weekend visit to Western France, which is a repeat trip of last year’s tour of the Loire Valley and the Aquitaine where Descartes was born and schooled.  Last summer I left myself without time to visit his birth town because it is not reachable by train, so this year I have reserved a car for a more flexible journey.  The train from London was on-time and comfortable as always, but crowded with young people in summer travel and weather from my window seat appeared to be the same cold and cloudy business it has been in the British Isles.  Upon arrival I immediately took the Metro across town to my familiar area of Montparnasse where I found Laura, my daughter, waiting for me at the hotel as planned.  She arrived for her Master’s program residency a few days ago and we planned to meet up before leaving for Tours and Poitiers in the morning.
     Posted here is a shot of late evening in Paris by the rail station and another picture from my visit last year of the tower here at Montparnasse. We have a train to catch in the morning from the station nearby and I hope all goes smoothly so that we can make it in time for the tour by car.  It was very nice to enjoy a late dinner with Laura, conversation catching up on her world and what she is writing, and then being so late I walked her back to her hotel over two kilometers away and back again, providing me a before-bed workout.  In Europe you see people walk everywhere, unless you take the taxi but that adds up quickly!  There are buses, of course, but by the time you wait for one a ride it a while you could have walked in about the same time. At any rate, it is nice to be back in France for this brief period and with the class in London well underway, my time with Laura should be very satisfying.



        
     
The museum is the house where Descartes grew up. It was his grandmother’s, having lost his mother as an infant, and he was raised by her and a nursemaid whom we remembered fondly his entire life. The museum not only gave one much historical context of the times, the 16th century emergence of science (Leonardo, Bacon, Copernicus), and the early 17th century in France that Descartes lived, but also summarized his major philosophical contributions in a very robust way.  All displays were of course in French and so Laura and I used the audioguide headsets for English narration as we passed through the museum, making the museum and house quite enjoyable.  I would like to have a copy of the audio narration because it was very educational in telling the story of his life and influence on science and philosophy.  The final room even had large displays of all the philosophers that came before and after Descartes and what their views and systems had to say in relation or contrast to his.  In this I was pleased to see a large section dedicated to my subject, Thomas Hobbes, as well.  The museum host even provided me with a poster of the museum to show my students and take back home with me.


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             La Place de Liberte', Poitiers
           Below same location taken by
                 Laura with her iPad

  
     Everything went smoothly getting back to Paris and so at least the Prof has learned to give himself time as a stress reducer when making connections in unfamiliar places.  We ate a slow lunch of Chinese buffet and waited for our train to London that took us back to St. Pancras International where I was able to say to Laura, "Welcome to London."  We plan to explore the city tomorrow after my morning class session and then on to more London touring with my daughter the next day. --TW

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Update - 13 July
     Yesterday we got a slow start after a late evening on our first day in Poitiers. Laura and I got the rental car the day before in Tours and it seems the manager had kept the place open for us. We are definitely having an adventure, glad to be traveling with family because it is always more fun that way or with someone we know well. So, what happened was this: Even though the car reservation was made for 10 am, instead of rushing to Tours I was thinking the rental could wait until mid-day, but by the time we got to the train station for tickets, the earliest train to Tours was at 1:30—good grief. While checking out in Paris, I called the car rental in Tours to say that we were coming but late. The man says, “no problem” and so I thought maybe I was being silly to worry about it.
     Well, when we got to Tours it turned out he had waited on us to close up, apparently knowing when the daily Paris train arrives in the afternoon. He was in a rush to process us and leave, telling me that, if I hadn't called, it is likely the rental would have been closed and we would have no car. Perhaps this is many assumptions, but on retrospect such events reinforce for me that the practice of planning and clearly communicating is always best when traveling in foreign places. One cannot just act spontaneously in the face of location ignorance. For example, when I left London one of my students had just purchased train tickets to Paris as well, and for much more than if purchased weeks ago, to join the program group going this weekend (and already planned), but she did not have any lodging arranged, not realizing that it is the French National Day on Saturday and there are no vacancies in Paris!
     See the picture above that Laura took of me as we waited for our train and ourselves in transit to Tours. Then drive in France was not so difficult with Laura’s GPS, but the drive from Tours to Poitiers was longer than I had anticipated even on their freeway. And there was a stretch of toll road, all signs in French, so this is an example again of location ignorance and the adventure one therefore experiences! Nevertheless, we arrived in Poitiers safely for three nights and along the way, even under cloudy skies, the French country-side was so beautiful. It is just like any rural setting, could be Missouri near the Ozarks or North Yorkshire in England, although not as varying in the shades of green here, but the farms and buildings and little towns dotting the hills look so old and have that old-world brick French style. It is a good thing the rental car is little (an Opal diesel) because we still had to squeeze through the narrow streets of old Poitiers and fit into a very narrow hotel reserved space when we arrived.
    Yesterday, after our late start, we found the clouds turning to storms and we could not escape an entire day of heavy rain. It was not a day to walk about the town and show Laura the historic Poitiers that I fell in love with last year, so we decided to knock out my purpose for being here and spend the wet day in the car to the smaller town of Descartes. It was disappointing that we could not experience better visibility as we drove purposefully through the provincial towns instead of freeway. We got turned around a bit and didn’t bypass the ancient city of Chatellerault, where Descartes’s father had been a judge in the 16th century, but instead we ended up in the city centre which was a positive mistake to see the place. We went on driving through the country and through a sleepy little town called Oyre’ before eventually arriving in La Haye-Descartes and the Museum Rene Descartes. The entire drive was perhaps 1.5 hours but heavy rains all the way and while we were in the museum too (see picture of the Descartes museum back from parking).
 
     
      We drove back to Poitiers and enjoyed a nice evening in the room with take-away food from a "kabab" place.  Laura had the shaved lamb and I had a steak and fries and I had difficulty communicating with the man in the little fried food shop because when I ordered one of the 3-cheese panini's, he thought I wanted three orders, so we ended up with food for five persons!  Couldn't eat it all and maybe ate more french fries in one night than I have the entire last 4 months. --TW
        
Update - 14 July French National Day
Update - 15 July

     My daughter and I dried out a bit on the National Day yesterday, or what we call in US "Bastille Day," but the French don't at all, and we stayed in our Poitiers room through the morning watching the televised live parade in Paris.  Part of it included a wonderful "horse show" as closely as I can describe it, in which the cavalry did precision movements in a sort-of dance of horses.  Really good and the horses so obedient and trained.  The newly elected French president moved down the Champs Elysees in his open air car with a general to his side, waving to the crowd lining the grand avenue as you can imagine, from the Arc d'Triumph to the Concord.  It was unique to see how this other great and old nation celebrates its independence from monarchy rule, its liberty, and its nationality.
     There was also a festival parade in the small town square here of which we only caught the end in a misty rain that cleared as the day wore on.  The local parade ended with the band playing the French National Anthem one last time in front of the Hotel de Ville, followed by what looked like important people walking into the building through a column of official looking persons as umbrellas were being put away.  On the opposite end of the square they were setting up a large stage for an evening concert, but we could find no place where the time for the show was posted.
     Laura and I took the opportunity on a nicer day to explore the old city and I showed her the Place de Liberte' (see photo), which was generally the location of the old university here where Descartes attended law school, the 13th century courthouse that had been a residence when visiting of Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother of English Kings Richard I and John, and then the 14th century Notre Dame La Grand church which were all places I visited last year.  I think she liked the historical spaces very much, as well as the window shopping everywhere, and this time I (we) went inside the church and explored the old chapels, alter, and stained glass windows.
     We spent the late afternoon sitting outside a cafe right on the square people-watching and chatting, thinking we were holding ourselves a seat for the concert.  Occasional dark clouds would roll over and deposit some rain and in between was bright sunshine.  We had located ourselves under awning cover, so we enjoyed our time but wondered when the show would begin.  They stage preparation finished and then the technical people began there sound checks and prep for the concert, but this lasted over an hour, including short starts of rock songs we knew and also recorded music over the speaker system, but the show never got started as the sun went down.  We got hungry and the cafe, because of the concert, was not serving food only drinks and pay-as-you-go, so we abandoned our seats and searched for food.  We soon selected another local restaurant with very old-style decore where Laura had the froi gras in a sweet carmelized sauce that was in fact too rich for her liking, but we were hungry and sat there talking and eating.  It has been a very good time connecting with my daughter as a complete grown-up.  Very proud to be her dad.
     Today we packed up and left fairly early to drive back to Tours and drop off the rental car and catch our train back to Paris.  We bought tickets that would put us back in Paris in plenty of time to deal with passport control and boarding the Eurostar back to London in mid afternoon.  One thing we learned while driving here is the French word "peage" which means "toll" and both coming and going a stretch of the highway we took cost EU 10.30.  After driving some of these places I actually got used to how signs are posted and where to go, which I find quite remarkable with so little French knowledge.  We could not find a gas station to fill the tank before drop-off, and time was running short to get our train, so we left the car and dropped keys in slot without filling up.  This will cost me.  So many hidden costs you cannot plan for, like ordering the three-cheese panini and getting three of them!  Seems the world traveler must just add another thousand dollars to whatever budget for these adding up expenses one cannot plan in advance.

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