Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Farewell to Friends

Numerous farewell gatherings for friends continue this week in Penang. They started in May as the school year drew to a close. As with any expat community, so many people are here for just a few years, and a high turnover rate is the norm. Our school even sells T-shirts at the end of the year with either "Jumpa Lagi" for returning students and "Selamat Tinggal" for those who are leaving. They'll fly away home or onward to unknown adventures in other lands.

I'm sad to see you go. Farewell, my friends.

A few expats left before the school year ended. The goodbyes are sometimes brief as in when my friend told me on the playground one Thursday that she was starting a new job on Monday... in Swaziland. But most expats leave over the long school break, and the process of saying goodbye goes on for a few months.

One of my biggest fears about moving somewhere new, especially overseas, is that I would lead a solitary, friendless existence. Boy, was I wrong.

Luckily, the expat and local community here is so welcoming that finding a sense of belonging was not a problem. All expats seem to remember that deer-in-the-headlights feeling they had when they first arrived here. So, they go out of their way to help newcomers, just as other people did for them. When I was still a faceless stranger posting school selection questions on the Penang Mommas Discussion Forum, one kind momma specifically got testimonies for me from older students at the school where her own children attended preschool.

All the newly arrived expats bond hard and fast like it's orientation week at university and we're small town kids in the big city for the first time. We cling to each other, taking comfort that the other person looks just as slightly freaked out as oneself. As we figure out how to satisfy basic needs like food, healthcare, and banking, the information flies back and forth in hopes that pooling our collective brains will ease the transition process. For instance, I had no idea that the only place on Penang island with cobra anti-venom is General Hospital, not one of the private hospitals frequented by the expat crowd. Good info to have!

I imagined that I'd learn about Malay life by living here. I definitely have, but an unexpected bonus is the world view that the international crowd has brought into my life. For instance, I'm in a book club that has had members hailing from Norway, Germany, Australia, England, Malaysia, and the United States. It's fascinating hearing what everyday life is like in each friend's home country. I'll admit that I was somewhat lost when some of them started reminiscing about the Eurovision Song Contest and Top of the Pops since I grew up in Texas watching Solid Gold and Hee Haw. These friends enable the group to examine literature under a global lens whether we're reading about transsexuals in small town America in John Irving's In One Person or about Palestinian refugees in Mornings in Jenin by Susan Albuhawa.

We friends lead by example to encourage each other to try new experiences. I bought unrefrigerated chicken at the wet market only after another American friend assured me that she'd done it numerous times with no ill effects on her family. Traveling to Laos and Myanmar seems less daunting when you know people who brought their preschoolers there. I would have never tried Bikram Yoga except that one of my friends started leading a class here.

As I give each departing friend one last goodbye hug, I know that they'll be missed. Inheriting the contents of their liquor cabinets or leftover small appliances is small solace. I think the sadness will really hit when the school year starts up again and people who were intrinsic parts of my weekly routine are missing.

I know that I'll definitely reunite with some of them since they're from my hometown of Austin, Texas. I keep promoting Spring Break Austin 2015 to my friend recently returned to New Hampshire since so many of us Penang expats will be back by then. Others are spread out all around the world in Africa, Europe, and Australia. Visiting them gives me a good excuse to continue my international travels. I wish them all the best as they either repatriate back into their home countries or experience another new culture as a serial expat. My time in Penang has been all the richer for having known them.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Empire of Death

The air around me smelled dank and musty. In the dimly lit tunnel hewn in the limestone, hubby walked with a slight stoop to avoid hitting his head while the kids scampered ahead only to be called back whenever they escaped our view around a turn. Puddles and slick stone floors kept me on my toes as I drew my jacket around me as protection from the chill. Twenty meters (60 feet) above us, the morning sun shone brightly on the bustling streets of Paris' Montparnasse district. But we were far below ground, making our way through the Catacombs that are the final resting place of the bones of 6 million people, more than twice as many as the number living and breathing in Paris today.

A massive web of old limestone quarries spreads out beneath the south side of central Paris. The Romans were the first to excavate the stone to build the ancient city of Lutetia. Mining continued over the centuries, providing the material for Notre Dame, the Louvre, and other Paris buildings. After a while, some tunnels were abandoned and lay empty. Sections began to collapse starting in 1774 and as recently as 1961, engulfing houses, neighborhoods and people.

By the late 18th century, Paris faced a public health problem caused by the high number of burials within the city limits. These stretched as far back as the Merovingian era, over 1,200 years ago. Those who could not afford a proper church burial were put in mass burial sites, their identities forever lost. As the bodies decayed, the putrefied remains seeped into the groundwater which was the source for the city's wells and drinking water. Someone eventually wised up and decreed that all the cemeteries within the city were to be closed and the contents transferred elsewhere.

In an Aha moment, the Police Lieutenant General, Alexandre Lenoir, recommended that the bodies be moved to the abandoned quarries beneath the city.  The tunnels were blessed, and for two years starting in 1786, the skeletal remains were loaded onto horse-drawn wagons at night, covered in black cloth, and escorted to their new resting place by priests singing the burial service. Cemetery items such as urns, crosses, and other memorabilia were also moved into the tunnels.

In 1810, the Inspector General of Quarries decided to make the ossuary into a proper mausoleum and directed the decorative arrangement of bones that began drawing visitors from the very beginning. Napoleon III thought this would be a great father-son outing in 1860.

Carving of the Quartier de Cazerne

As for us, we arrived right at opening time on a summer Sunday morning to wait in line for an hour while they slowly let people into the tunnels. Only 200 people are allowed inside at a time. A tight spiral staircase led us 130 steps beneath the surface, and we strolled through empty tunnels at first that seemed a bit of a let down. At least the slow rate at which they let visitors enter kept the passageways from becoming crowded. We eventually came across centuries-old carvings made by the original miners. The Quartier de Cazerne was created as a tribute to diggers from this district who died while working in the quarries.

Stop! This is the Empire of Death!

Finally, we reached the burial sites. Passing through a doorway topped with a sign warning us to Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort ("Stop! This is the Empire of Death!"), we continued undeterred to see what lay ahead. The tunnels snaked around, back and forth, leading us through the world of the long dead. I expected it to feel rather macabre, but it wasn't as spooky as I expected. Perhaps it is because I knew that most of these people had died natural deaths way back when short life expectancy was the norm. I think the atmosphere would be quiet different if these were victims of genocide or other brutalities. Knowing that it took centuries for this number of bodies to accumulate gave me solace.

Decorative skeletal facades

Barrel shaped arrangement in the Crypt of the Passion

These weren't just random piles of bones. Skulls and long bones were artistically arranged in facades lining both sides of the tunnels. The remaining bones were piled in a heap 10 feet deep behind them.  No attempt was made to keep a body's skeleton together, probably because they'd been laid to rest collectively in mass burial pits in the first place.

A tidy wall of bones hides the piles behind it.

 Markers identified from which cemetery the remains originated.

Bones of the old St. Laurent cemetery deposited in 1848 in the west ossuary and transferred in 1859.

The mood in the cavern was solemn as befits any burial ground. Carved messages gave me pause and made me think of how fleeting life can be but how death is just a part of the cycle. At least, I think that's what I was supposed to be thinking about. I don't know a lick of French, so I could possibly be totally inventing the meanings. Another sign read "Happy is he who is forever faced with the hour of death and prepares himself for the end every day." That makes me think of the "Now I lay me down to sleep..." prayer with its "... and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take" provision.

This reminds me that a) everything in life is fleeting; and b) I should learn French.

After walking about 2 kilometers (the ossuary encompasses 780 meters of it) over the course of an hour, we emerged from the tunnels by climbing up 83 steps. Blinking in the bright sun, we rejoined the busy world of the living.

  • Tickets are 8 Euro; Children under 13 years are free. Not included in the Paris Museum Pass.
  • Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Mondays and public holidays. Last admission at 4 p.m.
  • Be prepared to wait in line. Arrive no later than 2:30 p.m. or risk not getting in.
  • Flash photography is not allowed.
  • No toilet or cloakroom facilities are located in the Catacombs.
  • Bring a light jacket as the temperature is 14°C (57°F).
  • The Catacombs are not accessible to people with reduced mobility.
  • If you or your kids are easily spooked, skip this attraction.
  • Entrance is directly across the street from the Denfert-Rochereau Métro stop near the traffic circle with the lion statue in the middle
  • Exit is at 36 Rue Rémy Demoncel. The closest Métro stops are Alésia and Mouton Duvernet. 
  • See the Catacombs website for more information.

Related Posts:
Love Locks Bridge
Parc de la Villette: A Kids' Paradise in Paris
La Géode as big as the Ritz

This post is part of "Travel Photo Thursday" on Budget Travelers Sandbox, "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper and on Pret-a-Vivre. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Animal Sightings in Paris

I put in a lot of effort in preparing my children for Paris. They perused Lonely Planet's book Not-for-Parents: Paris (Everything You Ever Wanted to Know) which my daughter loved so much she insisted we bring it everywhere so she could share key parts aloud at the appropriate location mentioned. My son's 7th grade class serendipitously read A Tale of Two Cities. My other boy went through the Louvre Museum app (any excuse to get on the iPhone) to pick out his must-see list. I truly wanted them to be in total awe of all the wonderful sights of PARIS, the legendary City of Light that people travel from all over the world to see.

Yes, they saw all the iconic parts but, being kids, their eyes took in other things, too, like insects, birds, and cats. So, here are a few photographs inspired by my childrens' demands of "Mom, take a picture of that." They are a little part of Paris that the postcards don't usually show.

A butterfly with transparent wings in the Cité des Enfants greenhouse
Leaf-cutter ants at the Cité des Enfants
My girl spotted this snail on the manicured shrubs outside Versaille
A swan graces the Petit Trianon garden at Versailles

A cat peeking out of a bistro

Even ducks enjoy the Louvre

Whereas it was the young'ns who pointed out most of these animals, I have to give credit to dear hubby for spotting this goat taking care of the grass in the middle of the very urban, crowded-with-people Tuileries Garden. I fully suspect he intends to jettison the lawn mower when we return to Texas and set us up with a lawn goat instead.

A tethered goat "mows" the sloped lawn at the Tuileries Garden

This post is part of Pret-a-Vivre and "Travel Photo Thursday" on Budget Travelers Sandbox. Check it out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

American Life: The Condensed Version

In the fantasies of my visit home, I spend all my time reconnecting with friends and family, gorging on Mexican food and Texas Barbecue, and miraculously not gain a single pound or kilo. It hasn't turned out exactly as planned, especially that not gaining weight part. Instead of being 100% Fun, Fun, Fun, I've had a dose of reality kick in, too. It's as if I took a year or two of normal American life with both its fantastic and mundane parts and condensed it down to a month.

So many family celebrations have occurred around this table.

Thinking that we'd only be living in Malaysia for two years, we kept both our home and cars. While we've had wonderful, responsible people caring for them, this visit was clearly time for me to step in and take care of maintenance.

The squeaky belt noise I kept hearing when we picked up our van stopped only to be replaced with a burning rubber smell and the sudden cessation of air-conditioning. The service man was amazed I made it all the way to the shop without an alternator belt. As I paid him, all I could think of was how much air travel that money could have bought.

I planned a fun "Shop-with-Mama" week for my girl while her brothers were at camp. Instead of the clothes and makeup I had envisioned, we ended up shopping for less than exciting things like garage doors and a clothes dryer. More of the travel fund drifts away. 

That montage in the movie Up where the couple keeps breaking into their travel savings for unexpected expenditures started playing in my mind.

While I usually enjoy gardening, living in a Malaysian high rise condo made me forget the blah parts of yard maintenance. Hello to tree branches scraping against my roof shingles and a lawn that's turning increasingly brown due to years of drought. If only I could shift some of Penang's tropical rains over to Central Texas.

Our bodies needed a tune-up, too. Dentists, opthalmalogists, specialists and a trip to the Travel Clinic were all on my To See list. Boring but necessary and way too many pokey things.

Whenever people in Malaysia ask me how I'm handling the heat, I tell them what a Texas summer is like. Some days, it gets up to 107F (40F). At least it's a dry heat... much in the way that a blowtorch is a dry heat. Thank goodness for central air-conditioning in my house. I hardly ever break a sweat.

Did I mention that I haven't seen my husband in three weeks? He muttered something about a job and flew back to Penang.

But there have been moments of joy as well.

We landed in Houston on Father's Day and enjoyed a meal with both sets of parents, mine and hubby's, before driving to Austin. My teen went off to Boy Scout camp with his old troop while my other son got to spend the whole week playing with LEGOs at camp. There was time with friends at a Ladies Night Out, pool party, birthday party, and playdates. We crammed a whole school vacation's worth of excitement into a few, short weeks.

Old timey Texan lodging at the campgrounds

We visited with our extended family who my children sorely missed visiting with at Christmas time when we went to Australia instead. For my kids, wild kangaroos don't hold a candle to hugs from grandparents. The Fourth of July (America's Independence Day) was spent exactly where we love to be -- on the pier at the family's house on Galveston Bay watching fireworks up, down, and around the coast.

A long awaited first trip to an American Girl Doll store is still ahead of us.

And Target! How I've missed you. I'm sure you've missed all the money you've drained from me as well. Two shopping trips later, you've made a significant dent in my wallet.

In seven days, the kids and I will fly back to Malaysia. In six days, I'll have all our purchases spread out on the floor trying to figure out how to balance out the luggage so that none of them go over the weight limit. I certainly don't want a repeat of last year when our baggage weighing 39, 38, 38, and 45 pounds resulted in me unzipping them on the airport floor trying to redistribute things. It turns out you can't wear multiple layers of shoes on board.

I'll be glad to finally wrap my arms around my hubby again. He'll be sad to see that things no longer remain where he leaves them, but the joy he gets from our presence will hopefully offset that. Then, it's full steam ahead for our last year in Penang.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Parc de la Villette: A Kids' Paradise in Paris

Whenever I used to imagine living overseas, I always pictured myself somewhere in France or maybe Italy, not tropical Malaysia which is where I ended up. Well, if I actually did live in Paris, Parc de la Villette would probably become a favorite spot for our family to return to again and again. At 61 acres, it's home to an excellent children's museum, Europe's largest science museum, concert venues, and an IMAX theater. This modern, quirky, urban park located outside of the tourist zone is also a wonderful outdoor space teeming with activities for the young and old. (Hey, who's calling me old?)

The Biggest Science Museum in Europe

Turbulence Clock at the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie demonstrates Chaos Theory

By the time we hit our 8th day in Paris, the kids were ready for something bordering on the normal instead of the iconic. While they had surpassed my expectations with their enjoyment of the Louvre, science and technology is more their style. That's why I planned an outing to Parc de la Villette's Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie which was on Frommer's list of 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up. A handy map and guide by the ticket booth was very helpful in figuring out the age appropriateness for each section. It was spot on with suggesting that kids as young as 6 years would enjoy the Sounds section while the concepts in Mathématiques were better suited for those age 10 years and older. Most explanations were in French, English, and Spanish. All in all, I'd say it's a good outing for school age kids all the way up to adults, especially if the weather outside is cold or rainy.

Fun Children's Museum

Cité des Enfants -- Finally, a museum for kids
Archimedes screw, balancing balls on water jets, leaf cutter ants, and measuring running speed

Cité des Enfants, a children's museum, is located within the same building as Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie but requires a separate admission fee. After a whole week of muttered warnings not to touch that Monet/Matisse/Da Vinci, I could finally relax and let my kids run free to poke and prod whatever they liked. Water exploration, the garden, and the factory were the highlights for my kids.

Note that you have to buy tickets for a specific 90-minute session and definitely have to clear out when your session is over. Tip: Reserve your session on-line ahead of time if you are going during a busy period. While we wished we could stay longer, I really appreciated that this method keeps the exhibits from becoming overcrowded.

The area for 5-12 year olds focuses on science and technology while the area for 2-7 year olds features entertaining early learning activities. You cannot switch between these two sections during a session.

IMAX theatre

La Géode IMAX theatre

An IMAX theatre is housed inside La Géode adjacent to the museums. This is the Mirror Ball building I told you about in my last post.

Carnival Rides

Taking a spin at Parc de la Villette

After the museums closed for the day, we walked back through the park and found it to be quite a lively place on a summer evening with tons of kids on scooters and one large group doing a dance on the grass. My kids noticed the carnival rides, so we stopped to literally take a spin. The double decker carousel featured a Jules Verne theme, and the younger children were lined up for riding cars on a turntable. My own made a beeline for the flying chair swings.

Pedaling a horse and carriage

Themed Gardens where Kids can Romp

Burning off energy at the Garden of Dunes and Wind

Ten themed gardens create interesting playgrounds for the kids and places for families to explore. We decided to skip the Garden of Childhood Fears and headed directly to the Garden of Dunes and Wind which had caught our eye earlier when we strolled through the park.

Some kids sped down the zipline while others ran in the hexagonal framed hamster wheels. Games of tag ensued up and down the hilly dunes that hid the tunnels below. Each windmill was connected to  pedals so that kids could work to make them spin. Children jumped along rows of air cushions like a giant, outdoor bounce house.

A different section was set aside for toddlers and young children so that they wouldn't be mowed over by boisterous older kids. This garden also had the most comfortable semi-reclined chairs for parents that I've ever experienced in a playground. Best of all, the entire garden is fenced in so that you don't have to worry about youngsters wandering off.

... And so much more!

Watching the horses exercise before their performance at La Grande Halle,
a former abattoir (slaughterhouse) turned performance venue.

Okay, I didn't actually get around to doing everything in Parc de la Villette because it's so huge. Other things to do include:
  • Taking a 2.5 hour cruise through the locks and under bridges of St. Martin canal on either Canauxrama or Paris Canal to/from central Paris
  • Explore Cité de la Musique  which houses a museum, concert hall, studios, conservatory and what appeared to be a happening restaurant
  • Crawl around on the Argonaute, a 1950s era submarine
  • Watch an open-air movie at the Prairie du Triangle on a summer night, although I'm not sure if English subtitles are offered
  • Attend a concert or performance at La Grande Halle, the Conservatoireor Zenith Concert Hall
  • Dine at one of the food stands throughout the park. There's something for everyone -- cotton candy, churros, ice cream, wine, sandwiches, more wine...

As I said, this park is enormous. Fortunately, they have a really great online map of where everything is located along with directions for numerous ways to get to the park (metro, bus, streetcar, bicycle, car, boat canal, etc.). Click here for handy website.

Related Posts:
The Géode as Big as the Ritz

This post is part of "Travel Photo Thursday" on Budget Travelers Sandbox, "Photo Friday" on Delicious Baby, "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper and "Friday Daydreamin" at R We There Yet Mom? Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.
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