50 Before 50: City #5 Strasbourg, France

50 Before 50: City #5 Strasbourg, France

I feel like maybe I’ve solved a riddle that U2 posed in their opus Joshua Tree album in 1987. I was 12, and I remember my mother and I listening to that album (on cassette) in my room on her birthday. I think I had bought her the album because she asked for it, or was it me who really wanted it and passed it off as a ‘gift’? Memories are strange things. 

It’s a haunting ballad-quasi-gospel-like song about a quest from the“highest mountains” to“fields” to “city walls” in search of…love?…spirituality?…of whatever you want it to mean? Bono is fruitlessly searching for something, though we never really know who or what. Although he grapples with and struggles to maintain faith, he ultimately puts his trust in “the kingdom to come” (or, the “future” in general) despite, as the song says, still not finding what he is looking for. A passionate musical manifestation of a conjoined spiritual and physical journey. Ugh. Love you, Bono. 

It turns out that maybe what I’ve been looking for is Strasbourg, France. 

Right on the border of France and Germany in the Alsace region of France, Strasbourg is an uber-modern city of less than 300,000 people and has, throughout history, struggled with a bit of an identity crisis. In fact the latin term for Alcase’s name is Alsatia, meaning “lawless place” or “a place under no jurisdiction”, which is how it was seen for centuries. From around 320 AD to 1260 AD, Strasbourg was ruled by a bishop. Alors, the locals rebelled in 1262 in the Battle of Hausbergen and turned Strasbourg into an independent city. Conquered in 1681 by Louis XIV, the city became French until the Franco-Prussian war when in became German again in 1871. Then French again in 1918 after WW1. German again from 1940-1944 during WW2. After the end of WW2, it became French again, and has stayed that way ever since. It is now the capital of not only the Alsace region, but the Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine regions as well.

It reminds me a bit of Texas, whose state motto is “Texas. It’s a whole other country.” Texas, though part of the United States, likes to think of itself as a kind of independent enigma. Neither purely German or French, Strasbourg has, over the years, blended both cultures cuisines, customs, beverages, into a most beguiling and charming independent identity. The street signs and menus are in both French and German (menus are often in English as well). It has its own blended dialect, Alsacian, which is a mash-up of German and French. The people are proud and pragmatic and extremely welcoming, and identify more with being Alsacian, rather than strictly French or German, thank you very much.  

The town is the definition of adorable. Supremely walkable, it is uber bicycle and pedestrian friendly, as well as boasting a swanky Tram system to boot. The pace is not as fast or dizzying as Paris; the energy is more mellow and less frenetic. The language is French, the feel is Parisian/Venice, with some canals and some dozen bridges around the city, the architecture Germanesque. It seems the kind of place you can build a life, as well as make a living. Yes, I spotted a couple of Starbucks, but they are no match for the local cafes, where you can get a croissant, coffee, and orange juice for 3.90 Euro. And, because of it’s roots, is both beer and wine heaven. Grabbing dinner my first night in town, all I knew was that I wanted a glass of white wine. The waiter cocked an eyebrow. “Vous avez un preference?” Me: “Non. Vous choisissez.” He nodded, smiled, then brought me a fantastic glass of a local Alsatian wine that was light and perfect. 

The Jetson-like train station sits on the west side of town waiting to whisk you off to any number of domestic or international destinations for a weekend. On the TGV (fast train), you can get to Paris in 2 hours flat. Only 11 hours by train to Budapest. Strasbourg is a seriously underrated international hub, at least by western standards. 

I am lucky enough to have family living about an hour away in Germany who, thanks to a German holiday, were able to come in for the day for lunch and to walk around town. Magda had lived in Strasbourg for about 5 years at one time, so she knew where to go for a scenic lunch on the water. I followed Magda’s lead, ordering a local drink called a Monaco (grenadine, lemonade and beer) and a local alsatian pasta called spaetzle with mushrooms. Maybe it was the light rain, (which quickly cleared up), maybe it was the picture-perfect outdoor setting, maybe it was laughing with Krissy and Magda, maybe it was the beer, but it all added up to the best meal and half-day in Strasbourg. 

Since my train to Paris didn’t leave until after 6pm, the morning of departure I decided to take a quick 20 minute tram ride to the Parc l’Orangerie. Idyllic for strolling, biking, picnicking, it is a great way to fill a morning and is way more manageable (for me) than New York’s Central Park. There was a cute swan couple and their babies, a lake, a waterfall, a central fountain. All the parc necessities. This one even has a bowling alley. And it’s right across the street from the European Parliament building, which is gorgeous and worth a visit as well. The parc comes with its own fun history. Here’s what Monument Tracker  had to say: 

“It was between 1804 in 1807, that architect Valentin Boudhors oversaw the building of the Pavillon Josephine, in the middle of the park laid out in 1692 in classical French style. The building was meant to house the remaining 140 orange trees brought over by CountJean-Régnier III of Hanau-Lichtenberg to decorate the famous gardens to his chateau in Bouxwiller, but which had been confiscated by the Revolution in 1793. The new building was named after the Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais, in memory of her trips to Strasbourg. The building suffered extensive damage in a fire in 1968, but was rebuilt to the same design soon after. The two sphinxes standing at the entrance come from the gardens of château Klinglin of Illkirch, which was refitted in the 18th century.”

Currently, there are only 3 orange trees left.  Sigh. 

A couple other Strasbourgian highlights:

*the Cathedral is not to be missed. It sits at the center of town and is a great starting/stopping/meeting point. If you are ever in Strasbourg, plan to be at the Cathedral (inside to be exact) at 12:30pm, when the most amazing astronomical clock you’ve ever seen does its thing. This third and current incarnation was designed by Jean-Baptiste Schwilgue and inaugurated in 1842. Read more about this marvel here: Strasbourg Astronomical Clock

*I had a moment at Place de la Republique. I only knew it as my Tram transfer point, until I hopped off to realize that the National and University Library, the National Theatre of Strasbourg and the Opera house were all on the same roundabout! I about cried I was so happy. Not to mention the center of Place de la Republique is a gorgeous little parc perfect for napping or eating or, ah, canoodling. It was just past 1pm and was searching for a place to have some lunch when I came upon the Opera house which, because this is Europe, had tables set up on the entranceway steps right outside serving very decent mid-day delectables. I was enjoying my new favorite summertime drink (a Monaco – thank you, Magda) and waiting for my quiche of the day when a group of about 30 musicians descended on the little green patch in front of the Opera house and began setting up instruments and arranging themselves in semi-circle all stealth-like, like some musical guerrilla operation. I had a bite of quiche on my fork en route when they busted out with Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” If you know me a bit, you know that I lived in and will always hold a torch for New York. So stunned at the alchemy of events, I dropped my fork and grabbed my phone to video a quick 3D snapshot of the event. It felt auspicious and right that this was my last meal in this petite and enchanting city. For now. Sometimes you get moments that are spun so serendipitously that for a breath, you can feel the underlying benevolence and connected consciousness flowing through all of us. The arc of the universe truly is to goodness, though skies might be blighted by clouds at times. These moments give me a glimpse of hope and arm full of goosebumps.

Below are just a sliver of the photos I took.

50 Before 50: City #4 Orquevaux, France

50 Before 50: City #4 Orquevaux, France

Nestled in gorgeous countryside of the Champagne region of France, the little hamlet of Orquevaux, once a bustling village centered around the iron industry, has been in slow decline over the past century, as villagers left seeking bigger cities and more opportunities. Orquevaux itself boasts not a single restaurant, bar, or shop. The closest town is Chaumont, a good 25 minutes away.

So why, exactly, I am I, a self-proclaimed city-dweller, here? Because when life makes it possible for you to spend two weeks doing nothing but writing & eating & living with other artists in a chateau…you say yes and figure out the details later.

The Chateau D’Orquevaux is one of three standout structures in this village of around 76 people. The other landmarks are a small castle (more on that in a minute) and a church, whose 7pm bells signal us to dinner, because of course. Situated at the top of a slight hill, the front porch overlooks acres of lush green pastures with cows and sheep and goats within eyesight. This is where I walk down the middle of the street singing Belle’s opening number in Beauty and the Beast. As you will see by the pictures, the setting is as enchanting as it looks.

The Chateau and surrounding grounds were completed by 1897 and full of historical significance:

*one of the owners and the mayor of the town of Orquevaux in 1941 was Guy de Saint Exupery, part of the Saint Exupery family which included Antoine de Saint Exupery, who, anyone who took some basic French could probably tell you, wrote Le Petit Prince.

*Albert de Vandeul, who lived in the Chateau and Orquevaux most of his life, died in 1911 (in Paris). He was the last remaining descendant of the French philosopher Denis Diderot. In fact, the Chateau had housed some unpublished works from Diderot for almost 150 years and finally published in 1951.

*During WW2, the chateau was commandeered by the Germans to serve as a headquarters

*The “petite castle” (now an adorable B&B) is, as the name suggests, a small castle-like dwelling that was built along with the Chateau to accommodate Vandeul’s mistress. Oh la la. Having started binge-watching Versaille (a fantastic series on Netflix which centers around Louis XIV and his many political and personal dramas, such as his many mistresses), I can only imagine that conversation between Monsieur et Madame de Vandeul. “Monsieur, but what is that cute little castle on that nearby hill over there?” “It is nothing, cherie. *pause* Never go there.” Ah, l’amour.

So, what’s going on with the Chateau now? Enter Ziggy, an Israli-born New York artist in his own right. Long story short, his father bought the property in 2002. It eventually fell into disrepair and was vacant until around 2016-2017 when Ziggy took it over, fixed it up, and turned it into an artist residency hosting some 10-15 painters, writers, and composers per month. This is the stuff of Ziggy’s dreams, and it is glorious. The residency fee covers accommodation and most meals. It is a perfect and magical place to come and let yourself steep in creation while maintaining daily connection with other artists. There are trail walks, bonfire nights, trips in Charmont, a studio hop night (where you tour each artist’s studio space to see what they’ve been working on), a poetry night (original or just share a piece of writing you love), and other happenings.

A couple of my favorite things were the trip to the thrift store in Charmont and the studio hop. I love a good thrift store, and the one in Charmont did not disappoint. There was already a small traffic jam of cars when we arrived shortly after 2 pm. Down a short gravel road (as all good thrift stores should be), this place was huge and it had everything. I spent most of my time in the clothing section where I scored a much needed jacket and 3 shirts for a whopping 7 ½ Euros. I had to put a few items back lest I run out of space in my suitcase. I regret that I didn’t look in the housewares or furniture sections, though if I lived nearby I would 100 percent be furnishing my house from this place. Amazing antique wood furniture from someone’s forgotten attic going for 30-50 Euro. Incroyable. The studio hop/concert night was a blast. After a week and a half of dedicated work time, all the artists open up their studio spaces and the group walks from studio to studio, with the artist telling us about their work. From graphite sketches to large oil paintings to full landscapes painted on pennies (“small is badass”), the quality and variety was astounding to see. I took part at the end by sharing an original poem. Since we were blessed with a few composers/singers in the group, we were treated to an amazing mini-concert after dinner. Since Ziggy’s aim is to resuscitate the artistic heartbeat of this little gem, he invited about 10 or so people from the town to join us. It was very much like a modern Downton Abbey evening come to life, minus gowns and tailcoats.

Artists need, above all, time to work. Time to fail. Time to process. Time to experiment. Time to grow. That, along with being surrounded by other creatives, is what is so nurturing about a residency. The daily pain au chocolates didn’t hurt either. I come away with about 5 poems in good shape and a couple others that need some work, as well as 2 blogs and the almost 80% completion of a project I am ecstatic about and looking forward to finishing up over the next 6-9 months. Would I return for another 2 weeks? No. Would I return for a whole month? Absolument oui.

Alors, on that note, since it’s not so much what I’ve seen, but what I’ve been up to here, I end this post before leaving tomorrow with a couple of poems that I wrote while here, as well as some luscious pictures! Au revoir and a la prochaine fois!! xo


Marquise de Montespan Considers Leaving Versaille



Viva la France! Paris, Je t’aime…

50 Before 50: Bonus city: Paris

If you know me even just a little bit, you know that I’m obsessed with basically only 2 things: Prince and Paris. So, while Paris is not a new-to-me city, I couldn’t not acknowledge it in my 50 Before 50 quest, as I will tack on two new cities while in France.

Where to start with my beloved Paris? It’s funny because Paris is far from perfect, as will be explained, but, for me, at least, the charms outweigh the petty inconveniences. To fill you in briefly on my current trip, I arrived in Paris on 5/31 and departed on 6/3 by train for a very small hamlet of a town a few hours away called D’Orquevaux, for an artists residency where we live and eat in a real chateau built in the 1700s. Much more on this in a separate post.

While in Paris, I decided to stay in possibly my favorite neighborhood anywhere: Montmartre. It’s the artisan/hippie/bohemian/red light district of Paris and is full of fun and funk. Home to Picasso, van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, Monet, and countless others, it’s sort of the artistic heartbeat of the city.

It also has one of my favorite monuments ever: the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur. The Sacred Heart Basilica. Sitting at the top of a small, but very steep hill, the Sacre Coeur dominates the northern skyline of Paris. Built as a place of worship for the Catholics, it is, according to most lists, the second most visited attraction in Paris, after the Eiffel Tower. Architecturally, it’s a mash up of a few different styles, such as Roman and Byzantine; it’s a striking and gorgeous structure. But my favorite story involving the Sacre Coeur takes place during the second world war. According to historians, a total of 13 bombs were dropped in the vicinity of the Sacre Coeur, but the the building itself was never hit. In a fascinating article entitled “Dark Days in Paris, the City of Light”, author Gene Santoro explains how, once Hitler began losing the war, he ordered the destruction of the Sacre Coeur, because of its beauty and cultural significance to Paris and France. It was to be a blow to one of the jewels of the city, as well as to the proud, French morale. After 13 tries, the only damage done to the Sacre Coeur was some broken stained glass windows. Viva la France.

Because the spot is indeed touristy, there are the obligatory swindlers hanging out ready to separate you from your euros . I stopped for a few minutes as a small crowd was gathered around a man who was working that ancient hustle known as ‘three cups and a ball’, where he shows you as he places the ball under one of the cups and then moves the cups around quickly so that you will lose track of which cup the ball is under. A woman watches, bets, and wins to cheers. Another person watches, and again, wins. If you pay close attention, it is doable. But then, ah, le scandale…the hustler, getting a little tired of losing money, starts his sly cheating. Here’s how the next few rounds go down. Would-be better approaches and watches. Once the hustler has gone through the moving of the cups sufficiently, the better, confident in their bet, goes for the wallet or purse. It is during this time the hustler, trying not to attract attention, quickly and slyly slides the middle cup out and around of the other cups, creating a new line up. The would-be better has not seen this, points to what they believe to be the winning cup (which it was), and the hustler quickly takes the money, reveals the now empty, losing cup, which provokes jeers and light scorn towards the hustler. A few of us throw up our voices and hands in indignation, but the hustler is unruffled. After a few rounds, there’s nothing left to do but shrug and move along. Viva la France.

One new thing I did was attend a show at the Moulin Rouge, a world famous cabaret which opened in 1889. A variety act type show with splashes of vaudeville, burlesque, Cirque du Soleil and circus, I highly recommend it. Since I was flying seule, I was seated at a table for 6. There was one gentleman who apparently had someone bail on him and a group of 3 women of a certain age from California. Talking with them, I learned that one of the ladies had never left the USA before this trip. The fact that she was now here made me ecstatic, as I am a big believer in travel as a necessary means to learn about the world, our fellow humans, and ourselves. The world is so vast and wonderous, how on earth can we not want to explore at least some of it beyond our own towns?

But back to the topless ladies on stage…I mean, this is the Moulin Rouge. Truth be told, there is absolutely no narrative flow to this variety show, but that doesn’t really matter. Half the fun is wondering what kind of act is coming up next. I call this type of show a primarily “shine and strut” show where the focus is on spectacle (in this case, lavish)  rather than heavy emotional impact, but there are a few moments that really awed. I think my favorite act was the roller-skating duo. Think of those jaw-dropping ice-skating sequences when the gentleman dangles the woman from a wrist and ankle as she whirls inches from the ground or when the woman’s feet are perched behind the gentleman’s neck, her head inches from the floor and his hands simply extended by his side, not securing her. Now imagine all of this done on a circular platform of about 7 feet in diameter.

Close behind this is the contortionist of unbelievable flexibility and the woman who swam with snakes. Yes, there is a big water tank hidden below the stage that is revealed, used, and then disappears. Something for everyone.

Still buzzing from the energy of the show, I hurried down into the metro stop and towards the platform just as a man had situated himself in a tiny corner with his back to passers by in order to, um, relieve himself. I chuckled, shrugged, and kept moving. Viva la France.

Coming Up: 50 Before 50: #4 – D’Orquevaux, France and #5 – Strasbourg, France




“The Awakening” by Rodin


Rodin museum



“The Thinker” Rodin



Inside Saint Sulpice



This is as close as you can get to Notre Dame right now.


Organ in Sacre Coeur

IMG_0216 (1)

Sacre Coeur