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Extracurricular Reading

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Myanmar

imageThis is why I posted any book review this month. I’ve been perusing everything about Myanmar–travel books, history, tips on independent travel. I’m going for two weeks in January on my own before heading home for a visit in Hong Kong. Myanmar is now open to foreigners but a single-entry visa good for a month is mandatory of all visitors arriving in Yangon and Mandalay by air. I have to arrange hotels, transports, and coordinate with a mixture of domestic flights, trains, and a cruise on the Irrawaddy River.

Some preliminary thoughts:

1. Shoes must be off in all monasteries and temples. This means Myanmar trip will be a flop-flop one. I need to bring at least two pairs.
2. The country is caught between the desire to grow and in the rusty old colonial facade. It’s growing in a speed that even guide books cannot keep up. It’s high time to go as international chain like Starbucks and McDonalds have yet to enter the country.
3. Horse carriages will be used for seeing the thousands of pagodas that flank all over Bagan. Temple ruins are the prime reason why I’m going.
4. Hotel/guesthouses rooms can be scarce during high seasons. Reservations a must.
5. Mystery. It’s the most mysterious country in Southeast Asia due to its prolonged closure. I want to see Myanmar’s truest forms before it becomes “assimilated.”

December Reading

The clock is ticking away for 2015. It’s December—the time of the year for holidays, gatherings, food, celebrations, and for some, distraction from readings. I usually like to sit by the fire place with my punkins and read mysteries. On the eve of my annual trip home in Asia, December also sees many travel/history/historical fiction crammed into my readings. This year Myanmar is put on the spotlight.

Since the country has opened up to tourism, development of infrastructure has gone on a break-neck speed, and so are the prices which has more than doubled compared to 2011. It’s the perfect time to go or it will become another Angkor Wat (Cambodia), heavily tread by package tours.

Before traveling to Myanmar, an excellent historical novel to read is The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, which I have read years ago. To refresh and to gain relevance of the upcoming trip, I’ll reread. The book enables reader to appreciate the days before the fall of the last imperial dynasty, the years under the British rule, the Second World War and the Japanese occupation.

Other books on the “read-dar” include the mandatory Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi, The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U, and Burmese Days by George Orwell. I usually would read up on the travel guide while flying over the Pacific. That said, for the first time ever, I’m ditching Lonely Planet for the more updated Rough Guide on Myanmar. A two-year-old guidebook is too dated, at least for the prices on accommodations and transportations, for a country that is growing with an lightning speed.

Thoughts on French

Many people traveling in France would share the frustrating experience that they are ignored speaking English. Although English has borrowed and adopted French words, the French language has not welcomed the invasion of English words. They have been more resistant than most. The French have had a low against the encroachment of foreign words since as early as 1911, but this was considerably bolstered by the setting up in 1975 the Maintenance of the Purity of the French Language law, which introduced fines for using illegal anglicisms. You may safely conclude that the French take their language very seriously indeed.

No you won’t be fined for speaking English, but you won’t go very far either. In some of the old Paris dining establishments, especially the ones removed from the tourists’ tread, a hamburger is a steak haché (not le burger). A steak haché is made from minced beef, which is formed into patties ready for cooking and originates from France. Filet mignon generally refers to pork rather than beef. Some menus might provide a one-line English descriptions but don’t expect it to be the convention.

Estimates of the number of anglicisms in French have been estimated to be 2-3 percent or less. So it is altogether possible that the French are making a great deal out of very little. I suppose what really ranckles the French is not that they are borrowing so many words from the rest of the world but that the rest of the world is no longer borrowing so many from them. From the outset the government conceded defeat on a number of words that were too well established to drive out: gadget, holdup, weekend, blue jeans, self-service, and many others. They do recognize the global importance of English but prefer to speak French. But it’s a different case when it comes to relaxing at home in the evening.

But the English-speaking world can be better at looking after the borrowed words than the French were. Quite a number of words that English has absorbed no longer exist in France (at least not widely spoken). The French do not use nom de plume, double entendre, panache, bon viveur, or R.S.V.P. for répondez s’il vous plaît. Instead they write prière de répondre.

Kayenta and the Monument Valley

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The road (US-163) leading to the Monument Valley in Utah not too far from Arizona state border is dotted with little wood stands selling jewelry and pottery by Narajo Indians. I have little interest in crafts but surprisingly, at a nearby trading post, I found a copy of Kayenta and the Monument Valley by Carolyn O’Bagy Davis and Harvey Leake. It’s devoted to the history of the Navajo tribe and how the town of Kayenta became the center of the tribe gatherings. The serendipitous thing is that the very trading post where I bought is book is exactly the one established by Indian traders John and Louisa Wetherill in 1910.

Monument Valley is not like a national park. There aren’t signs and rangers all around explaining the landscape and wildlife. Service isn’t always snap-snap, and many visitors will have to adjust to the slower, quieter pace of many Navajo. I’m glad I have stumbled upon this book and read up on it before getting there. The area known as the Monument Valley is sacred land for the Navajo and understanding why will enhance one’s appreciation of it.

Shakespeare & Company in Paris

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Although Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore is no longer on Rue de l’Odeon at its original location from the 1920s, the bookstore has really picked up the literary torch. The reincarnation is still on the Left Bank directly across from Notre Dame. It’s a reincarnation of the original store started by Sylvia Beach, an American with a passion for free thinking and writing. Her store then was famous as a meeting place for Paris’ expatriate literary elite. Ernest Hemingway, who then couldn’t afford to buy anything there, borrowed books from it regularly. James Joyce struggled to find a publisher for Ulysses—until Sylvia Beach published it. George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound also got their English fix at her shop.

Today, the bookstore carries on that literary tradition. This store on Rue de la Bucherie was founded in 1951 by the grandson of American poet Walt Whitman. Struggling writers are given free accommodations in tiny rooms with views of Notre Dame. The upstairs has a few seats, two cots, antique typewriters, and the residence cat perching cozily on a sofa. I make frequent trips to visit the cat and sit with him for a while while reading a book. Used and new books are all downstairs. There’s a green water fountain in front of the bookstore, one of the many in Paris donated by the English philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace. The hooks below the caryatids once hel metal mugsfor drinking the water.

Off to France

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Tout arrive en France! I’m off to Paris and Normandy, the blog will not be updated on a regular basis.

Reading “Seven Ages of Paris”

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How Paris Became Paris chronicles the major architectural and changes in Paris rendered by Henry IV and Louis XIV in the 17th century. Now I’m ready to tackle something grander, more epic and covering a wider period of time—Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne. From the rise of Pjilippe Auguste through the reigns of Henry IV and Louis XIV; Napoleon’s rise and fall, Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris; the Belle Epoque and the Great War that brought it to an end; the Nazi Occupation, the Liberation—Horne brings the city’s highs and lows, savagery and sophistication, to life.

Paris has undergone woe after woe for centuries—without ever being budged from its position as the most beloved city in the world. For all its violence, greed, inequality and double-dealing, Paris is most impressive, Horne thinks, for its ability to recover from collapse “and live again as if little had happened.” After Waterloo, after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, after the carnage of World War I, Paris did not merely survive; it saw ”an extraordinary blossoming in the gentler and more enduring works of humanity.” A trip to Paris should focus on Paris and its history. Except the Rick Steves’ guide, this book is the only book I’ll bring with me to Paris next week.

Reading “How Paris Became Paris”

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By 1645, three visionary urban works—the Pont Neuf, the Place Royale, and the Île Notre-Dame—had become the foundation of Paris’ new image, as a city remarkable not only for its size but for its exciting and innovative constructions. The city at large, however, was as yet untouched by large-scale transformation. And this process was suspended for nearly a decade when civil war broke out in 1649. (Chapter 3)

How Paris Became Paris explores the key infrastructure and public works that made Paris the modern city. Joan Dejean delivers just the right amount of history and background relevant to these landmarks for reader to understand Paris’ transformation. Do you know that sidewalk separating pedestrians from vehicles was first seen on Pont Neuf? Do you know the first stone bridge spanning the Seine in a single span has sparkled urban life in an unprecedented way? Do you know Place des Vosages is the first communal square that is neither political nor religious in its purpose? Do you know the waters beneath and nearby Pont Neuf became the first nude beach?

Travel is to learn a place’s history.

Note to Self: Destination Paris

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Literary Paris often brings travelers to Hemingway’s apartment, Les Deux Margots, Cafe de Flore, the Shakespeare & Company, which are all landmark literary sites, but there are off-the-beaten-path literary locales I wish to explore.

Bibliotheque Nationale de France tops my list in the upcoming trip to France. It’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. It is the repository of all that is published in France. Les Editeurs is a combination of cafe, bar, restaurant and library with more than 5,000 books. Le Cafe-Livre is a cafe-bookshop where one can enjoy a drink or browse through the thousands of books displayed on walled-in shelves.

The one book that will see me through the flight over the pond will be Bricktop’s Paris, which explores the lives of black women who sought freedom an artistic expression in Paris between the two World Wars. How Paris Became Paris, my current read, describes Paris’ emergence from the Dark Ages into the world’s grandest city. La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life explains how seduction has long been used in all aspects of French life, from small villages to the halls of government, providing a surprisingly helpful cultural primer.