Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Observing the Obvious

From's current conditions in El Paso...

Monday, January 25, 2010

Florida Mountains

El Paso, of course, boasts its own joys. Yesterday I looked out the window to the west and saw on the horizon, north of the Potrillo Mountains, what looked like an approaching cloud bank in an otherwise uniformly blue sky. A second glance revealed that this wasn't a cloud bank at all but rather the snow-covered peaks of the Florida Mountains. So here's a picture of the view of the Floridas rising from the New Mexico mesa lands above the valley of the Rio Grande.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Home for a While

As I post this, I'm back home in El Paso after the preparation trip in anticipation of our longer stay later this spring. I'll resume posting more fully when Susie and I return to Metz in several weeks (I hope). In the meantime, here are few pictures of the trip.

The TGV station with direct service to the Paris CDG airport is about 30 minutes south of town, roughly midway between Metz and Nancy. On the way out of town, the shuttle from the central train station to the Lorraine TGV station crosses the Seille River, which joins the Moselle in Metz. The city really grew up around the Seille rather than the Moselle, in fact.

Many of the trees throughout the region carry a lot of mistletoe.

The countryside is largely open and agricultural, with fields that, I imagine, supply the big grain towers line that the Moselle just downstream from Metz.

As the road to the station passes through villages, you can see old farm buildings. I can't tell if this was a fortification or a dovecote.

The station sits pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It's not even as big as the grain towers and other agricultural buildings in the area that define the skyline as the road reaches the station.

The TGV Est from Strasbourg pulls into the Lorraine TGV station.

And at the TGV station at Paris CDG airport, the train leaves the station to continue its journey toward Lille.

A highlight of the flight home: a view of Greenland's rugged coastal mountain ranges lit by the morning sun (with thanks to fellow passenger Craig Massey for taking the picture).

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Changing of the Seasons

The removal of the holiday lights from above Metz's streets has signaled that the season, culturally anyway, has definitively changed. On the street around the corner from our apartment, the lights are being replaced with banners indicating that the neighborhood is a 30-kph pedestrian-friendly zone.


More Snow

My GTL colleague Gunter Sharp kindly sent me some of his photos of the snow in Metz that show different parts of the city.

A sculpture in a park near the Porte Serpenoise.

Barges on the canal along the Moselle.

City buses waiting for the roads to clear.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Rhenish Romanesque

Getting ready to head back to El Paso, I stopped by the Metz Central Station, which I've previously mentioned as an example of Rhenish Romanesque (i.e., a romanticized German interpretation of the Romanesque style). As shown in these pictures of the station, the style features large sections of ornate decoration that recall an imagined medieval past.

In the frieze above this arch, the central coat of arms is that of the city of Metz, half white and half black. I interpret the figures as, not particularly subtly, depicting the relation of the martial and domestic arts. With their robust physiques, casual poses, and joined gaze, the couple are resolutely modern, for the turn of the 20th Century, anyway. The surrounding decorative details--leaves, flowers, faces--set this modern pair in a medieval frame.

Some of the details straddle medieval and art-nouveau motifs. For example, the knotted stonework of the side windows references a medieval theme yet adds a more modern and organic fluidity, particularly in the ends of the "cords" at the bottom of the windows.

A short distance from the station, both physically and stylistically, stands the tower that held water for the steam engines.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Cathedral Highlights

Today's snow created Monet-like highlights on Metz's cathedral. The reliefs of the south front stood out with great clarity. If you click on the pictures you'll get larger versions, with much greater detail.

Details of the carvings were clearer.

And this unhappy bird, because it, too, is carved in stone, had to stand on its perch as the snow piled up on its back.

Faces of Metz

From the Museums of Metz, a decorative face from the Renaissance.


The snow that has been plaguing the British Isles and much of western and southern France has so far mostly spared Metz. Through yesterday, the snow was primarily decorative, although some grocery stores were low on fruits and vegetables because elsewhere crops were frozen in the fields and trucks were being kept off the roads. Overnight, though, the snow started to get more serious, and by this morning there were two to three inches of white everywhere in Metz. Here's a view of our street, for example.

I drove into work mid-morning, going slowly and keeping long separations between my car and the car ahead, which was a good idea because the roads were seriously slick and the anti-lock brakes kept kicking in. Also, I quickly figured out that the rental car has rear-wheel drive and turning the front wheels doesn't have much of an effect. There weren't many people at GTL. After watching the snow continue to fall and assessing the situation, I cancelled class and headed home to avoid getting stuck at work. Driving very cautiously--the route has some serious downhills--back into town, I eventually made it safe and sound to the apartment. The funny thing is that after worrying about stopping distances and skids, navigating the descent into the garage didn't seem so bad.

By 10:30 a.m. all city bus service had been canceled due to the snow until the roads were again driveable. The drivers were asked to stop their buses where they were. Eventually the snow stopped this afternoon, the buses resumed service, and so people did not end up stranded at work.

The Place Saint-Louis is basically a snowfield.

The Graoully, the legendary snake/dragon that is a symbol of Metz, as incarnated above rue Taison, collects a layer of snow.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Susie Converses

Thanks to the magic of Skype, Susie and I have been videoconferencing while she's traveling in Bangladesh. Her visit is proving hugely interesting. Here's a shot of Susie via the computer, with its inset of me taking the photo.

Faces of Metz

Paul Verlaine, the Symbolist poet, was a native son of Metz. Inspired by Baudelaire and stormily entwined with Rimbaud, Verlaine and his work spanned dissolute bohemian life and Catholic religious themes. This portrait in the Museums of Metz, by Edmond Aman-Jean, shows Verlaine in 1892, just four years before his death at age 51. Here are a brief biography of Verlaine in English and an extensive Web site on Verlaine in French.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Great Houses--Metz

A house in the Imperial Quarter of Metz.

Snow on Ice

If you wanted to know what it would look like if the ice-covered pond at the Metz Technopole were in turn covered in snow, here's the view this morning from my office window. Although people are not supposed to walk on the frozen pond because it's too dangerous, many people are at least out around the pond--bundled up and walking to a dorm or a restaurant, or in track suits and running in groups.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Susie on Her Way to India

As I wrote earlier, our current short-term stay in Metz is to get things set up for the semester, which is sort of a shame because we're just beginning to make friends here. I'll be heading home to El Paso at the end of the week. Susie has a head-start on returning, with something of a detour. She left today on a trip to Bangladesh and India to explore issues of women in the developing world with a group of alumnae from the Seven Sisters colleges. Train and plane tickets in hand, Susie set off from the Lorraine TGV station. A surprising number of TGVs come through the station. Each stops for about 5 minutes. So you want to make sure you have the right track, the right train, and the right time.

Susie heads down the ramp to Track 4.

The TGV Est to Paris-CDG approaches.

The train enters the TGV Lorraine station.

Things That Do Not Translate Well

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sunset from GTL

Roman Metz

Roman Metz, Divodurum Mediomatricorum, even though it must have been on the northern fringe of the empire, had a lot of amenities and culture. The buildings that now house the Museums of Metz turned out to have been built right over an elaborate set of Roman baths. Visitors to the museum, as they tour the exhibits, wander through large, exposed sections of the baths.

While much of the baths' stonework is rough, the museum displays many finer objects, including tiled floors such as this example.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Place Saint-Louis

The city walls torn down in the late 19th Century to be replaced by boulevards were not the first set of walls to disappear. As the Roman city of Divodurum Mediomatricorum, Metz had a set of walls that lasted a nearly a thousand years. But by the 12th century the city was growing, overflowing its walls, and needed both more space and more funds. So the city's leaders partially demolished the east-side walls and brought in bankers from Italy, who then built houses in an Italian style on the foundations of the old walls. The buildings' low roofs and screen walls, some topped with crenellations, evoked the architecture of fortresses in places like Siena and San Giminiano. Under the arcaded vaults on the ground floor, the bankers--by the 14th Century there were 60 of them--conducted their business. The square around which these buildings stood became known as the Place des Changes.

The square and the buildings still exist, although some the facades of some of the buildings were updated in the Renaissance. From the middle ages into the 20th Century, the square housed Metz's biggest markets for grain, fruits and vegetables. The arcades now house shops and restaurants, and some of the city's most chic shops are on streets just off the square.

The square was renamed in the early 17th Century when the curate of a nearby church installed a statue as part of a fountain the middle of the square. A history of the square notes that even then the fountain was hindrance to traffic. In any case, the statue was taken by everyone to be that of King Louis IX, Saint Louis, and the square was renamed the Place Saint-Louis in his honor. In fact, as was eventually recognized some 250 years later, the curate was off by a few Louis: the statue was not that of Louis IX but rather of Louis XIII. So in 1867 a new statue was commissioned, and this statue--the fountain being long gone--was installed.

For more about the Place Saint-Louis, see the Web sites (in French) of the neighborhood association and the City of Metz. Wikipedia's entry for the Place Saint-Louis has interesting photos showing the square before and after its updating in 2007, which banished the parking of cars in favor of pedestrian space.

English in the News

When we wake up in the morning, not having NPR available, Susie and I listen to France Info, a 24-hours news service, which is roughly the audio version of CNN Headline News before it turned into a succession of tabloid shows like Nancy Grace. The main newsreader is a woman who speaks so fast that I sometimes have trouble keeping up. One of things I've noticed is that words from English creep into the reports. These words give an idea of what is, apparently, not easily expressed in French; these include the sublime and the prosaic. Over the last week, for example, I heard these words and phrases: "best of," "moon boots," "mobile home," "smiley" (i.e., smiley face), and, improbably enough, "sexy." The French Academy develops official words for many foreign expressions, such as "couriel" for "e-mail," and these are taken up into everyday discourse. But there are expressions for which the French language may not have a need, and perhaps "moon boots" is one of these.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Our Apartment

Our apartment is located between a narrow street and and a courtyard. Driving down the driveway into the parking garage takes nerve and precision. The entry, constrained by the cars parked on the street, requires a sharp turn and then an abrupt descent down an impossibly steep slope. The turn at the bottom is too sharp to turn reliably in the direction of our parking place, so we turn the other way, then back up past the driveway. Getting out requires doing everything in reverse, except that you have to gun the car (manual transmission, of course) up the slope while turning. This is now less terrifying than the first few times, but it sure gets your heart rate up in the morning.

To get into the apartment requires a succession of keys, all different: one for the door from the street into the courtyard, one from the courtyard into the stairwell, one for the outer door of the apartment, and one for the inner door of the apartment. Then there's a different key for the door from the parking garage into the stairwell.

The courtyard, apparently, serves the police station on the ground floor. The fortunate get to park in the courtyard during the day, thus avoiding the descent into the garage. The upper floors seem to be mostly offices. We've met one of the police officers and one of our neighbors, but people pretty much keep to themselves. It's funny, because people in Metz are hugely friendly. When you go into a store, every single shop-person says hello, and everyone says goodbye when you leave.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Faces of Metz

From the Museums of Metz, this portrait is believed to be that of Marie Serre, mother of the artist, Hyacinth Rigaud (1659-1743). This painting contrasts with Rigaud's famous portraits of Louis XIV.

Georgia Tech - Lorraine

Georgia Tech - Lorraine's building forms part of the the Metz "Technopole," a kind of technology-oriented district that houses both educational and research institutions. The area resembles an American research park. The facilities--schools, dormitories, research units, tech companies-- encircle a large pond.

With Metz's winter temperatures, the pond is almost completely frozen over. There's a sign forbidding swimming and boating, but there's not much chance of either for the time being. Runners and bicyclists take advantage of a bike path around the pond; a pedestrian path below the bike path looked too icy to chance. The pond's two unfrozen surfaces are a very small area near where a creek flows in and a slightly larger area where the pond's waterfowl, mostly ducks and a few swans, are able to swim.

Here's the view from my office, looking east across the pond.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Faces of Metz

One of a set of fantastic beasts, from a medieval painted ceiling, conserved in the Museums of Metz.

Celts in Metz

Before the Romans and Gallo-Romans, Metz was founded by a regional Celtic tribe, the Mediomatriques, whose name still lives, in shortened form, as the name the city. The Mediometriques had a pretty sophisticated civilization, with different kinds of coins, export of salt, and the ability to raise an army of 5,000 men. They controlled the valley of the Moselle until the arrival of the Romans in 51 BCE; Julius Caesar mentioned them twice in his writings. The Museums of Metz have a beautiful example of the sophistication of their craft: a bronze collar, decorated with ivory, that served as a funerary ornament for a woman who must have been important.

Getting Started at GTL

The cold weather that has blown across France has reached Metz, which spent the day under sunny skies but shivering with a high around 27 degrees Fahrenheit. And, in what seems to be a theme for our stay here, when Susie and I arrived at Georgia Tech--Lorraine this morning for our first visit we found everyone in their coats because the there was a problem with the heating system. As the day progressed, sounds of repairs echoed throughout the building. The good news is that classes don't begin until next week, so things were less chaotic than they might otherwise have been.

The staff at GTL are terrific--helpful, warm, and funny. They clearly care a lot about the students. They resolved issues of network access, helped me understand the schedule of courses, and generally made Susie and me feel welcome. I spent the afternoon and evening fighting my way through what turned out to be path-variable issues for installing software for a course. But now that's resolved, we've had dinner, and even leftovers are pretty good when washed down with Cahors and followed by rustic apricot tarts.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Faces of Metz

A Gallo-Roman couple (4th Century), from a funerary sculpture, Museums of Metz.

Saturday, January 2, 2010



As I wrote earlier, the calendars for the winter and summer sale seasons are regulated. Everywhere in France, the winter sale starts January 6--except, as it turns out, in Lorraine, which for reasons that remain inscrutable to me, started its sales today, four days ahead of the rest of the country. French newsradio reports that stores expect not only local customers but shoppers from Luxembourg, Germany, and other parts of France. That explains why we saw most shopkeepers late on New Year's Eve putting up "Soldes" signs. Some store windows display mannequins wearing only, for example, a shirt with "Soldes" printed on it. Others are more discreet. The Max Mara store had a modest red decal of "Salde" on its front door. We passed up the chance to buy a $2,000 camel-hair coat for Susie for only $1,500, though.

So, the sun is shining this morning, and the crowds are out.


On New Year's Day we drove via Thionville (and Yutz--actually not Yiddish but derived from the Latin word for justice) to the Verdun battlefield. On the way, bright green fields still covered many of the rolling hills, and the oak forests painted a study in grays and browns. As we neared the hills and forests north of Verdun, where 400,000 French soldiers, nearly as many Germans, and tens of thousands of Americans lost their lives in the First World War, we began to pass military cemeteries, first German, then French. Narrow black crosses marked the German graves, wider white crosses the French graves.

Few cars were on the roads, and few people were visiting the sites at Verdun. It's a solemn place, and all the more so under oyster-gray skies, in temperatures at freezing, and with occasional snowflakes. Because it was New Years Day, the memorials and museums were closed. But visitors could still explore the emplacements, stroll along the forest paths, see the memorials, and walk among the graves. The fortifications we viewed helped me understand how miserable, terrifying, and chaotic the it was for the soldiers.

The main battle of Verdun began with the German attack attack on February 21, 1916. The terrain is wooded, bumpy, complicated. Fortifications had been built into the hillocks and slopes--some reinforced concrete bunkers and forts, others just trenches.

Fort de Vaux, which sustained a horrific German assault, displays a touching memorial to a carrier pigeon, the commander's last, which made it through poison gas to reach headquarters before dying. The French defenders, cut off from reinforcements and supplies, held out for six days in the bomb-blasted ruins of the fort, enduring attacks by poison gas and flame-throwers. Finally, out of water and ammunition, they surrendered on June 7, 1916. Fort de Vaux was recaptured by the French on November 2. Although the battle of Verdun ended on December 18, the war would continue for two more years. With the entry into the war of the United States, the Franco-American offensive of September 1918 pushed the German forces out the region.

Many US soldiers died in that offensive, 27,000 of whom were buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery northwest of Verdun. The bodies of about 60 percent of the dead soldiers were repatriated to the US in the 1920s, but even so the Meuse-Argonne cemetery remains the largest US military cemetery in Europe, with 14,246 graves. The soldiers had come from all over the the United States, and ended dead on the Western Front. When we visited the cemetery late on New Year's Day, the pollarded trees edging the cemetery sections were leafless in winter's slumber. Light snow covered leaves of shrubs and dusted the headstones. We paid our respects to the fallen and turned home to Metz in the gathering darkness.