Travel Log: Notre-Dame de Paris

News came yesterday of the terrible fire at the Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Paris and I immediately thought back to my visit to the city in November of 2011.  I had arrived from Firenze, via an overnight train, to meet a jazz musician friend there on tour.  I was nearing the end of a three month trip, with my next and final stop being London, and I just remember being tired (mostly, I was pouting because I had to leave Italy).  I had traveled thousands of miles with just a back pack, and I was ready to go home, but there was no way I was going to leave without seeing Paris.

The weather was cool and crisp, but leaves weren’t quite ready to fall from the trees yet – they were still bursting with oranges and vibrant reds.  It was cloudy when I stepped off the train – the most terrible, dirtiest train in all of my travels through Europe, but my friend was staying at a nice hotel (contrary to hostels I had been staying at throughout).  I was so excited to take a hot shower, in a real bathroom, and have a fluffy omelette, with a cafe creme for breakfast.  I set out that afternoon to tour both the Notre-Dame and the Louvre (ambitious, yes, but I was only there for four days and needed to make it count!).  By this time, the clouds had cleared and the sun shown brightly over the city.

To my surprise, there was no admittance fee for the cathedrale and the line for entry was quite short.  Obviously, this centuries old building is magnificent in its own right, the rose windows mesmerizing and the relics all had stories of their own, but what stood out for me was the statue of Saint Joan of Arc, with the inscription: “Born in Lorraine, burned alive in Rouen as a heretic and a witch.  The decision to rehabilitate her reputation was made in this Cathedral.” And so it was in 1909, that the fierce warrior was beatified in the church by Pope Plus X, and later canonized in 1920.

Centuries had gone by, but the church finally made things right.  The church itself has also suffered great destruction and continuous restoration over the years.  Progress is slow, but seeing her statue there restored my faith in the idea of forgiveness – of knowing that even though the world spirals out of control sometimes, there are still good people to bring it back.  Even as she burned at the stake, Joan of Arc never lost faith, she never lost sight of what she believed. Without a doubt, the good people of France will, once again, rebuild.  And we too, will keep planting the seeds of change.

Saint Joan of Arc, (C) 2011 by Laura Riggs

Travel Log: Real Jardin Botanico Madrid

Dahlia; (C) 2011 Laura Riggs, all rights reserved

In September 2011, I traveled to Madrid on a one way ticket, alone, with a backpack of clothes, a small laptop, and some toiletries…no phone, no itinerary.  I had a rough “plan”, however…I had sketched a path along the Mediterranean coast, then maybe head north, and at some point, I would go home.  I had lost a child who was not my own, been laid off, ended a relationship, sold my home, and was in the throws of a deep depression.  Basically, my life blew up and I decided it would best for my soul, if I went out and wandered the world for a while.

It had been more than a decade since I’d last visited Europe, nor had I ever been to Spain, so I really had no idea what to expect.  Initially, I (like every other American) mistakenly believed I would “know” how to navigate the city because it would be similar to my own, and that everyone would speak English.  After three failed attempts to get to the city centre from the airport by train, I finally made it to my hotel  Then, I panicked — this was only day one of my adventure in a city where I couldn’t read the street signs, nor the understand the logic as to how the streets were laid out, and I didn’t speak Spanish well enough to ask for help, or get directions.

When Don Miguel Ruiz laid out the criteria for navigating the life through four agreements, he wasn’t kidding about the third – Don’t Make Assumptions.  I realized that nothing would be as I assumed, so I either needed to get my ass back on a plane and go home, or adapt.  I had to remember why I had even decided to come on the trip to start with – my life was a mess, and I needed to believe in myself again.

Most of my time in Madrid was a blur, but I remember sitting in the Real Jardin Botanico, having a full blown panic attack, when I looked up and noticed this dahlia staring back at me.  There was so much beauty I was missing, because I had shackled myself to my past.  I had to trust myself to navigate through the challenge, to let go of the assumption that things would be similar to home.  Bigger still, I had to let go of the assumption that I was not worthy of joy.  It took three more months of wandering before I found acceptance, but this place was where I began to understand that my fear/my assumptions, were full of shit.

At times of stress, I find myself slipping back into this space.  It’s hard work to stay on the other upside of depression, and a continual commitment to keep seeking joyful moments, while also being firm with my boundaries and the need for self-care.  I slip for a few months, and fall into the pattern of criticizing every single flaw, every mistake, every thing I did to miss out on being happy. It’s like crawling out of the hole all over again, although the distance gets smaller each time, as I become more aware of my patterns and relying on meditation to bring me back to the present moment.

Today, I was reminded of this poem by Ariana Reines:

“Come to me whole: with your flaws, your scars and everything you consider imperfect.  Then let me show you what I see.  I see galaxies in your eyes and fire in your hair.  I see journeys in your palms and adventure waiting in your smile.  I see what you cannot: you are absolutely, maddeningly, irrevocably perfect.”

The more you can be at peace with your flaws and imperfections, the more compassionate you are towards others.  If you look closely enough, the dahlia pictured above isn’t perfect, but that isn’t what I see when I look at the photo.  I see the vibrant pinks and I remember the way it smelled, and I remember it drawing me back to the moment and out of my panic.  Imperfections and all, it’s one of my favorite pictures I took while I was in Madrid.


Quote of the Day: Pico Iyer

Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity, ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.  – Pico Iyer

Corniglia Collage
My trip to Cinque Terre – views from Corniglia

Concert Review from Paris

On Thursday, I had the pleasure of attending an exceptional performance by the Orcheste de Paris conducted by Paarvo Jarvi, with a special guest, virtuoso violinist from Japan, Akiko Suwanai.  The performance was held at the Salle Pleyel, located at 252 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, in the business district of Paris.  The pairing of Grammy Award winning conductor Jarvi with Suwanai, the youngest person ever to win the International Tchaikovsky Competition, was superb for the musical selection, performed by this world renowned orchestra, to celebrate the new arrival of such an amazing conductor as Parvi.

As the musicians entered the stage, the audience applauded with anticipation of an evening full of glorious music written by composers from the Classical era.  The songs selected conveyed a hint of romance, heartbreak, and drama, perfect for a beautiful fall evening in Paris, set under a bright full moon.  Once Jarvi joined the musicians, the audience quickly muted their applause and sat quietly in their seats excitedly awaiting the full program of three magnificent compositions to be performed: Der Freischütz, overture by Carl Maria von Weber, Violin Concerto in E Minor (Op. 64) by Felix Mendelssohn, followed by a short intermission, and all five movements of Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz to round out the evening. The first song was the Der Freischüt Overture, composed by Carl Maria von Weber.  Weber debuted this piece in Halle, Germany July 31st 1820, after many years of collaboration with playwright Friedrich Kind.  Originally titled Die Jagersbraut, the opera’s name was changed to reflect the name of Johann August Apel’s novella, Der Freischütz, which the opera was written after.  The overture was quite a lively piece of work, that lasted approximately 12 minutes, and grabbed our attention while giving we, the audience, the opportunity to listen to each of the musicians marked talents. Weber himself explained Der Freischütz is constructed from two elements, “The world of the forest and hunting and the reign of demonic powers.” The first is characterized by an instrumentation using the horns and melodic writing of popular inspiration. The “sinister element” himself is rendered “dark and dismal,” obtained by “exploiting the deep recesses of the violins, violas, basses, the clarinet […], the melancholy sound of the bassoon, the lowest notes of the horns, the dark rolling of drums […].”

Indeed, the beautiful slow introduction is mainly to expose “the world of the forest.” Then in the Allegro following, the different patterns declines evil of the opera: the theme of Black Hunter (Samuel), the desperation of the hero (Max), entrusted to the clarinets, and the evocation of the terrible Throat-aux-Loups. The third part of the opening added a feminine element to the Opera (Agathe) because the clarinet themes of love for Agathe, whose melody, first worried, will eventually prevail and triumph over the forces of evil.  This triumph of Good allows the opening to find a jubilant ending which was demonstrated by Jarvi’s animated and lively direction of the musicians on stage. For this piece, Jarvi opted to decrease the size of the Orchestra slightly, to subdue some of the dynamic sound.  A portion of the percussion, brass and woodwinds sections were removed and the first and second violin sections were also reduced in size.  The piece was played at ff fortissimo level throughout, and the concert hall being a bit smaller than most, the adjustment in the number of musicians on stage was a good compromise for the robust sound projected during the Overture.

The second song was the Violin Concerto in E Minor (Op. 64) written by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.  Prompted by his friend, Ferdinand David (1810-1873), first violin of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Mendelssohn began writing this particular concerto in the late 1930s.  He labored over the endeavor for many years before finally completing it in 1844.  It was first performed in Leipzig in the spring of 1945, with Mendelssohn conducting.    While the concerto respects the traditional three-movement classical-romantic format, Mendelssohn immediately innovated it by bringing the soloist in the second degree, skipping a traditional symphonic introduction. He connects the three movements together others by arranging short transitions leading from one to another, running and working in a continuous stream of sound – essentially a moderate allegro dreamer, a meditation and then the soloist sings a deliciously slow finale.  Suwanai, as the soloist, delivers a magical atmosphere typical of a carved musician, sparkling in sound.

The size of the orchestra was decreased once again, in order to highlight the delicate sounds of the solo, played by Akiko Suwanai.  She played softly, yet with wonderful dynamics, not once did the higher notes of the violin screech.  Regardless of the soft sound, the violin was crystal clear, yet she played with such vigor.  Suwanai broke a string on the violin during the beginning of the concerto.  She immediately traded instruments with the first chair violin and while he graciously repaired her violin, she played his so that the performance went uninterrupted.  She continued to play the piece as beautifully as she did on her own instrument, but it was interesting to notice that the sound between the two violins was distinctly different – the first chair’s violin had a deeper, more masculine sound, while her violin had a soft, feminine sound with marked timbre.  The audience was in awe of her seamless transition and calm demeanor.

Before the completion of the piece, the two traded instruments again and Suwanai was able to complete her solo on her beloved Antonio Stradivarius 1714 violin ‘Dolphin’, one of the most famous violins known today, and previously owned by the celebrated violinist Jascha Heifetz, which has kindly loaned to her by the Nippon Music Foundation.  At the end of the performance, the audience showed great appreciation for her masterful execution of the concerto, yelling out “Bravo!” “Magnifique!”, and “Encore!”  We all began clapping in unison until Suwanai returned to the stage for three mesmerizing encores.  After all of the excitement, the 15-minute intermission was welcomed opportunity to refocus my attention for the final composition of the evening.

The second half of the evening’s performances was dedicated entirely to the Symphonie Fantastique, composed by Hector Berlioz, in 1830.  It was written literally as an ‘Episode in an Artist’s Life’, rumored to represent Berlioz’s obsession with Harriet Smithson, an actress and his first wife.  Through the five moments of the symphony, Berlioz spells out his dreams in dramatic form. The slow waltz portrays the movement of the joys and sorrows before he sees his beloved.  During the fourth movement, the artist murders the woman and is then led to execution – at which point we hear the guillotine slice off the artist’s head, via a bow sliding across the strings of a violin, and the dramatic sound of it falling into a basket below by the drums.  The artist finds himself in a turbulent witches’ Sabbath, during the finale.   In 1855, the program was altered so that the artist awakens from whole dramatic episode as an end to a dream, not the end of their lives.  We heard the clarinet played a shrieking solo in E-flat reflective of the original finale as it was written, as presentation of his beloved’s image after death.  The explicit drama of Berlioz’s symphony calls for the full display of the orchestra. Thus, Jarvi added the harps, bells, tamarinds, large drums, and tubas.  He also increased the number of bassoons, trumpets, French horns and trombones to give the vivid action of the program’s unprecedented boldness and originality.

Since all three composers were friends and colleagues, it seems that this spirit was carried forward on stage this evening by the entire orchestra.  Mendelssohn attended the premier of Weber’s Der Freischütz, which created a sensation with the German press and he played the harp part of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on piano at a benefit concert the composer had hosted on February 4, 1843.  Berlioz re-orchestrated Weber’s Der Freischütz for the Paris Opera in 1841, staying as true to the original composition by Weber as possible in his French translation of the work.  While this was Jarvi’s first-time conducting the Orchestre de Paris, there was a sense of fondness and respect displayed in his mannerisms.  The ease in which he floated about the work, with gentle prompting to beg for more from each section as he moved along in each piece, allowed for excellent showmanship from his entire orchestra.  While he came out four times, at the demands of the audience for an encore, the orchestra did not play one, but Jarvi used each opportunity to show his gratitude for a job well done by all of the musicians.

I have attended many symphonies in the past, but I cannot recall any of them having such thrilling artistry that I witnessed in Paris.  I left the Salle Pleyel with a feeling of joy and gratitude for the chance to listen to some of the most exquisite music of the Classical Era played with equal passion and perfection from musicians who undoubtedly love what they do and enjoy the chance to share it with so many.

European Extravaganza Wrap-Up

I cried several times on my flight back to the US (I guess once you open the flood gates it is hard to close them again huh?), appreciative of the gift of travelling to so many amazing places that I have been able to enjoy (along with the help and generosity of many others – namely my mom and stepdad for watching Bun, Ginnie and my pile of crap in their house while I have been away).  Not only have I learned quite a bit about myself, but I have seen the wonders life still has available and equal to it the challenges that are universal across all cultures.  I hope I can carry much from this experience forward with me and that the healing, the grace and the willingness to be a part of humanity again continue.  (The last thing I want is to fall back into old patterns, so slap me silly if it starts to happen!)

I am not sure how to capture this elated feeling of gratitude in words on a page, but the blessings have filled up my heart.  I know so many people don’t get this opportunity – I am grateful you have allowed me to share my adventure with you.  As I replay the last few months in my head, there is so much that I think went by so quickly, so much time that seemed to stand still, so much I learned, and so much that I am in complete awe of.  From many of the places I visited to the people I met, the most important thing I learned is that food, drink, art, and company are vital elements to daily life.  I want to continue these little traditions I have established of going out, writing in cafes, seeing operas, attending museums, and I am excited that I get to subject you all to all of it as my guests!

For some that will be sooner, rather than later, and for others – I hope to see you soon, my friends.  For now, I tried to list out the cities I visited starting with the first, Madrid, and ending with the last, London and all of the glorious wonders in between.  Each carries a special message and meaning for me that I hope to integrate back into life in the States because some things are just hard to capture in a story or a picture, I think the best way to capture the essence of something is to share it with the ones you love.

On this Thanksgiving,
I send you all my best

Wut up Espanya?
See the city
or pics of the Real Jardin Gardens

Sucks ARSE!
See for yourself

Ericeira and Villa Vista
Gorgeous Beach and Villa
But this is what a hurricane in the US does to the beaches on the other side of the world – good to know!

Oh my GOSH!
Still my favorite place for Pics so Far

Barcelona in the House!
City Sights
Sagrada Familia Pics
Parc Guell Pics
Montserrat Pics

Home of French Hip Hop
City Sights, Churches, and cool Forts

Nice is Nice!
A Beautiful City with La Plage and Vieux Port
especially La Colline du Chateau
the Churches and their Dead People
and of course Marc Chagall

Firenze (Florence)
Firenze Frenzy!
Just a simple and beautiful city
with enormous churches
like the Cathedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore
or the Basilica di Santa Croce
Palazzo Piitti
Great FOOD cooking and of course
The Statue of David

La Spezia
On the way to Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre
Manarola is part of the Five Villages
Corniglia is Town number three
Doesn’t seem like it should take an hour-and-a-half to get to Village Four – Vernazza!
Monterosso is the last of the Five Villages
Riomaggiore is town number one, but didn’t spend much
time there after a land slide

Very old city
with beautiful views of Tuscany



Poggio Alloro

San Gimignano


Rome in a Day





Lago Iseo


Firenze – so good I had to visit twice!