France travel- Chambéry


When I visited France, I went to a place not many people have been to, the small town of Chambéry, located in the southeast near the French Alps. The reason I visited Chambéry was because it was between Paris and Milan and I wanted to stay somewhere in the middle. While it is obscure, Chambéry used to be capital of the House of Savoy, way back in the Middle Ages from 1295-1563, which ruled a region covering southeastern France and northwestern Italy. However when the Duke of Savoy moved the capital to Turin in Italy in 1563, Chambéry steadily declined in terms of political importance.

Chambéry is still pleasant, with a heritage area that has a castle, lanes with attractive buildings, and the Elephants Fountain, built to honor Benoît de Boigne, a military officer from Chambéry, for his feats as a general with the Maratha Empire in India in the late 18th century. Apparently he served in the French military, then went overseas to India. The castle or chateau was a large, formidable grayish building which houses administrative offices and a chapel. You can only visit on guided tours held at certain times so I didn’t do that.

The town is a nice place to walk around since there isn’t much traffic and there are a number of lanes to pass through and see interesting old buildings and houses. One can also visit the nearby Lake Bourget in a neigbouring town or enjoy mountain views by cycling on the outskirts of the town. However, since it was a little rainy and cloudy, it was hard to see the mountains and I decided to stay in town.


Elephants Fountain, a local landmark built in 1826 to honour a local war veteran who served in India


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1356, and Taipei- book reviews

These two novels may have single-word titles but that is the only similarity. One is a historical novel about a war that took place hundreds of years ago between England and France, while the other is a contemporary semi-autobiographical novel about a New York writer and his aimless, drug-taking life.

During the 14th century, England and France fought a series of battles and campaigns which went on so long they were known as the Hundred Years War. The majority of these battles were fought on French soil, though at that time, much of France was actually semi-independent duchies or English possessions like Poitiers and Normandy. One of the most famous battles was Poitiers and 1356 is a novel by historical fiction master Bernard Cornwell about events leading up to it. But instead of being a retelling of real events, 1356 is about a fictitious quest for the lost sword of St Peter led by The Bastard, Thomas of Hookton, a knighted archer from England.

While European military history in the Middle Ages is best known for armored knights, it is a time of great violence and brutality, which the book sometimes casually describes such as in the beginning, when the losing count of a skirmish is castrated and tortured to death. On a greater scale, the English were trying to force the French king to fight a battle by launching campaigns across France, destroying countryside, ransacking cities and raping, killing and pillaging. The English longbow was especially feared during this time, being a weapon that could destroy knights from great distances and launched dozens of times per minute in the hands of a skilled bowman.  The Catholic church also played a large role in the novel, with the Papacy based in Avignon, France, during that time and very much on the side of the French. As with the circumstances of that time, the church held a lot of power and wealth (it still does). Among the key church characters are a stern bishop and his enforcer, a callous priest who uses a hawk to terrorise and blind prisoners.

With a name like Taipei, you’d think the novel would be about Taiwan and perhaps take place mostly in Taipei. But nope, the only association with Taipei is that writer Tao Lin’s parents are Taiwanese, and in the book, the main character, Paul, is also from Taiwan. But other than brief trips to Taiwan and to Canada, the book takes place wholly in the US. Paul is a writer in New York who basically just hangs out, goes to parties where he hardly knows anyone, and takes a lot of drugs. Paul is allegedly Tao Lin.

Here’s the thing about Taipei. It’s a unique novel that charts Paul’s life through every interaction, feeling, and conversation he has. Unfortunately, the end result is probably the least interesting novel I’ve ever read. I think that it’s a useful indicator of how empty modern urban life can be, but surely, readers did not need this point to be figuratively beaten into them repeatedly.
Once I realized midway there was no plot, it was a chore to struggle and finish the book. Paul is not interesting to me, and neither are his drug habit or casual relationships. Near the end, he gets married to someone almost on a whim, then he takes her to Taipei to meet his parents, and within weeks, he is already thinking the marriage was a mistake.

It’s a pity that the title Taipei was wasted on such an insipid book, because the city certainly deserves better.

Random Paris photo roundup


I was only in Paris for a few days during my Europe trip, but wherever I went, from the famous attractions like the Louvre and Notre Dame, to taking walks to the National Library and along the river, the view was enjoyable. It’s obvious that a lot of effort is put into preserving not just historic buildings but decades-old townhouses. There are a lot of old buildings and hardly any highrises, and this is probably a deliberate form of urban planning to maintain the look of entre neighborhoods. The subway also has a distinct antique character, so for example, you have to open the subway doors by hand and a lot of the hallways, stairs and platforms look like you could be in the 50s. It is a great city to stroll through the streets and neighborhoods and riverbank, and I only wish I could have done much more of that.


Goodbye Paris. Setting off at Gare Lyon station
 
The top photo and this one above were taken during a morning walk before I left Paris in the afternoon. It was a serene way to enjoy viewing Notre Dame without encountering hordes of people.

Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France)

Elevated subway station

Looking at one of the many great paintings at the Louvre
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Paris travel- Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe


The most recognizable symbol in Paris is probably the Eiffel Tower, with the Arc de Triomphe second. Previously, my mother and I had appreciated the Eiffel Tower from afar, atop the Montparnasse Tower, but on our third day in the city we went right up to the tower. But before that, we had coffee at Les Deux Magots, a cafe where famous literature and artistic personalities like Hemingway, Sartre and Picasso met and ate at; then visited the Arc de Triomphe, which we walked to from the busy tree- and store-lined Champs-Elysees. The Arc was much bigger than I’d expected and I didn’t realize it was a 19th century military memorial. That said, I wasn’t awed by any one particular structure, but all these places just confirmed my impression from the previous days – Paris is a beautiful city.


It might seem very old-fashioned but it is convenient that Parisian metro stations have giant metal signs with their names right above the entrances

The Luxor obelisk, an over-3000-year-old obelisk given by Egypt to France in 1829, at the Place de la Concorde

The Arc de Triomphe also features the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier memorializing the dead of World War I.

River Seine across from the Eiffel Tower

France travel- Versailles


The Palace of Versailles is synonymous with French royalty and grandeur, having been built by the Sun King, Louis XIV to serve as his royal court. Completed in 1682, it served as the royal court and remained so for about 100 years before the court moved back to Paris. During that period, the nobility had to stay at Versailles, so remaining under the eye and control of the king. This is covered in the ongoing trans-Atlantic Versailles period drama series.

When we visited France, my mother and I took a day to venture to this immense royal complex. The complex was much bigger than I’d imagined, and I could see why it was so famous, both for its opulence and size. We took the train from Paris to Versailles (the town), then walked towards the palace along a pleasant street.

Approaching the complex, I saw a giant statue, a paved open space, and a courtyard filled with people in a line that snaked across to form an N shape. We got in line and it took about an hour to get in. We checked out a lot of different rooms and halls, including the opulent Hall of Mirrors, the painted ceilings, the rooms where the king and queen lived and entertained, and a brief glance of the gardens in the back, which required a separate admission fee. Everything inside was exquisite, whether the columns, the windows, the paintings, or the stairs, so much that it was almost like an overload. There are additional buildings on the grounds that you can take a shuttle to, but we didn’t have enough time.


The man himself, Louis XIV

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Submission- book review

I don’t read too many French or European novels, though I should. Michel Houellebecq’s Submission is one such French book and it is a stunning novel that explores the possibility of an Islamist party winning the presidential election in France. It is the first book I’ve ever read from Houellebecq, arguably France’s most famous novelists and probably the most controversial too.

In 2022 France, the protagonist Francoise, a literature lecturer at Paris III-Sorbonne, is living a steady but somewhat empty life. He is respected in his profession as an expert on a 19th-century French writer and has affairs with students. However, he has a pessimistic and misanthropic approach towards life and its conventions such as religion and marriage. As the presidential election looms, an Islamic candidate gains significant support, and after he wins, France finds its educational and social systems altered, and Francoise is forced to consider a major life change.
Suffice it to say, the question of the French core identity is challenged by the outcome of the election. However, the significance of this political possibility was slightly offset by Francoise’s personal struggles to find himself so the effect was not as powerful for me.

While I’m not a Frenchman and I don’t live in a society with a lot of Muslims, I can understand why Submission would court some controversy. Submission does address Islamophobia concerns by presenting a future with an Islamic control at the highest level. For a country like France which is historically Christian but has a large Muslim minority, questions over how much to accommodate Islam is a major issue, such as the banning of niqabs (full face covering worn by some female Muslims) in public.

However, Islam is not the main target but France’s mainstream politicians and academic institutions. The Islamist candidate is actually a reasonable-sounding but driven individual who is not an extremist or radical firebrand. The issue posed by the author is about the decline of mainstream parties, the result of which is that only far-right candidates like Marie Le Pen, who in real life lost the presidential elections this year, and the Islamist candidate can galvanize the public.

The novel is not very long at less than 250 pages but that is enough to produce a blunt and slightly chilling effect. Not just because of the shock and repercussions of an Islamist in power, but the personal change undertaken by Francoise that completely goes against the fundamentals of his character.