Thursday, August 30, 2007

Friday, August 17: It's Over Already?

Well, I'd shown up at Alain's flat a night earlier than he was expecting. And I didn't have the correct security code to open the gate to his complex when I arrived there at 11:30pm. But, apart from that, my final night in Europe was uneventful. It was quite surreal to step out the front door on the sunny Friday morning and set off, alone, for home.


I hadn't realized that I got on the wrong Underground line for the airport until an Indian woman approached me and asked if that's where I was going. I guess my giant backpack and roller suitcase gave me away. That's where she was was headed too. Turned out that two lines share a track and then diverge toward the end. A woman overheard us talking and volunteered the information we needed to switch. It was only one of many times on my trip that a person had gone out of her way to be helpful and kind.

Thankfully I didn't lose much time and arrived at the airport with what I thought was more than enough. It was more like JUST enough. Wow, I have never seen security like the security at Heathrow. I myself was searched twice; once at the security checkpoint and again at the gate. I boarded that plane with complete confidence that it was as secure as a plane could be.

I didn't even have an opportunity to get nervous about the flight, for I was intrigued by my seat companion from the moment I boarded. He was obviously African. Over the course of the flight I learned that he had the delightful and appropriate name of Ernest. He was flying from Kenya via London via LA to Portland, Oregon and on to the small city of Newberg to go to GEORGE FOX University. Yes, that's the small Christian school that Shaun's parents went to. Several of his family members have also attended there and worked there and continue to work there. Lest ye doubt that it is a small world after all; I assure you, it is.

He had never been to the US before, but he has two uncles in the Portland area. I had a lot of fun answering any questions he had, and explaining what some of the food was. I'm sure pizza will not remain unfamiliar for long. Both of our flights were delayed in LA, so we chatted for a while longer. It made me think fondly of my freshman year of college and how much fun I had and how excited I was for the future.

It was a long journey. Ten hours from London to LA, six hours in LA, two hours from LA to Boise. This left me good and ready to go to bed at the proper hour. Shaun and the boys flew in from his folks' house on the same night, so we all met up at the airport. And yes, I was the only one who cried.

So, I guess all that's left to say about my trip is, thanks, everybody. Thanks, Hillary, for one plane and two train tickets and the pleasure of your company. Thanks, Shaun, for using all your vacation days to send me on vacation. Thanks, in-laws, for making the week so special for the boys. And thanks, boys, for getting along so well without me that I don't have to rule out the possibility of ever doing something like this again.

Sweden, anyone?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Thursday, August 16: See You Later, Paris

I made no ambitious plans for the last day of my trip. Originally, Hillary was going to go to her French class and then on to work, and I would explore the area around her school and the library. But her spectacular cough convinced us that getting her in to see a doctor should be our primary project of the day.

We got the names and phone numbers of two area doctors from a nearby pharmacy. After consulting my French travel phrase book, it seemed a bit beyond our ability to try to arrange an appointment by telephone.

Hillary's creative idea was to put in a brief appearance at work and have someone there call the doctor. Brilliant. Despite the burning feeling in her throat, she thought it would be nice to walk through several arrondisements to the American Library where she worked. We set off, and it was all I could do to keep up with Hillary, even in her impaired state.

It was a beautiful day for our walk. For a while. You'd never guess from the looks of the sky over the Luxembourg Gardens that it was going to start raining in an hour.

The Mother Ship of department stores

Hillary at her post...the children's section of the American Library in Paris.

While Hillary shelved a few books, I looked around the neighborhood. Here's what I uncovered three blocks away:

While it was fun to revisit a beloved Paris icon, I was even more excited to discover this crazy Art Nouveau building at the end of the very street that the library was on.

When I returned to the library, I found that a gaggle of young French women had discovered the cart of free books outside the door. They picked up several volumes and examined them carefully.

We took the Metro back to Hillary's neighborhood for her 5:15 doctor's appointment. It was a very interesting experience. At one point there were five of us in on the consultation: Hillary, me, the doctor, another patient who had offered to translate for us, and her young son. Diagnosis? Allergies. Hillary and I were skeptical, but three prescriptions (and only 30 euros for the doctor visit AND medicine) and a few days later, Hillary was feeling like a new woman.

It was hard for me to believe that it was time to grab my bags and head off to the train station for my 9:00pm train to London. I cried when saying good-bye to Hillary, just as I had upon leaving home. For dinner I bought a sandwich of salami and pickles on a baguette. In keeping with all the male attention we'd received on the trip, the man who sold me the sandwich pointedly asked if I were to be addressed as "Mademoiselle" or "Madame." "Madame," I replied with a big smile, thinking of my family and how soon I would be seeing them.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Wednesday, August 15: Many Words, Many Photos

Let me start with an apology to those of my readers who are familiar with the French language. You have probably noticed by now that many of my words are missing the proper accent marks. I can't be bothered to figure out how to put them in. Be warned that I will continue to transgress in this manner.

Here are some pictures of Hillary's building that I neglected to post before:

Today we had glorious tea and glorious pastries at the glorious Laduree on the glorious Champs Elysees. "Glorious" is a word impossible to over-use in this case. I'd walked by Laduree before but was too frugal and too intimidated to ever venture in. Pish posh.

What a fine time we had, sipping our oolong tea with orange blossoms. And my passion fruit tart topped with raspberries so unblemished that they hardly looked real only strengthened my resolve to lobby for another trip to Paris in the future.

After tea we considered revisiting the Decorative Arts Museum, but Hillary seemed to be getting sicker, so we decided to cut back on the activities. We headed instead to the Palais Royal, a palace built in the 1600's to which shops and arcades were added in the late 1800's. In 1986 this sculpture by Daniel Buren was installed. The almost universal tourist reaction to it is to jump on a column and ask for one's picture to be taken. Hillary and I resisted this urge, though she enjoyed taking photos of OTHER people doing it.

The shops were all closed for a holiday, and it was probably just as well, for there were many wonderful window displays of vintage couture clothing. I wouldn't be surprised if it were the very hand of God that kept me from walking in, trying something on, falling in love, and then having to explain to Nels why we can't afford for him to go to preschool this fall, after all. Other shops included out-of-my-league boutiques like Rick Owens and Marc Jacobs, which were no big deal for an L.A.-dweller such as my sister, but gave a momentary thrill to this Boise resident, who doesn't even have a Nordstrom at which to shop.

Window displays also included costumes from opera and ballet productions:

Creepy opera cat costume

Tutu detail

We opted for a long and leisurely walk home, past the Louvre and the recently cleaned Cathedral of Notre Dame.

The tea and pastries were scant fuel for the trek, but we waited to eat until we got to a cafe two blocks from Hillary's flat that she'd always wanted to try. Oh, how glad we were that we'd held out. We were planning fondue for dinner so we went for the opposite of bread and cheese. That would be salad, of course. But not just any salad. Mine had hearts of palm, sweet bay shrimp, hard boiled eggs, smoked salmon, and plenty of lettuce, dressed in a lemony vinaigrette. Hillary's salad had prosciutto, chunks of cheese (Edam, I think), fried potatoes, and other delicious things that I can't recall. The best part was that it came with a fried egg on top. The photo I've included isn't that great, but we loved this place so much that I had to share. The rain came and went and we watched the fountain and the people and it was just great. I was sad we hadn't tried it sooner. I'd have eaten there every day for the potatoes alone. The man with the grizzled beard in front of us ate an enormous plate of them (in addition to the other part of his meal-- his entire table was covered with food).

The next order of business was, of course, a nap before dinner. Our second attempt at a fondue dinner was successful, though we did have to wait for quite a while out in the drizzle before a seat was free. The restaurant has only two tables which run lengthwise down the small room. Because of the set-up, one counts on meeting new people at Le Refuge des Fondues, and this evening certainly did not disappoint. To my right, a loquacious and somewhat shameless French man and his shy friend. To my left, a very nice couple from Winnipeg, the girl with a very loud and piercing voice, the boy sounding EXACTLY like Harvey Fierstein. Uncanny.

The French lothario made his very best attempt at wooing. At first, despite my wedding ring, it was unclear whom he was going to to woo. I think he was waiting to see if either of us would show a particular interest. After a while, though, he focused his attention on Hillary. This was good, as she was across from him and next to his friend, who would occasionally look up from his plate and calmly say things like, "Can you believe him? Don't believe him." Our new friend's self-esteem was dealt a serious blow when Hillary refused to give him her phone number: "What, you don't want to learn to speak French? You don't want a French friend to talk to?" THEN she asked if she could take his picture. Just his hand holding his smoking cigarette, eating sorbet out of a lemon. Now he thought she was just making fun of him. He left with very few words and a hurt expression.

We belt bad for him for about five whole minutes. That's when we passed the window of the resturant next door, and Hillary saw him talking animatedly to the pretty curly-haired blond girl he was sitting next to. I wish I had remembered at the time that, in high school, an entire lesson of the "French in Action" series we used was dedicated to this phenomenon, apparently not uncommon in France. It was called Le Dragueur, a slang term whose nearest English equivalent is "pick-up artist." Vive le dragueur! Here's to having the whole French experience.

Tuesday, August 14: Good Afternoon, Paris

On Tuesday we were up and at 'em at the crack of noon. I soon learned what a prime location my sister was residing in. She was just around the corner from Rue Montparnasse, she regularly walked past the Luxembourg Gardens on her way to work, and, best of all, she was only about two blocks from Rue Mouffetard. A quick Google search yielded some lovely photos (none of mine were that great) and the information that this charming hill-climbing street of markets has been around since the first century. This is where we headed to find a meal.

Our stop at the extremely fragrant (some would say stinky) fromagerie was the most fun. A long line allowed us plenty of time to pick out which cheese to try. This was not an easy decision. When it was our turn, the proprietor asked Hillary what she would like. He knew from her previous visits that she was trying to learn French, so he spoke clearly, and gently repeated (correctly) any mispronounced words. He was so gracious and encouraging. We wanted honey as well, but were stumped as to which to choose from among the tiny jars, each a different shade of amber. I managed to convey that we'd like something to go with the fresh goat cheese we'd picked out. His face lit up, and he immediately picked up the darkest of the lot, miel du bois, and assured us that it would be delicious. Feeling downright pleased with ourselves, and not a bit like tourists, we bought some figs, baguette and a pastry and proceeded home to enjoy our lunch.

We hadn't made definite plans for the day, so we decided on rather late notice to go to the Decorative Arts Museum. This museum had been closed for renovation on two of my previous visits to Paris, which was very irksome. It was the only "sight" I really wanted to see on this trip. We got there with about two hours until closing, figuring this would be just enough time. We spent a good long while in the gift shop, ogling all of the modern housewares and crazy jewelry, like these spun gold necklaces.

We bought our tickets and moved as quickly as we could through the displays. At last we found ourselves at what appeared to be the end. But where was the jewelry I'd been looking for? The history of fashion? Bewildered, we walked back over near the ticket counter to try to decipher the sign that was, of course, only in French. Apparently there were more expensive tickets that we should have bought to see all the items I actually WANTED to see. There was no way for us to know what these other collections actually contained by reading their names printed on the sign. With only about 15 minutes left, we weren't about to pay all over again and then some. Reluctant to believe what had just happened, we stood and stared at that sign for a good long while. Such a long while, in fact, that a handsome young museum worker thought it would be really funny to pick up the sign and place it about two inches from our noses. And it actually was pretty funny. But he shouldn't have been surprised that we didn't take him up on his suggestion that we come back when he was working the next day.

I've always taken offense to the idea in popular culture that all a woman's emotional needs can be met by chocolate. That was before I had the chocolate at Angelina's. Thick, creamy, and almost as dark as motor oil, you can see from my smile that it was a good antidote to my recent disappointment.

Our final outing of the day was our dinner at Le Comptoir du Relais. It left nothing to desire as far as authentic French atmosphere, but I was a little disappointed that they did not offer the famous prix-fixe meal I'd read about online. In fact, the menu had such a massive number of choices that it took us at least a half an hour to choose what to even start with. For example, if one wants a sausage course, how to differentiate between the six on offer? Our main courses were truly nothing special, but for my starter I ordered foie gras for the first (and probably last, because it's just so mean! but good!) time. It was on a salad of green beans and artichokes, topped by bits of fried onion. That was a definite star of the evening. Even better was the rhubarb panna cotta, which we figured must be good when we saw the woman at the table next to us do everything short of licking the dish to eat every last bite of hers. It was really perfect.

Juli, this goofy photo of me reaching for my purse is here so I can show you that,on my big night out, I was wearing the necklace you gave me! And I was thrilled to do so.

On our walk home we passed countless beguiling cafes that looked like they would be such fun to stop in for a drink, but my big sister-ness kicked in and we decided it would be best that the under-the-weather Hillary go to bed. A full day, nonetheless.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Monday, August 13: Good Morning (yawn), Paris

Hillary and I were up at 3:45 am so we could make our 5:30 Eurostar train from London to Paris. We were out of the house by 4:10 but our "night bus" (so Harry Potter-ish!) did not arrive at 4:25 as we were expecting it to. We even spent about $10 in change (London is EXPENSIVE!) on four minutes' worth of frantic pay phone calls that failed to procure a taxi. The bus finally did show, and we made it to Waterloo Station with very few minutes to spare. Of COURSE I was selected for a special search of my bag. The security guard noticed the frantic look in my eyes that said, "We're about to miss our train and lose out on our SECOND pair of non-refundable tickets if you don't let me go RIGHT NOW," asked me what our departure time was, and calmly allowed me to gather my belongings and go. We made our train, and most of the passengers quickly dozed off for the three hour trip. I had a hard time getting comfortable and was excited that we were finally on our way to Paris, so I didn't sleep as much as I would have liked.

After we and our luggage arrived at Hillary's sweet one-room plus bath flat, we ate some pastries and took a serious nap. Next, Hillary made us some delicious spaghetti with garlic in her "kitchen" (you can see her cooking it below.)

Then we wandered off to the Natural History Museum and botanical gardens, which are less than a ten minute walk from Hillary's place. The museum was long on beauty and short on information, which was just to my liking. The grounds were nice as well, particularly the Art Deco-style greenhouse. We skipped the botanical gardens and menagerie. We saw many children, and I couldn't help but think how much Nels and Willem would have enjoyed spending a day there.

En route to dinner:

Our plan for the evening was to have dinner at Le Refuge des Fondues, a wacky fondue spot long cherished by tourists and, as we later discovered, locals looking to meet tourists. We wandered the lanes of Montmartre for a good long while, as we'd forgotten to bring the street address of the restaurant and I was remembering it being farther up the hill than it was. By the time we found it, it was dark and raining. It was closed. We trekked over to another restaurant Hillary had been wanting to go back to for its (supposedly) sublime foie gras ravioli. I'll never know, for that was closed too. We reluctantly made our way back to the more touristy area in search of a place to eat. It was ten o'clock and we were too hungry to make a decision. An aggressive older woman tried to talk us into coming into her place, thinking her menus printed in English would entice us in rather than dissuade us entirely. We picked up our pace as we passed two only slightly less aggressive men trying to start a conversation with us. Wet and hungry, we finally walked into a place that was at least full of people and wasn't serving Italian or Chinese food. Turned out to be my favorite overall meal of the trip. Everyone who worked there was extremely friendly and we had a delightful time. Hillary had foie gras on toast served with a caramelized pear, and I had goat cheese sachets with caramelized apple.

For our main course, we both had duck with goat cheese sauce, which sounds strange but was delicious. We shared a creme brulee for dessert and the only thing we regretted about that was the sharing. We were giddy with the joy of having an unexpectedly good meal until I looked down at my watch and saw that it was 12:30. No more Metro service. This was alarming, though I was momentarily distracted by the tiny mouse scampering around our feet. "Vous avez une souris," I told the waiter, absurdly proud of myself for knowing how to say "mouse" in French. "Yes, I know," he replied in French, and told us her name. I wish I could remember what it was...something adorably feminine and perfectly appropriate for a Parisian restaurant-dwelling mouse.

Wishing we we had time for another round of dessert but worried about how we would get home, we walked out into the damp night and headed for the Metro stop, hoping we would find some guidance there as to how to proceed. We found a guardian angel in the form of a transit worker who told us where to catch the bus and which one to take. We did get home successfully, but if we had known it was going to take us until 3:30 in the morning, we probably would have just called a taxi, even if we would have missed out on feeling adventurous and capable.

So up at 3:45 and to bed at 3:45. Only three days left!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sunday, August 12: Happy Birthday, Hillary!

We started our day with the requisite British pub experience. The Mayflower fit the bill nicely and it was a very short walk from Alain’s flat. We shared a large portion of beef and cheddar pie, accompanied by a mountain of mashed potatoes. It being only 11:30 in the morning, I resisted the urge to wash it down with a pint of ale. Not that I haven’t seen plenty of Germans quenching THEIR breakfast-time thirst with a cold one. We started out on the back patio that sat over the Thames (thrilling!) but sprinkles drove us indoors, where we were entertained by quotes painted around the room. One from Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well was painted above the bench behind me: “It is like a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks…” You can see another tasteful example in the photo below (if you click on it to make it bigger):

Next we were off to Brick Lane, where I found all of the interesting people I’d been looking for the night before. Known as Banglatown, it was lined with Indian restaurants. Each had a sort of barker standing outside, trying to rustle up business. The Brick Lane Market was a dim, sweltering place, filled with wonderful smells. Food vendors offering cuisine from all over the world were clustered around the entrance, and I wished I could have bought something to eat from each and every one of them. Our pre-determined and worthy goal, however, was to eat the memorable passion fruit mousse from the Brazilian cart. It’s such a shame that passion fruit is, if even attainable, totally unaffordable in the US. I’ve had desserts made from it in many other places, and it’s oh so very good. Here was my favorite non-food booth:

Upon exiting the market, we found ourselves in hipster-ville. Artsy salons, vintage clothing stores, graffiti and street art, a great music/coffee shop. Normally the vibe would get on my nerves a wee bit, but it was a tremendous relief after the atmosphere of the previous night. I’ll take too cool for school over party central any day. OK, truth be told, I would have loved to have popped into some of those stores. But we had only one day in London and the equally famous Camden Market to get to.


We stopped here for tea and a rest. We, and at least one other gentleman, found it to be a great spot for people-watching.

My kids were much less impressed by this photo than I expected them to be.

Unfortunately, things were shutting down at Camden Market by the time we arrived. We did get the opportunity to eat some doughnuts and snicker at the over-the-top stores that were like a Disneyland theme park version of punk. I have to admit, though that the staff and wares on display at Cyberdog scared me to death.

And then we were off, walking as fast as our legs and inappropriate footwear would permit. It was, let us not forget, Hillary’s birthday. And though, due to a scheduling mishap, we would not be having our highly anticipated dinner at Le Cinq in Paris, the day would be redeemed. Hillary and Alain, who were former salsa partners, were going to do something they’ve always wanted to: take a tango class.

We found the place with little difficulty: a basement-level Tapas bar with half the area given over to studio space for dancing. Not long after entering we were greeted by the eccentric man who appeared to be in charge. It was the first time in my life that a greeting made me feel like I’d been assaulted. He was, in appearance and manner, like a short Argentinean ladies’ man version of Bob from Twin Peaks (follow link and scroll down for a photo of Bob). His long gray hair was all slicked straight back from his large and extremely tanned face. He was dressed head to toe in white linen, and he oozed machismo. I found him terrifying. Henceforth he shall be known as Scary Tango Man.

I observed the beginner lesson, which looked like a lot of fun. Scary Tango Man was not the teacher; rather it was an unlikely British fellow with a bit of a pot belly. He was a very good teacher. Hillary and Alain were praised for their quick progress. At the end of two hours, which was twice as long as we’d expected and planned for, the lessons were over and the dancing began in earnest. All the students gathered in the studio. And then a scene played out before me that I will not soon forget.

Scary Tango Man threw his arm up in the air and shouted “I WANT SOMEONE TO DANCE WITH!” Utter silence followed. Every woman tried her best to avoid eye contact or any movement that might single her out. Finally, when it was obvious there would be no volunteers, he selected a victim. “YOU!” he commanded, pointing at a tall young blond. She made no excuses, merely rolled her eyes. I think she got the best of him with that gesture alone.

The music began, and with it, the dance. Never have I seen a more oddly matched pair. He was short and dark. She was tall and fair. In her high-heeled sandals, she was at least a foot taller than he was. She had the kind of figure that isn’t “in fashion” but that never goes out of fashion with men. Nor should it. In tango one never moves the hips, but one swivels. She was very slim but with very womanly hips, and to watch her swivel those hips about the dance floor by pivoting on her foot was almost mesmerizing. She maintained as severe an expression as he did the entire time. On the final note of the song she followed his last step and then gave a little kick and turned away from him with a last flick of her foot. We all clapped like crazy. He had utterly failed to intimidate her and was now Slightly Less Scary Tango Man.

We had no time for dancing, as this was our only night to eat fish and chips and there was only one place left open on Sunday night to eat them. Hillary had done some research online and found the one place that was well-known and open. The ambiance wasn’t much, but it was pretty spectacular to receive an entire battered fillet of cod. There was no mention of beer on the menu, but I made inquiries and ended up with the only one they had—the same Turkish beer as the night before.

We headed “home” and I discovered that Alain’s roommates had deemed the futon I’d slept on the night before inadequate. They’d set me up with the most deluxe air mattress I’ve ever seen and had made up and turned down the bed for me. This is the sight that greeted my tired eyes: