Kids

(First of all “license” is a really tricky word to spell. I know there are c’s and s’s but I can’t ever remember which goes where. Same thing with “excersise”. Or is it “exercize”?  I’m really a good speller, I swear!)

Texas DPS

York, although being 16, was a bit of a dawdler about getting his driver’s permit and license. We signed India up for a driving school and she did all her stuff and got her license and it was not too hard. We decided to do the homeschool option for York because . . . we’re dumb and cheap. The homeschool version costs about $120 less than a driving school. The would-be driver has to do an online course but you do every speck of driving with the would-be driver.

Let me tell you, it’s most definitely worth $120 to make someone else learn to drive with your child. You eventually are the one who has to put in the major hours with them either way, but it’s nice having someone else show them the ropes at the beginning when they are know-nothing idiots. There isn’t anything more frustrating than a teenager who thinks he’s a great driver just because he’s played lots of driving video games. You can explain til you’re blue in the face that the very nature of Forza Motorsport is the complete opposite of driving in the real world (you have to obey speed limits, stay on the road and no running over pedestrians), but he’ll think he’s an expert already. Ah, the hubris of a teenage boy!

York did an online course for Driver’s Ed that was pretty straightforward. The rotten part was actually doing the driving.  Here in Texas you have to do about a million and a half hours of driving before you get your license (a bunch of it has to be done at night, too). This is definitely a great idea but it’s se emotionally taxing that I found myself giving York excuse after excuse about why he couldn’t drive. I had just been through the white knuckles with India, I needed a year or so to recover before I got to this business with York. Not to mention I didn’t want him to drive with his siblings in the car; if he was going to kill us I wanted him to take along as few people as possible. When there are six kids at home it’s quite difficult to find a time when only one person needs to go somewhere.

When you have toddlers and older people laugh and say, “wait until he’s a teenager” you look at them and think, “what’s worse than a meltdown in the middle of Target?”. You imagine a surly teenager and wonder “how hard can that be?”  The idea of not having to hire a babysitter anymore/make food other than chicken nuggets/wipe anyone’s bum makes the teenage years shine from afar with a rosy glow.

It’s things like teaching your kid how to drive that are simply too hideous to explain to a young mother. How do I communicate the frustration and terror of making sure my child understands how to not kill himself and others with this one ton mass of steel and soft Corinthian leather*.

York and I (I am the teacher of children learning to drive. Let’s just say that Mister’s temperament is not quite suited to patience in the driver’s seat. Plus I’m a better driver to begin with) muddled through our many hours of driving together until it was the magical day to get his driver’s license. Instead of getting it at the dumpy little office ten minutes from our house, everyone told us to go to the big fancy office way on the other side of town because it was so much easier to get an appointment. So York made an appointment–only a two-week wait!– to take the driving test way over there. I looked at the DPS† website to make sure we had the proper paperwork, although the website is as vague and unhelpful as possible (“Bring the Driver Safety Form”. Well, which of the eight hundred forms and papers that I’ve been given over the last few months is that? Why can’t they just say, “the form you got from the online driving school saying you finished all the lessons”??? Oh that’s right, this is the government. Why make something easy to understand when you can be cryptic and misleading instead?)

I pulled York out of school early (Of course driving tests are only given during school hours. Of course!) and toodled over to the DPS (a 35-minute drive and $2 in tolls) and got in line for his appointment. The lady who worked there was sweet but very insistent that we were missing a form. The form that I had left sitting on the table because I didn’t realize it was one we had needed. Naturally. It was too late to go get it and return before the office closed (an hour and ten minute round trip, remember!)   At this point York was about to lose it because he was not about to wait another two weeks for his driving test. The Prom was in two days and he wasn’t crazy about his mother driving him and his date around.

The sweet DPS lady assured us that if we arrived first thing in the morning we would be able to get a walk-in appointment. So we were on the road at 7:00 a.m. the next day to get to the DPS on the other side of town when it opened. We had all the correct paperwork and York and the driving instructor set off.

And they were back sixty seconds later.

Seems our safety sticker had expired a year earlier. In all fairness we were driving India’s car and I had no idea. So we drove around the surrounding area until we found a shop that could do a safety inspection. An hour later we were back at the DPS only to realize it wasn’t the safety sticker that had expired, but the car registration (which is a sticker on the dashboard so it’s very easy to tell when the date passes.)  There is no way we had time to drive over to a completely different government office to get a new registration so we decided to go back home and get my minivan.

Fast forward half an hour; we were about to get in my minivan when I realize that it too has an expired registration (really, people, I can’t be expected to stay abreast of everything). Our only other option was the giant pick-up we owned that mostly just sits in the driveway until Mister decides that he needs to take stuff to Goodwill. Only India had taken it to school that day because we’d been using her car for the driving test.

So we went to the High School and had her run the keys out to us in the parking lot. We swapped cars (registration and safety stickers were up to date!) and drove back to the DPS. York had never driven the truck in his life but that just made it all the more wonderful.

By this point it was noon. We’d originally left for the test at 7 a.m. Yay for missing another day of school!

York took his test and passed (hooray, because I really would have strangled him if we’d gone to all that trouble and he’d flunked), and it was very anti-climactic. We were just happy to be out of there. As we exited we passed a sulky teenage girl who was standing there with her mother while a DPS employee informed them that the license plates on their car were expired and they’d have to come back another day. “But I pulled her out of school for this! Now I’ll have to pull her out again!”, her mother wailed. I hear you, sister. I hear you.

So York got his driver’s license, hopped in the car all by himself and drove back for the last couple of hours of school.

The worst part of all of this is watching your child drive away alone for the very first time. Your heart has just driven off and you are sure this child will certainly die on the road. You spend the rest of the time praying every few minutes that he will be safe and not be killed. Like really, honest-to-God praying. For the first week you will nearly cry with sadness every time your boy wants to drive somewhere, certain are you that you will never see him again.

But then a few days later you find yourself making dinner and realize you forgot to buy an avocado. So you hand your son some money and have him run to the store and it’s like angels started singing and the world is bright and wonderful now that you can make somebody else run your errands.

Just like all the other things that happen when you’re a parent and your child goes through milestones, it is bittersweet. This one is the most bitter and sweet I’ve experienced, though. It’s so great to not have to pick people up from play practice at 10:00 at night. Or drive them across town at 6:30 am for the SAT. Or to have an extra set of wheels when one kid needs to be picked up from a birthday party at the exact moment when another kid needs to be at a soccer game. This is pure bliss. But now my child has the power to inflict death, whether on himself or someone else. I mean, I guess he could have stabbed somebody before but it’s not quite the same thing as a car crash. He also has the power to say he’ll be one place and be someplace else far, far away. That could mean trouble.

This parenting job, though, is all about letting go and hoping it all turns out semi-decently. It’s hard but it’s good.

Of course I’m saying all this now but let’s see how much of a basket-case I am when we take India to college next month.

 

 

 

†Here in Texas we have the Department of Public Safety not the DMV.

*You younger people won’t get this reference. But you should. I totally remember this car commercial starring the ever-suave Ricardo Montalban. Most people remember him saying “rich Corinthian leather”, but that is erroneous. Also erroneous? The leather that Chrysler used came from New Jersey, not Corinth.

I originally wrote this series of blog posts as a “look what we did” sort of thing. But I keep having people ask questions about our trip because they’ll be doing something similar and want some advice. So I’ve decided to make these posts heavy on details. I know most of you won’t care and you’re welcome to skim all the wordiness. But I am a fan of details when I travel so I will give you my opinions and knowledge and you can gloss over what you don’t care about.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Because India is graduating this year and York is graduating next year, Mister and I decided to do a combined graduation trip and take both of them to London and Paris. Those poor kids have never been anywhere. (Oh wait, they did get that ultra-luxurious road trip around the South in my minivan last summer.) As any parent knows, the end of the school year is a complete joke and nothing happens in High School once all the AP and standardized testing has finished. May is also the perfect month to go to Europe since it’s not horrifically crowded and the weather is generally pleasant. Mister is in grad school and this ended up being the best time for him to take a little break too.

So off we went. Mister used to live in London (both on a church mission and as a student) and it is his favorite city in the whole world. It’s a great place to start a foreign trip because it’s different but not too different. You can get your feet wet with international travel without becoming overwhelmed.

We rented a flat through HomeAway instead of getting a hotel because we like a little breathing room. Also, it gets incredibly expensive to eat out for every meal, so we wanted a kitchen so we could at least make breakfast. And we wanted a washing machine (if you pack light you have to be able to wash clothes!). India and York weren’t about to share a bed so we needed at least three beds (one king-sized because there is a rule when I am asleep that I cannot be touched. I need as much space as possible. You have no idea how hard it is to find a king-sized bed in Europe.) and renting a flat can be cheaper than getting two hotel rooms. We found a great place in Bloomsbury (halfway between the British Museum and Kings Cross station). It was in a less-touristy area that had lots of shopping nearby and a tube stop a couple of blocks away. It looked like an old Victorian hospital. Maybe it used to be; I don’t know.

Bloomsbury flat

Our flight was on British Airways. They have nonstop service from Austin to London so the flight was only about nine hours. It makes such a difference, not having a connection! Because the tickets were el cheapo, we had the teensiest seats on the entire plane. It almost made me weep, walking by those spacious first class chaises longues. But when you consider that I could have bought a decent little car for the same amount of money as four first-class tickets, I wasn’t so sad. I can put up with all sorts of nonsense for nine hours. It was a new plane, which had all the bells and whistles like a USB port at every seat and tons of free movies and TV shows on our own personal little screens. (No wifi, though, which is beyond strange.)  Also the windows didn’t have shades that went up and down. They had dimmers, so the whole window got darker or brighter with the push of a button. It was a nice concept but felt really weird and didn’t work so well.

Anyway, we got to London bedraggled and cross, as is usually the case when you have to sleep sitting up. I tried out a new neck rest thingy called the Sky Siesta and I really liked it. I can’t stand those neck pillows that feel like somebody is choking me, so I tried this one. It worked a million times better than a traditional travel pillow or a wadded up sweater. I brought along ear plugs and fuzzy socks to make it a little better. I only got four hours of sleep but I think that’s about the best I can hope for.

Sky Siesta

We took the tube to our flat (it was on the same Underground line as Heathrow airport so we didn’t have to switch trains or anything. Phew). We bought Oyster cards at Heathrow Airport that were for one week of unlimited travel in zones 1-2 (which is where all the touristy stuff is). We added on one trip into London (about 45 minutes away). If you were flying out of Heathrow, you might need to add on another trip back. We left via the chunnel which is in the middle of London (close enough for us to walk to, actually) so we were set with just our travelcards. There are several electronic ticket kiosks at Heathrow where you can buy Underground tickets; however I didn’t want to buy the wrong thing so I opted to talk to a human at the huge ticket office (we were in Terminal 5. Not sure how it is in other terminals).

I was a little weirded out riding the Tube with my suitcase but tourists are a fact of life in London and people are always coming or going. There’s always somebody with a suitcase riding the tube. Nobody thinks much of it. And carrying a suitcase in the Tube is a good reason to pack light! European subways are not wheel-friendly. Whether you’ve got a suitcase, baby stroller or are in a wheelchair, good luck! The Underground was built over 100 years ago back when they didn’t give a thought about accessibility so lots of stations are completely unequipped for anything requiring wheels. There are stairs and escalators at every stop. Try to get everything in a carry-on. It really is possible!

While we were at Heathrow we got money out of the ATM. We landed with not a smidge of foreign currency on us (some people like a bit of money ahead of time. We figured that we were going to London, not Mars, so we’d get some currency when we arrived. That ended up being fine in London. Notsofine in Paris).  The worst exchange rates are at airports UNLESS you use the ATM (try to use an ATM associated with a bank. Travelex is notorious for having terrible exchange rates at their ATMs even at airports) . You will probably be charged a fee for using the ATM overseas but you’re going to be charged a fee to change your currency too, and the ATM fees are usually more reasonable.  Here is something I’ll explain in more detail in another post, but chances are your American credit card won’t work over there. 90% of the time they only take credit cards with a computer chip in them. Those are really rare in the U.S. (if you have one, you’ll know). However, your regular old American ATM card will work just fine for using at an ATM overseas but NOT for making purchases (and remember to tell your bank that you’ll be traveling overseas so they don’t wig out and suspend your card.)

Once we got settled into our flat we had lunch at a little Farmer’s Market that was going on nearby. I knew we’d be exhausted and figured a tour might keep us occupied and on our best behavior since Mister and I tend to quarrel when we’re dead-dog tired (or most anytime, really). So I arranged a sightseeing tour with London Black Taxi Tours. (Just to clarify, I booked all these tours months ago. The best tours book up fast.  Tripadvisor is really the most fantastic resource on finding things to do and whether they’re worthwhile or not.) Our driver was named Michael Churchill and he drove us around all afternoon in his honest-to-goodness black taxi.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mr. Churchill knows everything about everything and we knocked out a bunch of sights in a few hours. It was very interesting and he was a great guide. I particularly wanted to see lots of sights to cross off of our “been there” list that I knew we wouldn’t have time to visit in-depth (like St. Paul’s, Big Ben, Tower of London, etc).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The weather, as you might have guessed, was rainy, cold and blustery. Spring in England is always anyone’s guess. At the last minute I threw a sweater in my bag as we were packing and I’m glad I did because I wore it–along with my unlined rain coat. Brrr!–for three days straight.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

(I was going to photoshop my face because I look a bit frightful but then I realized that I’d been up for about a million hours and had zero makeup on. So I’m just going to keep it real.)

York was particularly thrilled to count all the Bentleys and Aston-Martins around town. There were dozens! We even saw a couple of Maybachs. I don’t know how all these people have so much money, but they do. I was particularly impressed with the sweet Mercedes minivans they have over there. Why can’t we get those in the U.S.? Then maybe those snooty SUV girls wouldn’t be turning up their noses at us lowly minivan people.

vitomer

This here below is Leadenhall Market. It’s one of the earliest covered shopping areas and was where the entrance to Diagon Alley was shot in Harry Potter. We saw lots of Harry Potter sights but as I haven’t seen most of the movies, I really couldn’t appreciate them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

One thing that makes me truly sad about churches nowadays (especially in America) is that they never have bells. Church bells are one of my favorite sounds ever. I was very thrilled to hear so many church bells in London. This is St. Clement Danes church. I wish there hadn’t been so many green trees; you can barely see the church which was quite lovely.

 

We ended up our evening in Covent Garden which is an interesting but very touristy area. It was freezing and raining and we were starving. We had dinner in a little pub which was OK, but nothing great. We were exhausted enough that we barely cared. The tube station was closed so we caught a taxi back to our flat and fell asleep quite instantly.

Let me take a moment to talk about public transportation. The London Underground (known by Americans as the subway but British people always call it the Tube) is really the best in the world. It’s super easy to navigate and figure out. When we first came to England back in the 90′s we took the Tube exclusively. As a result I really never got my bearings and had no idea where things were in relation to each other. Buses were incredibly confusing and intimidating and Mister could hardly ever get me on one. We ended up lost a lot of the time when we took them so I gave up. Back in the day you had to use this huge confusing map and I just hated it. It’s too bad because buses are usually a lot more convenient than riding on subways. And buses are great for sightseeing and getting a feel for the city you’re in. With the London Travelcard, buses and the Tube are all included in the fee (of course, you have to stay in the zones you agreed to). And once you’ve got a great app on your phone to keep you from getting lost, you’re good to go anywhere in London!

Now we are in the era of the iphone and public transportation has never been easier. There are quite a few apps to help you figure out buses and subways. My favorite, hands down, is Citymapper. It can be used in London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, New York and Washington DC. You download the city you’re in and enter where you’re starting and where you want to end up (you don’t need actual addresses either. You can just put “the British Museum” and Citymapper will figure it out for you). Citymapper tells you exactly how to get there. You can decide whether you want to walk, take a bus, the subway or a taxi and how long (and how expensive) each option will be. It lists when the next bus/train will arrive and which way to walk to get to the stop. It takes all guesswork out of riding public transportation! And the best part is, Citymapper is free!  (You’ll need a data plan for overseas. It ain’t cheap but you absolutely, positively must be able to use your smartphone if for no other reason than to keep from getting lost.)

We started off our third day in London by eating a lovely breakfast made at home. I was particularly in love with this egg carton we got at the grocery store around the block.

British eggs

 

We then headed from our place in Russell Square . . .

Kids russell square

. . . to Leicester Square (I thought everyone knew it’s pronounced “Lester” but I overheard some Americans refer to it as Lie-sester. So embarrassed for them.)Leicester Square is where they have the half-priced TKTS ticket booth for a lot of the plays. Here’s how it works: many of the plays sell their extra tickets the day of the show for a discount. Sometimes they’re quite a bit cheaper, but usually it’s about 25%-40% off face value. The big name musicals rarely offer true discount tickets–they don’t need to. So if you want to see Book of Mormon or Matilda or something extremely popular, just get the tickets at the theatre box office. Otherwise, you can check the TKTS website ahead of time to see which plays they generally have tickets for. You never know what’s available until the day of the performance, though. Some theaters don’t release tickets until closer to lunchtime.

For all the less-popular shows you’ll go to the TKTS booth in the square (the back of it faces the Shakespeare fountain). There are a bunch of other little shops saying they sell half-priced tickets too but they aren’t legit. You want the stand-alone booth that says TKTS. There’s always a ginormous line. We would go most mornings so we’d be there when the booth opened at 10 am (11 on Sundays). We’d be done buying our tickets for that day’s performance by 10:45 at the latest. (A lot of shows are dark on Mondays so keep that in mind.) Some shows will sell tickets two days in advance as well. Not all of them, but some. There is a computer screen outside the booth that says which tickets are available that day and the next and how much they cost so you’ll be able to make an informed choice when you get to the front of the line. You can use that time to search your phone for reviews of the plays so you can get an idea of what’s worth seeing.

leicester sq

If there is a show you are simply dying to see, it’s best to get tickets as soon as you know you’ll be going to London. If you aren’t super picky (this is London theatre, after all. It’s the best of the best–most of the time. Some plays are dumber than others) or you’d rather take the budget approach, wait until you can buy tickets at TKTS.  I knew that we’d want to see a play on Monday so I checked the box offices ahead of time to see which plays were going to be performed and made sure that we saved one of those shows for a Monday performance when the other shows wouldn’t be playing. Does that make sense? In order to maximize your show-going you need to know your options. You can check here for a master list of what plays are performed when. We generally avoid matinees since we like to sightsee during the day. There isn’t a whole lot to do at night in Europe if you don’t drink and all the museums are closed (and the shops close at 6! It’s so insane!). Better to see a play in the evening.

There are also several movie theaters in Leicester Square. One, in particular, is where they have a lot of the European premiers of big movies. While we were there people were queuing for the X-Men premier (lots of weird cosplay people) and on a different night, there was the European premier of Godzilla. And Postman Pat: The Movie. We didn’t see any of them. We can do that in the U.S.!

Soooo after that long explanation we ended up with tickets to George Orwell’s 1984. We then commenced our day of sightseeing. First on our list were the Churchill War Rooms. This is the underground area where the British ran WWII. Shortly after the war ended, this area was boarded up and left undisturbed until the 1970′s. I guess everyone was so sick of the war that it took a good long time before they wanted to think about what happened. But it was opened back up and was preserved as a museum. And it is a very good museum. Part of it is a tour of the rooms where the top people in Britain ran the war. It’s got a lot of very interesting multimedia presentations. The rest of the museum is dedicated to the life of Winston Churchill. He was quite a fascinating man and his life spans the history of 20th century England.  It sounds quite boring but it was a great museum. (Don’t take my word for it, check out the reviews on Tripadvisor!)  The museum gift shop was particularly great with a bunch of British wartime memorabilia. Love these postcards that I got!

 photo 4b4990a9-3329-456e-9fc4-ef1e23811048_zps63e93b31.jpg

After visiting the War rooms we decided to do a little shopping. We headed over to John Lewis, which is the best store ever. I found the cutest children’s clothes but I didn’t dare buy too many in case they didn’t fit the kids. They have all sorts of kitchen things (as well as kitchens themselves), clothes, fabric, wallpaper, a fancy little grocery store, and of course clothes for everyone. I could easily have spent a whole day in there.

When we left the store we found that it was pouring rain beyond belief. We were trying to get down to a restaurant near the 1984 theatre and for some insane reason Mister thought it would better to find a cab. What a joke! We couldn’t get a cab to save our lives! He was convinced the Tube would be much too crowded. So instead we sat in the pouring rain for 15 minutes (we had umbrellas but still . . . ) until we realized that we didn’t have time to eat a nice dinner before our play so we just dashed into a Pret à Manger and ate some incredibly mediocre food. But at least we were starving anymore and we found a taxi immediately after we were done eating.

We ended up being plenty early to see the production of George Orwell’s 1984. Mister is an incredibly huge fan of theatre. I prefer movies myself. I like to see close-ups and luxurious scenery. But there is something wonderful about watching a play happen live. We aim to see things we can’t see elsewhere; meaning no Wicked or Les Mis. I also don’t like musicals very much. I realize that makes me a total weirdo but I just get so tired of all those cheesy songs.

We decided on 1984 because the book can be so hard to plod through and I thought it might help the kids if they have to read it at some point (doesn’t everyone have to?). Plus this production got rave reviews.  York’s been bitten recently by the drama bug and it was exciting to see him get to experience real, high-quality productions for the first time. The play was really excellent and I finally understood the story for the first time.

In 1984 the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” is used throughout. I thought it was particularly interesting since the first line is “Oranges and Lemons, sing the bells of St. Clement’s”. And those bells of St. Clement’s? Those are the very ones I shot a video of on the first day we were here, ringing their little hearts out.  I included this YouTube video of the history of this nursery rhyme because it’s pretty interesting if you like London-y things. Kind of long but maybe worth watching if you’re sitting at the DMV, bored.

We woke up, had breakfast at our flat and hurried out to take a tour of The Changing of the Guard. This is where the guards who are watching Buckingham palace switch places with the new guards. It’s a little ostentatious and a big deal and only happens every few days. And most importantly, it doesn’t happen when it rains–what with those big bearskin hats and smart uniforms the guards wear.

Most people show up at Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guard but all of the interesting parts take place away from Buckingham Palace. We signed up for a tour with Matt at Fun London Tours who promised to show us everything from the best points of view. (Have I mentioned how much I love walking tours?)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The day started out cloudy, as usual, but seemed promising as we headed over to the Royal Mall. Matt showed us a bunch of cool sights on the way there. Here’s a statue of the Queen Mum and her husband Edward VI (the king featured in The King’s Speech, which I made India watch on the flight to London. York refused, little jerk. Ironically, that king was born as the Duke of York.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We came across another statue of another Duke of York. This one we made York pose in front of (well, the sign at least. The statue itself is very tall). York was named after York, England (not New York which is what everyone asks him. His name is not New York so I really have no idea why they ask such a dumb question.) With there being so much York-this and York-that, it was only fitting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here is the British Household Cavalry (AKA the Horse Guard). These are Irish Draft horses that have been used for hundreds of years because they look big and imposing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Queen’s Guard leaves from St. James’ Palace which is down the street from Buckingham. Here you can see the cops opening the gates for the guards to exit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And that’s when it started to rain. And rain. Deluge is the word that comes to mind. By the end of the tour York’s raincoat was letting water through and all of us had soaking wet pants. Ah, England!

There were still some Royal goings-on, however.  The Queen was in residence and having some sort of meeting with several ambassadors. Instead of the ambassadors just showing up, the queen sends her fancy coach to go get them. Back and forth it went several times.

When the fancy  Changing of the Guard doesn’t happen, there’s just a quick, small changeover. Only a few guards come out–wearing little capes!–and it’s quite dull.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Matt, our tour guide, took us by Clarence House which is where Prince Charles lives (The Mall–not the shopping kind–is kind of like the Royal strip. It’s all palaces and fancy royal houses everywhere.) The guard out front informed us that Prince Charles was on his way out if we wanted to stick around. Heck yeah!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That’s his Rolls Royce Limousine. The Range Rover behind is his security. He waved at us stupid tourists as he drove by.  You can’t see him in this photo, although you can see his driver a bit. We were so close!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Of course we had to stop by and have our picture taken with a Royal guard. What a totally boring job. I wonder how many photo albums around the world this guy is in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Below is one of the horse guards who is guarding the royal stables. Or something like that. These guys are actually returned fighters who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now they must wear preposterous costumes and pretend to guard horses (“Stop or I’ll stab you with my ornamental sword!”) Although I do have to say I like that snappy coat immensely.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They have mounted guards as well. The horses have to get used to tourists. Like India.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And here is Buckingham Palace in all it’s cloudy, touristy glory:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Matt was such a wonderful guide. He felt terrible that we got so rained on but he showed us lots of cool parts of London around Buckingham Palace. He’s quite a fountain of knowledge and has a great sense of humor.  I’d highly recommend his tours. We liked him so much that we went out to lunch with him for TexMex food afterwards! (It was kind of like Chipotle which was so good after eating fish & chips for days.)

We had other plans for the afternoon but had to go back to the flat to change our clothes. By the time we were done it was time to hop on the train to Cambridge. (Mister’s company has offices in London and he spent the afternoon meeting with them). The kids and I went to see our old friends, The Staines family. They lived here in Austin for five years but because they’re from England originally, it was only a matter of time until they moved home.

It was so fun to see them again. York and Peter Staines were best friends back when Peter lived here (the pair of them were known simply as “Pork”). York was happy to hang out with Peter while his mom, Becky, and I took our daughters to see the King’s College choir. The architecture of King’s College is a Gothic delight. Towers and turrets and peaked windows galore.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Even though Becky doesn’t live too far from Cambridge and her husband works in town, she’d never been to see the choir which is one of the best in the world. For shame! If you’re planning to go to Evensong you need to line up outside King’s College gate at least an hour early. Becky drove us there but she says that the college is quite far from the train station so you’ll need to take a taxi if you’re planning to arrive on the train.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

India is a big old choir nerd which is why we took this detour in the first place. She was just in heaven being there. The choir–which is made up of men and boys–was even more fantastic in person. I have a ton of their albums, but it’s so unbelievably beautiful being there live. Of course they were total stinkers and wouldn’t let us record anything or even take pictures. I was so tempted but I didn’t want to get tossed out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

India Hildie_edited-2

This is somebody else’s picture of the church. It’s quite a bit darker than this in real life. Absolutely magnificent. Gorgeous windows everywhere and the most stunning woodwork. We got to sit right up in the alter section in the fancy wooden seats next to the choir. This was one of the highlights of my entire trip.

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge

Cambridge, the town itself, was lovely and charming too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This scene below made me laugh because the sign reads, “Please do not lean cycles against this wall”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Once the concert was done (although it wasn’t really a concert. It was an actual church service) we had a nice dinner and took the train back to London. We met Mister back at our flat. After his meetings he’d gone to see the musical Once and absolutely raved about it. He’s a fan of the movie already but he said the play was even better. So put that on your lists of things to see when you’re in London if you’re fond of musicals.

After a stop at TKTS to buy theatre tickets first thing in the morning, we headed off to The British Museum. Or as I like to call it, The British Museum of Pillaging and Thievery. Due to the British having the biggest and strongest army/navy for so many centuries, they’ve stolen every antiquity across the Western Hemisphere and put it all in one huge museum. I’m not complaining; The chances of me getting to Thebes or Athens are slim-to-none. I just find it a little appalling that they somehow think that they have the right to keep all the good stuff for themselves.

At any rate there it all is in a big museum. And it’s free. Which is utterly wonderful. There is a big plexiglass case in the entry hall where you can slip some money for a donation. It isn’t necessary and nobody keeps track of the amount you donate. But it’s rather rude to not donate something.

Rick Steves has some audio tours of this place that we downloaded ahead of time. We tried to listen to them but he really is insufferable. His dorky sense of humor is not funny at all and we barely learned a thing. So back into the pocket went Rick and we chose to read the very well-marked exhibits instead.

Here’s Cleopatra’s mummy. She was only seventeen when she died and you’d think they could have found a better artist to paint her mummy. She looks like Olive Oyl.

Cleopatras mummy

 

Also on display are the Elgin Marbles. These were taken from the Acropolis in Athens because, hey, why not? And to rub salt on the wound they’re not called the Parthenon Marbles or seomthing that makes sense like that. No, they’re named after Lord Elgin (that’s Elgin with a hard -g. Which is how we pronounce the town in Texas), the guy who took took them back to England.  Supposedly Britain paid for them. But they received permission from some Turkish Sultan so how does any of it make sense?

India Elgin

This section was from the pediment. Even after all this time, that drapery still looks gorgeous.

The British Museum has things from just about everywhere. This is a statue from India called a Garuda. It’s the creature that Lord Vishnu rides around on. Personally, I think it looks like a Pokémon.

Garuda

The British Museum is a place that everyone should visit at least once. There’s quite a lot of remarkable things to see. It also has the best café of any museum I’ve ever been to.  Look at this snack bar!

British Museum Cafe

I really wanted to visit the Geffrye Museum after the British Museum, but I realized that this was our last full day in England and I hadn’t done any bra shopping yet, so this was my last chance. Yes, you read that right. Bra shopping. Ever since my eyes were opened to properly-fitting bras I just can’t bear to buy poorly-fitting American ones. British ones tend to fit me the best. In the U.S. they’re upwards of $65 a piece. So I thought I might stock up while I was in the Motherland. Surprisingly the men of the family were not too interested in this. So off they went to have lunch and ride the London Eye (being terrified of heights I was happy that they could do it without me).

I found some great bras that were much cheaper than in the US but I managed to lose my Oyster card in the process (you get your £5 deposit for the card refunded if you turn it back in when you’re done with it). Since we still had the rest of the day of traveling in London, I went and bought a one-day pass. It was over £8. Moral of the story, Travelcards are a better deal and you should try not to lose yours.

After shopping (I bought several t-shirts for the kids at Next which has lots of affordable clothes for children and adults) we met up with the menfolk at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. This Globe isn’t the original. It’s a reproduction based on the few clues about the original Globe Theatre that have been found over the years. It was built using authentic construction methods; the only differences being modern safety features.  After the Great Fire in 1666, thatched roofs were outlawed. The roof at the Globe (it was built in the mid-1990′s) was the first one to be built since then (with lots of sprinklers installed, naturally). The plaster on the walls was traditionally mixed with hair, so the Globe used hair too–goat hair. It’s such a remarkable place. When we were touring it, the crew was breaking down a set from that afternoon’s performance.

Shakespeares globe theater

In addition to the theatre itself there is  an exhibit describing what London was like back then (only technically the Globe wasn’t in London proper), how buildings were built, how costumes were made and cleaned (hint: fermented urine was used), and what musical instruments looked like.  This scene shows a typical costume workshop back in the 1600′s (but cleaner).

Globe costume making

This costume was used for a production several years ago. Talk about a complicated dress! (Make sure you read the explanation that follows.)

Queen Elizabeth costume

QE costume words

All the tour guides at the Globe are actors. As you might be able to tell by our tour guide who could not resist my camera. He was trying to give us a brief synopsis of the opening scene of Hamlet.

Mister just adores Shakespeare so you know we hit the gift shop on the way out.  I wish we could have stayed for a production but they had been sold out for months, even the standing-room-only tickets. We thought about queuing up for returns but since there was a chance we wouldn’t get any, we decided to get tickets to something we would for sure be able to see. Which turned out to be a new production of Jeeves and Wooster, the hapless rich playboy and the butler who gets him out of one jam after another.

Jeeves 2

Did you ever read the Jeeves and Wooster series of books? They were written in the 20′s and 30′s by P.G. Woodhouse. They’re so veddy uppah-clahss British; charming, witty and droll. There was a Jeeves and Wooster TV show in the 90′s starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. This production was nothing like that. I mean, it was. The story is one of P.G. Woodhouse’s but it’s a brilliant new adaptation called Perfect Nonsense.

The cast is only three men who play every single character. They’re fantastic actors who do such a great job. There’s quite a lot of physical comedy and the set is just super. It won an Olivier award (the British equivalent of the Tony’s) for best comedy a few weeks ago and it’s well-deserved. We laughed our heads off; I can’t remember a play that I’ve liked as much as this one. It’s charming, hilarious, and just perfect.

We headed back to our neighborhood just as it was starting to rain AGAIN. We had dessert in a cozy, snug pub then went home to pack for France.

 

 

The day of our departure from England, we headed out for St. Pancras station to take the Eurostar train to Paris. The station was close enough to walk to, even with our suitcases dragging along. St. Pancras is the station where Harry Potter was filmed, even though it says in the movie that they’re at Kings Cross (which is right next door, actually). It’s a lovely train station with nice exposed brick walls and an arched glass ceiling.

Taking the Eurostar is pretty straightforward. You need to buy your tickets online as far in advance as possible if you want a good deal. I think ours were around £65 for a one-way ticket. There are assigned seats and the seats with a table in between are in high demand. We printed our tickets out at the station and headed through security. It’s much the same as airport security except you’re allowed to bring drinks along and they aren’t concerned with looking at your liquid toiletries. They are, however, interested in all your electronics. They took everything out of Mister’s backpack, asking what everything was. India and I were both patted down. It took forever to get through security and there is absolutely nobody there to help you figure out where you’re going. Just follow all the people up the giant elevators and then head for the train car listed on your ticket.

There is no baggage claim so all your suitcases get brought on board with you. There is plenty of room overhead or at the luggage racks at the front and back of every car.  I didn’t see an employee the entire trip, once we were through security. Heaven help you if you need some assistance!

The entire trip takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes. The last time we went from England to Paris, they had built the chunnel but hadn’t started running it. Instead we had to take those nauseating ferrys from Dover to Boulogne. It seems like it took forever. Do those even exist anymore? I can’t imagine that anyone would take them.

Most of the trip is overland; the underground part is less than half of it. Here’s my first selfie in France! The last time we were here almost nobody had cell phones and we had no children. Things have changed.

Hildie train

Speaking of children, this boy would put his head down and fall asleep every time we were sitting for more than five minutes.

York Train

We arrived in Paris at the Gare du Nord station. It was like walking into a train station in Detroit. We left the beautiful St. Pancras station only to arrive in a place that is totally ghetto. The Gare du Nord is not terribly user-friendly either. We wanted to get onto the Métro but the ticket kiosks only took Chip + Pin credit cards (which no American has. If an American credit card has a chip, it’s a chip + signature card. There is a difference. I’d heard that this might be the case but I though we’d be able to find a cash window since it was a weekday morning. Wrong!!!) There were a few machines that accepted Euro coins, which we also didn’t have. We had to walk all the way around the outside of the station and enter it from the upper floor to access the rest of the train station. We couldn’t find an ATM so we had to settle for cash exchange (rip-off!). We eventually found a real person working at a ticket office and and had enough money to buy a couple of books of subway tickets (called carnets). It was a real pain and left Mister cursing under his breath about how much he hates French people and why do they make everything so complicated?

We dragged our suitcases down into the Métro and managed to find our way to the flat we had rented on the Ile St. Louis, which is one of two small islands in the middle of the Seine river (it’s the one on the right in the photo below). The other is the Ile de la Cité, which is where Notre Dame sits. When I was a teenager I had a poster of Notre Dame and the Ile St. Louis on my bedroom wall. I used to imagine that I lived there and how cool my life would be if I did. I’ve wanted to stay there ever since.

Notre Dame light Sepia

Nearly all of the buildings on the Ile St. Louis were built in the 1600′s. It’s quite a peaceful and charming place with only a few streets. From our living room window you could kind of see the river. It’s just past the pale green tree in the center of the photo.

Our flat Ilstlouis

Our flat was in a skinny building with slightly terrifying wooden stairs. I love to think about all the people who have climbed those steps over the years. Who were they? When did they live? What was the best thing that ever happened to them? And the worst?

Paris stairs

About fifteen steps away from our front door was a very good gelato shop called Amorino. It’s definitely the most cozy gelato shop I’ve been to. Every place on this island has the original exposed beams. It’s such a lovely rustic touch.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

People rave about this stuff and it was good. But I’ve had better.  Never have I had it so artfully scooped, though. This is my first gelato flower.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We liked to get our gelato or ice cream then walk a block down to the Seine and sit on the riverbank watching the boats go by. It was fun just hanging out with the kids and talking without any electronics or interruptions getting in the way, aside from peddlers trying to sell beers out of a cooler (weird).

Down the street a block or so was the best ice cream shop in Paris, Bertillon.  It closes early-ish (8 pm) so we only got to have ice cream there once. I liked it a lot more than the gelato. Let me tell you the very best thing about Paris: they take caramel very seriously. Here in the States caramel is kind of a secondary flavor. It’s just now beginning to get the starring role it deserves. But the French know the importance of caramel, especially salted caramel, and you can find caramel au beurre salé in all sorts of yummy products.

Berticecream

If you are planning on going to Bertillon, be aware of the hours and also the fact that it’s closed most of July and August. Why an ice cream shop would be closed in the summer is a mystery only the French could explain (I know that’s when they take vacations but come on! It’s summertime. And you make ice cream. How about taking a vacation in November instead?) Anyway, if you find yourself wanting ice cream when Bertillon is closed, don’t fret. Finding Bertillon in Paris is like finding Blue Bell in Texas. In other words, it’s everywhere.  If you’re on the Ile St. Louis after closing time, just head over to Pom Canelle which is about twenty steps away. They have a take out Bertillon ice cream window that is usually open til 11 pm  (just look for the line outside). It’s also a restaurant (seating inside) that serves delicious food. We ate there one evening and enjoyed it immensely. Their onion soup is superb. Mister kept calling it French Onion Soup which, technically, all onion soup is when you’re in France. The food is simple and delicious.

Poulet et haricots

Let me just mention French restaurants while I’m at it. The oddest thing to an American is that they all look the same. There is really no theme to them. Especially if you’re eating outdoors at a café. They all have the same exact chairs, the same tables, the same colored awnings. The menus tend to be somewhat similar too. It’s very hard to decide what might be good restaurant and what might not. I suppose once you start getting into a higher price point, the restaurants get a bit fancier but I wouldn’t know. Meals aren’t our big splurge, even in Paris.

That’s where your cell phone comes in. You can download apps like Travelocity and find out which restaurants nearby are good. You can search by price point, by location or by rating. It was so helpful! I believe it’s a free app, so make sure you download it before you go. (And try it out before you leave since quite often the initial download requires a lot of data and you don’t want to waste the precious data on your overseas plan.)

We are huge fans of crêpes (say it the French way so it rhymes with “peps” not “gapes”) They’re cheap and easy to eat. There are tons of sit down creperies but to-go crepes can be hard to find if you’re not staying in a touristy area (“to go” in French is “à emporter” FYI). Tourists are fond of crêpes because they’re cheap, I guess. I’m partial to crêpes with ham and cheese and fresh spinach.  The best crêpe places will have a sweet batter which is white and a savory batter which is made of buckwheat and is brown.

The nice thing about Parisian restaurants (well, all restaurants in France really) is that people don’t tip.Well, they do but it’s always included. You might want to leave an extra €2-3 if the waiter was particularly helpful. Being a waiter or waitress is considered a real career; one that they are paid decently to do. They get the same wage whether they have one table all night or ten. Since French people tend to be more relaxed about working, they’d really rather have you stay all night. Less work for them in the long run. You will also most always have to ask for your check. It’s just how it works over there and is not necessarily the mark of poor service. Remember, they like their meals to last a long time.

It seems odd that take out food isn’t more poplar in France but the French really do like to sit around and take their time at meals. This is just insane to Americans who are always go go go. Sitting down for two hours at lunch or dinner seems like nothing but a waste of time. We were frustrated a lot because the only restaurants we could find were sit-down restaurants and we didn’t want to waste our precious sight-seeing time talking about philosophy (or whatever it is that Parisians discuss over long, dawdling meals).  We ate a lot of baked goods and sandwiches because all bakeries have sandwiches to go.

If you do find some good restaurants ahead of time, you’ll most likely need reservations. That’s how it works over there. I speak some French but the idea of calling a restaurant in France and making a reservation was so far out of my comfort zone that I simply couldn’t (I really have to psych myself up to talk to strangers on the phone in America. It’s strange.) Also, most restaurants don’t open til 7 pm. This is how French people spend their evenings, eating and talking. I emailed the guy were were renting our flat from (who used to live in Austin, coincidentally) and asked if he’d make reservations for us. He was completely happy to. If you stay at a hotel, have your concierge do it; that’s their job.

And then there is the issue of drinks. We don’t drink alcohol, being Mormon, which I have to say was kind of a bummer. Wine always seems so appealing. Instead we had water or if we were dragging, a Coca. Always in a can. The only place I ever saw fountain drinks was at McDonald’s (yes, we went to McDonald’s a couple of times. Sometimes a girl just needs a big pop, a toilet and free wifi). If you ask for water at a restaurant you’ll usually get bottled water. If you want tap water just ask for une carafe d’eau (most French/English translator apps will have a pronunciation button so you can hear how to say words and phrases. I like the VidaLingua app a lot. I think it was $2.99. Worth it!). All drinks will be room temperature, so just get used to that fact. As I’m sure you’ve heard, Europeans are not terribly fond of ice. Or cold drinks in general. Just embrace it. Even at McDonald’s you won’t get ice in your drink. It seems subhuman but you don’t want to sound like a bratty American by complaining.  When the stewardess on the flight home put ice in my cup I almost started to cry for joy.

By now you know I love walking tours. So that’s the first thing I scheduled for our arrival in Paris. Our tour was through Paris by Martin. The guide we had was Martin’s partner whose name was Pepe. He was delightful. By the way, tons of men in Paris wear scarves. As far as women’s fashions go, I never saw a maxi skirt once. I brought one but the idea of wearing it made me feel so frumpy that I left it in my suitcase the entire time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pepe walked us all over the Marais district, showing us the oldest and most interesting parts of the city (it was the Jewish section and nobody cared to make it all new and fancy in the 1800′s when they did the major overhaul of Paris.) The nice thing about Paris is that there aren’t horrid modern buildings plopped down all over the place.  Most everything is old and picturesque. Or at least old. (Tangent: Unlike our British tour guides, Pepe was like having a private photographer. It was nice to finally get some shots of all four of us!)

FamAlley Paris

Rumor has it that Johnny Depp just bought an apartment here in the Place Des Vosges.

Fam PlaceVoges

The buildings all have these wonderful vaulted arches so I can’t say that I blame him.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the Marais is the most superb bakery called L’Eclair de Génie that sells nothing but eclairs. Sometimes there are foods that are really hyped up and when they don’t taste nearly as great as you’d hoped you are just so let down. This was not one of those occasions. These were unearthly good. Unbelievable.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The eclairs are not cheap. We each got two–for research, of course. At $8-10 apiece , they had better be fantastic. But look how they have the name of the shop stamped on a little chocolate disc! And the nuts are dusted with gold! There went our dinner budget but it’s Paris! What are you supposed to do? Eat mediocre, cheap food all the time?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We wanted to save some for later but we had gobbled them up by the time we got to the end of the block.

Fam Eating Eclairs

 

After the Marais we strolled down to the Quartier Latin. So many fabulous things to see. Here’s the oldest restaurant in Paris called La Procope. It opened in 1686 and among it’s clientele are Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre and Voltaire. We didn’t eat there (too many eclairs) but it’s in a charming area.

FamLaProcope

There’s also a great fountain in the very touristy area near St. Michel.

FamFountain

A lot of buildings in Paris have lovely courtyards on the inside. You can rarely see them unless you have a key. Or unless you have Pepe.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We saw so many gorgeous and amazing places. It was the perfect way to kick off our stay in France.

Eiffel Hildie

I love, love to plan trips and do research and find cool things to do on vacation. I felt like I had found a bunch of really great things to see and do on this trip. So imagine my dismay when we got to Paris and I realized that I had entirely forgotten to include the Eiffel Tower in our plans.  How big of a bonehead am I?  So I shuffled a bunch of stuff around and we decided to make a pilgrimage to that most iconic of landmarks first thing in the morning so we wouldn’t have to spend the entire day in line.

Eiffel three of us

You can get Eiffel Tower tickets online ahead of time. This is what anyone with half a brain does. And then there’s me. Apparently I have less than half a brain. But we only had to wait in line for about half an hour before we were on our way up.  I probably didn’t include the Eiffel Tower subconsciously; I’m super terrified of heights. Elevators especially make me panic. Most of my nightmares feature elevators. Anyway, we went up to the second level and looked around and . . . well, that’s about it.  But everyone else decided to go to the top. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do! But there is a big, fat line to go up to the top, and a big, fat line to get down. And really it’s not all that interesting to go to the top when you can’t really tell what’s what because it’s so tiny.  I waited and waited and waited for the rest of my family to get back down. It took forever and my advice would be to go up to the second floor (which is massively under construction right now) and forget about going to the top.

DAr Hildie eiffel

The weather ended up being gorgeous. A bit chilly in the morning, but wonderful by the afternoon. We decided to stop by the Rue Montorgueil, which I’d heard from lots of people was really cool, but it was sort of lame. Mostly it’s just a bit of market stalls and oddball shops and my family was not in the mood for shopping. We were hungry and nobody could agree on anything to eat. So we caught the bus up to Sacré Coeur instead.  Well, we caught a bus to the vicinity of Sacré Coeur. The bus drops you at the bottom of the hill. Rumor has it that there is a little railway that will take you up to the top (requires one metro ticket) but we couldn’t find it. So we hoofed it up these:

stairs sacre coeur

Plus about a million other stairs. (Actually it wasn’t too bad.) There was hardly anyone walking up this way. Once we got to Sacré Coeur, though, we were in a giant crowd of people.

Hildie sacre coeur

Sacré Coeur is a big white basilica (a basilica is a really special Catholic church) that is barely over a hundred years old. It’s quite beautiful and very different-looking than most other churches. It’s white for one thing. It’s also on the top of the highest hill in Paris which makes it even more impressive.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I found it quite interesting that it’s dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, not Mary. Not being Catholic, I’m not really into Mary all that much. I’m sure she was an amazing woman–she was chosen to be Jesus’ mother, after all–but Mormons don’t believe she was perfect nor the result of Immaculate Conception. Going to school at a convent I was really blown away by how much worship was directed towards Mary instead of towards the Savior. And don’t say that’s not true; I’ve heard the rosary more times than I care to, thankyouverymuch. And growing up I saw  statues of Mary in all my neighbor’s front yards, but no Jesus statues anywhere.  OK, sorry, I’m getting a little wound up. Sacré Coeur is actually dedicated to the Lord, a pleasant surprise in a place where churches are dedicated to everyone BUT Jesus. I was also pleased to see that they had a more glorious depiction of Christ than just the bloody and morose Crucifixion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sacré Coeur is tourist trap central. There are people trying to work tourist scams everywhere and tons of shops selling the exact same things. You can sneer or just go along with it and maybe buy a fridge magnet while you’re at it. I find it interesting that you can get cuter Paris-themed stuff outside of Paris. For instance, I bought the most adorable mug that says “Paris” and has a really cute bike with flowers on it. And I purchased it at Target last year. Yes, Target in Austin, Texas.  Things like that make finding genuinely unique Parisian souvenirs almost impossible.  I finally ended up getting French beauty products for my friends back home.

As I’ve said before, sightseeing requires a great amount of strategy. In my planning I checked to see which sights were open late so we could make the most of our time. We saved the Louvre for the day when it stayed open until 9:30 pm. By the time we arrived at 5:00, a lot of the crowds were gone.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We grouped all our museum-going into just a couple of days so that we could take advantage of the Museum Pass (also known as the Intermusée Pass). Unlike British museums, French museums charge admission and they’re not cheap. The good news is that if you’ll be going to three or more of them, you can buy a pass that allows you free entry into just about every museum in Paris. You also don’t have to wait in ticket lines which can be extremely long.  Since the Louvre was so dead when we arrived, we bought our museum passes there (you can buy them at any of the sights. Just be prepared to wait usually. At the Louvre, you don’t buy them at a regular ticket desk. You have to go to an office way at the back of a hallway past the gift shop).    Kids under 18 don’t need a pass; they’re free at most museums. If they’re like York, who is seventeen but looks like he could be much older, they’ll need to bring ID to prove their age.   (If you do an online search for the Museum Pass, be careful. There are several websites saying they’ll sell you one and have it shipped overseas or to your Paris hotel.  It’s very expensive and unnecessary. It’s not hard at all to buy your pass once you’re in Paris.)

It’s been a long time since I was at the Louvre. It seems like they’ve remodeled it a whole bunch. Originally it served as the Castle where the French Kings lived, so it’s quite fancy. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the ceilings, which are opulent, to say the least.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Louvre hall

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

America is a place of plain ceilings, so these really blew me away. I was more impressed with the finish work of the museums than with most of the artwork. Even little hallways have fancy ceilings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Of course we saw the Mona Lisa which, in case you hadn’t heard, is small and not that exciting. But it’s famous so like any celebrity there are dozens of people mobbed around it, taking pictures.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Whoop-dee-do.

I loved these paintings by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The people are made of plants and fruits and vegetables. Pretty cool.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have always liked tiny, little things and the painting that caught my eye the most was this odd one of feet by Ingres. It’s about 8×10, which compared to everything else in the Louvre is positively microscopic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

India tends to get a bit comatose when she’s hungry and tired. When she’s in that mood there is no artwork that will impress her.

India Louvre

By the end of the day we were wiped out and beyond tired. It was nice to get some ice cream and watch the boats pass by on the Seine. The stairs that you seen on the far right side in the picture below are the ones that were less than a block from our flat. I was positive that I’d completely fall going up or down (they’re steeper than they look) but I never did. Miracle!

boat seine

Because today was Sunday we decided to start off at Nôtre Dame. This place is always mobbed with people (and you know I hate crowds) so we made sure we got up nice and early. Of course the bells were ringing. Was it Quasimodo?

There was a mass being performed in the Cathedral. India and York were quite fascinated since they haven’t ever been to Catholic services before.  We were very quiet as we looked at all the chapels and art around the church.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is one pitiful bathroom in the basement at Nôtre Dame. In case you were wondering.

Our next stop was the Musée d’Orsay. Nearly all the art here is from the 19th century.

Orsay sign Dar York

Most people like this art museum the best since it’s more user-friendly, popular art. Here is where you’ll find lots of Monets, Renoirs and Van Goghs. As a matter of fact, there was a Van Gogh exhibit which revolved around his mental illness and suicide. Very interesting take on Van Gogh.

Orsay hall

There was a ton of Van Gogh’s artwork from several different museums. He is York’s favorite painter so I was glad he had the chance to see so much artwork up close. Van Gogh’s work is really best appreciated in person. I think he was one of the first painters to use the paint itself as an element in the artwork, making the pieces tactile and not just about the visual. The thick brushstrokes and heavy textures of paint are quite a departure from the precise use of paint that had always been the norm up until then. It drives me super crazy to look and not be able to touch. It was a real thrill to see paintings up close that we’ve looked at a hundred times in books. Like this one, the Bedroom at Arles, which is in one of the picture books I’ve read to my kids over and over.

van-gogh-2011-room-in-arles-fountain-pen

And this one, The Ballet Class by Degas. It was in a little book I read to the children quite often called Can You Spot a Dog? Which is exactly what India said to me when she saw it. Moments like that–where you see a painting in real life that you’ve seen so many times in a book–are exactly why I wanted to take the kids to Europe in the first place.

Ballet class degas

 

After visiting so many museums I tend to get a bit silly. Despite all my Art History courses, sometimes art just seems a little ridiculous. Take, for example, this sculpture. I swear the girl is taking a selfie with her iPhone. No really, what is she supposed to be doing?

Statue Selfie

Or this painting. It was a great big huge thing with lots of stuff happening. The artist seems to be a talented fellow but he’s obviously never held a baby in his life. Perhaps he’s not aware that they’re quite heavy and wiggly. And what, pray tell, is holding up her skirt? Oh, artists! They’re so precious!

Lady holding baby weirdly

This relief was my favorite. I don’t know what it’s proper name is but I like to call it Just Breastfeeding My Twins While My Husband Kills an Alligator. No Big Deal.  I especially like that the lady looks very contemporary (and upset!) I get rather tired of everyone having such classical and perfect faces. It’s so generic.

Twins with alligator

The coolest part of the Musée D’Orsay is this giant clock that looks out over Paris. The museum used to be a train station so there are several large clocks around.

Orsay Clock

One of my favorite things is museum shops. They’re just the best. As I was perusing the postcards at the Musée d’Orsay shop I spied a postcard of super close-up painting of a woman’s cootchie. No clothing or anything, just a full-on crotch shot. It was not particularly attractive or nicely done*; just, you know, a crotch. Staring me right in the face. And my teenage son. So I picked up the postcard and turned it around and set it back on the shelf. No sooner had I walked away than a woman came hurrying over to turn the card back so that we would all be lucky enough to see such a lovely picture. No doubt she was cursing the prudish American. Am I repressed for not wanting someone’s pubes in my face? (Apparently so.)

After our time at the Musée d’Orsay we had some lunch at a mediocre resatuarant. The one we’d been planning to go to was closed because it was Sunday. Every shop and many restaurants are closed on Sundays in France. You might be surprised as I was because French people don’t seem all that religious. Quite the opposite, really. But this has nothing to do with going to church or keeping one of the Ten Commandments. It has to do with relaxation. The French are very fond of taking it easy. They’re not necessarily lazy like many Latin countries. But they do like their time off.  It rather reminds me of myself. I can work hard but I do need to relax on a regular basis. The Puritan work ethic is not particularly vibrant in me. Or in France. The law, as it was explained to me by Pepé, states that every shop must be closed one day per week. If it’s not Sunday than it must be Monday instead. They’d all rather take the weekend off, so everything–and I mean EVERYTHING– is locked up tight. The few shops I found open were ones catering strictly to tourists. I have no idea how they skirt the law, but they do. Moral of the story: save your museums for Sunday. That’s the day when they’ll be open but stores won’t.

We took the bus to a museum called the Musée de Nissim Comondo. It is out in the part of Paris where families actually live; not the suburbs but the more residential area. The museum is a gorgeous townhouse built by a very wealthy man in the 1800′s. He was very fond of 17th century stuff and furnished his house entirely in the most wonderful antiques. It is not huge but is so much nicer than Versailles. He left his house to the French government to be preserved as it was on the day of his death. So all of the original furnishings are just as they were when he died after WWI. The audio tour is quite detailed and fascinating.  The family’s existence was quite tragic and it illustrates the idea perfectly not to spend your time amassing a fortune while you’re alive and moth and rust doth corrupt. Life and possessions are both so fleeting.

This was the kitchen which I found just wonderful.

Nissim Comondo kitchen

The museum was staffed entirely by French Asians. I have no idea why this was but they were rather cross and refused to give us the head sets for the audio tour because we only had an hour left before the museum closed. I explained probably three times that I understood that we had an hour left but we would still like to listen to the audio tour as long as we could. The lady at the counter very begrudgingly handed them over.  While we had to skip over quite a lot of the commentary, we finished in an hour. I would say that if you listen to the whole tour, it would take 2-3 hours to get through the whole thing, even though there are maybe a dozen rooms. As I said, it’s very detailed. If you are a fan of decorative arts and antiques, this would be Heaven for you. Not only is there a tour describing each room, but lots of objects in the room have a separate number on the audio guide so you can hear an explanation of each object as well.

The Nissim Commondo house backs up to a lovely park called the Parc Monceau. Many of the parks in Paris are like the gardens at Versailles: very formal. Lots of trimmed hedges, wide gravel paths and very well kept grass. In several of the parks you aren’t even allowed on the grass, you may only sit on the benches.  Parks are always jammed with people. Of course we were there when the weather was absolute perfection; I imagine there aren’t a lot of people out when there’s icy rain.  But really, the parks are just jammed with people lying around on the grass. This seemed a bit odd to me until I thought about how small people’s apartments are. If you live in a tiny flat and want to get together with a bunch of friends and hang out you have very few options: one is restaurants and one is parks.

The Parc Monceau is the kind of Park that English and American people are familiar with: rolling grassy hills, a playground, a few pretty statues here and there and much less formality. There were mobs of families and young people all over the place. Children were having pony rides, there were a couple of games of frisbee and catch but most everyone was interested in talking and basking in the glorious sun. I had a hard time adjusting to the fact that I could sprawl out without worrying about fire ants (Texas, this is your biggest flaw!)

Parc Monceau

We decided we had better get back on our sightseeing schedule so we hopped on a bus. We rarely took the métro in Paris. It’s just not as convenient as taking a bus. And not nearly as scenic. Unlike the busses in London, you can buy tickets on the bus. Which is good because we ran out of tickets. Bus tickets cost 2€ each and you can’t do transfers in between lines, so that stinks. But it’s still way cheaper than a taxi.

We stopped at the Arc du Triomphe. It’s much bigger than I remember. And it was being restored so the top was covered with scaffolding. Not cool, Paris! When I arrive I expect all monuments to be in tip-top shape.

Hildie arc du triomphe

Of course we had to stroll down the Champs Elysées afterwards. There were lots of tourists everywhere but it wasn’t nearly as crowded as lots of other places we’d been. There are several car dealerships on the Champs Elysées which seems strange to me. Who would buy a car in the middle of Paris? Maybe Saudis or Russians. At any rate, we stopped in the Renault dealership (boring, but I suppose I deserved it after all the museums I dragged everyone to). York was enchanted by the Renault Twizy which is an electric car that is resembles a four-wheeled motorcycle with a roof.

*I’m not going to put a picture of it here, obviously. But if you want to google it, be my guest. It’s called the Origin of the World by Courbet who is a very, very well-respected artist (whether he was a decent person or a misogynistic letch as so many artists tend to be is another question for another day). I think it’s interesting to think about whether this counts as pornographic or not. You can’t go to a museum without seeing a million and a half naked people. Excuse me, nude people. Very rarely are they sexual. But I would have to say that this picture is most definitely sexual. There’s nothing else to it. Really, take my word for it. Nothing else is happening. You can’t even see the woman’s face. Is sexuality automatically pornographic? Is it pornographic even if there is no sexuality? Is nudity a must for pornography?  Kind of a large can of worms but it’s the sort of thing one thinks of in European museums. Especially when one has been raised in a religious culture where even the top two inches of a woman’s arm is seen as sexual (wait, it’s not sexual? Then why is it supposed to be covered up?)

 

The last day of vacation is always so sad. How does time go so fast? How did we leave so many things unseen? There were so many places I wanted to see that we simply couldn’t fit in. That just means we’ll have to come back again. Here are a few last images of Paris (I don’t know how I got so many shots of York since he HATES having his picture taken). Of course we need to commemorate York, sleeping on every bus, train and subway we came across.

York sleeping on bus

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

lady brige

 

Au Revoir, Paris!

Paris Notre Dame Artsy

Back to Austin through Heathrow. So many choices! So many exotic locations!

Departures from Heathrow

And finally back home. This is when you know vacation is really over: when it looks like your suitcase vomited all over your bedroom. Sigh.

After trip chaos

Everyone survived. We had a wonderful time and the next two kids are already asking when we’ll take a trip with them. So glad you could join us on our holiday!