Places I’ve Gone

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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 woke up confused and jet-lagged on Sunday, meaning to go to church. But the Mormon church that Mister used to go to was a good 45 minutes away and all the Anglican churches have their lovely services beginning at 10:30 or 11. Since we had a walking tour scheduled at 11, that made church impossible. So we took a leisurely time getting to our walking tour which was with Jonnie at Bowl of Chalk Tours. It ended up not being rainy (hooray!) but was frighteningly cold.  Our tour was in East London around Hackney and Islington. This is not a part of London that I’ve ever spent much time in, which is a pity because it’s so fascinating. Jonnie was a fantastic tour guide–funny, knowledgeable and very charming–and I highly recommend one of his walks. They’re also “pay what you like” so anyone can afford them. Heeere’s Jonnie:

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We saw such lovely sights! There are certainly a lot of ugly things in London, it being a city that was heavily bombed and then rebuilt in quite a nasty modern style. But so many quaint and lovely pockets remain.

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Below is Bunhill Fields Cemetery. Daniel DeFoe and William Blake are both buried here (as is John Bunyan. Bonus points if you know what he wrote. Hint: it’s the second most published book after the Bible). One of these tombstones belongs to a certain Jabez Hornblower. Don’t know who he was but that’s the best name ever. (Also, the green! Everything was so green! )

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This statue below is John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. It stands in front of the church he preached at. I assume it’s still a Methodist church. This one’s for you, How family!

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We were fortunate to go on our tour on a Sunday when the Columbia Road Flower Market was happening. This is a long, narrow street of flower sellers that is so crazy crowded. The rest of the week it is a ghost-town. But when the flower market is on, watch out! You can barely get through. There are cut flowers and flowers to be planted; all beautiful. I don’t think any country rivals England for beautiful flowers. Well, maybe France. And Holland.

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The best part of the Columbia Road Market is that the vendors are all hollering about what flowers they have and how much they cost, all in their cute cockney accents. I’m sorry my videos are all so short; I get very flustered and self-conscious when I start filming. Plus I hate videos that go too long; so I err on the other side and make them too short.

Our tour passed by Shoreditch church (officially known as St. Leonard’s) which is mentioned in the video that I’ll put in my Day 3 post tomorrow. It’s also the church featured in the BBC show called Rev, starring one of my favorite actors, Tom Hollander (who you would totally recognize if you saw because he is in every British show made in the last fifteen years). Rev is about an Anglican minister in modern-day London who has a dwindling little congregation. It’s funny in a dry British way and poignant and about someone who is actually religious and normal. There’s swearing in it sometimes, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. I think we actually had to pay money to watch it on Amazon Prime but I haven’t liked a show this much in years, so I thought it was worth it. Anyway, we passed by the church where the show is filmed. It really is quite a seedy area but the church is very lovely. Come to think of it, there’s not an ugly church in all of London.

Shreditch church

We stopped by Old Spitalfields Market after we were done with the tour. Spitalfields was probably my favorite place to shop in London. It’s a market that is mostly filled with craft vendors. Not touristy junk or knock-off  Prada bags but pretty things and cool things and unusual things. And there are lots of inexpensive food choices around the outside of the market too. It’s in a covered building (although the sides are open) so you won’t get rained on and the wind is not bad at all if it’s a blustery day like we had.  Each day features something different at Spitalfields, so make sure you check the schedule before you shop. Some days feature a lot of antiques, some are dedicated to fashion, but they’re all great.

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We ended up the day at the Tate Britain Museum. When I was an Art History major in college, British art (the Pre-Raphaelites, in particular) were my thing. The Pre-Raphaelites are kind of an underdog in the art world. To us their works seem like rather ordinary Victorian art. But the Pre-Raphaelites were sort of ground-breaking in their time.  I particularly liked this painting of St. Eulalia by J.W. Waterhouse. Cool perspective.

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Ophelia by John Everett Millais (another Pre-Raphaelite) is Mister’s very favorite painting. It’s supposed to be at the Tate Britain but every time we’ve gone there it’s been rotated out of the collection or on loan to another museum. I thought Mister was going to lose it this time when he didn’t get to see it again.

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Now that I’ve gotten older I tend to like quieter paintings. I always hated still lifes because they were so boring, but now I really like them.  I find their calmness refreshing. All that melodramatic Italian art I used to love back in the day makes me roll my eyes. I guess I have enough drama in real life; I don’t want it in the stuff I look at as well. This painting was my favorite in the entire Tate Britain.

Cholmondeley Ladies

It’s called The Cholmondeley Ladies (pronounced “Chumley”, FYI). They were sisters born on the same day, married on the same day who gave birth on the same day. I like this portrait because it’s unusual. How many twins do you see in art? It’s also fancy but plain at the same time. And it has kind of a folksy feel to it. The sister’s faces and hands are simple even though they’ve got lace exploding all over the place.  The setting is austere but my gosh look at the baby clothes. We get it, you’re rich! This is one of those pieces of art where you’re walking through the gallery looking at the paintings thinking, “naked lady, rich nobleman, rich nobleman, naked lady, Baby Jesus” then you suddenly see this painting and stop right in your tracks: “Wow!”  I love when that happens.

We were very sorry to leave the Tate. Mostly because they have free wifi and it’s so nice to have free wifi when every map and bit of information you possess is all in your internet-dependant smartphone.

We had a nice dinner of Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding at some restaurant that I can’t remember the name of. I had treacle pudding for dessert which tasted like a very moist Twinkie, minus the cream filling. British people use the word “pudding” too much. It’s like the “aloha” of the food world over there; it means all sorts of different things. There is Yorkshire Pudding which is similar to a popover and not sweet at all. There is also “pudding” which means dessert in general. For instance you’d say, “who’d like pudding after supper?” which could mean cake or pie or whatever. There is also pudding like the treacle pudding I ate, which is a sponge cake soaked in liquid of some sort. But none of these is actual pudding as we Americans know it.  That is called custard usually. Or maybe mousse. At any rate just be aware that pudding means a lot of things in England, none of which means pudding as I know it.

Another meal-related quibble: I know it makes me seem like a spoiled, bratty American but I really do like to have ice in my drinks and although I put up with lukewarm cans of coke (no refills!) I thought to myself how superior ice is when you drink a pop. But I didn’t complain out loud. I only thought it. Because I am an American but I’m not a tacky American.

There are a lot of people painting things on buildings in London, particularly in Eastern London. Of course everyone used to hate it but now it’s become really celebrated and coveted. Some of the graffiti looks nicer than others.

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Caught red-handed! Although it was fascinating to watch. How does someone get a spray can to paint with such precision? Also, I like bees.

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Y is for York!

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Some of the graffiti art is teensy tiny. This artist, Ben Wilson, paints on smashed pieces of gum.

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Graffiti isn’t the only thing on the walls of London that’s interesting. There are historical plaques all over the place. I liked this one in particular; nothing like a 400 year old pesthouse. Of course the pesthouse is long gone. It’s now a car park. I wonder if once we’re dead we can look back in history and watch things unfold. Because I bet life in the 1600′s was pretty interesting.

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I don’t know why I find the idea of a milkmaid so charming, but I do. Sadly the milkmaids were nowhere to be found.

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And while this isn’t technically a wall, it’s still a vertical surface. I totally dig this door knocker.

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There was just no end of cool stuff to see in London.

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.

 

 

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.

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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!)

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

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Louvre hall

 

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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.

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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.

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Whoop-dee-do.

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

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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.

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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

Probably my best and favorite thing that happened during our time in Paris was the Fête du Pain (The Festival of Bread. Can you imagine anything more delightful?) It’s an annual event held in front of Nôtre Dame in a gigantic tent that is turned into a bakery. The idea is to draw people into the career of becoming a baker (Okay I’ll do it!).  Bakers from all over France come dressed in bright orange polo shirts (not really what I picture un boulanger traditionnel wearing, but oh well) and bake in front of people. Lots of local kids come and watch and see what it’s really like to be a boulanger. There are no separate kitchens or back rooms, everything happens out in the open.

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But the absolute most wonderful thing about the Fête du Pain is that everything is sold on the spot. Food is baked all day long so anytime you walk by, there are fresh baked goods being taken out of the oven. You don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn to get a fresh baguette. It’s heaven. Heaven!

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The Fête du Pain was in between our apartment and our métro stop so naturally we found ourselves there quite often. Let me just tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve had a pain au chocolat that’s still warm from the oven with the chocolate still soft and squishy. Speaking of pain au chocolate . . .

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First you place the little bars of chocolate in the dough, then you roll it and cut it. Then you wait for your adoring public to gobble it up, closing their eyes and moaning with each bite.

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I could have watched these guys bake all day.  Here are the baguette bakers. Instead of baking the bread on a tray or in a pan, each loaf is placed in a big piece of fabric called a couche, row by row, scrunching the fabric between each one.

The croissants were the most interesting to watch. And most delicious. Theoretically there is a point at which you get full of croissants and you don’t want to eat any more. I have never reached that point, which is a bit distressing. Fortunately I enjoyed all the rich, fatty food in Paris without a second though because I walked such an insane amount.

Each batch of croissant dough is rolled into a square. Then a giant slab of butter is placed inside each one. The dough is folded over the edges of the butter like a tasty envelope. It’s then chilled, rolled and folded again. And again. That’s what makes all the delightful layers of a croissant.

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I don’t think this photo catches the massive amount of butter used in a croissant. If you want to know why they taste so good, watch this little video. That thing he folds in half and pounds out at the beginning? That’s butter not dough. Try not to faint.

There were some other tasty things being made. No idea what these could be. Any guesses?

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The charming man in the video below was making an apple tart. You can actually hear me speaking pitiful French in the video. The lovely baker was asking me where I was from, and when I told him Texas he informed me that he’d been to Florida. Which is actually right across the gulf so I give him points for that. Usually when you tell people abroad that you’re from America they’ll inform you that they were in New York/California/Seattle last year. In other words, a thousand or two miles away. It’s like telling someone from Denmark that you’ve visited Czechoslovakia.

 

At the end of the Fête du Pain there was a contest amongst all the bakers. What amazing bread from all the different parts of France.

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I would seriously come back to France again during May to visit the Fête du Pain again. That’s how grand it was. Bread is my one true love.

This was probably the lamest day of our trip. It started out well, though. Of course we stopped by the Fête du Pain as we did every morning. We ate all our deliciousness on our way to Sainte-Chapelle, the little jewel-box of a church on the same island as Notre Dame. There was a security line that wound around the sidewalk that we had to wait in to get our bags peered into. Thanks to our Museum Passes, though, we walked right into the church after going through security, bypassing the hundreds of people waiting in line to buy tickets. Chumps!

Sainte Chapelle is an interesting church. It’s quite small and is built on two levels. The bottom level is where you enter. It’s pretty but nothing fancy. That’s where the servants and lesser mortals worshipped. Up a tiny winding staircase you’ll find the upper chapel with its gorgeous riot of stained glass. This, as you might have guessed, is where the Kings of France and the noble classes went to church.

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The stained glass windows are in the process of being restored. Some are finished and look bright and beautiful; some have scaffolding and you can’t see much at all and some still have restoration left to go. It’s quite interesting to see the differences.

It’s not a terribly large church, so it doesn’t take much time to visit. But it’s so lovely that it’s certainly worth a trip.

I split up from the rest of the family afterwards for the afternoon. I wanted to do a little shopping for some beauty products at City Pharma (the best and cheapest drugstore in town). French drugstores sell the most wonderful beauty products. None of them are particularly cheap but the quality is superb. Unfortunately a major wrench was thrown into the plans: my period started.  Normally this wouldn’t be worth a mention but it brings up a very important issue. There are no public bathrooms in France. Theoretically there are, but they are so few and far between that I have to believe that French people have bladders the size of watermelons. No store we visited had a public bathroom. Not even Monoprix which is a giant department store. I made sure to ask after I’d spent quite a bit of money there so they wouldn’t think I was just in the store to use the bathroom. Still the clerks claimed there were no toilets. You might, as I do, hate McDonalds. But when you’re in Europe your heart will leap at the idea of a bathroom, a cold drink and free wifi.

Where do people pee in France? It’s a question I still can’t answer. Every museum has a bathroom with lines a mile long. It’s really the only choice for tourists, of which there are a jillion. Occasionally we’d come across one of those automatic public toilets that sits in the middle of the sidewalk. Only once was one of the working; the rest of the time we’d get our hopes up only to waddle away, praying to find another alternative soon.

Of course I had no tampons or anything with me. So instead of shopping for beauty supplies I spent almost two hours shopping for lady supplies. I visited three pharmacies, all of which had entire aisles devoted to weight loss aids, but no tampons (seriously. No tampons. I walked up and down every aisle.) Finally I struck gold at Monoprix (which is very similar to Target). Because there was no bathroom there, I spent another twenty minutes trying to find a toilet. Any toilet. I didn’t care how smelly or dirty. Eventually I stumbled upon a modern-type shopping mall and was so happy to find a public bathroom that I almost started to cry. Naturally I had to pay 1€ to use it, but at that point I would have paid 10.

In my frantic wanderings I came across this charming beehive built into the corner of a building. You know I have such a fondness for beehives. You didn’t know? Well, how do you think I came up with the name for this blog?

Beehive Paris

I also passed by a realtor with the same name as me! (The spelling is a bit different, alas.)  If I hadn’t been doing the potty dance I might have stopped in to introduce myself.

Hilde Realtor Paris

And look at this jaunty little car! It has silhouettes of all the most famous French sites on it. I wonder if they have one in a minivan version.

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While I was have menstrual-related anxiety, Mister took the kids on a ride in a bateau-mouche on the Seine. They had a wonderful time and I am so glad they didn’t have to get dragged on my drug store and toilet wanderings around Paris.

When we finally met up, it was time to go to Versailles. When Mister and I went to Versailles the first time about twenty years ago, we thought it was kind of lame. Don’t get me wrong, Versailles is very grand and impressive and everything you would imagine it to be. But it just really lacked something. A heart, maybe.  It was built to be fancy and ostentatious and that’s pretty much the vibe you get.  But I thought maybe I had the wrong impression when I went last time. Maybe I would like it better since I’m so much older and more mature. And it’s May and wouldn’t the gardens look so mud better now than when we went last time and it was still winter-y and cold?

Here’s what I think about Versailles: it’s good to check off of your bucket list. Is it beautiful? Well, in a very grandiose impersonal way. It’s tremendously big and gaudy. It’s not my style at all. Foreigners, especially all the Chinese we saw there, were absolutely blown away by it. They could not get enough. York was pretty impressed too. It’s cool to see a place like that at least once. I mean, there were up to 10,000 people staying there at the same time. Do you realize how big of a building that is?  And yes, the gardens are amazing. But they’re very formal with miles of hedges and topiaries. It’s not about flowers, it’s about subduing nature. The entire experience of Versailles was built to impress everyone with how the King of France was boss of everything: not just his subjects but nature too.  There aren’t big flowery fields and rolling hills and things that we find so attractive nowadays; Nope, it’s just perfectly manicured trees and bushes that could just as easily be made of plastic and wouldn’t look all that different. Everything is about order and formality. So mostly we went because the kids should see it, but Mister and I swore never to go back.

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Getting to Versailles requires you to take the RER which is the train out to the suburbs. It requires a different ticket than the métro does. Pretty much every person who goes to Versailles is doing so as a day-trip from Paris. Some are on tour busses but most people will be taking the RER. To save yourself a mountain of time, buy your outgoing and return ticket in Paris. There is the most outrageously long line at the  Versailles train station to buy return tickets back to Paris. Here’s the tricky thing, the ticket machines don’t have a return ticket listed. So you select the “Versailles Rive Gauche” station and then . . . what? There is no Versailles-returning-to-Paris option.  I was completely perplexed, especially after my sister-in-law told me that she hadn’t been able to figure it out either, the last time she was here. So I went straight to the ticket counter and asked for four tickets each way.  And here’s what I got: eight tickets that said “Paris – Versailles Rive Gauche”. And guess what! The same ticket works both ways. So just buy two tickets for Paris to Versailles. One will get you there and one will get you back. I know you’re feeling very skeptical of what I’m saying, but the man at the train station assured me that this is how it works. And it did indeed work on the way back from Versailles.

The French train system is quite fickle. Trains quit right in the middle of the route without previous notice. Make sure you find out if the train you want to take to Versailles is, in fact, going all the way out there.

As Versailles is fantastically crowded at all times, we decided to go at the end of the day when the crowds have died down quite a bit. I studied the Versailles website to make sure our plans would work out. I picked a Saturday because the fountains are turned on on Saturdays during the summer.  The largest fountain–the Apollo fountain–only turns on for a short time. Which we somehow missed. The smaller fountains stay on as long as the château is open. The website doesn’t mention this. It only says that the gardens are open two hours later than the château. The website also doesn’t state that the gardens are a separate cost than the palace. The palace admission is included in the Museum Pass. But the gardens and the Petit Trianon are not. If you wait until after the château is closed then you can get in the gardens for free. When all the fountains are shut off.  It’s all very confusing and ended up making me very angry and frustrated.

The thing at Versailles that we didn’t see last time–and I was dying to see–is the Petit Hameau. It’s the place where Marie Antoinette pretended to be a little country shepherdess. I am so entirely jealous.

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Here is the crazy thing: the Petit Hameau is a 45 minute walk from the château. It takes that long to walk through all the fancy gardens. Goodness gracious!  There are also bikes that you can rent. And golf carts. And there is a little baby “train” that goes back and forth. But to my great dismay the Petit Trianon (of which the Petit Hameau is a part) closed earlier than the chateau. Right about the time that we wanted to get in, of course. No amount of cajoling softened the hearts of the employees. Even asking if I could just stand outside and take pictures. Non madame! Ce n’est pas possible! I found most of the people working at Versailles to be smug, cross and utterly unhelpful.

We had to content ourselves with seeing only the palace itself. Which, as I stated before, was gaudy and overblown with eight hundred types of marble and gilt everything and statues and paintings of gods and goddesses everywhere. (OK, we get it Louis XIV, you’re rich and powerful! Jeez!) Despite the crowds having thinned out remarkably, the place was still packed. We literally had to wait at the door of each room for five minutes while the crowds funneled through into the next room. I was so put out and disgusted that I didn’t take a single picture. Even in the Hall of Mirrors. It happened to be wall-to-wall with Chinese people taking photos anyway. Nothing puts me in a foul mood like a huge crowd.

Around the side of Versailles are the apartments of Louis XV’s three old-maid daughters: Adelaide, Victoire and Sophie. These rooms are intimate and pretty and I liked them so much more. Here is Adelaide’s bedroom. I took a picture of it because I have a daughter named Adelaide and I thought she would find it interesting. Also interesting is the fact the the Royal daughters were called Madame, not Princesse. How strange.

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Here’s a sitting room. It had these tiny chairs which I found quite interesting. What were they for? Children? Midgets? (Don’t laugh. Louis XIV’s mother was enchanted by dwarves and had a whole coterie of them.) Dogs?  I don’t know. Maybe they were just foot rests.  (I absolutely need this rug for my family room, by the way.)

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I just loved the walls in one of the rooms. Blue and white is a great love of mine. It’s fresh and timeless.

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We were happy to leave Versailles. We stopped by the Monoprix there to stock up on more French goodies and to buy some baby gifts for my pregnant friends back home (again, no bathroom. Aaaaarrrgh!)

The trains from Versailles pretty much all go to Paris. You just look at the screen above each train platform to figure out which one is leaving next. Some of them just sit there for ages with the doors open for some inexplicable reason. Make sure you’re on a train that actually plans on leaving soon.

If you want to go to Versailles, knock yourself out. But don’t feel the least bit sorry if you omit a trip out there. It’s not a quick jaunt; It’s about an hour each way on the train and a minimum of two hours at the château if it’s empty and you don’t see the gardens or the Petit Trianon. Most people are there for six or eight hours.  I certainly won’t be going out there again, I don’t care how many triangles Rick Steves gives it.

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.

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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.

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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?)