Vacations

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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

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. . . 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.

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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!

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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?)

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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.

 

 

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.

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!)

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.