The vacation chronicles: An interlude


Paris to London.

From le pout to the stiff upper lip.

From chic to cheeky.



Paris and London are separated by 500 kilometers and bookloads of history. Like all of the countries in Europe, France and England have so much history they can’t put all of it in museums. They leave it out in the streets. Everywhere you go, and even the places you don’t, there is some piece of history sitting out in the elements, usually covered in pigeons or pigeon paint.


France and Britain both sprung from those mathematically-inclined Germanic tribes, who traveled around dividing Europe into one kingdom after another. The Franks settled the area now called France. (If you couldn’t help yourself and made cheap puns every chance you got, you might say it took a lot of Gaul to do that. If you were incorrigible, you might even say they built their kingdom with Gaul stones.)

Although the Franks were warriors and conquerors, as early as the 5th century, Saint Sidonius Appolinaris described them this way:

Their faces are shaven all round, and instead of beards they have thin moustaches, which they run through with a comb. Close fitting garments confine the tall limbs of the men, they are drawn up high so as to expose the knees, and a broad belt supports their narrow middle.


Even then, fashion mattered. Now, of course, the Parisians walk around in that insouciant way they have; the men smelling of debonair, and all the women looking like current or former ballerinas, wearing their casual sweaters and ballet slippers, with their red pouty lips licking Berthillon ice cream with aplomb (probably French for ‘tongue’).


Two hours away, Britain was overrun by Anglos, the hyphenated ones who put the ‘ax’ in Saxon and every head that got in their way. Fierce. Serious. Stoic. In 1066 the Normans (Frank and Viking mix) made the trip across the channel, axed the Anglo-Saxons and taught them multi-syllable words.  Eventually the Normans assimilated and declared themselves English, so one wonders who conquered whom. The rest of the Franks stayed home, elected a King and realized they couldn’t be bothered with conquering and ruling the world; they had wine to drink, chocolate to eat, bread to butter, cheese to cut, followed by perfume, lots of it, and fashion to flaunt. Now they are the home of haute couture, haute cuisine, and haute dogs (poodles). Being haute is what makes them so cool.

Paris is for lovers; London is for raincoats.


I don’t mean to imply that one is better than the other. I would be happy to live in either place. Everywhere you looked in Paris, you saw lovers, and we really did need raincoats and umbrellas in London. But let’s be frank, or if you’re like me, let’s not be Frank because we aren’t. France, Paris in particular, represents culture and refinement. For an American like me, going to England/Britain/Great Britain/the United Kingdom/God Save the Queen! is like going home except that you don’t live there anymore and strange people are living in your house now. And they speak with an accent.


Sign of the Thames
(We were in London the week before the Queen’s Jubilee and saw this on the riverboat ride down the Thames.)


But how can you not love a country that puts bonnets on their cars and eats scones with clotted cream? No wonder the British almost conquered the world. After eating scones almost every day I was there, I began to doubt I would have been on the side of the American colonists during the Revolutionary War. (All that fuss over taxation without representation and look at us now: taxed while our representatives represent themselves, or if you were lucky enough to be born a corporation, representation without taxation.)


Scones: spend a pound, gain a pound


And now that I mentioned eating all of those scones, I know you are dying to ask: Did you gain a lot of pounds in England? Yes, I gained a lot at the train station when we first arrived, and it pained me to see them melt away so quickly. Unlike in America, in England, having a lot of pounds is a good thing.


Next installment: We travel in a Tube

(Note to readers: I may have omitted a few details in the history of France and England. I won’t tell if you won’t.)

Eiffel Tower to London Tower


I often hear people talk about those strange late hours of the night like 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., but normally I wouldn’t recognize them if they hit me over the head with a sackful of starlight. In Paris, however, I grew acquainted with them and even supped with them. So it wasn’t really my fault that I slept in every morning. Even the grandchild did, that creature of early morning, who we walked into exhaustion every single day.


On our Saturday in Paris, we breakfasted and lunched at the apartment and then walked to the Louvre. Visiting the Louvre in an afternoon and evening is like visiting the Pacific Ocean in an afternoon and evening: you only see a small part of it. But, oh the part of the sea you see.


We chose the Denon Hall of the Louvre and walked along the Daru Hall admiring the sculptures. Then up ahead without a head stood Winged Victory. From there we winged our way in search of Mona Lisa.


My biggest surprise and greatest delight at the Louvre was my grandchild’s interest in the paintings. While my daughter pushed through the crowds to see Mona Lisa, the grandchild stood in fascination before Mantegna’s St. Sebastian and asked me to explain why he had so many arrows in him, and did it hurt. Although we took a good look at the world’s most famous smile, the child didn’t ask many questions about her. However, we spent a lot of time looking at and talking about The Wedding Feast at Cana by Veronese. After that, it was, “Look, Grandma. What’s that? Oh, what is he doing? Why is she sad? Oh, look, look at that one. Tell me about that one.” Art-gawking with a five-year-old has to be one of life’s richest treasures.


Tuileries Garden between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde


Later we rested at the fountains outside the Louvre to watch the flocks of visitors and PIGEONS! In the cool of the evening we walked through the Tuileries Garden, and then step by winding step up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe to see the city and watch the Eiffel Tower light show at dusk.


Arc de Triomphe with silver croissant moon


Our late night dinner back at the apartment included champagne, part of our welcome package. At bedtime, we said our last “Good night” in Paris.


Sunday we ate a late breakfast and went over to the Bastille area to the open market. As if I hadn’t had enough tomato, mozzarella, and basil already, I ordered some for lunch. We did some shopping, ate our last Berthillon ice cream down by the Seine and went back to the apartment to pack up for our train ride to London.


Berthillon ice cream, I will carry memories of you forever (Five seconds on the lips, forever on the hips)


Then we remembered that we had forgotten to have an emergency on our last day. We checked our train tickets, our luggage, and the apartment. Nothing was amiss and we seemed doomed to an adrenaline-free goodbye. My ever resourceful brother sensed my disappointment, and thirty minutes before our ride to the train station was due, decided to check the luggage requirements for Eurostar. Voila! The beautiful cutlery he had bought that afternoon was not allowed on board: no pokey knives with slicey, dicey edges. We called the shop where he bought them (thankfully just a block and a half away) and asked it they could ship the knives. Yes, but they were closing in ten minutes. My daughter grabbed the cutlery and ran to the shop. We locked up the apartment, dragged the suitcases down the winding stairs, and voila again. The grandchild slipped and slid partway down the spiral steps, while I had two heart attacks, lost my mind three times, and cried.  Other than some bruises, the child was fine. My daughter returned and we congratulated one another on averting not one but two possible disasters while we awaited our ride.


Thirty minutes after the appointed time, no driver appeared. My brother called the company. “Was it today, monsieur? I thought you said tomorrow.” At this point, how shall we say, le pulling of le hair began and someone began speaking French, as in “Excuse my French.” Here at last was the true emergency; the other two were what the French call amusebouches, the bite-sized tidbits that keep your mouth amused while you wait for the entree.


On the narrow streets of Ile Saint Louis on a warm Sunday afternoon in May, traffic moves slowly and the few taxis one sees are too small for three adults, one child, and six pieces of luggage. Eurostar trains do not wait. Le panic set in.


The street outside of our window (Rue Le Regrattier)

The corner where our taxi appeared


And then…tout de suite, we heard the sweet toot of an empty taxi van. We waved; he waved back. We did not ask him how or why he was nosing his way down the one-way Rue Saint-Louis en l’Île, but we gave him a nice tip. He got us to Gare du Nord station with little time to spare. We hurried to the immigration line, dragging our luggage behind us, where we managed to get into the slowest line possible. We barely made the train.


Au revoir Rue Le Regrattier


About two hours later, after a nice meal on the train and several games of iPad Yahtzee, we arrived at Saint Pancras station in London, where we were picked up and taken to our flat. By midnight, we were also flat. We are so prone to doing that in the presence of beds.


Next installment: The child discovers that London Bridge is not falling down

Paris: The photography class makes me shutter



On the morning of my second full day in Paris in the purple velvet head-boarded bed on the second floor of the three-floor flat at the top of the 60 wooden spiral steps behind the red door on the Rue Le Regrattier, I opened my eyes.



“Am I really in Paris?” I asked myself. “Oui, oui,” I answered, which reminded me I needed to go to the bathroom.


Unlike the previous morning in which we ate our way through breakfast to lunch in one sitting, we needed to be in Montmartre by 9 a.m. By planning ahead the previous night, we were able to wait until the very last minute and barely make it.


Our teacher, Elena, met us at the Anvers station and took us to the carousel near the Basilica de Sacre-Couer. We forgot to bring a camera for the grandchild, so we took turns attending to the child, marveling at PIGEONS!, and paying attention to Elena in between shouts of “Feather!” “Bird!” “Roly-poly!” “Ant!” “Guess what?!”



For my sake, Elena went over the basics of shutter speed, aperture, focal length, and perspective. My brother and daughter know all about that: he has some of his photos hanging on the walls of a multinational corporation in Houston; she took photography classes in high school. Like any good Texan, I was bred to shoot and ask questions later, so I needed to practice asking questions before shooting.


Probably the most important camera technique I learned was how to hold a ladybug in one hand and take pictures with the other. (Someone had to hold the bug while the child had a chocolate gelato.)


We spent the morning trekking through Montmartre admiring the works of outdoor artists at the Place du Tertre, the cobblestone streets with their colorful shops, and the Moulin de la Galette (a windmill converted into a restaurant) on Rue Lepic, the street on which Van Gogh once lived. If you are in Paris and have a van, go. You won’t rue it.


(If you are a new reader, I’m sorry; I get my word thrills anyway I can. If you are not a new reader, try not to rue so.)



After the photo shoot, we took the metro back to Ile Saint Louis, stopping at the local boulangerie for bread, croissants, and macarons. In that imaginative way we all had, we made sandwiches on good bread, sliced tomatoes with mozzarella and basil drizzled with olive oil, and then a little oil and balsamic dipping sauce for the batard. (Note: no letters were harmed or eliminated in any word of that last sentence.) Just as some people can’t get enough of a certain song and end up playing it over and over until their brains explode, we could not get enough of the various breads and ate them over and over until our thighs and derrieres exploded.


After lunch. the beds kindly offered naps, so we each took one.



We spent the evening leisurely exploring the island, walking over to Notre Dame to watch the street performers, and sitting along the Seine for several minutes at a time until the ducks or swans moved, in which case we needed to relocate to get as close as possible. When you are five years old, this is de rigueur (French for “hard to do when you are sixty years old”).


Two years ago I visited Paris with my brother and we spent every moment visiting sites and seeing as much of the city as we could. I loved it. This time, we visited less and lived more. I think I loved that even more. More than all the glitter and shine of Versailles, I will remember waving to the passengers on a boat gliding down the Seine on a soft summer night and seeing the delight in my grandchild’s smile as they waved back; and watching the wink of lights on the water as the sky darkened, and the lights along the river brightened.



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Next installment: As the French say (or should): A whale of a good time always has a fin

Paris: Hurry, potter, and the bedchamber of secrets


In which we potter, then hurry



Most people don’t know this, but gravity is much stronger in Paris than in Wisconsin, so we found it hard to get out of bed in the mornings. When we did, we pottered around, drinking coffee, applying lots of butter to help the croissants and bread slide down our throats, and doing more brazen staring out of our windows into the apartments across the way and down at the passersby in the streets.



On the first morning at half past a bag of croissants, we noticed it was almost time for lunch, so we cleaned up the breakfast dishes and prepared more food. Time had that elastic quality, seemingly stretching out before us forever when suddenly it snapped back and we realized that unless we immediately grabbed our things and carefully rushed down the 60 stairs, twirling ourselves silly, we would miss our appointment at the Eiffel Tower.



We get an eyeful of Paris


I don’t think this is the right way.


Under the Eiffel Tower


Our reservations to ascend to the top of the Eiffel Tower were for 1:30 p.m. and we managed to allow ourselves enough time to ascend from the nearest subway station at approximately 1:30 p.m. We needed another 10 minutes to get to the tower. One person in our party wore one of those Parisian pouts, sure that we would miss our opportunity, but we hurried forward, arriving just in time to stand under the hot sun for a good 30 minutes. That is the value of having reservations.



Between the apartment and the Eiffel Tower, the grandchild’s feet decided to grow and the shoes that had been fine up until that point, suddenly began to produce blisters and loud complaints. Band-aids helped for a while, but every time the child spoke they fell off.  Just kidding; we minions carried the child aloft in our arms.



As our elevator angled its way up to the top deck, both my daughter and grandchild grew quiet. Anything high is low on my daughter’s list of fun things to do, but she forced herself to walk to the edge, lean on the railing, and take pictures. My grandchild grasped my neck and refused to look. I slowly moved toward the railing and began commenting on how tiny the cars and motorcycles looked. When I said that the people looked like the ants in my grandchild’s ant farm, interest replaced fear, and soon we were laughing and enjoying ourselves. When we spotted a soccer field, the shoeless one stared for a while and then said, “Guess what? I see Alex and Grant. They play soccer.” I casually mentioned that they lived in Wisconsin, not Paris. With infinite patience, my grandchild explained that sometimes they played in Wisconsin, and sometimes they played in Paris. Who knew?



After our eyeful of Paris, we carried the child to the nearest shoe store, a very posh little store with posh little shoes for posh little feet for people who have the posh to pay. To protect the shoes, I bought $15 socks (the cheapest they had), and the child found a pair of sandals, which my brother purchased. Once the incredibly expanding feet were accommodated, we all felt 35 pounds lighter. Literally.



We were five kilometers from the Pompidou Museum, but we decided to walk, stopping at a café along the way for some refreshment. We arrived at the museum late in the day and wandered around. The grandchild liked the video installations, and the two of us spent 20 minutes watching a black and white film narrated in Spanish and English that consisted of wooden trains carrying the names of political movements and ideologies on top of them. We sat on the floor in a small room, the child enraptured by the monochrome trains that sometimes climbed the wall, sometimes dumped all of the letters, or rode across the ceiling, all narrated in a monotone voice. I have no remembrance of what was said, but the only way I could get my grandchild to leave the room was to say how important it was to let mom and uncle know about this fascinating film. Thankfully, five-year-olds have short short-term memories; after sharing the exciting news with mom and uncle, we discovered other inexplicable art and then the outside fountain frequented by pigeons, or as my grandchild says, PIGEONS!


Love locks on the Pont de l’Archevêché: one of the key places in Paris to practice picking locks.


A view of the Seine River. If you fall in, they say you will go in Seine.


Around 9:00 p.m., we strolled back to Ile Saint Louis, stopping at Norte Dame to watch the street performers and admire the sky. We lingered on Pont Marie, our closest bridge, to wave at the boats sailing by, so we didn’t return to the apartment until 10:30. I don’t remember exactly what we ate, but I know it included bread, cheese, tomatoes, fruit and wine because every time we shopped that’s what we bought.



The Bedchamber of Secrets



After showering, I heard noises in my bedroom. My pillow sat propped up on the headboard and said it had some secrets to tell me. It could only whisper, so I had to put my ear up to it to hear: it was something about Montmarte and a photography class the next morning. I didn’t feel the full gravity of it all until the following morning.


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Next installment: Photography classes make me shutter


NOTE TO READERS:  Yes, I broke the law of parallelism in the title. Yes, I did it for cheap thrills. You can try to get even with me, but I doubt our paths will ever cross.

Are we in Paris yet? Whee!


 à Paris /ah, Paris 


After just two days in Hungary, we left for Paris par avion. The avion in this case was Jet Blue, and it was, as they say in the vernacular, a trip quick.


Since we traveled intra-Europe, we carried somewhat small luggage, something we were thankful for when we arrived at the apartment on Ile Saint Louis and had to carry them up the 60 winding, wooden stairs. (Yes, we counted. Many times.)

We did a lot of “stairing.”


The apartment itself had three levels and an additional 20 steps. On the first floor of the flat, we had rooms for living, dining, and kitchening; on the second, we had two bedrooms and a bath; and on le tippy-top, another bedroom and bath. After we unpacked, we opened the windows, brazenly stared into the neighbor’s apartments across from us, wished we had cigarettes to casually flick as we pouted and looked insouciant, watched the people on the street below, and planned our first excursion: grocery shopping.


 Choco-chan the teddy bear lies exhausted on the suitcases. It’s hard being carried up all those stairs.



Our kitchen. Notice les flakes de la corn.


My brother’s leg insisted I take its picture. Here it is.


After a fabulous lunch at Les Fous de L’Ile restaurant, we went to the nearest shop for ice cream. Not just any ice cream, but Berthillon ice cream, the crème de la crème of ice. Every day, crowds of people line up at the Berthillon shop on the Ile Saint Louis for its ice cream and sorbet. Each scoop is made of only natural ingredients; the flavors vary with the season. Thankfully other shops sell it, too; otherwise, we would still be waiting to get to the counter. In order to please the locals and try to fit in, we ate some every day. (Word to the wise: fitting in with the locals and fitting into your clothes may at some point cause conflicts.)



In penance for eating not one but two scoops of Berthillon, we walked to the Louvre, a little over two miles away. At a decent clip, that would take about 40 minutes, but we were indecent, stopped every few minutes to take pictures, AND had a five-year-old with us who noticed every cat, dog, (Look grandma! A French poodle! Oh! A pet shop!), bug, and bird (Grandma! Pigeons! Pigeons! PIGEONS!)


At one point on the walk, my daughter grasped my arm and yelled, “Mom!” I couldn’t distinguish the main emotion in her voice – pain, astonishment, fear, indigestion– and panicked, thinking she had hurt herself, twisted her ankle, contracted rabies, or maybe had a root canal without anesthetic while I was taking pictures or admiring my five hundredth pigeon with the grandchild. “There,” my daughter pointed, trying to catch her breath, “there is the Eiffel Tower!” And sure enough, like a small keychain ornament, there it stood. (As you can see, both my daughter and grandchild use a lot of admiration marks. For the sake of my more delicate readers, I have omitted some of them. (You’re welcome. (However, I am now bracketed in by all of these parenthesis and need to break out. (They make me claustrophobic.) (Help!))))


This is what my daughter did on her first visit to the Louvre.


We couldn’t stay long at the Louvre; it was late, so we headed back to the apartment to eat and put the little one to bed. We ate a light dinner of Caprese salad, croissants, various French breads smeared with real butter, some fruit, some chocolate, and French wine until there was nothing light about the dinner or ourselves.


This became our favorite spot in the apartment.

Even the tomatoes are elegant in Paris.


As is my wont on vacations, I collapsed into bed, this time in my purple velvet head-boarded bed to dream of the next day’s adventures.


My room in Paris.


Next installment: Paris grows on me (Curses on you, Berthillon!)