Where we were when we weren’t here…

June 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

In the Shadows of Giants

June 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Notre Dame. The Eiffel Tower. The Colosseum. The Vatican. St. Peter’s Basilica. Ponte Vecchio. The Duomo. All of these are humbling places. Each has such history, such magnitude in every sense of the word. Each one makes you reconsider the world.

Notre Dame at sunset.

The last three weeks have been nearly indescribable. I have been so happy, so awed, so overwhelmed, and so blessed that there really is no possible way for me to begin to express any fraction of it. But I will try.

Notre Dame

Less than three weeks ago, I was going to work every day and barely registering that soon I would be jetting off to another part of the world. Today, I’m back in my apartment, getting resettled and prepared for returning to my typical life, and already it barely registers with me that yesterday I was in England (albeit briefly). It is astonishing how quickly we forget. It is also astonishing how much can happen in one short period of time. I traveled across an entire ocean; I visited five cities in three countries and countless historical and cultural landmarks; I experienced near-constant revelations (about history, about culture, about human action and interaction, about love, about life); I lost myself in space and in time; I found myself in different places and times; and I somehow made it back from this wonderful fantasy and landed squarely back in reality with little evidence of any of it. How is it possible? How can it be that the only outward change is my sun-browned skin?

A pensive gargoyle at Notre Dame.

I have the sense that I have learned vast, improbable lessons, but I also have the distinct impression that they will not be clear to me for a long time to come. So maybe I haven’t learned them yet so much as discovered that they exist to be learned. How much can one minute change you? And how quickly do you change? You can only know in retrospect, but we’re never really at a terminus when it comes to retrospect.

Candles inside Notre Dame.

Do I have a point? I’m not really sure.

A fountain in the Place de la Concorde.

I intend to write a few posts about the trip, about specific activities and events, but I can’t seem to write about the trip in broader terms without getting deeply philosophical. So maybe I’ll simply start by writing about the most wonderful afternoon in Paris.

The roof of Notre Dame overlooking the Seine.

After touring the towers of Notre Dame in the morning, L. and I planned to procure a picnic for ourselves and take it to Versailles. Our plan began to slip when we purchased the necessary food and decided we were too hungry to wait until we’d gotten to Versailles to eat. We wandered around Notre Dame until we found a small park just across the river from it. We picked a spot on the top of a very small rise where we could lean against an old stone fence of sorts and admire Notre Dame. We ate an entire loaf of bread and most of a block of cheese along with a package of Serrano ham (yes, we know it’s Spanish, but we also know we like it). We also drank a bottle of wine. Everything was delicious and made more so by our improvised utensils and appropriated hotel glassware.

I presciently took this photograph from the tower of Notre Dame in the morning before our picnic. This is the park where we sat, and you can see the exact spot where we dined in the lower right (just to the right of the purplish tree there is a low stone fence against which we leaned).

Imagine yourself sitting in a grassy park, gazing up at Notre Dame, sipping wine, and basking the French sunlight. It’s probably as delightful as life can be. Of course an entire bottle of wine was too much for just the two of us, so we spent a long time laughing in that park. When we finally did rouse ourselves from that haven, it was much too late to visit Versailles. To console ourselves, we drank glasses of wine at sidewalk brasseries and laughed quite a bit more. It was a very simple afternoon, but it is one that I doubt I’ll forget. It was peaceful and happy, and there’s nothing greater than that.

Another sunset view of Notre Dame.

Give us all the cheese.

June 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today was our first real day in Paris. It started with breakfast in the hotel, which was a remarkably nice experience. Although it was only what we would call a “continental breakfast,” everything was delicious. My first bite of croissant was heavenly, and the assorted cheeses were delicious.

Our hotel is magnificently located on Boulevard Saint-Germaine, putting us about a five minute walk (maybe less) from Notre Dame. Notre Dame is only about a 15 minute walk from the Louvre. Plus, Boulevard Saint-Germaine is extremely busy and bustling with cafes and brasseries crowding every block.

My first view of Notre Dame from across the Seine.

After breakfast, we struck out for Notre Dame in a chilly drizzle. On the bridge across the Seine to the island on which Notre Dame is located, there is an unusual display. The railings of the bridge are covered in locks, each with two names or two sets of initials on them. Apparently, the tradition is to write your name and the name of a loved one on the lock and lock it to the bridge. There were quite a few unusual locks, such as a large lock shaped like a fish and one couple even used a full-sized U bike lock.

Locks on the bridge across the Seine with Notre Dame in the background.

Locks on the bridge.

We arrived at Notre Dame to a relatively long line and sub-optimal photography conditions, so we wandered along the Seine to the Louvre. Although there was quite a line, it moved very quickly and we amused ourselves with silly picture taking during the wait. Once inside, we steeped ourselves in Italian, French, and Dutch paintings, making sure to see the Mona Lisa.

The entrance to the Louvre.

I took a couple of art history classes a few years ago, and it was a delightful surprise to walk into one gallery devoted almost entirely to artwork created for and about Napoleon, almost all of which I remembered studying.

We reached our saturation point late in the afternoon and headed back outside into what had become a gorgeous, warm, sunny day. We wandered through the Tuileries and stopped briefly at L’Orangerie, a museum devoted to impressionist and post-impressionist art. Its most notable pieces are the 360 degree Monet water lily paintings; two rooms are devoted to them, and although I’m not much of a fan of impressionism I really quite enjoyed seeing them.

The start of the Tuileries.

From L’Orangerie we wandered to the start of the Champs Elysees, where we took a couple of pictures. Feeling pretty tired and hungry, we headed back to our hotel and then out to dinner.

Looking along the Champs Elysees to the Arch de Triomphe.

We wound up at a small restaurant near the banks of the Seine. It was a delightful, charming little place. The decor was superb, very quirky and fun, with assorted bookshelves and artwork and strings of lights. The staff were welcoming and happy to speak to us in English, and they even had an English version of the menu. The menu was a wonder to behold; although it was usually obvious what was meant (such as the “Corner of Carnivores” section), some descriptions were so obscure as to be hysterically funny (even before we started drinking wine). Reading the menu was pleasure enough, but the food was also delicious. It was an excellent meal, followed by a sunset-lit photo shoot at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame at sunset.

Thames to Seine

June 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Wednesday was brilliant.  We took a royalty-themed walking tour of a small region of London which included Buckingham Palace (and a glimpse of the changing of the guard), Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and the surrounds.

The changing of the guards. Photo courtesy of L. B.

Although I had seen all of these landmarks before, it was fun to follow our tour guide (a little man named Abbie!) and hear another retelling of all the history of those places. I can’t get enough of English history, really.

The Clock Tower at the Houses of Parliament. Photo courtesy of L. B.

As we were nearing the end of our tour, walking from the Horse Guard Parade to Westminster Abbey, a police escort came roaring by with Prince Charles and Camilla.

The London Eye and the Thames. Photo courtesy of L. B.

After the tour, we continued walking along the south bank of the Thames, one of my favorite spots from last year.  We saw all of my favorite landmarks, including the food truck that sells shots. Per an earlier agreement, L. bought me a drink from said truck, and we sat overlooking the Thames while sipping cheap alcohol. Perhaps one of L.’s favorite things about London is the freedom with which people drink. Outdoors, on the sidewalk outside of pubs, walking along the Thames, and openly swigging from a flasks in public places.

The Globe Theatre from Millennium Bridge.

We ended our tour of the south bank at the Globe Theatre, crossing the Thames on Millenium Bridge and approaching St. Paul’s Cathedral. From there we wandered down Fleet Street and the Strand and eventually made our way back to Westminster.

The Globe Theatre neighborhood is Bankside… can you tell?

From there we headed back to our hotel and stumbled exhaustedly around the corner to a little Indian restaurant. Once we had fortified ourselves with food, we met L.’s friends again for dessert and a drink near Leicester Square. Although the dessert was delicious, the drink appropriately English, and the company pleasant, I was less than comfortable with the setting. As we stood on the sidewalk sipping our pints, I couldn’t help being distracted by the decor on the neighboring buildings: larger-than-life-sized posters of naked women fondling each other. “Ah, yes,” I thought, “how well appreciated and respected I feel.” After the pints, we slogged back to the hotel.

Me and L. and St. Paul’s Cathedral, in an M. C. Escher kind of way.

The following day was great. We went to see Henry V at the Globe Theatre. We had purchased groundling tickets (those were you stand in front of the stage), which I thought would be a great way to authentically view a Shakespeare play. It was, although I seem always to neglect to plan around my intense discomfort with close crowds.  As we stood near the stage before the performance started, I began to feel deeply anxious, although L. found us an excellent spot standing near the stairs to the stage; thus I had an open area to my right which relieved a great deal of my stress. Additionally, it never got that crowded anyway, so all was fine.

The show itself was great. Henry (Jamie Parker) was a dead ringer for Heath Ledger (voice twins), and the production was authentically bawdy, well executed, and fun. I was totally unfamiliar with the play prior to seeing it (aside from the “band of brothers” soliloquy), but it was great. I might just be interested in studying the history plays after all.

Inside the Globe (which is not “inside” at all).

After the play we were both relatively worn out, so we went back to the hotel, gathered our things, and wandered to a nearby cafe with wifi to get a bit of planning done, at which time we discovered that if you wait until the last minute to buy train tickets in Europe, you get royally screwed. So, we bought bus tickets instead. This has been our greatest mistake so far.

After ticket buying, we went back to Leicester Square for dinner, finding a little Japanese restaurant that turned out to be completely un-noteworthy and forgettable. We returned to King’s Cross and had a pint of Strongbow before traipsing off to our hotel for one last night.

Yesterday was perhaps our least awesome day so far. We boarded the bus with great success; it was a double decker-like bus but with seats only on the top level, and we scored the front row seats with nothing but windows in front and beside us. I might have appreciated the view more had I not napped all the way to the English channel, but I comforted myself with the knowledge that I have seen a great deal of the English countryside in the past.

When we arrived at the Channel Tunnel border patrol area, we were placed in a queue and told we had a 45 minute wait.  We wandered into the tourist center for a bit, and headed back to the bus only to find that it wasn’t going anywhere. I feel no need to outline our frustrations in detail, but let me summarize by saying that the upper level of the bus was outrageously hot and the repeated stops and starts and false alarms grew painful quickly. After about three hours, we finally moved on and got into the Chunnel.

It was pretty bizarre. The bus was driven onto a large train, where it was sealed into a single-bus compartment. After a few minutes of loading up the rest of the train, we took off and zipped under the Channel, emerging in France not too much later.  From there the trip was uneventful, the views rainy, and this author sleepy. I napped for most of the rest of the journey, eventually waking up enough for the last hour to do some productive job hunting.

After another trying bout of frustration (this time including the need for a bathroom being foiled by a pay toilet that only accepted Euros, of which we had none), we eventually made it to our very nice hotel. And here I woke up this morning, nestled in a pile of pillows under a fluffy comforter with a hot cup of coffee next to the bed courtesy of one sweet man you may know as L.

And now, as soon as I stop blogging (!) we’ll be off to the Louvre.

Museum Day

June 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Yesterday was a bit of a horror show. Ok, it wasn’t quite that bad, but it wasn’t good, either. I was still struggling quite a bit with feeling jet lagged (total, inexplicable exhaustion) and feeling a bit cranky because of it. Me cranky is not a pleasant experience for anyone, but sweet, kind L. didn’t even ditch me in the Tube. Not even once!

We started the day early after a very long night’s sleep, filled our bellies with a classic English breakfast, and trotted off to the British Museum just in time for opening. Have you ever seen the Rosetta Stone? It’s pretty remarkable. So is pretty much everything else in the museum, not shockingly. Unfortunately, much of yesterday morning is a total blur for me, with occasional moments of clarity in which I distinctly recall holding a cup of coffee.

From the British Museum we headed to the Natural History Museum, stopping for a quick lunch on the way. The Natural History Museum was great fun. There was a mechanical T. Rex which I found alarmingly realistic (although I think the small children at the exhibit were less scared of it than me). We had fun, learning about dinos, checking out rare and beautiful gems, and flossing with a baleen whale.

Just as we were getting ready to leave the museum, an old friend of L.’s met up with us. We spent a little while longer at the museum, examining “pickled animals” in jars. We spent a couple of hours in the afternoon relaxing in another friend’s apartment, and then we headed out to dinner. Indian food. My love affair continues. The evening ended with tea at a friend-of-a-friend’s apartment. It was all pleasant and fun, and I only wish I had been feeling more myself.

We woke up this morning to bright blue skies and sunlight, however, which I think will improve my mood considerably. I’m already feeling better. I struck out from the hotel a short while ago to find a Starbucks (wifi!), and as soon as my feet hit the pavement I felt a wave of last year’s contentment. I’m not sure what it is about dashing out of a hotel into a strange city that is somehow not strange at all, but it’s invigorating. I’m remembering who I was a year ago.

But now I’m off for a walking tour of London followed by my own little walking tour of the south bank. Huzzah!

In the land of grump and crank.

June 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m finally back in my favorite city on Earth: London. It’s been a whirlwind couple of days, and I’m pretty well dazed.

Sunday evening we left Boston on a red eye flight to London. Last year, I took a similarly scheduled flight and couldn’t sleep a wink. I arrived in London at 7:30 a.m. not having slept in most of two days (I’d deprived myself of sleep the night before my flight so that I would be tired on the plane), navigated my way to a hotel, and passed out face down on top of my Kindle from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Of course, waking up at 10p.m. after 7 hours of sleep completely screwed my internal clock, and I ended up spending my first few days in Spain sleeping for ghastly amounts of time. Our plan this year was to avoid this pattern and sleep on the plane at any cost.

Thus, we went straight to the airport bar. I drank a glass of wine and took some melatonin.  By the time we boarded the plane, neither L. nor I could keep our eyes open.

Me: “I’m so tired the world is spinning! Do you know that feeling?”

L.: “You’re drunk.”

Me: giggle

Indeed, between the wine and the melatonin I was completely useless and beyond tired. So was L. And yet, at 6:15 a.m. when we arrived in London, neither of us had slept at all. Moral of the story: we can’t sleep on airplanes.

Aside from the immediate irritation of being sleep deprived, we were also irritated because we had each invested a great deal of time in trying to make sure this didn’t happen. Not only had we carefully planned and executed our pre-departure activities; we had also spent the week prior to the flight adjusting ourselves to the English time zone. I spent most of last week waking up at obscene hours (3 a.m, anyone?) and going to bed at equally ridiculous times, and all for naught.

So, alas, we arrived sleep deprived and, in my case, hella cranky. We took what seemed like an interminable Tube ride to King’s Cross, and from there sought our hotel. It turned out to be just a scant block or two from King’s Cross, but we had a small amount of difficulty finding it. The difficulty stemmed largely from my insistance that we were not where we wanted to be, despite all indications to the contrary. Poor L.

But we made it. We expected that because it was only 9 a.m. we would only be able to drop off our bags but not check in. Thanks to some miracle, however, the extremely friendly woman at the desk ushered us straight to the room, where we promptly collapsed from exhaustion.

Our efforts to adjust to the time zone may not have been a total waste; when we eventually arose around 2 p.m., we were surprisingly not too disoriented. We struck out in desperate need of food and wound up at a nearby pub where we fortified with red meat and beer (ok, I drank cider). As we stuffed ourselves, the pub began to fill with eager football fans hoping to see the England-France match. We were joined at our table by a middle aged man and his young daughter. I was torn between thinking it was cute that he had brought her purple backpack full of distractions and thinking that perhaps he should be finding something else to do with her. I supposeit is neither here nor there.

We left as the game began and headed into Picadilly Circus and Leister Square. We wandered around for a while, eventually procuring for me a suitable outer garment. I neglected to pack a jacket, convinced that it would be in the mid-60s while we were here, and I intentionally didn’t pack my rain jacket because it’s rather enormously too big for me at this point. My pitiful umbrella was less than effective, however, and my sweatshirt was not really the look I was going for, so shop we did, and buy a remarkably satisfying waterproof windbreaker I did. Huzzah.

Although we had felt refreshed after our nap, we were quickly tired again, and we headed back to the hotel quite early. Having nothing much better to do, we watched a BBC show about birds, toadlets, and otters.

It may not have been the most outstanding start to our vacation, but considering the sleepless circumstances, we agree that it was a success.

The times they are a-changing.

June 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

I had a moment yesterday, standing in my kitchen with my favorite yellow mug full of coffee, looking out my window at the somewhat dilapidated roof of our crazy neighbors’ house and at the side of the apartment on the third floor in the next building over. (There is a young couple that lives in that apartment. On one dark winter night, I tipped my head back to catch a piece of spaghetti, and as I did so movement in their glowing window caught my attention. I turned my eyes and saw the man that lives there doing the exact same thing.)

It was early, 6am, and the view was gray and foggy. I had been awake for a while trying to teach my brain to accept the time zone I’ll soon be in. The European Adventure has nearly arrived, and the view out my window looks different when I’m seeing it from the future and another continent. This feels like home, and for that I am deeply grateful. I haven’t felt at home in a long time.

And yet I am equally grateful to be jetting away from this home and into a wild adventure.  Last summer, I fell in love with traveling alone. This summer, I’m realizing that traveling together isn’t a compromise; it’s an expansion.

My message from the universe today was, “happiness is not diminished by sharing.” Cheers, universe. I’m looking at you.

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