Sunday, 16 September 2007

What were you doing midnight Sunday night? We were walking back from the Eiffel Tower, holding Benji who fell asleep at the top. Sunday was a travel day for us, from Prague to Paris, and we had an exciting airport experience. When we arrived in Paris, we knew we needed to take a train to get to our hotel. It took a while to find a cash machine, get our train tickets, and find some food. We finally got everything in order, slung on the backpacks and headed for the train platform. Alayna was in the lead, and was met by two armed men running towards her. One jumped over the ticket stall to make sure she didn’t enter the platform. Clay was quick to catch up, and one of the policemen began jabbering at Clay in French. I didn’t know what was going on, had Alayna or one of us done something wrong?

When the guy realized we didn’t speak French, he just said, “no” and put his hands up in a big, universal “X” sign. We got the picture, he didn’t want us on that train platform, but why? As we headed back into the main terminal, we noticed a strange girl with a black visor pulled over her face, hovering around. She lifted it coyly and smiled an embarrassed smile, then pulled it back over her face. Weird. At this point I was a little creeped out. We finally realized that someone had left an unattended bag on the platform, and they were calling in all sorts of people to check it out. We still don’t know what was up with the weird visor girl, but later we saw her sitting on a bench with a soldier keeping an eye on her.

At this point I needed something to settle my nerves, so I got a Twix and some Skittles from a nearby vending machine and we sat in a heap with our backpacks and duffels and ate some candy while we waited. I scoped out the place, deciding where we would take cover if we heard any explosions. About half an hour later, they opened up the platform and we were on our way.

By the time we checked into our hotel and got settled (Clay on the sixth and top floor with the two boys, Alayna and I on floor five, directly underneath), it was four in the afternoon. But, we were in Paris, and there was so much to see and do, we set off with an ambitious agenda.

We started off at the Arc de Triomphe. We searched and searched for the ticket office, following arrows all the way around the arc and back under the ground, where an arrow saying “ticket office” pointed to a brick wall. As we wandered we noticed several older men in military uniform, medals covering their chests, and their wives sitting on benches or flitting around, straightening collars and brushing off shoulders. They were all dressed nicely and looked so proud of their dapper husbands. We discovered that once a year you are allowed free entry to the top of the Arc, and this was the day! So, we climbed the 250 steps and gained a magnificent view of Paris.

Clay thought he saw Rick Steves-lookalike at the top, but lost sight of him before I could confirm the spotting. We walked around a couple times and couldn’t find him again. I was ready to get a picture and have him sign my torn out pages, he has become something of a hero to me. I asked if Clay if he thought maybe Rick has a bodyguard to protect him from adoring fans, he thought maybe everyone didn’t adore him quite as much as I do. It’s hard not to adore a man that steers you to good restaurants, Laundromats, and hotels in foreign countries.

Back down the steps, we caught the ceremony where they honor the tomb of the unknown soldier by re-lighting the torch that always burns there in their memory. I don’t know if this was a special celebration or not, I know they re-light the torch each week but this time all those old men in military uniforms were lined up holding flags. One man was missing his left arm and leg, but he still managed to hold that flag proudly, as a bugle played and someone read something. It was quite solemn and majestic and sad, and I was glad we happened upon the whole thing. A good start to our first night in Paris.

We had dinner at a café along the Champs-Elysees, and after enjoying a croque madame (a toasted ham and cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top, I like French food!), we popped into a trendy Toyota dealership. They had all sorts of funky concept cars. One was covered in white board and you could write on it, another was all black with neon all around the edges. The kids got a kick out of it all and we all wrote our names and “Austin, Texas” on the white board car. Then we headed on down the Champs-Elysees, on our way to the subway and the Eiffel Tower.

We walked all the way to Place de la Concorde and the giant obelisk where the famous guillotine once stood, the one that chopped off all those French heads during the French revolution. We had to take some silly decapitated pictures, then we were off to the Tower. We found the subway, where Benji got the giggles. It was a fairly empty station, we were sitting on a bench waiting for our train, and Benji’s giggles echoed off the concrete walls and spread all over the station. That made us all get a little hysterical. For some reasons, the people sitting close to us moved down to the other end of the platform. I think we were just a little bit tired, but the night was still young, just about 9pm.

As we approached we noticed that there were white lights blinking like crazy up and down the tower, it was really sparkly and beautiful. The blinking lights lasted for about ten minutes, then stopped and the tower was lighted gold and green, with searchlights scraping across the night sky. We felt like Paris was on display for us, we got to see these cool blinky lights on the tower, we got free entry into the Arc . . . it was time for some dessert!

We decided to stop for a crepe and some ice cream at a little stand. The man who gave Nate and Benji their soft serve filled their cones high as the Tower itself with swirly chocolate and vanilla. The crepes were magnificent.  The man spread the batter thin and wide, the diameter must have been at least a foot and a half. Then he filled it (Alayna’s with chocolate syrup, Clay and I split a Nutella and banana one) and folded it over in fourths, and then handed it to me all wrapped in paper. The man was very witty, making all sorts of funny little jokes in French. I think he was flirting!

Alayna discovered she needed a napkin, and when I asked the man for one, he groaned and hit his head and said something like “zoot alors” and then he came over himself with a whole wad of paper towels and mopped up Alayna’s face. He had us all in stitches as he clucked at Alayna and then shook the dirty towels threateningly at me. I made sure I stayed clean.

We bought tickets to go all the way to the top, ignoring the guide book that told us that the second level was the best, and the third was cramped and crowded and cold. As we were walking around the second level, 10pm rolled around and the tower started blinking again, the strobe effect freaks out your eyes when you’re on the tower and it’s blinking. The guide book was right the third level, but it was a real thrill going up that elevator. Especially when Clay said, “There isn’t much holding this thing together up here, is there?” Very funny. We walked around and admired the city lights at night, then stood in line to go back down. Benji fell asleep while we waited, and we met a girl in front of us from Dallas who we chatted with while we waited.

As we got back to the hotel, right at midnight, the tower behind us was all blinking again, reflecting off some widows in front of us. We realized it blinked for ten minutes on the top of every hour, and it was all about the Rugby 2007 Cup, which everyone is very excited about around here. France had won their game that night, and at the subway station there were lots of whooping and hollering and cow bells ringing.

I think we spent our first day in Paris just right, seeing all the big things, and seeing the city by night. And the crepes. The crepes are beautiful.


Monday, 17 September 2007

We started our Monday off slow after the late night before. We located a delicious boulangerie behind our hotel which sold all sorts of things we could call breakfast that had chocolate included. Some were almost like chocolate sandwiches, and their baguettes were tres magnifique. We picked up our breakfast here each morning, a short walk and relatively cheap eat.

We spent the morning at a bookstore restocking, and shipping the kids’ passports off to our travel agent so he can get their visas for us for later on. Then we headed to a street that has pet store after pet store, a dream come true for our kids. We admired teeny little bunnies, let squirmy puppies lick our fingers through the bars of their cages, and marveled at the squirrels (or maybe they were chipmunks?) that ran circles up and down and around their cages. Fish, birds, guinea pigs, mice, cats, we saw them all. After the fifth store we put our foot down and said we were moving on, much to our kid’s dismay.

There is really no way Notre Dame can compete with baby bunnies, but we tried, anyway. There was some sort of chanting in the background as we walked through this giant, gothic church. Candles flickered at the feet of a beautiful carved crucifix, and carved wooden panels told stories from the New Testament. We enjoyed trying to identify them all. The ceilings soared over our heads with their ribbed arches, and three giant rose windows filtered colored light through their stained glass.

We walked around the outside, in search of ice cream Curt Bilby promised was the best in Paris. We admired the flying “butts” (buttresses) from the back of Notre Dame, and found a small playground the kids horsed around on. It had a big, tilted disc that spun, if you held on you went upside down and around and around. Clay and I opted for the park bench and a little rest. Then we continued our ice cream pilgrimage, discovering a delicious restaurant where we downed some onion soup and quiche. It was apparently run by one man, who seated us, cooked our meal, and cleaned our table. Lucky for us, we were the only ones there at the time!

We were disappointed to find the ice cream store closed, so we made our way home through the weather that had turned chilly on us. A light rain misted us as we turned on our street, and we all dashed into the warmth of the hotel to find chocolate on our pillow. A perfect way to end the day, I’m thinking of adopting it when we get home.


Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Although we had the best intentions of getting to Musee d’Orsay when it opened, we strolled in about an hour late to find a line that wound around and around and a long wait in our future. We told the kids they could go play on some nearby statues while we waited in line, and they came scampering back with news that we didn’t have to wait in the line. A man with a badge had told them they couldn’t climb on the statues, but could just enter around the corner. I checked out the story and discovered that having three kids is a “get out of line free” card, and we ambled on into the museum, saving at least an hour of waiting.

The Orsay focuses mainly on impressionist paintings, and while we studied Degas (pretty much naked women and ballerinas, Alayna was not impressed), Monet, Renoir, Seurat, Van Gogh, and more, the boys made up an elaborate game where they took on the characters of video game creatures and assigned themselves power levels and all sorts of things. They did pause every now and then to admire a painting that interested them and we would tell them what the audio guide had to say about it. They also enjoyed using the digital camera when they found a picture that interested them.

We took it easy that afternoon, going back to the hotel where we picnicked on a towel, and I caught up on some emails. The weather outside was gloomy and it was cozy to be all huddled up on the top floor with windows on two sides and the Pantheon standing guard right outside. We headed out to Luxembourg Gardens later, where the kids played on a playground that included a zip line that went in a big loop and a giant climbing structure shaped like a pyramid. It was raining a little, but the kids didn’t care and we found a covered area we could hang out.

Paris is a pretty city, with tall white buildings lining the streets and lots of black iron railings, shutters, and pretty windows framing fresh breads or chic clothes. It is a nice city to wander in, and wander we did. I love to hear bonjour, madame or au voir as we walk out the door, always sounding polite and cheerful. I’m sure they snicker when I try out my merci and s’il vous plait, my two years of high school French doesn’t get me very far. I feel really stupid when the shopkeeper has to type out how much I owe on a calculator and show it to me because I can’t remember my numbers. A line sometimes backs up behind me as I turn over each coin, looking for the numbers to find the 5 cent and the 1 euro. There are lots of coins in the EU.


Wednesday, 19 September 207

This morning we got to the Louvre just minutes after they opened, got our tickets at the underground mall (guidebook tip), and entered with nary a line in sight. We knew we had a lot before us, we’ve read so many times that the Louvre is huge, don’t even try to see it all, that it took a little of the pressure off. We just got two audio guides and found the Mona Lisa to start with.

Nate was pretty excited for some reason, he took all sorts of pictures and wanted to get up close to see it. Alayna was not impressed, she hung back and mused why the Mona Lisa is so popular. “I mean, why did they pick that one? There are lots of good paintings out there. It isn’t really my favorite.” Benji, who hadn’t really been listening to any of our Mona Lisa discussion, asked, “Mom, what is she smiling at?” Out of the mouths of babes. That mysterious smile was evident and compelling, even to a six-year-old.

We continued on to see some really big paintings. As in size. They covered entire walls, floor to ceiling. The kids loved the audio guides, something about getting to push buttons I think, and since we only sprung for two of them we had to take turned listening so we had plenty of time to linger in front of paintings, waiting our turn. I recognized a few that interested the kids, like the one of the people shipwrecked on a raft who are painted just as they notice a ship in the distance. They had gotten so desperate, they had resorted to cannibalism (true story) and the boys wanted to know all about what that was. We also enjoyed the giant painting of Napoleon crowning himself emperor, and the picture of a woman symbolizing liberty who comes rushing in with a boy wielding a large pistol and some other soldiers. Benji wanted to know who that boy was who got to hold the big gun.

After wandering among the big renaissance paintings a while, and I checked big wigs like Michelangelo and Raphael and Botticelli off my list, we checked out some of the ancient statues. I was captivated by the idea that none of these have the sculptors name listed, they were dug up from a farmer’s field or discovered when excavating for a new building. Buried treasure. This helped the kids understand why there were many limbs missing (heads, arms, legs), and made them a little more interesting. Nate was again very interested in the Venus de Milo, after hearing how famous she was. He took pictures and got right up close.

You make good choices and bad choices on a trip like this, and we made a very bad choice for lunch. We were hungry and caffeine-deprived, so we took the easy way out and ate in the food court underneath the Louvre for lunch, with surly staff and half-cooked noodles and long lines and stinky trash cans. We exited as soon as possible, and found Rue Cler, a lovely street full to the brim with interesting foods and wines. We consoled ourselves after our bad lunch experience by splitting an éclair five ways, and each choosing one fancy chocolate from an old candy store that’s been around over thirty years (which doesn’t even seem that long after seeing Venus de Milo). We also picked up some delicious produce for breakfast the next day.

After strolling a while we went to Saint Chapelle. We had heard that this church had beautiful stained glass, and it had been a while since we’d seen a church (two days I think), so we joined the line that formed outside. The church was originally built to house an important relic, the crown of thorns, which was later looted during the French Revolution . After waiting a good half hour, we made our way to security, where we laid our bags on a conveyor belt. It turns out Saint Chapelle is surrounded by buildings for the Justice Department, hence the line and security. Clay forgot about the pocket knife in his backpack until one of the armed guards called it to his attention. It turned out not to be a big deal, Clay left it at the gate and we went on in.

Remember that story in the Bible where Jesus drives the money-changers and market men from the temple? When we first entered the church, this is what I was reminded of. It was dark and small, and lining one wall of the entire downstairs were souvenir hawkers and postcard sellers. Ick. Where was the lovely stained glass? We found a tiny spiral staircase and wound up and around, and into a small chapel that was just bathed in color. Even though the altar was covered and under restoration, one whole wall was just covered in stained glass, the sun streaming in. This is no longer a church where people worship, no pews, but there were folding chairs lined up along one side and like spectators at some sort of show, we all sat and just basked in the glow of that stained glass. It was beautiful.

At the Louvre the boys purchased tiny notebooks that fit in their pockets. Alayna had one just like it from the Musee d’Orsay. They walked around with their pencils and notebooks at Saint Chapelle and tried to draw what they were seeing. These notebooks are great, they whip them out all the time, looking like little detectives taking notes. The pages are filled with drawings, Benji wrote all the words he can spell by himself on one page, Alayna is writing some poetry in hers, and Nate is creating a small flip book where you flip the pages and the pictures seem to move like animation.

We left the church and made our way to the ice cream shop again, we knew they were open this time. It was indeed worth the walk, we each got two scoops and savored the creamy stuff all the way home. Once we got back to the hotel, Clay and I spread out our notes, fired up the internet and the phone, and made some reservations for our time in Normandy. Then we got a quick dinner of crepes and settled into bed, with full bellies and visions of stained glass dancing in our heads.


Thursday, 20 September 2007

We’ve discovered the perfect way to see Versailles (thanks to the Millers, awesome tip guys!). From a bike. We signed up with Fat Tire Bike Tours for a trip to Versailles and back. We got to the bike shop just minutes before we were supposed to get there, after a lot of subway changes and a long train ride, and the inevitable wait-a-second-where-are-we discussions when we popped out from the station. We found our way, running the last few blocks, and were soon fitted out with bikes along with about 20 other people. We had the only kids, Nate and Alayna got mountain bikes and Benji sat on a tandem bike that was attached to the back of Clay’s bike.

We started off riding through the streets of Paris to get to the train station. Our fearless guide, Adam, led us right through, telling us to just smile and wave if we got honked at, and that one finger is just a way to say “Bikes are number one!” Alayna and Nate led the pack, staying by Adam’s side most of the day (and sometimes in front of him, but not in the city), while I tried to hang behind Clay and make sure Benji didn’t fall off. Benji absolutely loved his bike, he didn’t have to pedal, but when he did he actually did help push Clay along. He could ride no hands (if his mom let him, I kept yelling “hold on Benji!”), and at one point tried spinning around and riding backwards. “No, Benji!”

We got on the trains without too much trouble, even with all those bikes and our big group. Adam was a great guide, we highly recommend him if you’re ever in Paris (if he’s still there, he knows Portuguese, Mandarin, English, French, and has a wandering spirit). I can’t tell you how cool it was seeing Versailles by bicycle. The palace is enormous, built by Louis XIV and expanded by later Louis’s, and the grounds cover acres and acres. We rode all around them, picnicking by a giant canal Louis had dug in the shape of a cross (such a pious man, ha!). We sat a mile from the palace, on soft green grass surrounded by the picnic we picked up when we first arrived in the town of Versailles.

This market was great. We picked out cheese, bread, dried sausage, croissant sandwiches, a corn and chicken salad sandwich, an assortment of pastries, nuts, and Clay’s carrot salad which he thoroughly enjoyed. Bleck. After lunch we biked up to the main chateau where we had an hour and a half to tour inside. The hall of mirrors is totally cool, a long gallery with windows on one side, mirror on the other, and sparkling chandeliers hanging overhead. We snickered at the various Louis pictures, dressed so ridiculously and their hair was hilarious (my sister and I used to call those curls “doo-doo rolls”), but Adam really did explain the history of it all very well.

He painted a sympathetic picture of Marie Antoinette, even though she did dye the sheep to match her outfits and sprinkle perfume on the cows before she and her friends tried their hands at milking. And he pointed out how smart Louis XIV was, to move all the nobility out to Versailles and get them so interested in etiquette and worrying if they were going to be the one who got to sit near him at the table, that they weren’t interested in Paris or politics anymore. That gave him lots of freedom and control. One more interesting tidbit, the queen at the time had to give birth with a room full of onlookers to prove the legitimacy of the child being born. Talk about no privacy!

We didn’t get back to Paris until about six that evening. We made our way to a tiny church to pray for some friends that are sick, Denise and Sherri. It was nothing like the other churches we’ve seen, it was very modest, the pews were sprinkled with nuns and other worshippers, and I think it was the most silent church we’ve been in (including the one back home!). We sat side by side on the back wooden pew, and prayed and just soaked up that silence, before heading back out into the streets of Paris. They had closed the big wooden door in the courtyard, apparently we just barely made it in before closing time.

Just outside the church courtyard was a wonderful food market with a place to eat inside (thank you, God!), and we feasted on Panini’s and stocked up for the road trip the next day with some chips and goodies. Clay had an exciting bathroom experience with the kids. While I checked out with the groceries, he took off in search of a bathroom with the three kids. We were told it was just upstairs. I waited at our designated meeting spot for probably twenty minutes. At first I enjoyed being by myself on the streets of Paris, it’s always a little thrill, even if it is just for a moment and you’re holding two grocery sacks. I admired the light as the sun set and the air around me went from gold to blue to black. And then I began to wonder, where were they?

I was getting pretty worried. What could have happened? Were they all stranded on the potty with no toilet paper, and here I was with a wad of Kleenexes in my purse? Did Nate knock down a row full of wine on their way back through the store? I had heard no loud crashes. I was contemplating going in after them, even though I didn’t know where the bathroom was and feared we would pass each other, when they finally came around the bend. Apparently they had to take quite a hike to find the bathroom, crossing over the street on a breezeway. Clay said they found themselves in a very swanky department store and as he trooped through saying “Toilet sil-vous-plait” to any store employee he could find, they would turn up their noses and delicately point him further and further on. He said this was a really nice place, all the women were dressed to the nine’s and our kids were in their three-day-old travel pants, stained from playgrounds and ice cream and bits of grass still lingering from their romp during our Versailles picnic. Clay had Benji’s backpack on his back and was certainly not dressed for his surroundings. After finally locating the bathroom and getting turned around in the store, they came out about three blocks away and had to hike back to find me. I was just glad we didn’t have a large wine bill to pay.

We decided to find Angelina’s, where we had heard we would find the best hot chocolate in Paris. When we got there it was closed, and after a search to find a nearby metro station, we finally rolled back into the hotel around 10:30. We were ecstatic to find out we didn’t have to check out the next morning until noon, and we all settled in to sleep long and late.