My Life as a Traveler

France with Anna June/July 2010

The Quiet Room

Where do you go to get some peace and quiet? I’m a firm believer of taking some time each day for silence. Some days, the only time it happens is just when I wake up. I don’t use an alarm, but still get up when the sun does, especially this time of year. I can hear the cats moving about in different parts of the house, but otherwise, it’s quiet. I can just sink into my body and breathe; that’s all I have to do at that moment. It’s a great way to get my head together for the day.

One of the reasons I love traveling is that there are often opportunities to be in a place where it is relatively quiet and just be silent. Many times, but not always, depending on your seatmate, riding on the airplane is a nice quiet spot. When I travel with Morgan and George, they don’t usually talk to me, so I’m set. Sometimes the hotel room can be quiet, if Morgan is not watching tv and just has his headphones on.

Today I’m traveling to Phoenix for some hapkido training this weekend. I’m by myself, which is unusual, but nice. I’m enjoying the pure liberty of not being responsible for anyone else. I nap on the plane from Newport News to Charlotte, then make my way to the USAirways Club Lounge, where I will cool my heels for a couple of hours until my flight to Phoenix is ready to go.

We always stop in the lounge even if we only have 5 minutes between flights just to use the nice bathrooms and have a quick snack. But today, I have lots of time. It’s crowded and kind of noisy, this being a busy business travel day. CNN is blaring on the tv in every room and I know way too much about the business of the people talking on their cell phones.

But, as I walk past the bar, I notice a sign on the door. QUIET AREA. Wait, this used to be the smoker’s area. I walk in. Nobody’s here. It does not smell like smoke. Holy cow, I have found the Quiet Room, and I am one happy camper. I worry that I am disturbing the peace with my apple crunching, but even the one guy that came in has left. The quiet room is empty. I call Morgan, and then my mom, breaking the silence of the Quiet Room that has just become my personal office. I’ve got a glass of wine and internet. Life is good.

The flight from Charlotte to Phoenix is quiet as well. I write some self-defense articles for my doctor friend’s e-zine. In first class they bring you little wet warm towels followed by lunch. Life is really good.

By the time I get to Phoenix, I am relaxed, rested, and my mind is clear. The car rental guy tries to upsell me to a bigger car, insurance, and prepaid gas, but, instead of getting irritated, I just smile and say no. NASCAR is in town and some people are paying $200/day for their rental – I’m just paying $50/day with taxes and fees. Good thing I reserved ahead. I find the hotel, check in, unpack in my Quiet Room, then go get Mom.

Quiet time is over for now, but I am truly energized by the time I spent there. Where is your Quiet Room?


Bloggus Interruptus

Why is it that I have a huge hiccup in the upkeep of the travel blog after I get back from a big trip?

Could it be:

A: My brain is fried on Metallica. Last time we met my crew and I were enjoying our last day in beautiful Pa-reee. Next morning, we got up, left our cozy apartment and our neighbors, the nice family who lived down the hall from us (they owned that whole part of the building, handed down from Mr. Ballu’s great great-grandfather who built it in the 1800’s – and, by the way, they have a 17-year old son who would love to do an exchange with some nice family here in the US – if interested, drop me a line and I’ll get you his email address) to leave for home.

After a bit of a time trying to find a taxi, we got to the airport, made a quick stop at the lounge, made it to the plane, watched a movie or two and slept some. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, we were met my Anna’s parents, Julie and Preston, who thankfully brought us the van we drove up in, and after a quick goodbye, Morgan and I (because George still had work to do in France) headed south and home to Hampton, Virginia.

Here’s where Metallica comes in. To keep me awake, my splendid son hooked up the most awake music he could find and gave me a lesson in heavy metal. I’ve got to say it really worked! We got home about 8pm (2am France time) without the driver (me) falling asleep. However, Master of Puppets has rung in my head ever since.

Or

B: Two days after I got back from Paris, I got on a plane to Albuquerque. Actually, it was three planes, but who’s counting? The purpose of this trip was to attend a R.A.D. (Rape, Aggression Defense) Systems training on self-defense for kids and keychain self-defense. I was fighting a cold and it was four long days of training. I came home really sniffly and pulled a muscle in my shoulder, which is still bothering me today.

Or

C: Right after I got back, George’s mother passed away and he had to go to North Carolina to do all the stuff that one does when one’s mother passes, even though she was almost 94 and every time we’ve been to visit in the last two years it’s always been to “say goodbye.” I stayed home with Morgan, feeling crummy and sore.

Or

D: All of the Above.

However, I am back on track now and will share some New Mexico pics in the next edition. Talk to you then! (Happy now, Von?)


Superlatives

The other benefit of visiting a city is that, in a place with lots of people, when someone creates something, there is always someone else around to make it bigger, better, and more than. Today we are going to the most famous cathedral, the grandest boulevard, and the most visited monument in the world, all in Paris.

We get up early to go to Notre Dame before the crowds hit and it’s a fitting final cathedral for our trip. It’s huge, beautiful, and the rose windows are stunning. Imagine the faith of the builders who knew it would be generations before their family would stand in awe before the finished result.

Next, we visit the Musee D’Orsay, home of the impressionists. Since we missed Monet’s water lilies yesterday, I am anxious to introduce Anna to the ones here, as well as Picasso’s portrait, Gaugin’s South Pacific ladies, Renoir’s parties, and Manet’s naked lady picnicking in the park with her suited male companions. We’re a little late, so there are tons of people and we have to shuffle through the crowds to get to each painting. Morgan runs to the bathroom, says he’s sick, throwing up, but feeling better after having done so. We finish here and head back to the apartment. On the way, we do a little shopping, we see the butt of Rodin’s The Thinker through the bushes as we pass by his house (yes, we’re stalkers), and get a quick glance at Napoleon’s tomb. I deposit Morgan at the apartment and take Anna to our favorite Panini shop where she gets lunch for her and Morgan to take back.

Me, I’m sandwiched out. I’m off to the local sidewalk brasserie for a final French three-course lunch. First, a nice dry white wine with escargots. Next, two kinds of fish on a bed of pasta. For dessert, Tarte Tatin (apple pie of a sort) with Bertholli’s ice cream and real whipped cream, coffee to finish. I love just sitting here, watching people in the street step between the tables to greet their friends here who are having lunch. Businessmen have dessert, and the older woman next to me starts talking to me in French about how the  waiter forgot to bring her a glass with her carafe of water.  Lost tourists ask directions. People bring their dogs to wait for them under the table while they eat. I have my computer and am writing. Love it, love it, love it.

I know Anna wanted to do a little more shopping, so I bring her to Rue Cler, a pedestrian-only shopping street in our neighborhood. It’s an entire village on one street. Several restaurants, a couple of 2-star hotels, a couple of produce stands, the fish store, the meat store, the Asian take-away, the baker’s. People live in apartments above the ground level. She finds good things in the souvenir shop and the chocolate store after we look at the jeweler’s, the dollar store, and the linen store. I could live off this street and be happy for a long time, I think.

When we return, we scoop George up for a tour down the Champs Elysees. We start at the Arc de Triumph, climbing to the top to see the whole of Paris. Walking down the wide avenue with my Rick Steve’s guide, I point out to Anna some of the real treats of the street. Yes, there’s Gap and McDonald’s, and a boatload of people, but in between there is Laudree, a shop with the most gorgeous macaroons, a throwback from the 1920’s. We visit the parfumer Guerlain, where upstairs you can create your own personalized perfume. I get a spritz from my favorite makeup store, Sephora, and see the old Arcades turned new again. We see the newest cars and fashions. George sees a Ford Mustang on the street and he is happy. We use the bathrooms in the poshest hotel in town.

But we still have not gone up to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and time is running out. We persuade a rested Morgan to join us and get to the bottom of the tower at 10pm and join the long line. It takes 45 minutes to get to the 2nd level. Not bad, and the sunset is amazing. Another 30 minutes puts us at the top, with Paris glittering below us. We can pick out the major monuments, brightly lit.  Suddenly, we happen upon a group of Spanish speakers, encircling a young woman with a rose in one hand and her boyfriend’s hand in the other. He gets down on one knee and proposes among the cheers of their friends and the full moon above. It’s magical and romantic; just what you’d expect in this city of superlatives. We take the elevator down to the second level and walk the stairs down from there. It’s midnight and we are all tired, tired, tired, but I can’t think of a better way to end our last day in France.


Paris – City of Culture

It’s a new day in Paris and we’re up and at ‘em. After experiencing the crowds at the Eiffel Tower, I want to hit the Louvre early before they all wake up and figure out it’s time to go to the museum. Today’s the only day we can go there, since it’s closed tomorrow.

The beauty of the city is that it attracts many of the best and brightest. It’s a place where, if you’re smart and creative, you will definitely find someone, or a group of someones, who share your passion. Many of the artists that we know came to Paris to create. They bounced ideas off of each other, laughed together, borrowed techniques from each other and changed them enough to make them their own. They built upon each other’s success, each time making something a little different from their individual authentic selves. For us today, we also migrate to the city to experience the result of their efforts.

Yesterday, I hopped over to Invalides to buy a museum pass, which allows us to skip the ticket lines. Thank goodness, because once we are through baggage check, we breeze right up to ancient Greece. The Venus de Milo is lovely, Victory of Samathrace is inspiring (even without head or arms) and Mona is, well, Mona. We dodge and dance around hordes of Asian tour groups following the inevitable closed umbrella held in the air by their guide, and see Napoleon crowned (actually, he crowned himself), more naked ladies, dying people on a raft, and the flying colors of the Revolution. It’s been 2 hours, and there is more, but the kids decline.

We exit the museum and walk along the Seine to Notre Dame. Anna buys a book from the booksellers along the quai, Le Petit Prince. The line at Notre Dame is halfway down the block, so we pass, instead opting to visit the Lady and the Unicorn in the medieval art museum. Morgan says he doesn’t feel 100%, so we head back to the apartment. I think Anna’s a little wiped out, too.

While they are resting, I’m on a mission. I really want to take Anna to see some professional dancers. I’ve searched online and found some performances, but they’re all sold out. I get on the bus, headed for the venue, the Paris Opera Bastille. On the way I stop at the FNAC (pronounced fuh-nack), a sort of Best Buy that also sells tickets to performances. No, nothing available. Sold out. I continue to the opera house anyway, hoping to beg, borrow, or steal two seats somehow. No one else is in line when I arrive. This looks bad. I belly up to the window anyway and ask if there are any tickets available for tonight or tomorrow. The man smiles. Bien sur! How many would you like for tonight? After I made sure there were no nude dancers (hey, it’s France!), I walked out with two tickets for tonight’s contemporary dance.

Back to the room I go. We have just enough time to go to the Orangerie, open until 7pm, then the opera at 7:30pm. Morgan declines, so Anna and I get dressed up and go. Unfortunately, the Orangerie was closing at 6pm, so we just missed it. We opted for a quick visit to the Pompidou to see some non-porno modern art. When we get there, we only have 15 minutes, but we use them wisely, get back on the Metro, and make it just in time to buy some cookies and a muffin and find our seats in the ballet. And the performance was wonderful.

When we got back to the apartment, it was still early. We scooped up George, got some fast food pasta to go, and went over to the Champs de Mars to watch the Eiffel Tower with everyone else in Paris. We walked over to where the line to the top was, and it was long, long, long.

Tonight we are so glad to share the city with Miss Venus, Mr. DaVinci, Mr. Rothko, and all the dancers and musicians at the Bastille Opera!


From Solitude to the Teeming Masses

Sunday! Finally, a day to sleep in. The kids and I were up til after 1am last night, and we have nowhere to go until 9:30am for breakfast. We were all looking forward to a morning without an alarm to wake us up. However, it was not to be. That great view of the abbey above us also means that we are close to the huge bells in the cathedral. The bells go off at 7am. I don’t know how many there are up there, but it sounds like they are all ringing in our room. OK, we’re up, even Morgan and Anna.

Morgan has an adventure planned, so the kids take off. George and I take a stroll around the base of the island on the edge of the mud flats that surround it. I think we’re all glad we woke up now. The place seems deserted and we have it all to ourselves.

But, the adventure continues and after breakfast we roll back down the hill and out of the city to our car for our last big drive to Paris, City of Light.

Eventually, we find the place to return the car at the Montparnasse train station and hop on the metro toward our apartment near the Invalides, Napoleon’s tomb. Our landlord meets us there and is the nicest guy you can imagine, speaking good English. His great-great-great grandfather built the building in the 1800’s and he owns several rooms/apartments on the top (6th) floor. We get the 2 bedroom facing the street. When we look out one window, we see the Eiffel Tower, another, the Invalides, another, Sacre Coeur on Montmartre.

What to do first thing in Paris?? Anna has two wishes, to see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Since we can walk to the Eiffel Tower, we head that way. But yikes! It’s Sunday afternoon, gorgeous (if a little warm) weather, and high tourist season, a lethal combination. Everybody in the world is there. There is not a free spot of grass on the Champs de Mars, the lines to go up the tower are massive, and beggars and trinket salesmen are out in force. It is Tourist Hell, complete with sweat.

We walk up to the Trocadero to get a good photo op with the tower, then down to the Seine River where it is a little less populated. Walking back toward the apartment, we stop at the café recommended by our landlord for dinner. Space is tight, there are tons of people even on this pedestrian-only street, and the stress level is high. Italian food is good (always better in Europe than at home), but my peeps just want to get back to the peace and quiet of our home-away-from-home. Actually, I think some of them want to go all the way back to the solitude of Mont Saint Michel, but that won’t happen.

Because so many people live within the city limits, the population density of Paris is far higher than other cities where people who work there commute from suburban areas. For us Americans, who value our space, it is very uncomfortable to be in such close proximity to so many strangers. All you can see are people, people, people violating our sense of personal space and overrunning the area like an infestation of ants in your kitchen.

Yet, in a way, it is energizing. For me, I feel more like a citizen of the world, of the planet, when I share the stage with so many players. Yeah, some are nasty, annoying at the least, but most are just like me, even in some small regard, and it’s nice to know that I’m not alone.


From Pleasure Palace to the Island of Solitude

Today we visit two extremes from history. In the morning, we drive to Chenonceau, my personal favorite of all the Loire valley châteaux, then in the afternoon, drive to Mont Saint Michel, Morgan’s favorite.

After an early breakfast brought to our cottage by our hosts, we head our and arrive at the château before most of the Saturday morning crowds. It’s a beautiful day and the castle is gorgeous, even covered with scaffolding. Built in the 1400’s, it ended up in the hands of King Henry II in 1547. He offered the Chateau to his mistress, Diane, and she fixed the place up and made it the place to see and be seen. When Henry died, his wife, Catherine de Medici, kicked Diane out and made the castle even more magnificent. It’s easy to imagine strolling the grounds with my court (in fact, I am strolling the grounds with my court!) Morgan takes us out of the gardens into the woods surrounding the palace and we find hidden ponds and parks for out-of-castle rendezvous.

We head to Amboise, a larger town with its own castle, where Henry and his wife raised their children. Leonardo de Vinci retired in a modest mansion down the street and was a frequent visitor a few decades earlier when Francis I was king. We have a nice lunch in the shadow of the château.

We have the afternoon to drive to Mont Saint Michel and we take our time, driving along the Loire spotting castles, then through small farming villages, before we get back on the freeway. We stop at a market for picnic supplies.

Mont Saint Michel is a big rock island that was once connected to the mainland by a thin land bridge that would be covered up at high tide. Today there is a causeway that is above the tides, at least today. First it was a fortification, but in 708 the local bishop received a visit from St. Michael (Saint Michel) himself, advising him to build a great cathedral and an abbey on the rock. When we arrive at Mont Saint Michel, the wheels of our rolling luggage rumble up the main street, sounding like carriage and horses, as we haul them up the hill to our room under the abbey. One window overlooks the bay, the other straight up to the cathedral on top of the hill. We take our picnic under the main entrance to the Abbey. Anna feeds the little birds that suddenly appear.

In the summer, the Abbey and its cathedral are open until midnight with special effects added to enhance the mystery of the place. In the main hall, a harpsichord player performs as Morgan and I dance the minuet. Red lights emanate from the prison cells. A lonely flute player serenades us in the crypt. We watch the sunset from the terrace, then marvel at the night sky. In the main cathedral a harpist plays haunting melodies. Each room has both music (live or recorded) and mood lighting. We reach the end of the visit and double back to do it again, spending more time listening to the musicians. The lights outside against the rocks are awe-inspiring.

At midnight, I send the kids out to do a little more touring of the island. I walk back down the hill for an overall view of the entire place from the causeway. The tourists have left, except for the ones who stay on the island (there are only 5 or so places with rooms), and we have solitude, with only the cries of the seagulls and the ringing of the bells above to keep us company.


Reverse Pilgrimage

For over a thousand years, people have left their small towns in the country and have traveled as pilgrims to the huge cathedrals. Reasons abound: atoning for sins, crusading against infidels, or maybe, just for the sheer adventure of being part of something so much bigger than they have ever imagined. Today, we are doing a reverse pilgrimage, starting at the cathedral and ending up in a small village.

It’s our last day in Toulouse, Anna’s feeling better, and we do a pre-pack before our sightseeing. George is in meetings til about 2pm, so we have a little time to see some sights in town. We start at the Basilica St. Sernin, constructed the 11th century as a stopping place for pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The enormous cathedral is pretty empty now, so it’s hard to imagine the place teeming with the faithful, shuffling along shoulder to shoulder, stopping only to pay homage to the relics of the saints resting in the golden chests nestled in the crypt and chapels. We do the same, albeit with many fewer faithful.

Now it’s time for a little adventure. We walk across the river to Les Abattoirs, the modern art museum in Toulouse. Morgan and I have been there before and enjoyed some really fun and thought-inspiring installations and I thought it would be a nice antidote to the somber cathedral.  We all loved the life-size cabin with the rain coming from the ceiling (only on the inside), sort of an inside-out camping trip. But that’s about the only thing there that I can describe in this G-Rated blog. They have a bunch of new installations, and let’s just say that the French modern artists have no problem with nudity and envision the human body (all parts of it!) not only as a fine subject, but a fine canvas as well, and if they’re goal was to shock, well, they succeeded with us. I’m sure that Anna’s brain is probably warped for good now. (Sorry, Julie!)

Back outside, we sit in the sun on the banks of the Garonne, watching a group of children playing in the playground. The cleansing breeze of innocence wafts over us.

We grab a quick sandwich on the way back to the apartment, meet George there, and load up the van (yes, we are driving a van in Europe, it’s an Espace). We have three days of long car trips ahead of us on the way to Paris to visit Chenonceau and Le Mont Saint Michel. Not knowing exactly when George was going to get out of meetings, I looked at the map, figured out that we didn’t want to drive more than 5 hours, and found a little place about 4 hours north of Toulouse. It’s a nice drive through the countryside in air-conditioned comfort.

The town of Massay is about an hour south of the Loire valley, a one-street village in the center of acres and acres of farmland. There’s a post office, a 7/11-size supermarket, a boucherie (butcher), a little Tabac (bar that sells magazines, cigarettes, and lotto tickets), a patisserie (baker), one new restaurant (just opened last month – before you had to go to the next town), and the Massay Gites.

A Gite is sort of like a cottage-and-breakfast. The French government subsidizes the owners of formerly run-down farmhouses or barns, or any type of building in a small village or rural area, to renovate and improve these buildings for travelers. Most will have kitchens. They differ from your usual vacation rental in that the owners will bring breakfast in the morning and will help you with your sightseeing plans, showing you local-knowledge type of places.

Our home tonight is a converted farm building a couple of hundred years old. George and I sleep on the top floor and the kids sleep downstairs. We’re too late for tea, but the nice British couple who fun the place bring us some cold orange juice. There’s no a/c, but it cools down enough so that it’s not too hot. There’s a little kitchen with a fridge to keep our drinks cool. We walk down the deserted street to the only restaurant in town and we enjoy a quick and delicious dinner. Morgan has tete-du-veau (veal head). We walk back through the village, stopping at the church on the way home. It’s quiet, and although we have tons of DVDs to choose from, we fall asleep, having made a successful pilgrimage.