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.


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.


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.


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?)


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.


Today we tour the town of Albi, famous for its Cathar Cathedral and its favorite son, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Anna is not 100% but she’s rolling with us as we walk to the metro to catch the train.

I know it’s going to be a good day, however, when in the process of buying Metro tickets, a man comes up to us and offers us a 10-ride ticket that someone lost with 7 good rides on it. Free! Saved us about $10! He wasn’t a helpful homeless, either, but a metro security worker. Who said the French were rude?

The kids sleep on the hour train ride and we arrive in Albi. Anna ‘s nausea has returned so we visit the Pharmacie to get some pepto-bismol-like help. Of course, they don’t have actual pepto-bismol, but the friendly pharmacist recommends something that should help and gives us clear directions, wishing Anna good health. Who says the French are unhelpful?

It’s the hottest day yet, almost 100degrees. We try to stay in the shade while walking and make it into the cool cathedral. This started out as a Cathar Cathedral, home to the group of Christians who had different ideas about life (such as non-materialism, vegetarianism, and personal relationships with God without priestly intercession, with baptism being the only sacrament) than the Roman Catholics. Even though they disagreed with the Catholic Church, they coexisted peacefully with their neighbors. When the Pope felt that this movement was getting out of hand, he called on the French king, who did not have control of this area but wanted it, to create a Crusades to get rid of the infidels. Within one generation, some 40,000 Cathars had been wiped out, leaving only the churches where they prayed. This must be the rude behavior everybody’s talking about – but, it was started by the Italians!

In the Palace of the Archbishop that took over, we find the defining museum of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, famous for painting can-can dancers and prostitutes. (How’s that for payback?) Only appreciated for the posters he created advertising local businesses, he died broke and broken. Thank goodness his mother saved all of his lithographs and paintings.

We had lunch in the shadow of the cathedral. The waitress was friendly and I chatted with her a bit while we were waiting for our fish and chicken. A cup of strawberries soaked in something good completed our meal.

On the way back, we stopped in the oldest cathedral in town. As Morgan was surveying the ceiling light, the man at the information desk noticed and offered him a book of close-ups of some of the ceiling art. This was something he did not have to do, just a nice thing.

The kids slept on the train back. We returned to a partially air-conditioned apartment (cooler than outside, anyway). I went out to get crackers for Anna and some salad for me. We ate what was left of the ham, cheese, and bread for dinner, happy to stay in. We spend our last night in Toulouse surveying the enormous and beautiful Place du Capitole, filled with the friendly French.


We keep coming back to France because of Airbus, the main European player in the airplane construction business, a close competitor to Boeing. Anytime you get on a plane holding more than, say, 60 people, it’s most likely made in the USA by Boeing (737, 747, etc.) or in Europe by Airbus (A320, A330).

My husband George is a contractor for the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and is on the team to decide how far planes can safely fly behind Airbus’ newest behemoth, the A380, as it is landing and taking off. This plane has two stories and can hold up to 846 people, depending on the configuration of the seats, which is determined by the various airlines who buy it. It’s huge!

George is one of the few experts in the world on the subject of wake vortices, those powerful little tornadoes of air that form off the wing once the plane gets moving. (You can see the water version looking at the little swirls that form after an oar, or your hand, moves through the water.) From the bigger planes, a wake vortex from a larger plane can generate enough power, especially close to the ground and a certain amount of distance behind a plane, to flip a smaller plane and smash it to the ground. So upon taking off and landing, air traffic controllers maintain certain prescribed distances between the planes to avoid wake problems. It’s a safety issue.

As you might imagine, this new Airbus A380 generates a huge wake, therefore requiring a longer distance (separation) from any following aircraft. Unfortunately, more spacing means more time between landings, meaning fewer planes and passengers using the airport, meaning less money for all involved. Airbus has promised its customers that this spacing of the A380 will be the same as the (smaller) Boeing 747. They have done many tests and say that the data confirms this assertion.

However, when George and some of the other guys on the team analyzed the data from these tests, they found that this was not the case. Arguments ensue, new data is produced to be analyzed, and the spacing argument continues. Airbus has 300 of these A380s on order, and many of these orders are conditional on the shorter spacing. If the spacing will be larger than the 747, the airlines may cancel their orders. Airbus has put an enormous amount of resources toward building this airplane and thousands of jobs all over Europe rely on its continued production.

So, keeping this all in mind, I thought it would be fun to take the kids (and me!) to see how they make the A380 on the Airbus factory tour. It was pretty cool, we saw the huge hangar (largest building in Europe) where they make 6 at a time, with the different planes in different stages of development, we saw the finished ones, not painted and waiting for their flight tests, and saw a mockup of the inside with seats and everything. I asked the tour guide about the separation for take-off and landing, and he said, “Oh, they have just finished tests that will make the Airbus the same as the 747.”  I thought, “hmm… what you don’t know!! – My husband is going to prove you wrong! Busted!”

Back to the room, Anna has a little stomach upset, so we stay in the room and try to stay cool. It’s nice to rest for a while and contemplate the possible demise of the two-story airplane.

We hear the “sonne” in Carcassonne

The medieval walled town of Carcassonne is rumored to be named so because, after weeks of being besieged by their enemies, starving to death and almost giving up hope, Madame Carcas fed the last bit of grain to her pig and tossed him over the wall – splat! When the enemy saw this big ol’ party pig landing in their midst, they thought that the siege wasn’t working (would starving people get rid of good food?) and gave up and went home. Watching, Madam Carcas – sonned (rang out) the bells to alert the town that the enemy was retreating.  I think this is just a story, but it’s a great way to envision the value of this city on a hill and the importance of listening to the “sonnes” when you travel.

Sonne #1 : We take the 8:21am train to Carcassone and upon arrival, stop at the outdoor market in the lower town to buy picnic supplies. We listen to the different vendors as they let us try different types of sausage, cheese, cookies. We buy the best tasting ones, along with some bread and olives, and stuff them in my big purse for picnic later.

Sonne #2: We listen to the art as it calls to us from the Beaux Arts museum on our way to the walled city.  The sculpture is beautiful. The modern art is a little creepy.

Sonne #3: We listen to the vanished voices of the Romans who built the base of the wall and the knights who practiced jousting between the inner and outer wall of La Cite on the hill.

Sonne #4: We listen to the sound of silence in the cathedral there (well, we try, MORGAN).

Sonne #5: We listen to the steps of the vanished bishops who once lived where there is now a very posh hotel (with very posh bathrooms). The paper towels in the nice toilettes make wonderful napkins for our upcoming picnic.

Sonne #6: We listen to the vanished rulers who built a castle apart from the city, yet still within the walls, as we walk along the ramparts.

Sonne #7:  We listen to the wine merchant as he suggests a cheap, yet excellent, local wine for me, Orangina for Anna and Morgan, and recommends a perfect place to picnic.

Sonne #8: Outside the walls and lost, we find and listen to a wizened old Frenchman who guides us to the perfect picnic spot along the river, in the shade.

Sonne #9: Back in Toulouse, we listen to the folk-rock music of a local duo, On Exist, who sing songs about French women and revolution, some in English, some in French, in a bar with a coffee house atmosphere.

Sonne #10:  We listen to our bodies as we finally fall asleep after a long day… some of us later than others… MORGAN.

Traveling is much more fulfilling when you can just listen…

Let Loose in Toulouse

First full day in Toulouse, George goes to work at 7:30am, and I’m up trying to catch up on email and make arrangements for the week ahead. I have to wake Morgan and Anna up at 9am because our French landlord is coming to see if we can get the credit card to work to pay the rent. He comes, it doesn’t work, I am stern when I call the credit card company for the third time, am assured that yes, it will go through, and make them stay on the line until it does. Yay!

Time to run some errands. For breakfast, we hit the patisserie for a little pastry and I ask Morgan and Anna to wait outside while I scope out the tourist office. I like to go there first to see if there’s anything like a local festival or something special going on. When I go to a place, I have an idea of what I would like to see, but don’t really decide what day we’ll see what until I hit the tourist bureau. There, I find our friends Adele and Bergen DeLisi, who are doing roughly the same thing.  We compare notes and I find that they are doing an Airbus factory tour that I wasn’t sure we could attend, but might have spaces for us.  We look for the outdoor market, can’t find it, so continue to the Monoprix.

The Monoprix is a department store which usually has one floor that’s a grocery store. This is often our first stop for drinks, snacks, and, if we have an apartment, breakfast items.  This one does not disappoint, and we buy Morgan’s favorite yogurt and strawberry water, cheese, ham, milk, cereal, and wine. We go back to the room and chill out a bit.

Next, we visit the Musee des Augustins, a former monastery which now houses Roman artifacts and art and sculpture from medieval times until the late 1800’s. We linger in the cloisters near a row of gargoyles. I believe Morgan and Anna were contemplating life, while I was contemplating our next destination, the Cathedral of St. Etienne. I think Anna enjoyed her first cathedral, but this was not the best one in town. There are two other great churches we’ve yet to visit. Toulouse was a major stop in medieval pilgrimages, as well as the center of Catharism, a protestant-like group of folks who challenged the Catholic Church’s beliefs, and were wiped out because of it.

It’s 4pm, and in France, that means stop for a drink or an ice cream. We choose ice cream in a little Salon de The on a fountained square, accompanied by street musicians.

When we get back, Morgan and Anna still have not had enough and choose to go out on their own for about an hour and a half. I explain to them very clearly that if they arrive back later than 7pm without a call, I will totally freak out and that would definitely curtail any such outings in the future. Morgan says he’s confident he will not get lost (and he has his cell phone just in case) and off they go, let loose in Toulouse.

They came back at 6:58pm.

We end the day with dinner at a bistro, where the menu was on a portable chalkboard. Morgan had duck hearts, I had duck breast, and Anna had Poulet de GrandMere (Grandmother’s chicken). Our table is on the sidewalk, and I’m sure we are the only ones there who do not live or study in the area. We walk back to find our square, Place du Capitole, lit up beautifully. It’s 10:30pm, and there are people of all ages out enjoying the cooler night air. All in all, a nice day in France.

How to Deal

First day arriving in Europe is always hard. Here are some of the reasons:

  1. On the plane the night before, you’ve had about 4 hours of sleep, if you’re lucky, so your body is trying to mobilize all its energy to keep you going (unless you were in first class, where the seats fully recline to make a nice bed). There is a heaviness that you just have to slog through to make it to the end of the day. And you MUST make it to the end of the day, staying up until at least 9pm, to reprogram your sleep schedule. So you’re tired. However, the excitement of arriving at your destination balances that out.
  2. There is also a sense of confusion, even if you’ve been to this place before. How to get around, how to communicate, what to eat, when to eat it, these are things that you need to wrap your brain around to keep moving (see #1 above).
  3. You need to adjust to the weather and general climate. This includes both indoors and out. It’s summertime in France. Last week, 65 degrees was the high, this week it is the low. It’s not as warm and humid as it has been at home, but there is no central air in many places, including our apartment. We have a mobile a/c unit which runs when you open one of the floor-to-ceiling windows to stick the hot air return out, which kind of lets the hot air in from outside… negating some of the coolness.
  4. You have to adjust to moving in a group and adjusting the agenda so that everyone will be happy, or at least as close to happy as they can be. It’s even more challenging, and for us, more fun, to add another person in the mix, like we have with Anna. It is my self-designated job to make sure that everyone in the group is not hungry, too cold, too hot, or miserable.
  5. And then there are thing things that are supposed to work, but don’t. The credit card would not go through when we wanted to pay the apartment rent because the credit card company flagged it as fraud, even though I called them to tell them we would be charging big stuff in France. The mobile a/c unit doesn’t really work like the central air we’re used to. The 24/7 market isn’t open on Sunday. You get the idea.

Bottom line, travel is uncomfortable. It just is. And really, that’s what makes it so great. The push out of the comfort zone is sort of like exercising. The “runner’s high” effect applies when you are pushing yourself to understand and communicate in a different language, be a little hot or cold, nurse a blister, and try different food and find that maybe it’s not your favorite (or finding that it is). And you’re so much the better for it afterwards.

That’s how to deal.

Visiting the Milky Way

After one last battle with the electronics at our house (computer not responding, iPod syncing slower than grass growing, Morgan’s netbook rebelling, and Morgan’s MP3 player dead as a doornail after charging on my malfunctioning computer), we leave the house at 10:30am to drive to Cape May, New Jersey to pick up Anna, the newest member of our traveling party.

It’s a 4 hour drive across the Chesapeake Bay and up the DelMarVa peninsula to Lewes, Delaware, where we take the 1hr and 10min ferry across the mouth of the Delaware River to Cape May. What we like to do on the long drives is listen to stories I download on my iPod from the Escape Pod podcast. This is a collection of Sci/Fi stories read out loud which entertain us immensely. Favorite stories, for me: the one where the guy visits the video store and they have the classic movies, but with different endings, cause the store is in a parallel universe. George’s favorite: the one where after the world war, there was no one left in the area except for this boy and this robot who was collecting memories of all the people who had died (that one made me cry), and Morgan’s favorite are the Union Dues series, the league of superheroes who are somewhat fallible. If you like science fiction, check out this podcast at Most are really good, some are not to our taste, and some are well… weird, but we still like them anyway.

So, after the story of the world after the aliens take over and turn everybody into kitschy machines, we arrived at the ferry, just in time for the 2:45pm departure. A beautiful day, we see dolphins breaching the water several hundred yards from the boat. It’s cool here, with a nice breeze.

Upon arrival at the Gibson’s, we tour Julie’s gorgeously productive garden, meet the famous Indian Runner ducks (3 girls, they stick together all the time) and have grilled chicken breasts covered with Monterey Jack and bacon (try THAT at home!) with homegrown organic veggies for dinner. I check over Anna’s suitcase and find that she did an excellent job packing.

We end the day (appropriately, after our science fiction stories) at the Milky Way, the best ice cream stand north of the Delaware. Butter pecan never tasted sooo good.