Just a girl rambling around the globe and writing about it.

Musings from around the block and farther.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Comin' Home

One thing I didn't mention about our trip was how easy it was for us to travel around with our kids. Okay, not "easy," but utterly manageable. We toted them onto planes, trains, automobiles, boats, taxis and elevators into world landmarks, most of the time without a long wait or a lot of hassle.

Surprisingly, the last flight of the entire trip was the worst. We arrived at the Charles de Gaulle Airport with three hours to spare, planning to use the time for souvenir-shopping and breakfast. Instead, we waited for a half-hour in a line under a sign for our flight... which turned out to be the wrong line. 45 minutes later, I'd checked us in via the e-ticket kiosk, but we were stuck in a massive line for baggage check-in. We were shuffling behind a couple of men with B.O. so bad that I actually put my scarf around my face (oh, and one of them was quite fond of pointing, which spread the scent around). There were only 2 people working at the Air France counters because it was lunch time.... Hmmm.... 2 people for more than 500 travelers. It didn't make any sense. Not only that, but once we raced through the three security checkpoints, we had only 10 minutes before our flight, and had to settle for a slice of quiche, potato chips and some cookies on the way to the gate (no souvenir shopping, unfortunately, but we did manage to spend our last 20 euros easily on the snacks). One more 20 minute wait to get onto the plane (and another security check), and then we were stuck on the plane for an hour and a half while the REST of the passengers (who were held up in one of the crazy lines in the airport) and their luggage got on board. Insanity.

But once we got flying, it was fine. Air France had a bunch of great on-demand movies, so I saw four (and my kids and husband got to watch their own). All of us slept at least a little bit. And the flight arrived only about an hour late. We didn't have anyone waiting for us, so we could just take our time and find a taxi home. The girls fell asleep minutes after we got into the taxi and I realized that we were in the middle of our own "groundhog's day" -- we'd left France around 2:30 pm and had arrived in Los Angeles around 5 pm... So there had been no night while we'd flown "back in time." Very disorienting.

So now we're home. Raf is sick with a cold and the kids are already begging for me to do stuff with them, I'm doing a ton of laundry and have to restock our fridge and pantry, but we're doing well. I will continue to digest our trip and may post a little more as I go through pictures, but we are home sweet home in the land of ice, half-and-half and breakfasts that feature more protein than carbs. Viva Los Angeles!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Eiffel for Paris (get it?)

Here I am, on the 2nd Floor observation deck of the Eiffel Tower. I'm not including the picture of Serena crying hysterically because she had wanted to go to the 3rd Floor (or "summit"), unable to even enjoy the delight of being so high above the prettiest city in the world, and I'm not including an image of Emme sitting on some stairs feeling sick. I'm also not including the picture, taken a few minutes after this one, of the girls eating slices of pizza at the cafeteria on the 2nd Floor - surprising only because it was one of their favorite meals of the whole trip. Instead, I'm going to just post this single photo of myself enjoying the 360 view of a sunset in one of my favorite cities. Not thinking about the 20 years it's been since I stood in the same spot or worrying about when I'll return. Just being there, memorizing the moment.

Since it was close to 10 at night (isn't it cool that the sun sets so late on summer nights in Paris?), we waited for the tower to "sparkle" at the top of the hour. When it's dark, hundreds of lights glimmer randomly on the exterior of the Eiffel Tower for about five minutes on the hour. As it glittered, we opted not to squish ourselves back into the elevators and instead walked the 300 or so steps down to the ground, bathing ourselves in the light of one of the world's most famous landmarks.

Back on the ground, Marlowe begged for a cheap illuminated Eiffel Tower. I'm so used to saying "no" when my kids ask for this sort of stuff that we were halfway to the taxi line before I really looked at her and realized that this could be the one thing to help her remember the moment. There were dozens of vendors prowling the base of the Tower with light-up Eiffel Towers and shooting glow-in-the-dark toys high into the air like airborne jellyfish that would flutter slowly to the ground. I stopped one of the vendors (they're interesting, too: many of them are of African descent who have immigrated to Paris to sell trinkets on top of small blankets or sheets that they lay onto the ground at various landmarks; when the police arrive, they gather up the corners of the blanket and take off with their wares as though they were just walking around) and bargained the price down a little. The glimmer of the mini tower and my daughter's face under the glow of the Eiffel Tower is one of those things that I don't think I could forget. I actually went back and bought another one for Emme (Nina didn't want one), hoping that this new "night light" will remind them, too.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Louvre It or Leave It

Ah yes, the Mona Lisa. Infamous. Well-loved. A world-wide symbol of art and museums. Much, much smaller than you would have thought.

The Louvre Museum, the largest art museum in the world, is far more massive than I anticipated. We visited maybe a thimble-full of the exhibits, racing past centuries-old sculptures and important works by dead artists, trying to keep up with our amazing guide, Leontine from Paris Personalized. I'd decided that, in addition to a half-day city walk of Paris, our tour time would be best used with a guide through the Louvre. I know that the girls will hear about the Louvre and its famous works for the rest of their lives and I just had to give them a taste of it, but I knew I didn't have the patience to guide us through it, so a guide was the way to go.

Although I've been to Paris before, the Louvre was closed; the famous welcome pavilion, topped by glass pyramids, was being built and the foundation of the castle's medieval moat was being excavated. So though I'd seen countless Leonardo da Vinci works throughout my travels in Italy and in an amazing exhibit the last time I was at the Uffizi in Florence, I'd never seen the Mona Lisa for myself, up close and personal.

Leontine made our tour like a little treasure hunt, giving us insight into the kings who had lived at the Louvre before it was a museum as well as the history behind the art and the politics of the paintings and sculptures. For instance, Napoleon had the pope painted into his big coronation scene, even though the pope did not consent to actually crowning Napoleon as "emporer" (a self-imposed title by the tiny ruler); in another painting, Napoleon had the artist show him touching ill soldiers in Israel, though the truth is that he scorned the afflicted. All of it was propaganda. I especially liked the realization that none of this is "truth" -- I mean, was Jesus really crowned by a gold halo of light, and was each artist really there at the Last Supper? In one painting, the largest one in the Louvre (I think; after a while, it's very easy to get museum vertigo), Jesus sits at the head of the table at a Venetian wedding party. Naturally, he's in the garb of rich Italians from the era, and there are dogs on the table, a monkey on someone's arm, wine flowing (turned from water into wine by Jesus himself) and portraits of several monks from the monastery that commissioned the painting. I suppose it's not unlike Angelyne in Los Angeles having herself painted as young and beautiful on billboards...

Anyway, the mob around the Mona Lisa was rabid, very much like paparazzi. Flashes going off in all directions. I knew the picture wouldn't be incredibly good, whatever angle I took it from, so I chose instead to have my kids in it, to show them later on that they had been there. I can always buy a Mona Lisa postcard - even from our own LA County Art Museum, right?

And I'll say something snotty about the Greek and Roman statues, too... I've seen "better" in Naples and in Florence. The sculptures were gorgeous, of course. I'm a huge fan of the big M (Michelangelo), and I spent a long, long time at L'Accademia in Florence (and all around the city) just admiring the way in which his sculptures capture the way that blood flows through his subjects' bodies. They feel alive, vivrant, and I always expect them to just walk right off the marble slab and stand among us. The ones at the Louvre are no less spectacular -- and there was also a beautiful room at Versailles celebrating goddess statuary that I liked very much -- but when you've walked alone in a room stacked full of these statues (as I did at the Archeological Museum in Naples, Italy), you sort of expect the same thing. But that's not the French style. Instead, the sculptures are curated, given a wide berth to show off their significance. And I suppose that's the best way to truly appreciate their majesty in such a large museum that receives 7 million visitors a year; I guess I was spoiled by being able to truly experience Roman sculptures in a personal way.

The Venus de Milo -- what I was able to see of it from our vantage point at the edge of a Chinese tour group -- was remarkable in that it is an actual Greek statue, not a Roman reproduction of a Greek statue. It's beautiful, and its beauty is derived from its humble discovery by a Greek farmer in a field, as well as the fact that it has not been "restored" and is in the same condition (which is excellent) as when it was found over a century ago. There is another amazing statue, "Winged Victory," that I loved because the marble was sculpted to look like a sheer gauze rippling across Nike's body in the wind. I can't imagine how stone can be worked to look like movement or softness, but that's part of its mystery.

We didn't stick around after our three-hour tour. The kids were done, and Raf and I were dying for a break from art, too. I keep telling myself that it was for the kids' sakes that we had to leave and take a break, but the truth is that the Louvre is too much museum for a single day or a single visit. There's a lot to digest, so much to discover. Leontine said that it could take three years to see everything and I totally get it. Next time, I'll see a little more.

See? I have to come back.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Our Tour de France

So today is the final day of La Tour de France and we are in Paris, only a few blocks from L'Arc de Triomphe, where the riders will complete their nearly month-long ride through the French countryside. Although we're so close - and it's thrilling for Raf and me to be here because we've watched the Tour on TV for several years - we are watching it on Rai 2 TV in our hotel room; the thought of dragging our kids out in the craziness of the Champs-Elysses today just to hope to get a glimpse of Lance Armstrong on his final Tour is more than a little daunting. Sometimes you just have to put your own dreams on the backburner for the good of the group.

However, yesterday we rode through Versailles on rented bikes, creating our own version of the Tour and, inadvertently, a highlight of the trip.

I'd planned which day we'd visit Versailles from the moment we chose our dates for the trip. It's a short Metro/bus hop to Les Invalides, then a train switch to an RER train, then about a half-hour to Versailles, then a 10-minute walk to the palace, then long lines, long waits, and several places where you need to buy tickets to enter/pass through various areas (the gardens, Marie Antoinette's Petit Trianon estate, etc.). Needless to say, by the time we arrived at a spot where we could sit in the garden and eat lunch (bread-and-butter sandwiches, sliced meat, cheese, fruit and Oreos), the kids were wiped out and we hadn't even gone into the Chateau yet. The only thing they wanted to do was get ice cream and ride bikes. And so we found the bike rentals and took off.

I had hoped to see the palace and grounds in the same pink-hued softly punk-rock light as I'd admired in the Sofia Coppola movie Marie Antoinette. Now, I've lived in Los Angeles long enough to know that what you see in movies is not necessarily the truth and, in that respect, I wasn't disappointed by the lack of magic in and around Versailles. It's almost like I wanted to go home and watch the movie instead, preserving the sumptuousness of the era in my imagination rather than shuffling along with other rabid tourists toting cameras and speaking loudly in many foreign tongues. When I made our family lock up the bikes and go into Petit Trianon, it was like a hot maze of people wandering through empty rooms with blank walls... not at all the grand experience I'd hoped for. My imagination was at a loss to fill in the blanks, save for what I could remember from Sofia Coppola's movie. Very quickly, I realized that the "magic" would be in the experience, not in the place or the stuff.

And so we bought an orange juice (there are kiosks all around the grounds where they'll cut and squeeze fresh juice for you, memorializing the Sun King Louis the 14th, who built Versaille and even had an Orangerie where he had exotic orange trees grow even through the harshly cold French winters) and took off on our bikes. It was exhilarating to ride around the grounds unencumbered by people or signs or cars... We saw sheep and horses and goats. We got a firsthand feeling for how large the estate is, and we barely biked around the Grand Canal. For kids (and parents) who have been cooped up while traveling, it was a welcome burst of energy and fresh air.

After we returned the bikes, Raf took Emme and Nina to the cafe while Marlowe and I quickly roamed through a few rooms of the main palace of Versailles, just because we were there and I knew I'd want to see it. But the magic was in the day itself, in the people I went with, and the Versailles that I'd already created as a figment of my own imagination.

Luxembourg Playground

After walking and learning and listening and being told to follow grown-ups for hours, it's no wonder that our kids went CRAZY for the playground at Luxembourg Gardens. It's not free but it's only 2.5 euros per kid (it's a nominal fee for accompanying adults, too, but we chose to sit outside the little fence and read instead; smart, eh?). There's a rope Eiffel Tower to climb, a poma ride (where the kids can stand on a little seat thing and fly around a small area - that's what Emme's doing in the picture to the left, she's the one in the gray shirt and green shorts), a few incredible climbing walls, rocking horses, an honest-to-god merry-go-round that we used to ride on when we were kids, and so much more. Very fun for them, and relaxing for us. I read an entire article about a Parisian art scandal while they played and then, after an hour and a half, everybody was ready for the rest of the afternoon.

Paris, Salsa on the Side

Leave it to us to find a Mexican restaurant right around the corner... This one, called Fajitas, is rumored to be the best Mexican place in the city (we were surprised there were any Mexican places here!). We arrived around 2 pm and had the place to ourselves, but when we passed by at 7 pm it was packed. The margaritas were delicious, the chips and guacamole were exactly as we'd expected, and my nachos were worthy of any plate in Southern California. They even had a hot salsa arbol that, if I lived anywhere nearby, would become a staple in my daily diet. The kids ate like there was no tomorrow; as I've mentioned before, they are not huge fans of French cuisine, so this was a tremendous treat for them.

Too bad it's closed on Sundays and Mondays!

Paris, Personalized

When we were planning our trip, my travel agent encouraged me to hire a private tour guide to help us navigate the touristy maze of Paris. At first I balked - I mean, I can find my way around a guidebook and figure it all out, right? - but she kept mentioning that other clients had found it to be a highlight of their trip. I looked at the website and decided, Why not? And so we chose two special tours for our family, to be led by Paris Personalized.

The first tour was planned for the morning after our arrival in Paris, a three-hour walking tour called "Highlights of Paris." I thought it might be a lot of walking for the kids, that they'd be bored, etc., but from the moment we met Antoinette (the owner of the tour company and our guide for this tour), we knew that we were in good hands. Antoinette is a petite woman who walks fast and smiles easily. She speaks with a lilting British accent and was not at all condescending to the kids; in fact, she tailored many of her facts and stories to appeal to them, winning them over with tales of a scandalous poisoner named Mme. Brinvilliers and the grisly details of medieval and revolutionary Paris. We heard about heads rolling from the guillotine, robbers using the underground sewer system to steal gold... and we also saw the actual bone of St. Genevieve enclosed in a reliquary at a small church near the Pantheon!

Not only that, but Antoinette walked us through a brief but very interesting and informative tour of Notre Dame. We got to pass all the bored, tired tourists in line and zip around the church, noting the gorgeous "Rose Windows" and then circling around the exterior to see the Gargoyles and flying buttresses. From Notre Dame, she took us through the Latin Quarter and introduced us to a boulangerie (bakery) on St. Germain that makes chouquettes (little puff pastry balls rolled in either sugar or chocolate chips) that Marlowe can eat by the bagful. She pointed out the markets that I mentioned yesterday (the butcher, the baker, the fish monger...), where we bought our picnic lunch items, and then we followed her quick steps to Luxembourg Palace, a magnificent area of Paris that features playgrounds, flowers, boat races (for kids) and pony rides, as well as the model of the Statue of Liberty. After a brief talk about the gardens and the Queen who lived there (one of the de Medici's of Tuscany, who modeled the palace after the Pitti Palace in Florence), Antoinette left us to roam through the gardens and take it in like locals, with a picnic lunch.

Far from being a boring lecture that we'd forget immediately, the tour proved to be a valuable introduction to the beautiful neighborhood where we're staying. Thanks to Antoinette, the web of streets and alleys on our map of Paris have been untangled.

This is Antoinette, pointing out the architectural wonders of Notre Dame to Raf, Serena and Marlowe. She even had on the same sort of sparkly silver shoes that Marlowe was wearing. Love at first sight!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Ten More Pounds!

Paris is a dizzying display of deliciousness. The cakes and cookies and pastries rival the cheese. Our tour guide yesterday was telling us that there are strict rules about how to make everything in Paris and that there are "millions" of societies (guilds) for each food. Like bread. She said that you cannot have the same person make bread AND cakes in a boulangerie. It's not legal. And if that happens, you will be fined. A lot. So bakeries don't do it.

They also use the freshest, best ingredients. American meat is outlawed here and has been for 30 years - why? Because hormones and additives are not allowed here. Neither are GMOs (genetically modified organisms; these are fruits and vegetables that have been chemically altered to produce larger or more "genetically favorable" results, such as thinner skins or frost-resistance); in America, many of our foods may be "organic" (farmed without the use of pesticides) but their seeds are genetically modified, so who knows what their chemicals are doing to us internally?

I hadn't given it too much thought in the US, just tend to try to buy organic, but here's what happened when my kids begged us to buy strawberries in the supermarche on the first day: the kids said, "Mom, why are the strawberries so little?" I shrugged but we bought them anyway, hoping they'd be okay. When they bit into the berries, they said, "They taste different." I grabbed one, saying, "Is it bad?"

"No, they're amazing!" The kids had red juice oozing from their mouths and the entire pound of berries was finished before we'd walked the single block back to the hotel.

What's the difference? Instead of being "meaty" and fleshy with a "strawberry" flavor like what we're used to, these berries were like perfumed gem-like candies, tasting like tiny bursts of juice. They don't even taste like strawberries... it's like a cross between a raspberry and a sweet plum... or a just-picked cherry... It's delightful. Not created for mass-consumption, just a revelation of berry sweetness.

But the entire city is filled with stands like this, for every little thing. Antoinette (our tour guide) took us to a tiny block that has thrice-weekly produce markets and is surrounded by brick-and-mortar shops; the butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker... Seriously. There was a fish monger, then a cheese store, then a butcher, then a bakery, then a gourmet sundry store... It was intense, this focus on the quality (not the quantity) of the food.

For an American with just a few days here, it is overwhelming. I want to try EVERYTHING. But it is enough to know that it's here and it has already changed my perspective on food. It makes me want to grow my own food and make everything fresh; a Sisiphyan feat for an American mom with kids who have typically American palates, but I am intrigued. If they can love strawberries like that and can appreciate the difference in the quality of the bread and butter we're eating, then maybe they can learn to want to eat differently. It's a start, anyway.
I only wish I had my running shoes so that I could (maybe) counteract my new love affair with food. I can now appreciate Julia Child's love for French cooking.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Ahhh, Paris!

In Paris, the gelato cones (from Amorino on Rue du Buci) look like blossoming roses of chocolate and strawberry.

In Paris, the riverbanks look like little parks (at least during daylight and twilight hours), with people gathering to eat picnics, drink wine, sing songs (like the warbled Bob Marley "Satisfy My Soul" rendition that some French teens were belting out as we passed, or the kids who were humming the beginning notes of the Shins' "New Slang" on the Bateaux Mouches). Lovers kiss. Children roam and play. Tourists gawk and take pictures that are probably blurry or have people in them that they don't know. Ancient monuments hold the sky up.

I'll be honest: Paris scared me. I haven't been here for more than 20 years and I was a teenager in French Club when I was here the last time. I was in love and in love with love. I was crazy and stayed out too late and my French teacher (a short guy from Dallas) tried to reprimand me, but he was too nice to follow through. I lived in Italy at the time, a hedonistic and primitive place compared to the sophistication of Paris, and it never occurred to me that eating at McDonald's and wearing a red beret were lame choices. I remember being treated so rudely by a French waiter near the Musee d'Orsay, even though I spoke reasonable French with a fairly good Parisian accent. I didn't see the Louvre because it was closed (they were constructing the famous pyramids for the welcome pavilion). I went to Versailles but was bored to tears as we roamed aimlessly around the grounds. I almost didn't climb the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre because my boyfriend didn't (but I did do it and it was one of the highlights of my trip). Ahh... seventeen. So young. So naive. So long.

This time, my trip is vastly different and I am no longer living in Europe, so I was worried that it would be harder. I worried about my French being so rusty that we'd be scorned publicly, so Raf and I took French lessons last year (until my French teacher, a strict Quebecoise, made me feel inferior for not speaking the language 100% of the time with her). I fretted over my wardrobe and hoped that navy and white stripes would not be considered gauche or too cliche. I packed way too many pairs of heels. I read a little too much in my Rick Steves guidebook. I was about-to-vomit nervous in Toulouse before we left the airport.

The big reveal? It's positively the most wonderful part of our trip. I am in heaven. EVERY girl and woman (and man) that we pass on the street is both stylish AND wearing navy and white striped shirts... and many of them (women AND men, straight AND gay) are wearing slim-cut denim with the cuffs folded up twice just above their ankles. French words and phrases are coming back to me; I can communicate with nearly everyone and my accent is at least understandable enough to order food, shop, get directions. My high heels have been surprisingly comfortable on the cobblestone streets (and cute, too). Although it's been incredibly helpful, I've also found that I'm reaching beyond what Rick Steves can show me. My nervous stomach was gone as soon as our kind driver Fabrice met us at the airport and began to encourage me to speak French as much as possible. "Your accent is not as bad as many I've heard," he said. That was enough for me.

We're staying at the Citadines Apart'Hotel in the St. Germain-de-Pres area, which is in the middle of EVERYTHING we want to see. Not only is it conveniently located (just off the Seine on the Left Bank, two blocks from the St. Michel metro station, a bridge walk and a block or two from the Louvre on one side and the same distance from Notre Dame on the other side), but it's a one-bedroom apartment with a fully-equipped kitchenette and plenty of space for our cinq personne family. That may not seem like a big deal, but we were able to walk to a supermarche on the first afternoon and then come home and cook veggies for our kids (the first they'd had in nearly two weeks). There's a laundry room downstairs, free coffee in the lobby 24/7 and free internet in each room. Heaven.

Raf had told me that I had nothing to worry about, except maybe someone mistaking me for a local and asking me for directions, which I scoffed at. And then it happened last night. We were leaving the supermarche Carrefour in the Latin Quarter with the kids around 10:45 pm (I know, we're living on Euro time), baguette in hand, and watching a few street performers break dancing. Two young French girls approached me with a map asking for help in finding the St. Michel station. I answered them in Franglish, even though I knew the words in French - I was scared to send them in the wrong direction, which I think I may have anyway (but where better to be lost than in the 6th arrondisement in Paris?). Just go toward the Rue des Grands Augustins, I advised. Find the Seine and go right. St. Michel is just a few blocks down. Can't miss it.

"See?" Raf said. "I told you."

And so he did. I could get used to this city.

City of Light, Love and Lost Teeth

A few weeks before we left for Europe, Marlowe lost her first tooth. Soon after, she showed us that the one immediately next to the new little tooth vacancy was also loose. We wiggled it and jiggled it and tried to make it come out before we left, but to no avail.

On the drive to LAX, Raf tried to grab it and make it come out, but it held steadfast to its moorings.

"Marlowe, where will we be when your tooth comes out?" I asked her and she shrugged, smiling.

Each time we arrived in a new city, our whole family took turns feeling the looseness of that tiny tooth. "Come on, Mar! Barcelona!" we said as we rode the aerial cable car high above the city. In a few days, we said, "South of France!"" Finally, in the Toulouse Airport, en route to Paris, we all sort of came to the conclusion that the little tooth was to come out in our new house, like the other one.

Oh, but Paris has a magical hold on all of us and that tooth decided to pop out and see the city by night with the Tooth Fairy. On the very first night, no less. That oh-so-cosmpolitan Tooth Fairy left three American dollars and 2 Euros. How she found us, we'll never know.

Au revoir, petit dent!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lessons from The Darjeeling Limited

Arguably, Raf's and my favorite movie (collectively) of the past several years is Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited." I've read so many unfavorable reviews of this movie that it makes me scratch my head and wonder why we love it so much... but then we'll watch it again (and again) and I just have to believe that we all just love what we love. That, and the timing of when we originally saw it was spot-on.
If you haven't seen it, it's about three estranged brothers who reunite in India at the request of the oldest brother, Frances (played by Owen Wilson), a year after their father died unexpectedly. The younger two brothers (Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman) don't know it, but Frances is hoping that they'll track down their mother, who has run away to become a nun, and secretly Frances is hoping that both the journey to find her AND her motherly instincts will provide spiritual insight and somehow protect them, much in the way that their father probably did.

Right, so you can imagine how this goes... the brothers disagree on most things and argue about who was the father's favorite, etc. They travel with an army of their father's monogrammed Louis Vuitton luggage through train stations and into remote villages, trying to get a sense of what this life is all about.

When we saw Darjeeling, it was nearly a year after Raf's father had passed away suddenly and the poignant sadness and loss of direction that pervades the film resonated with both of us, as well as the three brothers on a quest to find themselves (Raf is one of three sons and also has an older sister, so it's a little off, but the feeling is right). There is a searching in the movie... and though the characters never really find themselves, it's as though it's okay to just keep putting one foot in front of the other without a real spiritual direction. And that message was hopeful to both of us when Raf's dad died.

Now, in light of Raf's brother Max's death, it's hard to even find a reason to put one foot in front of the other. Raf and I talked about it extensively yesterday, sitting in the small clearing behind our suite at the Chateau, enclosed in oleander trees. Without Max, who was Raf's main business partner and closest friend, he feels as though there's nothing that we have to go back "home" for. It's both disorienting and freeing. I've found that I don't have the same homesickness that I usually get when I travel, either; maybe it's because I'm with my family, maybe it's because I don't have a connection with my new home yet, maybe it's because life has changed so dramatically lately that I don't know what to expect or what I should be doing or even what the point of any of it is. If there is a spiritual connection, I don't quite get it. Maybe this is all there is. As Jack, the youngest brother in Darjeeling, says, "Maybe this is part of it."
Anyway, I was thinking of the movie this morning when I woke up because we're about to embark on the last leg of our journey and fly to Paris. I wondered what my lessons have been on this trip and I thought of a line from Darjeeling, when the train that the brothers are riding stops suddenly and they disembark to see what's going on. Frances asks his assistant where they are and the assistant says, "They don't know... We haven't located us yet."

Frances repeats the line to explore its spiritual meaning, and I will, too:

We haven't located us yet.

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

Raf and I loved this sign, next to a huge well in the middle of Carcassonne. I guess they don't want Americans to throw stuff into the well. S'il vous plait, indeed.
I took this picture (hard to see, hard to read) to remind me of the amazing dinner I had last night here at the Chateau de Floure. Because we've had such good meals there -- and we're lazy -- we haven't left the chateau to investigate nearby restaurants. We figure it'd be more hassle than it's worth; this way, we can see the girls in the room as we finish up our meals AND the food is incredible.
Anyway, last night I had the cassoulet, a rustic French stew with pork and duck parts simmered in a bean and vegetable casserole. It was not something I'd normally order, but I've read a lot about cassoulet so I figured I should try it and I was not at all disappointed. It reminded me of rustic Italian cooking, in which you could tell that it was a little of this, a little of that, whatever might be left in the pantry just simmered up until it's tender and comforting. Again, we had a bottle of wine from this region (Minerve) and also a plate of pate. Raf and I are enjoying the gastronomic pleasures of our stay at the Chateau, but it's clear that we cannot live like this. I may have actually put on 10 pounds in the two days we've been here.
So the last sign is my puffy eyes (from all the wine) and puffy belly (bread/cheese/wine/chocolate/butter... basically everything that the French do so well). As much as I like it here, I am also looking forward to going back to the land of coconut water, salads with lemon juice and wacko hour-long cardio workout classes...

Hidden Talent in Carcassonne

One man, two flutes, same time.

The Reason France is So Well-Loved

Dare I say it? It's the cheese. This is at SuperU in Trebes. The cheese section has divisions for Camembert (see the small sign?), Emmentaler, Cheve and more. It is like lactose heaven.

Meet Me at the Cemetery Gates

I always loved the Smiths' song "Meet Me at the Cemetery Gates," and the lyrics hounded me as Emme and Marlowe and I walked around this pretty little graveyard directly outside the fortress walls of Carcassonne. I had been hoping for some ancient headstones, and these were "only" from the late 1800's and early 1900's (through modern times), but I was somewhat enchanted by the blithely colorful ceramic flower arrangements on many of the graves -- so much classier than the silk flowers that fade in the sunlight.
So we go inside and we gravely read the stones
All those people
All those lives
Where are they now?
With their loves and hates and passions just like mine
They were born and then they lived and then they died
Seems so unfair
And I want to cry.

Carcasonne, the Medieval Walled City

Considered to be Europe's ultimate walled fortress city, Carcassonne is also a tourist mecca because it is a living, breathing playground for history buffs. There's a castle, a moat, a drawbridge, and you can kind of just wander around at will. Kids run through the grounds (once you get past the mall-like corridors of shops and cafes, which I actually thought were fairly reasonable in price) and you can pay a little extra to tour the castle and walk along the upper ramparts, but we decided just to run crazy and take our own little tour.

Known as La Cite, Carcassonne is at least 1200 years old - you read that right, a thousand years older than our dear America! It's so old that even the "New City" (outside the walls of the fortress and down the hill) dates from 13th century. It's so old, it was defeated during The Crusades. I read that people have occupied the area since Neolithic times, and the Romans built the first wall, upon wich the bigger medieval wall was constructed (and then the "new" wall was built in the 1300s). Charlemagne and his troops besieged La Cite for several years as well.

Although we had fun wandering this Shrek-like world, we are an American family that is now craving pizza and TV and air conditioning, so I was not at all surprised when Raf
asked me, "Are we Carca-done?" I said yes, and he nodded gratefully, saying, "I'll be happy when we're Carca-gone." Yes, we were there way too Carca-long. In Barcelona, we saw an old guy's Carca-dong. In France, not ordering a pate starter is Carca-wrong.

And, our favorite ode is Carcassonne is borrowed from a cheesy 80s tune:
Carca-Khan, let me rock you, it's all I wanna do.

The Sting

We are now in France, but I'd forgotten to post my photojournalistic essay on Serena's wasp sting at Park Guell.
While I was wandering with Emme and Marlowe, enchanted, through the mosaic wonderland, following the sound of music wafting from the pavilion below, Serena decided to stay behind and sit on a bench. Raf turned to tell her to keep up and that we'd grab dinner afterward, but it was too late. She'd already sat on the bench and, inadvertently, on a wasp.

The information guides at Park Guell were very sweet and offered to help us with a doctor, a medical kit, water, anything, but we know Serena. Okay, yes, she was stung and it hurt, but she is prone to -- how you say in English? -- dramatics.

The guides (three different ones) each told us to get some dirt, mix it with water, and make a tincture to take the sting away, so we did it and Raf and Nina waited for me and Emme and Marlowe to quickly finish up our love-fest with Park Guell.

I'm happy to report that she was better by the time we made it back to Hotel Neri. Because secretly, and I know this won't win me a "Mother of the Year" title, I was worried that it would swell up and we wouldn't make it to France.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

La Vie En Rose at Chateau de Floure

The Chateau de Floure, tucked an hour away from Toulouse in the South of France, is the sort of place that arty Europeans like to make films about. It's a perfectly contained little compound of a centuries-old estate (formerly owned by a renown French poet) and a few other small stone buildings covered in ivy, with gardens of boxed hedges clipped into curlique mazes and fruit trees and chirping birds and busily buzzing bees and the sound of the village church bells every half hour. It's kind of like the French film equivalent of "The Love Boat," with several interesting guests -- the 40-something childless couple who smoke a lot and whisper into their cell phones frequently, the family of three generations (grand-mere & grand-pere with twin adult sons, one married with a wife and two small girls and one unmarried), an older handicapped woman traveling with her mustachio-ed husband and small yappy dog, a middle-aged man and his loony, wild-eyed & wispy-hair-in-a-bun wife who constantly harrangues her adolescent daughter (who doesn't talk very much), an older British couple. And us, the Americans. We've seen all of them a few times now, through last night's dinner and this morning's breakfast. Fascinating.

When we arrived, fresh from two trains and a warm drive in a rented Mercedes, our kids hadn't eaten anything but toast and chips in nearly a day and we were alarmed to discover that our 1st floor suite didn't have air conditioning. There was only a half-roll of toilet paper (and I'm on my period - sorry to announce that, TMI, I know, but that's why the TP mattered so much to me... that, and my plan to get my kids to eat a hell of a lot of fruit in France, and you know what that means...). But the reception we got from the girl behind the desk was warm and welcoming and the room was spotless (if a little less than modern... not suprising after our stay in the ultra-hip Hotel Neri), so what the heck, right?

Raf took off with Emme and Nina to find sustenance in the next town over, Trebes, while Marlowe dragged me to the pool. It wasn't as large as I'd imagined from the picture on the website, but it was something to cool off in, so we jumped in... and it was FREEZING! Okay, I'm dramatic, but it was not just cool to the touch, it was cold. After a moment or two, it became "refreshing" and then, by the time I was used to it, I was ready to bask in the sun and then go back in. Right, so not so bad.

The receptionist had asked if we'd wanted dinner reservations and we accepted. Expecting the sort of gourmet-but-untouchable menu we'd had at the Hotel Neri, we were surprised that the food was more rustic French cooking, with buttery vegetables and melt-in-your-mouth meats and fish. Yummy with the local wine we'd selected. The kids' menu had beef, fish or chicken served with either rice or pasta, fresh fruit, yogurt or ice cream -- but the kids pooped out before dessert, so the waitress asked if she could deliver their fruit to the room (across the terrace) for us. Heavenly. Raf and I had our own dessert of crisp crepes (sort of like a crepe taquito) filled with sliced bananas and a dark chocolate sauce, along with coffee and milk.

Normally, this is not the kind of place we would choose. It's not modern and hip, it's not old-school luxurious, it doesn't offer any sort of amenities that we (as Americans) are used to. Room service is really just calling the front desk and then watching through your windows as the receptionist runs to the lounge and pops the caps off some cold beers or sparkling water bottles and walks carefully with them on a tray to the corresponding room. The pool cafe (mentioned on the website and in the room info) was closed. There isn't a spa. The gym (also mentioned on the website) is really just the swimming pool and the tennis court, as far as I can tell. Last night, Raf saw a giant bug with pinchers crawling up the sheet that covered Emme's leg and startled himself by swatting her hard; he didn't tell her what it was, just let her think he was play-fighting with her, but he slept with Marlowe's blanket over his head to keep the bugs out. Our inside joke is that we're camping our way, in the South of France, at an estate with pressed French embroidered linens on the beds. (Even the girls' beds have exquisite dust ruffles, embroidered with the alphabet - perfectly pressed and whiter than white, obviously dried in the sun to attain maximum brightness.)

But there's something to this vacation-within-our-vacation. Far from the bustle of Barcelona and before our foray into Paris, the Chateau offers a lavender-scented solitude that we didn't know we needed. This morning, after we ate fresh croissants and drank a pot of delicious French coffee and orange juice that I squeezed in the breakfast room myself, we took the girls for a swim in the icy water of the pool, which we had to ourselves. I got a suntan and read French magazines while Raf started a new novel and the girls wandered back through their "secret garden" terrace to the room to watch "Up" (the DVD of which Raf bought as "La-Haut" at the SuperU market). The citrusy lavender air, the sparkling blue sky, the sound of the gypsy breeze that blows through the Langeduc-Rousillon region of France... it's all quite heavenly.

What It's All About

Gaudi's McMansions -- Park Guell

I have been enchanted by Park Guell in Barcelona for longer than I've known where it is or what it is. I'd imagine I've seen pictures of it for years, then Vicky Cristina Barcelona must have reignited my passion for the magnificent mosaics and curvy rooftops that adorn the view-rific grounds of this landmark park. Anyway, despite my deep-down desire to forego sightseeing in the interest of our family and the wishes of the group-think, I demanded that we all go together to see this incredible landmark.

We hailed two taxis - as I've mentioned, they'll only take up to four people at a time - and quickly made our way in the evening up to Park Guell, after the heat of the day had subsided. Because it's called Park Guell, Serena hounded me for a slide and swingset,which is not the kind of park that Park Guell is. I tried to explain this -- that Park Guell was actually a master-planned community that Gaudi cooked up with his patron, the textile magnate Eusedi Guell; that the community they had planned, with a shaded pavilion meant to be used as a marketplace and a terraced area with mosaic-ed ergonomically designed benches, was a commercial flop 100 years ago because only 2 of the 60 planned homes sold since it was built so "far" from the cultural center of Barcelona; and that the irony of the project is that the area is now home to many wealthy denizens of the city, proving again that Gaudi was ahead of his time -- but Raf stopped me from wasting my breath.

Still, I was inspired. Gaudi gaudy? I think not.

Travel Days Suck

I love road trips, I do. And as much as I ascribe to the adage that "the journey *is* the destination," Raf and I have found that our travel days with the kids during this long voyage abroad generally suck.
For example, this is us post-check-out from the Hotel Neri in Barcelona yesterday morning, tooling around La Catedral to get to the taxi stop by Starbucks an hour before our train to Narbonne, en route to Toulouse in the South of France. We had to leave early, by 7:45 am, so we had to wake our kids up earlier than they'd had to wake up in Europe (after yet another midnight bedtime) and, worst of all, we didn't get a coffee at Starbucks because we figured there would be coffee at the train station (WRONG!).

Undercaffeinated and underfed, we somehow made it onto the train, where the sweet South African couple sitting behind Emme put their barefeet on the chairs... (This is Emme with the little green frog that has become the star of her pictures on this trip, appearing in front of landmarks like the gnome in those travel commercials.) Life improved somewhat when we discovered the dining car, where an older Spanish man would take an order, go around to the adjacent kitchen, make the toast/bocadillo/whatever, then make your coffee/drink order, then take your money... In that order, for each person. It was quite a lengthy process, but then again, we had a 3-hour tour...

In Narbonne, our train was delayed by a half-hour and literally no one speaks English (or at least, they didn't to us). We were taking a while to find the right car and heard a whistle and I realized that the train was gonna go, whether we were on or not, so Raf and I just pushed the kids on, threw our luggage on, and hopped aboard, hoping for the best. With my mastery of grammar school French (seriously limited), I was able to find our seats and enjoy the ride through vast sunflower fields.

Finally, in Toulouse, we found our way to the car rental office and then to Giant Burger, where we bought our kids a few Burger Max Country's and "churros" (oh my god, I ate one and I have no idea what the F is in it - not good, not quite a churro, not quite a french fry, not quite worth the box it came in). Surprisingly, the burgers were delicious, as was the salad. As Raf said, at least the French are a bit more "civilized" than Spaniards, offering a better food selection at their train stations.
There's not a lot more to tell about the rest of the trip to Floure (a small village about an hour from Toulouse, which even the rental car lady hadn't heard of), and I'll refrain from detailing the mini-hissy I nearly threw (but didn't) when we found our rental Mercedes and it was incredibly dirty and in dire need of a car wash (REALLY! Civilized??), but we are now in the South of France. With all that it took to get here, I am glad we are not doing anything for the next few days except swimming, eating cheese, drinking wine, watching movies on my laptop and listening to the bees buzz.
Ahh... la vie en rose.

Bilbao Airport

You can't really tell from this picture, but the airport in Bilbao, Spain, is amazing. Futuristic, mod in a 1960s/Mad Men sort of way. It reminded me of LAX's Encounter Restaurant, but the whole thing was like that. Very Jetsons without being cloying. Mid-century modern without irony. We never made it to the much-talked-about Guggenheim in Bilbao, designed by our Los Angeles homeboy Frank Gehry, but I'd like to think that the airport, in its own way, gave us a taste of what Bilbao's all about.

Happiness is a Lit Cuban

This is Raf sitting on the 4th floor solarium of our hotel in Barcelona, having a pre-dinner cigar.

What's unusual about this picture is you can see his teeth. And he's smiling. Laughing, even. Most people rarely see this side of Raf, but in Spain he's been all aglow and a-twitter -- it seems that you can buy Cubans (the cigars, silly, not the people) from any gosh-darn Tabac on any corner. That's right: the same cigars he covets for a truly high price in the US, he can just walk on up and buy for a fraction of what he usually pays. It's so cheap, in fact, that right after I took this picture, we noticed that it was time to go downstairs for our reservation and Raf snuffed out the half-smoked cigar without regret. No worries, he said, I can just buy another one tomorrow.

We saw an incredible humidor room in the tobacco department of the venerable department store Il Cortes Ingles, but the best experience Raf had in buying cigars was with a little old man in San Sebastian, Spain. We had asked the Tourist Information clerk if there was a cigar shop and he pointed us down the street, to a small tobacco shop in the Old Town. It's probably closed, he told us, pointing out that it was already 7 pm. But we had nothing much that we had to do so we decided to direct our evening stroll in that direction.

I'm having trouble finding the pictures I took of the proprietor of the shop -- I must have taken the video and pictures on Raf's iPhone -- but he was a short, older Spaniard, white hair, distinguished beard. Raf asked him about Cuban cigars and purchased a few "run-of-the-mill, but better than I can get at home" cigars, as well as a few spectacular smokes that he's never tried because the cost is prohibitive (and you can't just buy Cuban cigars in the US). For each selection, the man carefully pulled down a cigar box and gently uncovered the outer and inner wrappings, gingerly lifting each cigar from its nest, then ceremoniously showing Raf for his approval before carefully placing them into a plastic bag. Sadly, after Raf had made his choices and was about to pay, the man's fingers slipped and one bag (filled with two cigars) fell to the floor. The man made a pained face, like someone was stabbing him in the heart, but didn't say the expletive that surely he was thinking. Instead, he slowly returned to the humidor and retraced the formal steps he'd already taken to help Raf get the cigars he wanted.

It's ironic that generally it costs Raf so much more for cigars (well, when you factor out the cost of our entire trip, I suppose), and yet the ceremony involved in buying these less-expensive cigars was priceless.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Hotel Neri

It's not exactly a kid or a family hotel, but we love it here.