Archive by Author
August 3, 2013

On Re-Entry . . . Back in the USA

I made coffee this morning. A whole friggin’ pot.
It’s hot; it’s strong, and I’m completely caffeinated.
I’m not sitting in a Parisian cafe with a tiny little espresso cup.
I didn’t make it in that crazy gravity-defying-espresso-pot that required YouTube tutorials to use.
I’m not stirring it with a tiny little spoon reminiscent of tiny little spoons from Florida parties in the 1980s.
I’m drinking it black from a huge mug that says Bald Head Island, plucked from a cabinet of mugs from other uniquely American destinations.
I just refilled the mug. For the third time.

It’s loud. Everything and everybody is loud.
The Jetson-bus that transports passengers from the plane to the terminal at Washington Dulles was loud. (And for the love of god, can they not dig a tunnel and connect the airport like every other airport and get rid of those ridiculous buses that last seemed cool in 1983?)
The immigration line was loud. And long and slow, but I was tired, so maybe it was just like every other immigration line.

People are oddly friendly. Well, maybe.
The line at Hertz Gold was long (and loud) but not as long as the regular line at Hertz. Those poor souls are still there.
The woman smiled as she assumed I wanted all their extra insurance and rolled her eyes when I declined, then smiled again as she assumed I wanted to get a larger car for $7/day more and rolled her eyes and sighed when I didn’t.
The woman who let us through the gate after confirming I was, in fact, licensed to drive a car in the USA asked “How you doin’ today?” and Emmi was reminded immediately of our Versailles host, who’d opined that the question always seemed nosey to her. We laughed, answered her — our official American Welcome Wagon — and told her to have a great weekend.

The highways are huge and loud and the cars are huge and loud and for a moment I thought I’d forgotten how to drive on these roads. But like riding a bike, for better or worse, I remembered.

Our iphones work without roaming and we can pull email and use the apps and text and call and check Facebook without incurring a national debt.

Netflix works. Enough said.

There’s a washer and dryer that make sense to us, and a refrigerator larger than some Parisian apartments, and ice in every glass.

We speak exactly one language between the three of us. Everyone here speaks that exact same language.

It’s our flag flying around the monuments and on top of buildings and in the parks.

We are home.

And with my mug refilled (for the 4th time, now), I’m looking at fares and options and miles and figuring out how early in June we should return next year so we can actually see and do all the things we want to see and do in Paris before my writing month begins and we do it all over again.

July 21, 2013

Paris Moments

Three summers in Paris now, and it’s starting to feel like home. Maybe not home, exactly, but a place where, just maybe, we belong. It’s the little things — the moments that are uniquely Paris — that root me here.

We missed the Fireworks last year, but not for lack of trying. Our friend had a viewing spot in mind, and we ran through the cobblestone streets of the left bank to get there. We heard the fireworks kick off, and we ran faster. We got to that perfect spot on the bridge over the Seine, with the Eiffel Tower in the distance, just as the smoke of the finale began to clear. It was not to happen again. We took the Metro this year. And left early. Pay-off.

Fireworks after the Fireworks, Bastille Day 2013

* * * * * *

I watched as a young man sat sipping wine at a cafe while writing music. Like, seriously writing music. He had a blank scoresheet and a stash of sharpened pencils and he carefully drew each note. He drew each note on the musically lined scoresheet, gently swaying his head back and forth as he drew. I write, and the words form in my head and then the keyboard to the page, and I get that. But this young man was creating music with simple pencils and a blank scoresheet. I am quite certain it was magic.

* * * * * *

A new resident moved into the apartment below us.  We know because his stuff — huge, gorgeous pieces or art, crates of Evian, massive, antique chairs and tables and lamps — appears each night at his door as he hauls each piece up the two flights of stairs. Alone. He’s moving in at night and on weekends, no movers, just him. We ran into him on the steps, sweating through his pinstriped business shirt, sleeves rolled up, trying to hoist a bookcase up the stairs. Austin picked up one end and helped hoist it up the stairs. A few days later, from our favorite Italian place across the street, we watched him step onto his Haussmann balcony andtip his bottled Evian into each of the  balcony’s twelve potted trees. He made two passes, carefully watering and checking each tree, depleting the bottles of Evian he’d hoisted up two flights of stairs just days earlier.

 

*******

We often stand waiting at the doors of the little Italian spot across the street when they open at 7:30PM; sometimes they open early, just for us.  We call it our kitchen. We sit at our same table, half inside/half outside, where the leg of the chair might slip off the floor and onto the sidewalk, ensuring a tumble.  The staff  remembers our favorite dishes, the ravioli with blue cheese and nuts, the jambon tortellini, the four cheese pasta. The chef, the waitress and the waiter/manager always smile and wave and say “bonjour!” when we walk by during the day, like old friends. We notice, though, that other patrons sometimes get fresh grated parmesan on their pasta. They don’t request it; the waiter just offers, swoops in and grates, and disappears again. Or occasionally a brown bag of what appears to be warm, fresh bread, delicate grease markings on the bag, just drops on their tables, and maybe even replenished when depleted. We do not get those things. We’re in, but not that in. Last night, we sat at our regular table and ordered our favorite dishes and made small talk with the waitress. It was like every other night. Then she swooped by and dropped the little brown bag of warm fresh bread on our table.

* * * * * * *

I order vin blanc at Cafe Universel on Monday nights at our readings.  It’s the least expensive; it’s cold; and I can usually order it in French without stumbling. Azu, the owner, speaks very little English, but it doesn’t matter. His bartending knows no translation boundaries. Yet still, I want to do it right, especially with him. I’ve ordered vin blanc every Monday night of every July for the last three years from Azu. “Bonjour!” we both say, then he leans in to hear. I order, he nods, then plunges a wine glass into an ice vat to chill it, fills the glass with a respectable aligote, and slides it across the bar to me.  He smiles. I say “Merci,” He nods, smiles again, and slips the tab on the bar near me, knowing I’ll see it and pay before leaving. This week, I order, he plunges the glass into the ice, fills it, slides it across the bar, and smiles. “Merci,” I say. But no tab appears. Perhaps he forgot.  I order another glass later, and again, same dance, no tab. “Magnifique photographe,” he says to me and smiles. It takes a minute, but I get it.  Last year, I  got a shot of Azu and his wife, behind the bar. Another friend shared it with them. I never thought about it again.  But Azu did.  The wine, an expression of appreciation. “Merci beaucoup, Azu.”

Cafe Universel, Paris

July 14, 2013

Uniquely Paris — The Fireman Balls on Bastille Day

Fireman's Ball -- Bastille Day Paris -- Port Royal 13eme

13eme Port Royal Fireman's Ball, Paris 2013

Among the many things uniquely Parisian  . . .  the Firemen’s Balls over the Bastille Day holiday.  The Firemen of Paris– who work out daily in Luxembourg Gardens to an audience of jogging, swooning admirers — open their Fire Houses and host raucous, music pounding, dance throbbing parties for anyone willing to drop a few euro in the bucket on the way in. Consider us willing. Us, and our fellow writers and classmates from the Paris American Creative Writing Program, our home away from home every July.

It’s our second time to stop by the Fire House on Port Royal, just around the corner from our temporary home.  We know it’s close because we can hear the music pounding well into the evening. We sipped champagne (well, I did anyway) and danced and mingled until the wall of people was too crushing and our ears too deaf to endure any more fun.  Simply put, it was fabulous.  Maybe not quite as fabulous as the croissants.  Then again, maybe it was.

June 25, 2013

One Turned Right — A Sheep Stampede

It was faint at first, and indistinguishable.  I’d already heard the pheasants making racket earlier, so perhaps it was them again. But this was different, guttural, and a lot of it, and it was getting closer. It takes a lot to get me out from under the plush covers of my castle bed, but this other-worldly noise did just that.

My upstairs bedroom window overlooks the entry gate, the main road just past the gate, and across the road, a lane up towards pastures and rolling hills and all that.   There’s never anyone, or anything, out there.  Just the occasional cars on the road and the mail truck every morning. It’s quiet and remote and perfectly Scotland-lovely.  Except today.

Scotland

The Scene of the Stampede

Across the road and on the lane that leads to all things rolling and lovely were hundreds — and I mean hundreds — of sheep stampeding and ba’ahing and doing whatever sheep do when they make a wrong turn.  They over-flowed the lane, trampling the grasses on either side, and stretched back up the lane as far as I could see. And they were stampeding towards the main road and the world beyond as though their lives depended on it.

I grabbed clothes and ran downstairs, out the gate and into the road. It was only then that I realized a few critical facts:  (1) I was the only human in sight and hundreds of thundering sheep were running towards me;  (2) I’d left the front door open, so in just a few moments, those hundreds of thundering sheep could be in my adopted castle; and  (3) thundering sheep aren’t cute and cuddly; they are terrifying.  I leaned against the wall surrounding the property and hoped for the best.

Perhaps the sheep found me equally terrifying, because when they had to choose between my castle and me or the main road, they thundered onto the main road and took off for parts unknown.  Sheep really do run in a wall-to-wall herd, filling every inch of space with their bodies and their hooves and their snorts and ba-ahs. It was a moving carpet of sheep, coming down the lane, onto the main road and off on a wild and woolly adventure.

The occasional cars appeared, and stopped. Sheep herds in the roads aren’t uncommon here, so they probably weren’t as shocked as I was. But they did seem to understand that no responsible human was anywhere in sight, so they chose to stay in the safety of their vehicles, rather than join me standing in the middle of the road, watching this thundering herd trample anything in its way.

The responsible humans could be heard trailing the sheep, screaming commands at them. The sheep weren’t listening. It was clear even to me, the American, that things weren’t going as planned. For these two men, who seemed to have been having a perfectly normal morning until something went askew, things were not going well. Even through their thick Scottish brogue, I knew those words weren’t meant for polite company, or even polite sheep.

But these were human men and a couple hundred wild sheep. The humans would eventually prevail. One skirted around the fields and got in front of the herd, effectively cutting it off at the pass,  while the second guy barked at the three sheepdogs who obediently corralled the sheep into submission.  Or at least stopped the stampede. There they stood, several hundred sheep in the middle of the main road, having just come thundering down the hill, past my castle and me.

They looked cute and cuddly again.  Until the men started yelling at them again and the dogs started barking and snapping and the thundering herd turned to go back from whence they came.  Straight towards me standing in the middle of the road. Once again, I took cover by the wall and hoped for the best.

Those three little dogs, 2 men and one truck worked like magic. Particularly the dogs. They barked and snapped and got the sheep to turn back up the lane at exactly the right moment, and when a few strayed, the dogs brought them back, yapping and lunging at them and forcing their compliance. The dogs seemed to love it. The sheep had gotten their joy ride, so they obeyed.

“Well you don’t see that everyday,” the man in the truck said to me as he finally got the last few strays to head back up the lane. “We were just moving them from one field to another, like we do all the time, when one of them decided to turn right. And before we knew it . . . ” He trailed off and shook his head.

Later in the day, I wandered up the lane, to see where they’d come from, and perhaps where they’d ended up.  Sure enough, on one side of the road was an open gate and empty field, sheep wool still clinging to the gate and brush along the sides.   Up the road to the left, another field, gate closed, with a few hundred sheep contentedly ba’ahing and grazing and napping.  Most were laying down. They were rather tired, I figured.

“One turned right,” the man had told me. I got it now. Rather than going left and to the safety of the next field, one obstinate buggah turned right, and the rest of the otherwise mild-mannered herd turned suddenly crazed and followed him.

It’s like the Tea-Party. One turned right and it became a thundering, frightening herd running towards something, but no one knew quite what. If only a few wily sheepdogs snapping at their heels could solve that problem too.

June 23, 2013

Dinner Amongst Friends in Paris

Last year, while in Paris for the Paris American Academy Creative Writing Program, we heard about Jim Haynes’ weekly Sunday dinner.  NPR did a piece on it a couple of years back, and a student shared it with the rest of us.

An ex-pat American hosts dinner for as many as 100+ strangers weekly in his Paris apartment? Seriously? We were hooked.

 

 

This piece, from TRAVELATI,  tells our story of joining Jim for dinner last year.

A Paris Dinner Amongst Friends, TRAVELATI, June 2013

 

Any yep, we’re already confirmed for our return visit this year.

 

(click here for story.)

 

 

 

June 21, 2013

Newbies in the Hostel World

Mention hostels to casual travelers and images of Jim Belushi fraternity parties may spring to mind. Twenty-somethings traveling with no money, perfecting the art of booze consumption on every continent, and passing out in hole-in-the-wall dives littered with moldy towels, dirty dishes, and bathrooms that shouldn’t be entered without protective clothing. That’s what I thought, anyway.

Until I found myself traveling the world, on a tight budget, with two teens in tow. The essence of travel, I think, is to blow up pre-conceived notions on all variety of things and start anew. Such was the case with me and hostels.

We’ve dipped our toe in the hostel world on previous adventures.  We ended up in a hostel in Wellington New Zealand once, where I spent the entire evening checking the door locks and keeping tabs on my kids – who thought I was crazy (and they were right.) Then in Fiji, our Yasawa Island “resorts” included backpacker dorms, and while we enjoyed our private bure in lieu of the dorm life, it was the dorm travelers we hung out with. They were more fun.

It’s been this trek through Australia that converted us. It started as necessity, as with most hostel guests I guess.  Australia is just plain expensive, and our dollar doesn’t do what it used to.  I’d always heard about the Sydney YHA, in the Rocks, near the Four Seasons, with a killer view. At $125/night for a private family room, it was still over our budget but the best deal in town, so I booked it. On a roll, I booked another one in Perth and a campervan park backpacker dorm in Exmouth. We wandered into yet another one in Adelaide (one of the highlights of our 24 hours there) and now have a couple more booked across Europe.

I know, I know. Not all hostels are alike, and staying in a half dozen or so doesn’t exactly make us experts. And like everything, there’s the good, the bad and the ugly. But so far, it’s been a good thing for us.

 

MY PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS — BLOWN TO SMITHERERENES

 

Backpacks Optional. It’s still part of the vernacular, but not necessarily part of the scene.  Leaving our bags in the luggage holds, we found a department store assortment of rolling bags and luggage, and an occasional backpack or two.  The occasional backpack looked oddly retro actually, like the true adventurer is still out there while the rest of us have discovered wheels and never looked back.

 

Baby boomers just keep plugging along. Think I was the oldest resident in the joint? Not a chance. Maybe there’s fewer backpacks these days because there’s fewer folks young enough to trek their possessions on their backs.  We ran across an incredibly fit 60-something cycling his way across Australia (his luggage, panniers for the bike), numerous “mature” women traveling solo, an assortment of families, men beyond the age of beer pong, travel photographers and videographers on a budget, and a wide assortment of Europeans of all ages looking for work.

 

BBQ Night at Wickham Retreat, Perth

Beer and Ramen for Dinner?  Not a chance. While I ate my toast for breakfast in Perth one morning, a group of women from Malaysia made a most exotic assortment of soups and veggies and meats for breakfast.  In Exmouth, we were joined by a couple who’d just grilled the fresh fish they’d caught earlier in the day, while the table next to us had some sumptuous stir fry, and yet another had a roast lamb with all the fixings.  And of course, a bottle of Australia wine was always close at hand.

In Perth, the proprietor hosts a weekly BBQ for his guests.  We were dubious, and had planned to go out that tonight.  Until we saw the grill. Steak, sausages, burgers, chicken, grilled veggies, and all the sides. It was one of the best meals I’ve had on the road. And it was free, part of the hospitality that brings guests back to his indy hostel again and again.

OK, so there was the moment later in the evening when the snarky French guests with whom we dined asked Austin and Emmi what it was like traveling with their grandmother. My children wisely withheld that tidbit of info for a few days.  And they both observed the finer art of hostel pick-up lines as the various guests mixed and mingled over the evening. All part of traveling, I figure.

 

Wild Parties Every Night? Not Even Close. Admittedly, a private family room insulates us a bit from the late night comings and goings, but I’ve heard wilder parties at Hyatts when there’s a car dealer convention in town. Like most guests, we were drawn to the communal spaces – comfy sofas, fast wifi, maybe a game of ping pong or pool or darts – but we never came upon a boozing rager.

And check out the book swap table.  Sure, there’s the expected assortment of travel guides and airport lit, but there’s also a surprising assortment of well-loved copies of Hemingway and Dickens and other classics.  And not a single copy of Fifty Shades of Gray to be found. (Our only sighting of that one was a woman at the airport who clearly had no clue what she’d just picked up; we figured her husband was in for a long flight.)

 

HazMat Equipment Needed for the Bathrooms? We didn’t think so. Okay, so in one spot, Emmi and I decided to wait til our next city for a good shower, but Austin used the showers and reported they were fine.  The next spot was spectacular though, with fluffy towels for hire (and we could even change out our towels for fresh ones at no additional cost), hot water, great pressure, and spotlessly clean facilities.  And in the family rooms, we usually scored a private bath – even better.

 

Scary Beds & Linens & Pillows, Oh My! True, it’s not the Four Seasons, and I’ve yet to find a hostel with pillows that really meet the definition of the word.  But, at least where we’ve been, the linens are clean and fresh and without stains and rips, the beds are reasonably comfortable, and the blankets seem to be cleaner than anything I’ve ever gotten on an airplane.  That works for me.

 

But Are They Safe? To borrow from another blogger, that’s like asking if the world is safe.  Sure, as long as you’re reasonably attentive, know what to expect and use common sense.  Basically the same rules for travel anytime, anywhere. We travel with a bike lock to secure our bags together when we leave them somewhere, and with a couple of padlocks, just in case we need them. Most hostels have some sort of provision for securing your belongings – often a locker in your room – and I’ve found the locks to come in handy.