Friday, 2 June 2017

Two Weeks in France - Welcome to Paris

Spring break.  Two weeks to travel in Europe.  Where to go?  Where to go?  These were the tough questions we faced while living in England for two years.  Honestly, it wasn’t that hard for us to decide despite the fact there were so many wonderful options.  We only had a few more months before we would be crossing back over the pond returning to the US, and there was a city we needed to see that is home to perhaps the most iconic and well recognized structure in the world, and even though we had already spent a week in the southern part of this country which we absolutely adorable, there was oh so much more of it to see and eat our way across. 

Any guesses?  It’s really not that hard to figure out, is it? 

Early Friday morning and we set off in our car from our cottage in our little village of Worthington to make the two to three hour trek towards Dover.  To get to France from England, you need to cross the English Channel.  Now, we had already flown over the Channel many times, and we had made the two hour ferry ride from Dover to Dunkirk on our very first trip to continental Europe, so this time we decided to try a different mode of transportation, the Chunnel - a 23.5-mile train tunnel that goes underneath the English Channel - the longest undersea portion of any tunnel in the world.  Because of the Chunnel, you can get on a train in London and a few short hours later get off the train in Paris despite the fact that there are millions and millions of gallons of seawater separating the two.  We were taking our car to France this time, and you can do that via the Chunnel as well, believe it or not.  You quite literally drive your car into a very confined and somewhat clausterphobic train car, the doors close in front, in back and to the side of you, and the train starts to move as you drop 250 feet below sea level while you simply sit in your car.   

You can get out and walk along the side of the train car, but there isn’t much to see.  It’s pitch black outside the small train windows because you are after all inside an underground tunnel with vast of  water churning above your head...but I did my best to not think about that during the train ride.  Sounds fun, doesn’t it! 

There were loads of British going with us for that short 30 minute or so train ride through the Chunnel.  We weren’t the only people on spring break after all, and as we neared the exit for the train depot, maybe two miles away or so, traffic came to a complete standstill.  Ey yey yey!  But never fear.  Those Chunnel people were expecting this.  Signs on the side of the road directed cars into the most orderly and polite queue we have ever experienced.  I tell you, we Americans could learn a few lessons from the British.  When directed to get into the left lane to exit if you were heading to the Chunnel (remember, we were driving in England), everyone, and I mean everyone did…immediately!  There were no cars trying to get to the head of the line, budging in at the last minute and enraging everyone behind them.  And the Chunnel authorities sent frequent texts to us assuring us that our spot on one of the trains was still good even if we didn’t get there until two hours after our scheduled train ride.  So really, no worries.

We were heading to Paris and I’ve spent much time debating whether or not I should share this this next paragraph or not.  But, honesty has been my policy on this blog so far, so here goes: I don’t feel like I connected with Paris in the way that I feel like I was supposed to connect with Paris. Does that make any sense? It’s not really that I personally feel like I should have connected to it, it’s more that from a society standpoint, Paris is such an iconic place, portrayed as romantic and beautiful and why wouldn’t you fall madly in love with Paris.  I mean, how many sappy but adorable movies have taken place on the streets of Paris anyway?  Truth be told, I didn’t fall madly in love with it, and maybe it’s because of the huge expectation that you should fall madly in love with Paris.  You know how sometimes you expect so much of an experience beforehand that it’s kind of a letdown when it actually happens.  But there were other circumstances at play during our visit to Paris that I think influenced the experience for me.  How much of an impact, it’s hard to say.  What were these circumstances?  Well, for starters the horrendous four hour long drive we had across Paris through sections of the city that surely will never appear on any tourist map, past what can only be described as a shanty town built by refugees who had fled the horrors of their homeland, heading towards a lot to park our car in for the duration of our visit to Paris which we couldn’t find as the GPS coordinates were wrong and culminating in totally being ripped off by the taxi driver who took us from where we finally parked our car to the apartment we stayed in in the heart of the city.  Even in Paris, a twenty-minute taxi ride does not cost 80 Euros!  Not a great first impression did the city make.  And there were the terrorist attacks in Brussels which occurred a mere four days before we departed on our trip to Paris which made coming to a city with a severe terrorist threat alert of its own because of their own recently horrendous attacks kind of rattling to the nerves.  If it had been just Eric and me, I don’t think that part would have bothered me as much.  But we had our kids with us and that just made me feel uneasy.  Very uneasy.

Please don’t get me wrong.  If you have been to Paris and loved it, I totally get it.  There is so much to see and do there.  It truly is an amazing and beautiful city.  And if you are going to Paris, you will enjoy it.  There is a vast amount of Paris we did not see and experience and that I know is worth seeing and experience.  This is just my own, humble opinion based on a fairly short trip given the size of the city and filled with extenuating circumstance.  Honestly, given the events surrounding our trip there, Paris really didn’t get a fair chance with me that particular weekend. 

And now that that is all said, you may be surprised when I tell you that one of the top five things we saw in all of Europe was actually right there in the very heart of Paris.

When we finally arrived in the heart of the city around 8:30 in the evening, several hours late for meeting Jean-Michele whose apartment we would be renting for the next couple of days, famished and absolutely deflated from our terrible road trip into the city (and 80 Euros lighter I might add), I almost cried when after showing us around his tiny one-bedroom apartment on the 7th floor and telling us to help ourselves to the open container of milk he had stored in the cupboard (yes, that is the cupboard and not the fridge – thanks, but no thanks, Jean-Michele), he led us out to the balcony and above the building behind the apartment we could clearly see shining bright against the now completely dark sky the Eiffel Tower.  

I couldn’t take my eyes off it.  It was mesmerizing.  Absolutely the most beautiful sight I had seen all day and I could have stood there for an hour just simply staring at it.  But we were hungry and thirsty so Jean-Michele pointed us towards a pizza place down the street and a grocery store around the corner where we picked up a bottle of wine, and after some nourishment and a drink, we took off at about 10:30 at night and walked to the Eiffel Tower. 

To see the Tower at night for the first time…well, I’m not even sure how to put it into words.   

This photo is from standing directly underneith the center of the Eiffel Tower.
It was positively stunning, but with a heavy tint of melancholy at the same time as it was lit up in red, black and yellow, the colors of the Belgium flag in honor of the victims of the attacks earlier that week.  

In some way I can’t quite explain, this made it even more beautiful, or rather gave the Eiffel Tower an ethereal sense of beauty that it’s hard to believe can come from a gigantic man-made metal structure.  But that is what it was, and I am so very happy we dragged our tired bodies the several blocks in the dark of night to see it up close.  

Fun fact about the Eiffel Tower:  Did you know that this beautiful structure was supposed to be temporary when it was constructed?  It was built as the entrance to the 1889 World Fair and the engineer whose company designed and built it, Gustave Eiffel (hence the name), had a permit for the tower to stand for 20 years at which time it would be dismantled, which was the part of the rules of the original design contest for the structure that would be the entrance to the World Fair.  Many Parisians hated it, thinking it an eyesore in their beautiful city.  But visitors to the Fair loved it.  As the demolition date drew near some twenty years later, those Parisians who still hadn’t warmed up to this ionic structure called for it’s dismantling.  But, Gustave Eiffel, who had recently been hearing about this thing called radio, decided to put a radio transmitter at the top of the Tower and gifted it to the French government, giving them the power to convey messages much further than previously possible.  The Tower stayed, and today it is the most visited paid monument in the world.

So, what did we actually do while in Paris?  Well, we started with this of course...

Fresh croissants and some lovely little quiche, fresh strawberries and raspberries, and some jus de pomme (apple juice), all from the lovely farmer's market just around the block that you just expect to see in the streets of Paris on a Saturday morning.  As soon as we were done feasting on our deliciously French breakfast, we made our way to the farmers market so the girls and I could what Eric had just happened upon earlier that morning as he snuck out of our little apartment to take some photos.   

Such a quintessential Parisian market…


And fruit...

And fish...

And other goodies from the sea...

And if you look closely at this photo...

Escargots of course, with the Eiffel Tower in the background.  Does it get any more French than that?

And then we walked...

and walked and walked and walked.  

We walked back to the Eiffel Tower because...

Well just because.

I mean, look at it.  

Why would you not walk back to the Eiffel Tower?

We crossed the bridge heading towards the Arch de Triomphe and the huge plaza that surrounds it…

which is much much larger than I ever expected it to be with several lanes of cars whizzing around it on a gargantuan roundabout.

We sat outside the Louvre which is absolutely enormous by the way, but didn’t go in.  Maybe next time.

We stopped in at the restaurant where we had gotten the pizza the first night we arrived to have another Leffe on tap because if you like beer and every get to a place that has the Belgium brewed Leffe on top, please stop and have one.  This was THE best tap beer I have ever had.  

Sunday morning, Easter, the girls woke and searched our little apartment for the French candy the Easter bunny had hidden.  After a breakfast of pastries, of course, juice and coffee...

and some beautiful little pots of yogurt, we walked back to the Eiffel Tower where there was an Easter egg hunt about to get under way…

An Easter egg hunt with the Eiffel Tower in the background…now that is something you do not see everyday. 

And that is it.  That’s all we did in Paris.  We walked… a lot.  Ate some croissants.  Fell in love with the Eiffel Tower.  But we would be spending the next two weeks driving through France, and we had a lot more to see.  We were heading south from Paris to walk in the footsteps of Napoleon, and we planned to visit some prehistoric cave drawings in the Dordogne region.  We would spend a couple of days in Brittany, and finally, make our way to Normandy to visit and pay our respects to the great battle sites of World War II.  So check back as I’ll be sharing all of this with you over the next few weeks.  But until then, a few more pictures from Paris.  Au Revoir! 

A giant chocolate Easter egg!

Thursday, 26 January 2017

January in England – It Snows

This was the house we lived in in England for two years – Quarter Moon Cottage. I know I've shared it before, but never like this, lightly covered in snow.  

Why was it called Quarter Moon Cottage we never figured out, but on occasion we would receive mail for the owners of the house and the address listed would simple say “Quarter Moon Cottage.”  Many of the houses in our little village of Worthington had names posted on a plaque out front, and more than once I had a delivery person knock on the door and ask, “Can you point me towards Oliver’s Cottage?” 

“Do you have the house number or name of the road?” I would ask.

“No,” was the reply.  “Just says Oliver’s Cottage.”

Such in life in England.

The photo of our house also shows you just how very close to the road our house sat.  Actually, the house couldn’t get any closer to the road.  The mirrors on trucks coming from behind our house quite literally passed a foot or two from the stucco side.  To get past our house you had no choice but to walk on the road.  But again, as with houses having names, houses sitting right on the road are quite common in England.  Was I nervous about someone running into the house?  Absolutely.  But it never happened during our time there, and hopefully never will. 

Believe it or not, despite our house and the back garden (as it is called in the UK) sitting right on the road, the backyard was quite private thanks to a fence and the tall hedge.  

On the other side of that hedge you see in the photo above is a four or five foot drop directly down to the road.  That was a busy road, but because of that thick green hedge, we could be in our backyard and hardly tell when a car or truck was going by.

I can count on one hand how many times we woke to snow in the morning during our two years in England, and I wouldn't have to use all of my fingers.  The snow never stayed for long, but for this one short day it transformed the view from the front windows of our house, turning the usually green yet dreary January English countryside to a beautiful soft white that was much appreciated during the long, dark months of winter. 

I miss that view.

So what does one do on a typical weekend during the winter while living in England?   

You head outside for a walk.  The British love to walk, in all types of weather.  You just need to dress appropriately.  Hat, mittens, winter jacket...

One particular Saturday or Sunday, I can’t remember which, we deciding a nice walk at one of our favorite parks was on the agenda, so we grabbed our winter gear and headed out the door to Beacon Hill.   

We did this same two-mile or so hike around the park several times will living in England and it never got old.   

We would pass through a forest with a play area with hand carved wooden playground equipment for the girls to play on...

these unique and artistic pieces all carved by a craftsman in the park.  

In fact as you continue on the hike, you pass by his woodcarving shack.  It was always fun to see the gigantic blocks of wood sitting outside the shack awaiting his skillful hands.  What would he make next?  Maybe some more sheep...

like this one that sits next to the trail as you head back up to the top of Beacon Hill.  

Beacon Hill was always a fun place to play...

and explore.   

And we always began and ended our hikes at the top...

on Beacon Hill itself... 

where you can see for miles upon miles in all directions.  

It was windy on this particular winter day...

but that didn’t stop the girls from having some fun scrambling around the rocks where you felt like you were at the top of the world.  

On another Sunday, we jumped in the car and headed for the quaint town of Ashbourne.  The twisting and turning narrow streets in the center of town are lined with adorable shops filled with all manner of treasures. 

Like this adorable shop with little baby bottoms strung across the window.  Are you kidding me?  So cute you want to walk in a buy a pair even if you don’t have a baby to give them to.  
It was another cold and blustery Sunday in January so we made our way to one of the many little coffee shops and cafes in Ashbourne for a warm drink. Ellie became a proper tea drinker while living in England, adding a bit of sugar and a splash of milk. 

And in England, tea always comes served in a proper tea pot.

Leah of course got the hot chocolate which should always be served in a cup smothered with whipping cream and pink and white marshmallows on the side.  That's how they do it here.  

After we had warmed up a bit, we wandered over to St. Oswald’s Church, it's 212-foot tall spire making quite a sight in this seemingly small town.  But when we moved to England, it didn’t take long for us to discover that magnificent churches can be found in any size town. 

Inside the church was equally as impressive...

the huge, beautiful stain glassed windows adding some color and light to the cold, stone interior.  A plaque inside the church says it was dedicated on April 24, 1241.  That’s over 700 years ago.  And as with every church we visited, this one also contained monuments inside to leading local families.  

Outside, the church is surrounded by a cemetery, the writing on some of the moss covered headstones now worn off by the elements as they slowly sink into the ground.   

Their presence always gives an eerie feel to the dark facades of these churches, but it’s fascinating to walk through the rows trying to make out the dates, some going back to the 1700s. 

And sometimes on a weekend day in January in England we just stayed at home in Quarter Moon Cottage.  The girls might squeeze through the wooden fence behind our house to play with the neighbor girl who lived next door.  Or we might watch a James Bond movie on TV as there always seemed to be a James Bond movie playing on TV.  Go figure!  

And often, I would spend the afternoon cooking a nice meal to go along with our English weekend at home, trying to make good use of the British grown ingredients we picked up at the local store.  One particular Saturday, or maybe it was a Sunday, I can't remember, it was Leek and Stilton tarts.   

So savory!  And so delicious!

And when you live in England for two years, that is how you while away the hours of the cold, dark and dreary weekends of January.