Monday, September 28, 2009

Paris: Final Thoughts

A few final reflections...
First, about the people...
Several friends and family members asked me if the French rude reputation held true. Based on my experience, I didn't find them rude at all. I definitely do not speak French although I attempted to be polite and use courtesy words like "Bonjour", "S'il vous plait", and "Merci". I believe that helped. Some people were friendly beyond our expectations. I distinctly remember two waitresses translating entire menus for our benefit. One man let me cut the long line at the grocery store when I was only buying a package of plastic knives for our picnic.

There wasn't much of a language barrier, being a large city, most everyone we interacted with spoke English. I asked "Parlez-vous anglais?" many, many times. One funny language thing did occur. I am so programed to say "si" or "yes" in Italian that I said "si" instead of "oui" over and over again, even commenting aloud "Ah! I'm still speaking Italian!" Of course, by the time I was replying correctly with "oui" it was time to leave and switch back to "si".

Next, the transportation....
The metro system is the most efficient and fastest public transportation I have ever used. There was an electronic notice board which posted the number of minutes until the next train. During peak times, trains were never more than 5 minutes apart! We hoped from one side of central Paris to the other, countless times, without much cost or effort.

Finally, values, leisure, and living the good life...
To us, Parisians seem to value self-expression, being outside, food, wine, art, music, and history. They like to eat, drink, and socialize. I think we would fit right in! We also noticed a reoccurring theme through the art and historical sites we visited. And that is this - the French have a revolutionary spirit and attitude. If you don’t like something, do your best to change it or do something different. We like that.

We also like to picnic and so do Parisians! I felt right at home spreading out our blanket and enjoying our packed lunch or dinner among locals doing the exact same thing. There was plenty of green space and breathtaking, world-famous scenery to choose from for the backdrop.

We had a full itinerary! It was slightly museum heavy, but we were determined to utilize our museum passes fully. Even though our days were packed, we left plenty to discover. We loved Paris and can’t wait to return! It’s beautiful. It’s romantic. Believe what everyone tells you, it’s true! Even though it is one expensive place, we have decided that it’s our new favorite city.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Vino Sfuso

Literally translated as “loose wine”, meaning unpackaged or unbottled, we know it as keg wine, tap wine, table wine, etc. It’s local and ultra cheap, between €1 and €1,80 per liter, but tastes great. There are several types available including Riesling, Merlot, and even Prosecco. We’re big fans of the Pinot Grigio and have recently tried the Cabernet Sauvignon. You buy a 5-liter container with your first vino purchase and take it back to be refilled once it’s empty. Once home, I distribute ours into smaller, 1-liter bottles. This enables easy refrigeration for the whites and eliminates air in the larger bottle. Let’s just say, we’re hooked on the loose wine!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Paris: Day 4

August 4, 2009

The Château de Versailles was the first sight on our agenda for the day. We hopped on the train after a quick croissant and coffee. The palace was beyond extravagant. Gold, ornate, and lavish best describe it. My photos could never do it justice, so I only took a few. There is a great slide show here featuring both the exterior and interior of the palace. The photos are beautiful and do a good job of relaying the grandeur.

The crowds of tourists rivaled those at the Louvre and were slightly distracting. After a few long, deep breaths and slowly counting to 10, we managed to focus on our audio tour and stay out of the way of the guided Asian tours. The amount of history involving King Louis XIV and the château is amazing. It started out as a hunting lodge and the King used it to escape from the city life of Paris. Later, the French royal court was moved here and it became both the French monarch and government headquarters. Go here if you're interested in more history. It was moving to walk through the exact same rooms once occupied by the King and his A-list guests. The Hall of Mirrors was spectacular and as well as impressive. I loved how the mirrors and windows were aligned in pairs. I can only imagine what it would have been like at night with tons of candles, full of noblemen and ladies in luxurious dresses instead of tourists in shorts.
We headed back to central Paris and to the Arc de Triomphe, a monument dedicated to French soldiers. We climbed the stairs to the top for the best 360° views of Paris. The Arc sits in the center of a massive round-about with 12 boulevards, lined beautifully with green trees.
It’s just like the movies and it was comical to watch the crazy traffic from both above and at ground level. It’s the only traffic circle that drivers already in the circle yield to those entering. (The opposite is true of all other traffic circles in France.) Here’s a video I shot from the top. If you listen closely, you can hear Michael laughing in the background at the fearless drivers and their maneuvers.

We wandered down the Champs-Elysées, the massive boulevard with high end shopping including the Louis Vuitton flagship store. We popped into a grocery store, picked up some champagne and blackberries, then headed back to the Eiffel Tower for an anniversary champagne toast. We lounged the afternoon away, sipping champagne, with more amazing views of the tower. There was no humidity and a light breeze – it was just perfect. The expression “living in the now” was meant for moments like that.
We then went to the hotel for a few minutes of down time and to freshen up. We grabbed our favorite quick dinner combo: a meat and cheese plate, with bread and wine.
The finale to our anniversary trip was the evening boat cruise down the Seine River. I researched for months on which cruise was the best and thought I had made up my mind. About one week before our trip, I found Canauxrama cruises based on a recommendation through the ever faithful Trip Advisor. I am so glad I did. It was simply wonderful. The boat was small and intimate, with tables and chairs rather than just rows and rows, and more rows of seats. The boat also had a bar serving beer, wine, and champagne. There was a live commentary that was both informative and humorous in French and English.
The sun was setting as we cruised past Notre Dame, casting a beautiful peach-colored hue across the sky. We passed under the many picturesque bridges of Paris, including the Pont Alexandre III, considered the most beautiful.

The Eiffel Tower’s lights began to dance as we floated by. It was the most magical anniversary, and it was only our third. I said to Michael “How are we ever going to top this one?”

Monday, September 7, 2009

Turn the Page

I don't need to tell you about the huge hype over HD flat screens and the "how big is yours?" complex. You already know, so.... "How big IS your HD TV?" Michael and I can only dream of HD because we don't have a TV here in Italy. What? Yes! Let me say it again. We don't have a TV. There. Now that you're over your shock, continue reading....

For as long as I can remember a TV has been the center of our household entertainment. I would sometimes just turn it on for "noise". I never noticed how quiet an apartment can be without one. It's sad to say, but it has been an adjustment. So instead of channel surfing we are page turning. I have read more books for leisure in the last year than I have in the past five years. Some have been great and others have been just words on a page. I even caught up/finished the Harry Potter series. When Book 7 came out, I still hadn't read Book 6! I blame grad school on that one. Not having a TV has actually enabled me to rediscover my love of reading. Good books let you escape for the evening, while great books alter your thoughts and change the way you look at things. Books are like Tivo or DVR, your story is ready and waiting, you can "rewind" if you need to, plus no comericals! Now, pick up a book and turn off that TV. It rots your brain anyway. ;)

If you are looking for a new read, here are some of my recommendations.

A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father (prequel to Running with Scissors) - Augusten Burrroughs

Running with Scissors - Augusten Burroughs

Gone with the Wind - Margaret Mitchell

The Bridge of Sighs - Richard Russo

The 13th Tale - Diane Setterfield

The House of Spirits - Isabel Allende

The Road Home - Rose Tremain

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Middlesex - Jeffery Eugenides

The Glass Castle - Jeannette Walls

I am currently reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and I'm really enjoying it so far.

Are you reading an amazing book? Share the title and author by posting a comment.
Happy Reading!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Paris: Day 3

August 3, 2009

On this day we planned to tackle the Orangerie Museum and the Louvre, but first, we had our same omelet and café au lait breakfast at Café de l’Ecritoire. The Orangerie was a former storage space for orange trees of the Tuileries Garden. Monet painted wall-sized canvases of water lilies, scenes from his garden pond in Giverny, France. The canvases completely surround you as you sit in the middle of the room. I especially enjoyed the ones with clouds and trees within the reflection.

We passed through the Tuileries Garden on our way to the Louvre. There were several fountains and benches for relaxing. A mother duck and her three babies were entertaining to watch as they floated around in a pond.

We paused for a café outside of The Louvre before tackling the inside. We had our caffeine fix and sat back to take in the exterior - the pyramid and palace wings.

Once inside, it was a madhouse! I expected craziness but we were overwhelmed with the actual number of people. We hit the highlights including Mona. She was of course smaller than everyone expects, but we were prepared for this. It was still neat to actually see her in person. I really enjoyed the French Neoclassicism and French Romanticism. We’ve seen plenty of Italian medieval and renaissance art so these were new to us. Here are examples.

La Grande Odalisque

About now I wished I had taken a formal art appreciation course in college, though I am gaining a better appreciation with live viewing and travel. Sometimes I wish I knew more background, history, technique, etc. while looking at all the masterpieces...

We had a quick lunch at a place that reminded me of Panera, but much better! Then we headed over to the Montmartre area to visit Sacré Cœur (Sacred Heart) Basilica. The church's exterior is made of gypsum, giving it a bright white glow. The church sits on the highest point in Paris and the views of the city are extraordinary!

A few streets away from the church we found Bohemia Montmartre at Place du Tertre. The square is lined with cafés and the center is filled with Parisian artists. We gawked at all the original art, circling the square several times, looking for that special souvenir piece. There were hundreds of Eiffel Towers, café and shop window scenes, Moulin Rouge and the infamous Chat Noir. We contemplated what to add to our collection, struck with “Analysis Paralysis”. We mulled over the Eiffel Towers for awhile but decided on a piece that had actually caught our eyes upon first stepping into the square. It’s unique and eclectic, of course, and it will go perfectly with our Phish Coventry poster. It doesn’t scream “WE WENT TO PARIS” but it will take us back to Montmartre and our anniversary trip. It's three fish outlined in black with swirly primary colors. Michael pointed out a rather sweet symbolism- the three fish represent the three years of our marriage. We paused to have some Rosé wine before leaving the Montmartre area and were serenaded by street musicians. We made our way back towards central Paris, passing by quaint houses and buildings including Van Gogh’s former home.

We ventured to the Marasis district for our official anniversary dinner at Chez Janou. The food was divine and the best we ate our entire time in Paris. We started with warm goat cheese served atop a chunky tomato sauce. Michael had cream risotto with scallops, drizzled with a sweet balsamic reduction. I had a juicy tuna steak with a side of grilled veggie risotto with garlic. For dessert, we split a massive dish of crème brûlée, my absolute favorite dessert. It was simply heavenly and the perfect ending to our delicious anniversary dinner!