Wednesday, July 24, 2013

gloucestershire: it only takes five tries to spell it right.

Greetings, devoted blog fans!

That first full day in London was a doozy all right. Nine miles of wandering around is one thing, but contact with the thousands of my fellow tourists is what really did me in – at least one of ‘em gave me a wicked cold virus. I first realized it the next day, on board a train for Stroud, Gloucestershire, where my college roommate Bonnie’s been living for a while.


“A” marks the spot.

Gracious host that she is, Bonnie accommodated my whiny, sniffly self and we spent the first few hours of my visit basically prone on her living room floor, comparing notes on the vagaries of life. But eventually, it was time to go out for dinner. In true minimalist, ecofriendly European fashion, Bonnie and her partner (who alas, was out of town, so I didn’t get to meet him) are car-free by choice, so we walked the “two miles” to the Stroud Brewery. The “two miles” were quite enjoyable, featuring as they did paths through the woods and along old canal towpaths lined with an incredible array of English wildflowers. We went under an aqueduct once or twice – it was a lovely time. Much later, I learned that no wonder our walk was so much fun – it was actually three miles of pleasure. Well, allrighty then.

Fortunately, the individually-baked pizzas and organic pear cider were quite restorative...

(thanks, internet, for the picture!)

...which was handy, given that we had two three miles walk home. By now lo, I say unto thee, verily, I didst feel like shit: badly swollen throat and brain completely given over to snot production. I gave up on the idea of spending the following morning (Saturday) doing my ten-mile run along Stroud’s scenic byways. Instead, we both slept in and then wandered around downtown Stroud.

Stroud has the small town thing all figured out.


Very few chain stores – there was a Subway, but that’s the only one I noticed.


The Beatles played here twice, in 1962.

There’s so much of this sort of thing it’s easy to take for granted.


Farmer’s Market and associated trinkets. Best part: all the musicians with their guitar cases out for change – their average age was 13, I would guess. Start ‘em young.


There was a lot of FANTASTIC cheese and meats available for nibbling. And purchase.




Who wouldn’t want a beef shin bone pie? Not Bonnie!


And then Bonnie got me off onto the train. And somehow, once I arrived back at Paddington Station, I managed to get myself back to the hotel. I felt like I was about 125 years old. I crashed hard. Kevin was in meetings. I rallied and woke up and made myself presentable, because we had a hot date scheduled.


Rowley’s, Jermyn Street, just off Piccadilly Circus. I’d eaten here once before in 1988 and all I’d remembered was the street name – thanks be to the google, I was able to track it down. All they serve, pretty much, is beef and french fries (“chips”) tho’ they do have a token vegetarian entrée. Those are big smushes of herb butter, sitting on top of sirloin and fillet. It was heavenly. I’m sure they appreciated my frequent nose blowing – I am a class act, what can I say.

We wandered home after dinner through Picadilly, Leicester Square, and the edge of Soho, through thousands of tourists equally intent on enjoying the mellow evening. I’m sure our every move was documented on a security camera – there are probably more security cameras than there are people in England. They are OBSESSED.

This is blurry but evocative, so I’m including it. Just one of many improbably lovely buildings that litter the London landscape.


I was struck by the excellence in signage, which for some unfathomable reason I didn’t think to photograph. Signs explaining detours and construction projects. Kiosks with big walking maps, showing you what’s within a five minute walk of where you’re standing. Or my personal favorite, a small sign affixed to the side of a sex shop, requesting that those loitering outside for a smoke please be mindful of the traffic and also considerate of other pedestrians. So polite! And outside a sex shop! I love it.

And that was it! Our last full day. We left for the States the following day. Most of my brain has evaporated into snot and I’m regrowing it, as you can tell from the excellent quality of this post. Thanks for sticking with me!

Monday, July 22, 2013

London, day one.

Time stretched out sloooowwwwlllyyyyy in Paris, but *snap* it righted itself once we got into London. The last few days have been a blur. At some point I contracted a cold from one of the x million tourists in London, and that's no doubt affected my perceptions.

We arrived in London on Wednesday evening.

Thursday morning, I got up at the crack o' dawn and went for a run. We'd forgotten to change the time on Kevin's alarm clock (Paris and London are in different time zones), so I got up even earlier than super early - something like 5:15 am. We were staying in a hotel right around the corner from the Paul Mellon Centre in Bedford Square, which serves as the office for the Yale in London program. Since I went on that program in college, I assumed I would be familiar with the neighborhood...not so. My internal compass was thrown off by 90 degrees. Eventually, I figured out why and got reoriented, but at the time, I was relieved to make it back to the hotel.

16 Bedford Square. Boolah boolah.

Kevin was, naturally, going to be busy in meetings all day, so I occupied myself thusly:

To wit, a long walk toward Westminster Abbey and back.

Leicester Square. That smooth-facaded building at right houses the M&M museum. Proof of the decline of western civilization. The KFC in the distance is additional proof.

Picadilly Circus.

We passed through this area later on together a couple of times, when it was absolutely mobbed with tourists from all over the world.

St James's Square. I was struck by the variety in architectural styles. I really should have taken more photos from this walk, as it was fairly mind-blowing.

I stumbled across Buckingham Palace. Off camera to the right is a circular bit of road, lined with media vans, tents, and satellites - all awaiting the news of the arrival of Ms Kate Middleton's progeny.

A bit of wandering later, and we have the exterior of Westminster Abbey. To my way of thinking? Glorious.

Sadly? No pictures allowed of the inside. My favorite moment: standing on the paving stones above the tombs of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

The internal cloisters - photos allowed at this point.

Eventually I staggered onward, braving the oh-my-god-so-many tourists, toward Big Ben.

Then a quick crossing-of-the-road to greet the river proper - can't go to a city with a giant river running through it without paying my respects...

At this point, I really wanted to walk all the way to St. Paul's Cathedral (do you sense a theme in my interests? If I can't have flowers, give me big-ass cathedrals) but I was feeling kinda worn out. I contemplated the Tube til I saw that without an Oyster card it would cost 4.5 pounds - something like seven bucks - one way. Screw that. I headed back toward the hotel on foot.

I cooled my heels in Trafalgar Square for a bit, gathering strength.

That night, Kevin and I went out to dinner with some of his London colleagues. Great fun was had. Wine was consumed. Stories were told. England's in the middle of a big heat wave and we were able to sit outside, just as we had been doing in Paris all week. It was delightful... a lovely way to end a pretty long day.

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

paris, the last day.

We began our final day in Paris on a bench outside our hotel, breakfasting on the finest the local Carrefour had to offer (yogurt, bananas, crappy pains au chocolate -- the local boulangerie/patisserie was closed on Wednesdays, so I had to make do. Woe is Me.)

Even the graffiti is more beautiful here, non?

We decided to keep things simple: Claude Monet, the water lily paintings, at the Musée de l'Orangerie. On our way there, we continued our series, "Paris on Two Crutches a Day". That's Place de la Concorde, the Eiffel Tower, and the Grand Palais in back of Our Hero.

Naturally, they don't allow cameras in the Monet rooms, so you'll have to rely on the google to see what we saw. My word. We both wondered how he actually pulled it off - the paintings are huge, at least seven or eight feet tall, and he is somehow conveying the surface of the water itself, reflections of clouds, reflections of long dangly (willow?) branches, and of course, the lilies themselves - all in a bunch of squiggles - how did he DO that?

Afterwards, we made our way back toward our hotel, getting off a stop early to allow for the requisite outdoor cafe experience. From there, it was a taxi ride to the Gare du Nord and our journey to London.

But before we do that, let's have a look at our Tuileries / walk to Latin Quarter along the Seine experience from the previous day, since by now I've gotten my pictures uploaded. We'll start with a little nibble of the Louvre for you:

It would be cool to have one of those porthole windows for a view, wouldn't it?

Below is the Ponts des Arts, its railings encrusted with padlocks placed there by the lovesick.

The next bridge is the Pont Neuf - it's the one that crosses the tip of the Île de la Cité. We watched a professional film crew filming a woman hopping on the back of a motorcycle. History in the making, no doubt.

OK, enough digression. I bring you back to that last (*sniff!*) cafe experience after the water lilies, where we contemplate the age old questions of life:

"Should I have a café crème, or a cappucino?"

One last look at Notre Dame from our taxi to the Gard du Nord (our train station), where it appears that another bridge entirely has also been festooned with padlocks.

The train ride is a couple of hours long. I've always been curious about what the trip through the Chunnel is like.

Apparently, it's dark.

I am slightly embarrassed to notice that this picture shows evidence of my insatiable need for footrubs, even in public. Ooops.

I had entertained a fantasy that somehow the Chunnel trip would end with a view of the white cliffs of Dover - I realize I'm on drugs here - and was consequently bummed to see this once we emerged on the English side:

Oh. Blegh.

Not to worry, though: staggeringly beautiful and awesome London stuff is coming right up.

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

paris troisième

So where were we? Eiffel Tower? Yeah. Then what. The next day Kevin was going to be busy busy busy with work so I was going to be on my own. I started with an early-morning run. Alas, the Jardins des Plantes (incidentally, is that not a great name for a public park? "Garden...of Plants"? Oui.) was not actually open at that hour, so I wound up running around it a couple of times instead. I was not the only early morning runner - a bunch of us were doing laps through the neighborhood.

Look - it's art! At first I thought this was the dried-up evidence of a former espalier (when you train a tree to grow up lattice-work attached to a wall) but no, a little sign informed me that this is actually Art, with an Artist and everything. Loved it anyway.

Then Kevin and I went out to our new favorite cafe for some coffee.

He has had me take a whole series of pictures of him with his crutches, for a series he would like to entitle "Paris on Two Crutches a Day".

For some inexplicable reason - probably because we're cheap - we refused to eat the hotel breakfast and instead made the rounds of local shops for croissants (for me - Kev can't eat 'em cause he's gluten-free) and yogurts/fruit. So we did that as well. And then he was off to his meetings, and I was off on another four or five mile stroll. Ave. des Gobelins. Rue Mouffetarde. Rue de L'Estrapade. Skirt the Pantheon. Head for Blvd St Michel. Get lost in the depths of the Latin Quarter, emerge at Notre Dame: my personal ground zero. And then, Sainte-Chapelle.

This is a chapel, a block away from Notre Dame, built by Louis IX to house various super-special relics (crown of thorns, anyone?) way back in the 13th century. Over the years it's gotten sacked and rebuilt, its contented shuffled around to other locations. My mom had been nagging me to see it again, as we'd visited it in the 70's when we were living in Switzerland, but I didn't remember it. Rather than admit to the possiblity of being a Callow Youth, I will defend myself by saying that I saw a TON of fantastic things all over Europe as a child, so hey, this one fell through the cracks.

I'm glad I went.

The lower level: intimate, glowing.

The upper level: mind-blowing, and that's with a section of windows blocked off for restoration. I realize this first picture is a bit blurry - I just want you to see what awaits you as you emerge from the tiny stone spiral staircase:

As I said, some of the windows are being restored - that's that enormous canvas on the left side.

I could blame the blurriness of the photos on my own eyeballs being slightly blurry with tears - kind of to my surprise, but not so much. I think in some past lifetime(s), I've been a monk, or a craftsperson associated with building cathedrals or the ingredients thereof, because it seems to resonate at a mitochondrial level.

Turning around to face the other side...

Even the floor was cool.

For the fashion-minded among you, Chacos (what I'm wearing) are not popular amongst the world travelers this year. Little Roman-empire-type sandals, with a solid bit up the heel/Achilles tendon, and a gazillion little strappies, are all the rage. That, and the loathsome flip-flops. But back to our adventures.

Here, we have a detail of the altar area - a tiny staircase...

Another detail, from the wall:

And here we have the exterior of the chapel. Keep in mind, this whole structure is INSIDE a giant courtyard - you would never know it even existed, from the street.


After all this, I wandered back down to our hotel, a couple miles away. Kevin joined me at the end of the day. Having run three miles and walked four and a half or five miles, I would have been amenable to lazing around, but Crutch Boy was having none of it. We hopped on the metro - no easy feat for my sweetie, as many stations have plenty of stairs but no escalators or elevators in sight - and went to the Louvre. We didn't go IN the Louvre - we just wandered slowly down the Tuileries, which I feel is best called The Tweedledees, and back again, and over into the Latin Quarter, whereupon we dined at a cafe just steps from where a friend of mine used to live in the way, wayback machine.

I'd show you pictures, but I can't get them off my phone at the moment, so you'll just have to imagine how pleasant it was. At dinner, next to us, a tableful of young guys blew through a delicious-looking platter of charcuterie and engaged in shoptalk. Something about marketing, surveys, and magazines - that's all I could gather.

And then we meandered through the tiny, lively streets of the left bank to the nearest metro stop and made our way back to our hotel, where we slept in so long and so hard that we did not awake until the rather terrifying sound of housekeeping starting to enter the room. Oops!

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Paris, jour deux

After some serious jet lag from the travel day on Sunday, we slept long and hard into Monday morning. We then spent some time exploring the neighborhood, which is code for "we performed qualitative analysis of coffee and croissants". A laborious chore, but someone's got to do it. Then it was off to work for Kevin, so I amused myself with a walk to the Jardins Luxembourg and the surrounding neighborhood.

On my way home, I stumbled across the Pantheon - that dome above in the distance. Looking up at the entrance columns - whew. I chose not to pay the entrance fee to go in, as I had a hot date scheduled with my sweetie for the late afternoon and I didn't want to be late.

In the evening, we headed out for dinner on my new favorite street: Rue Mouffetard, a mostly pedestrian only cobblestone street filled with restaurants.

I won't be the first or the most eloquent person to rhapsodize about the joys of a simple, elegant meal served at an outdoor cafe. Lovebean had escargots and a roast chicken; I had a divine salad and helpfully sopped up his leftover escargot butter with baguette slices. *burp*.

After dinner, we found a taxi and headed to the Eiffel Tower. We asked to get super-close, because of Kevin's crutches, and our driver obliged.

We wandered around the base, mocking the silly people waiting in line for the elevator up to the top, and then figured oh what the hell, and joined them.

It was about an hour and a half - shorter, if you wanted to take the stairs - not an option in our case. The price for an adult - over 24 - to go up to the second level was 8.5 euros, and considerably less for those under 24. Naturally, when I got up to the counter, I flirted with the woman at the till. "Je suis vingt-quatre", I deadpanned. "Ahhh, moi aussi!" she responded, and we all cracked up. I don't think she had laughed all day. Just doing my job! We got our tickets and went in to wait for the elevator. There are two, stacked one on top of each other, so we waited for the lower one which didn't require that we climb any stairs. By the time we bought our tickets, sunset was nearly upon us, and all the folks who had recently gone up to the very top weren't coming down (would you?), which meant that the summit was closed. (That's why we bought tickets for the second level.) There was just enough light to get some pictures:

But the light was fading fast. While we were still milling around with several hundred of our closest friends, the evening light show began - a bunch of epilepsy-inducing flashes all around us - I'm trying to upload a ten-second video to YouTube of it to link to, but hotel wifi being what it is, this may not work. We decided it was time to head down. Kevin's crutches earned him the sympathy of the staff, who let him sit on a staff-only bench to wait for the elevator. One of the elevator attendants joined him and we chatted.

That guy speaks five languages. What do you call somone who only speaks one language? An American. Actually, I've been pretty pleased with my French here. It's awkward having essentially no accent (courtesy a childhood spent in Lausanne) but being rusty. I fear it makes me sound like an idiot. I digress. I've got another cool ten-second video of the moving gears of the elevator - they're HUGE. Another day, perhaps.


We made our way home via taxi and collapsed in a heap. Tomorrow: more touristy stuff and pretty pictures.

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