Paris – Day 4

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Although we had been advised by a previous travel session’s attendee to skip our scheduled tour of Versailles, we decided to suck it up and go anyway. How bad could it be, we wondered. The tour was only scheduled for a half day, so even if it sucked, we’d be back by lunch time.

When we arrived, the parking lot was filling up with tour buses and the lines to get in were what could only be described as ludicrous. The palace exterior was beautifully appointed with gold leaf and elaborate scrollwork and statues. To say the place was huge was an understatement.

Since we were part of a tour group and our tickets were already purchased, we were able to bypass the lines and enter the gardens. I will say that I wish we had more time to explore them, since they go on for miles (literally) and we had only 30 minutes. To be honest, the gilded lily of the palace itself wore my patience thin rather quickly, and given the chance, I’d have just stayed there all day.

But, we had to meet the guide, so off we rushed, covering much more distance than we wanted to in such a short amount of time. Inside the palace, we were given earpieces and radios to hear the tour guide. We quickly realized why this was necessary.

The rooms were positively jammed with people, and sure the place was lovely, if you’re into that kind of thing. For me, the lavish, over-the-top decor was kind of an eyesore, and honestly made me want to join whatever mob of peasants that stormed the castle demanding bread back in the day.

If you can get past the nut-flexing ego of the “sun king,” you’ll definitely need to check any personal space issues at the door. People were downright rude, bumping into us more than even I would have thought necessary. Finally, I began to cry out each time some jerk railed into me, finally eliciting a useless apology from a few.

I wasn’t the only one who had this issue. A man on our tour had a lady lean on his back to take a picture like he was a freaking tripod. We began to notice it together. Complaining didn’t make it stop, but the sense that we weren’t the only ones annoyed by it did help. All that personal space invasion aside, I did get some awesome pictures, but I’m sure they’re nothing that I couldn’t have found on Google image search.

Departing from Versailles was also tricky. The souvenir guys were out in full force, offering a variety items from key chains to designer knock off purses and watches. Since there was only one way out of the lot, the buses all began jockeying for position, an exercise in true grit and determination. Tourists dashed between the buses, nearly getting clipped, as the elephant ballet began. Eventually, we were free of the chaos and back on our way to the hotel.

We decided to hit the grocery store to find it consumed by the Parisian lunch rush. The line to check out wrapped all the way around the store. Parisians were grabbing quick lunches before heading back to work, so we lingered a bit to give those who needed to clear out before us an opportunity to do so. The cashiers were well skilled at handling the deluge, moving deftly with the same precision any craftsman could be proud of.

We left our things at the room and decided to head back out. We set off to walk around, finding a reasonably priced pizza shop not far from the hotel. I ordered a mushroom risotto which easily defined the term “rich.” A few glasses of beer later, stomachs full, we set back out, trying to find our way back to the hotel. We weren’t 100% sure of our surroundings! but thought we could navigate based on the few landmarks we recognized.

The next hour would be an exercise of almost being where we needed to be, but not quite, and our full stomachs and bladders quickly took hold of an emotionally tenuous situation at best. Our crankiness persevered even after figuring out where we were, and for the first (and thankfully only) time on our trip, we needed a brief time out from each other.

Later that evening, we got over the afternoon’s unpleasantness and rallied for the group dinner. I put extra effort into readying myself for the evening, knowing that the endless parade of glad-handing and trophy wives awaited us. There is a certain confidence one gets from properly applied mascara after all.

The buses filled with people I didn’t know, and we rode to the venue quietly. Ahead of me, two teenage boys were making each other’s aquaintence, in what can only be described as one of the most uncomfortable conversations I’d ever been forced to bear witness. One boy talked the whole time, about himself, in what seemed to be a well-rehearsed script about his likes, dislikes and hobbies. The other seemed to be paying the bare minimum amount of attention, nodding occasionally. The first boy was oblivious of course, but soon ran out of things to say, and resorted to asking questions of the other. He gave cursory answers, seeming to sense the kid didn’t are about what he had to say. True enough, these responses only prompted him to talk more about himself, until finally, gratefully, we reached our destination.

We stepped off the bus before this huge red theatre. There were clowns on stilts mugging for pictures with the arriving guests, and more carrying feather dusters, frozen in place until someone walked in between them. At that point, they would spring to life and “dust” the guests. I avoided both since clowns freak me out. A group of musicians paraded around with lively brass tunes.

The building had once been stables for horses, two long red wooden buildings, with a cobblestone courtyard in between them. Women in costumes came by with trays of French fries in cups, adding ketchup with a squeeze bottle, if you please. They were incredibly popular.

Along the insides of each building were liquor tables, all sorts of carnival games, buffets and a carousel. It was incredible. They clearly spared no expense.

It was go time, though. I had to remember people’s names, positions, territory and hierarchical structure. We’d run into people I’d met before, of whose names I could absolutely keep straight. It was the same ritual over and over again, glad handing a stranger, the stranger’s wife, child, grandma or what have you. Smiles all around, posturing and schmoozing.

We made our rounds, decided our feet hurt and called it a night. The bus filled quickly with like minded people and we took off quickly. We passed through sections of Paris I’d never seen, more restaurants, the opera house, I think. Then we saw the plaza where the homeless were being fed. There must have easily been a hundred people, huddled together along long tables set up, workers sending out plate after plate for them.

The image kept with me as we arrived at our gorgeously appointed hotel, as I laid in the warm, clean bed, I couldn’t help but feel the disparity. In a single night, I got a tiny taste of unimaginable luxury, abject poverty and am hovering somewhere in the middle

Foto Friday – Storm Clouds

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Happy Foto Friday, everyone! Today we begin a new series! The very first thing that I began to photograph obsessively when I first got into photography was the sky. I was obsessed. After a while, though, I branched out into other things. But recently, a summer storm whipped through and in the early evening the sun was setting as the sky cleared. I stood out on my deck and shot these as the sky lit up like fire. Enjoy!

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Paris – Day 3

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With nothing on the agenda, we decided to sleep in. The light blocking drapes help fuel the hangover slaking, jet lag induced hibernation. It wasn’t until about lunch time that we finally got up and dressed.

The weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot. So, we made our way back to the metro to head towards some of the more touristy sights. The metro had a much different feel during the day, much more crowded and the people were more likely to be workers on their lunch break than tourists.

At our stop, we found a carnival set up along the edge of the park. Food stands, games and rides lined up along the park near the Louvre. We wandered a bit, taking loads of pictures. Eventually we found our way to the Seine, and our feet were tired. So we decided to rest a bit at an outdoor cafe.

We ordered a glass of rosé wine and French fries. Though the fries weren’t on the menu as an individual item, the waitress was kind and accommodating. The portion was huge and reasonable (only €5). We stayed a bit, watching people walk by and sizing up the river cruises.

After lunch, we found a “hop on, hop off” river cruise and took the ride down the full length of the route. We were able to get a better understanding of where the landmarks were and decided to check out Notre Dame. There was a summer event taking place called the “Paris Pleges” where they turn the streets near the Seine into manmade beaches.

After that, we headed over to Notre Dame, but the lines were just insane. We took a few photos, and then left, realizing we were back at the Latin quarter. Since we had such good luck there the night before, we decided to wander around to see what we could find. A tiny tiger cat ran across our path near a pizza shop, so we took that as an omen to eat.

The pizza was reasonable, with booths to sit. The food was pretty good, and although you needed tokens to use the pay bathroom, it was clean. We left the pizza place to find ourselves quite close to the Frog Burger from the night before, so we chose to stop in for a beer.

The waitress recognized us from the night before. Although we had already eaten, and weren’t hungry, she brought us an order of sweet potato fries on the house. (Apparently you can’t just order just drinks there, some kind of law.)

We had the place to ourselves for a while, but more Americans came in shortly thereafter. I know this because one of them addressed the waiter with “How’s your English?” before even saying hello. He didn’t wait for an answer and left to use the restroom without even ordering anything. The rest were well behaved, but the asshat from Chicago who couldn’t be bothered to lower his voice proved the very reason the rest of the world dislikes Americans. I don’t know if he behaved like this back home or not, but my experience has been that a majority of us simply forget our manners when we travel.

We left shortly thereafter, mouthing quiet apologies to the kind waitstaff. After a quick ride back, we bumped into some of my husband’s colleagues on the street, and we stopped in a brasserie for a beer. We traded stories about the trip so far before retiring to our hotel for the night. My feet were killing me, so I drew a hot bath to soak and poured a ruby leffe to quaff before bed.

Paris – Day 2

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We had a full day tour scheduled for the champagne region, so we dressed and met the tour group in the lobby. The day would be a long one, so we loaded up at the complimentary breakfast at the hotel. The bus wound through the city, as the tour guide called out the various sights we passed.

The bus ride would be about 1 1/2 hours to the first vineyard, a drive that took us first through the city, but quickly devolved into the similar looking landscapes we were used to seeing in the east coast of the United States. We passed lovely farm regions and small villages that, but for the distinctive stamp of French culture, could easily have been from the area where I grew up.

Along the way, one of the necessary streets was closed for some kind of event, so the tour took a slightly panicked detour until finally stopping to ask some random person for directions. As we arrived to find other tour groups waiting, it became obvious to the tour guide’s angst about arriving on time. We managed to get in, though, and the group began its slow descent into the wine cellars.

The tour guide gave a wonderful presentation of the champagne production process. The caves had been hand carved from old chalk mines, still soft to the touch. There were beautifully restored wooden doors and statues honoring Saint John the Baptist (who is apparently the patron saint of cellar workers). We finished our tour with a video and finally some actual champagne.

After the wine cellar, we had a brief tour of the city of Reims, mostly focusing on the cathedral. The word immense is a staggering understatement for this behemoth of stone and cut stained glass. Although heavily shelled in the world wars, the structure still stood. Some of the windows were blown out by the attacks, but were restored with less elaborate patterns in the reconstruction.

The guide informed us that several French kings had been crowned there, which seemed curious to me. One would think that they would hold such grand events in the capital. I’ll have to do more research on that to get a better understanding.

After the tour, we broke for lunch. We found an area full of cafés but chose poorly. Our orders were wrong, my husband’s lunch inedible as his burger was totally raw. Not having much time, we just paid the bill and left. I did find a chocolatier and bought a large chocolate macaron for each of us for €3,50 each. They were heavenly!

As we waited for the rest of our group, I made light conversation with one if the pretty trophy wives, who was exquisitely nice to me. We were soon joined by some of her friends who consoled me about missing my son, the pitfalls of having daughters over sons and we glanced wistfully at the gorgeous French clothiers which were sadly closed on Sunday. It was uplifting to be accepted, even for a moment, by such a posh group.

We had another vineyard to visit, and the drive there was even more gorgeous than before. The bus wound its way through lush, green countryside with quaint villages nestled in like content doves. We arrived at our destination, a beautiful town of Eperney, where another champagne vineyard awaited us.

This tour was fully automated, with a video presentation, a “panoramic lift” and finally a small train tour through the underground caves. The video was interesting, highlighting the family vineyard’s origin and history of somewhat exotic self promotion, but without audio, the group quickly devolved into lesser maturity levels, giggling and making comments to fill the silence.

The panoramic lift was an exercise in claustrophobia, again without audio, slowly descending to the bottom of the cellars where the train awaited us. Here we were given audio devices with the remainder of the tour already preprogrammed. Once the train finished the tour, we were finally given some champagne. It was nice enough, but too pricey to justifying the purchase. We snapped a few more photos and hopped back on the bus back.

Once we returned to Paris, we decided to head to the Latin quarter for dinner. We had to take the metro, connecting at another station before reaching our destination. The concierge was kind enough to map out directions, which seemed pretty straightforward.

The subway system, regardless of city always weirds me out. There’s almost always some vagrant or panhandler mucking about, and it makes me extremely uncomfortable. Mostly because I truly want to help the less fortunate, but don’t want to be victimized myself.

At the first station, a young man and his lady companion got on the same train as we did. He kept turning around to stare at me, following us at our connecting station. I let them pass ahead of us, even giving them a long head start to wherever they were going. Still, the guy kept turning around to look at me. At our next stop, I paused when the train cames, opting to simply wait for the next one. He and his friend took the train and sped off into the night, but not before one parting glare as we remained behind at the station.

We breathed a sigh of relief, as we waited for the next train. For a moment, I felt foolish, but I’ve always tried to listen to my gut when something didn’t feel right. Maybe he was harmless, maybe not. But I’m alive and that’s all that mattered.

We arrived at the Latin quarter and found it hopping with activity. The shops and restaurants were piled on top of each other, but eventually we found our destination: a British chain called Frog Burger. The food and house-made ales were both delicious and reasonable, the staff accommodating and friendly. We stayed late, chatting with the waitresses who could not have been nicer. After a lovely meal, we finally returned to the hotel for the night.

Foto Friday – Abandoned Office

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Happy Foto Friday everyone! Today, we complete this series. I took these photos when I first started my current job. We used to be housed in a very old building, which is where unpopular departments go to die. Eventually, the old building was to be torn down. Only our half was being maintained at that point. Before the demolition crew was to arrive, my boss gave me the okay to go into the unmaintained half to see what was over there. I brought my camera and got this photo (among the rest of the series). We’ll begin a new series next week! Enjoy!

Paris – day 1

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There are some people who say that rain is good luck, but as I sit in our hotel room listening to the pittering droplets outside our window, I call serious bullshit on that. The rain itself, is frankly the least of my concerns, as the Murphy’s law of travel had once again dropped in on us.

Although we breezed through security, and checkin at the airport without issue, the realization that I may have overpacked as I crammed my giant backpack, neck pillow and camera bag under the tiny wine bar table hit me like the $17 a glass wine buzz I would soon inflict upon myself.

After a few glasses, my sore muscles began to loosen and for a moment, all was right in the universe. Then came time for us to settle up and move on. We bid adieu to the older couple sitting behind us, who were among the five individuals who also warned us about pickpockets. Although I’ve been to many major cities before, both in the U.S. and abroad, I’ve never had “the fear” driven into me in such a way before. My mind conjured a city full of unknowable faces, all vying for my wallet, for there was certainly no place safe on my person I could keep it totally safe.

We grabbed some takeout for dinner, but realized the only place in the entire terminal that had red bull (my lifeblood when it comes to combatting jet lag and substandard airline coffee). So, having ten minutes left before we began boarding, I found myself sprinting through the terminal for overpriced energy drinks.

We get on board, settling in is all but impossible. The seats feel smaller, and I’m never comfortable. The in flight entertainment system goes out at my seat halfway through the movie I’m watching, and it never recovers, even after the flight attendant reboots it. I try to sleep, but can’t settle in. Only once the captain puts on the lights, announcing breakfast service and one hour until arrival, do I start to nod off. Now, though, it’s too late. I haven’t missed a whole night’s sleep since my son was born, and every inch of my body is roiling with rage.

At baggage claim, another person reminds me to “be careful for pickpockets” in an alarming tone. I begin to wonder if I look like I can’t handle myself in a big city, or if that’s the one piece of advice anyone ever remembers about going to Paris. But at that point, I’m so exhausted and figure if some Dickensian street urchin takes my shit, I’d let them.

Once we have our bags, we queue up with the rest of our group, some of them looking every inch the country bumpkin the guidebook warned us so strongly against. (Seriously, people! Get your shit together!) Our luggage loaded into a sketchy looking cube truck and sent off to meet us at the hotel. Meanwhile, we go through what can only be explained as a psychological experiment to determine how long people will wait for a bus before killing someone.

The ride through the city to our hotel is confusing. Parts of the city look like bad housing projects. There’s graffiti everywhere and although it’s all in French, I do recognize someone’s street name as “chicken,” and am not able to determine if it’s some kind of dig, or if the gangs here are equally as bizarre as the art of mime and the comedy of Jerry Lewis.

I’m delirious by the time we check in, only to be told the nap and shower I’m longing for will have to wait another 8 hours. We’re a allowed to stow our luggage, but no room is available until 4:00 p.m. At this point, I loose my cool, and destroy the thin veil keeping my last frayed nerves. I just want to cry, but one of my husband’s absolutely useless colleagues reminds me that I “get what I pay for.” Um, yeah dude, I get it. This trip is paid for by someone else, but fuck that. I’m not asking much, really, and if I had the option to not be here, I really would have opted out.

We decide to explore the surrounding areas and happen upon the local grocery store. A lovely Parisian woman advises us on bottles of rose wine and all is right with the universe.

Later we find a reasonable bistro with yummy beer and food. After some food and drink, we feel closer to human, and are delighted to get the call that our room is ready. At the desk, we are told the luggage will be brought up, but two hours later, we wake up from our nap to find no one has come. I call the front desk three times before I can get an answer, and when they finally do arrive, one of the bags is missing.

I don’t let the bellhop leave without getting some kind of idea what I can do next. I leave him in a huff in search of the room where the luggage was stored, only to arrive and find it completely empty. Fighting tears, I ask the employee about the bag, but he doesn’t need to answer. He gathers the other bellmen, and a brief discourse in French takes place with each of the regarding me with concerned, sympathetic eyes. One compiles a list with the other rooms they delivered bags to, and we set off to find each one.

I learned that, at least in this hotel, the bellman will use his key card to enter in spite of the “do not disturb” sign. I make a mental note to bolt the door to my own room later. Our search does not turn up the bag, so I am forced to return to the room empty-handed. I deliver the bad news and my husband begins drafting the list of the bag’s contents, while I grab a shower. Luckily, by the time I finish, the bag has surfaced and was delivered.

Putting the negativity behind us, we set out for the night. We return to a quiet bar, and enjoy a meal with the entire restaurant to ourselves. The long trip behind us, our bellies full, and thoroughly exhausted, we head back home to blissful sleep.

Paris – Pre-flight

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It’s a lot to ask someone, to watch your child. At least for me. I have a lot of trust issues, obviously. But the realization of one I hadn’t previously understood came to me this morning as we discussed our current situation. The truth of the matter was we were really, really, really going to miss our little guy. There’s no way to get around the icky feeling from the moment we drop him off, knowing it will be the last time we’ll see him for a week.

Most of our time in the last few days has been spent trying to emotionally prepare ourselves for the time away. But as the zero hour approaches, it’s just a matter of letting go and allowing the framework we’ve built to do its job. This is why I suck at trust falls, by the way. I’ve never let go of anything that didn’t have claw marks all over it.

So the moment arrives, anticlimactic as possible. We get in the car and leave, neither of us is really talking, but we’re heavy with the same thoughts. Worry, sadness, trepidation about the unknowable. We don’t say it, but the two downed planes hang in our minds, wondering if we’d be just as unlucky as those poor souls who never got to see their loved ones again.

It’s unlikely, and irrational to think these thoughts, but with nothing but time before our flight, there’s little else for me to ponder. The act of travel is in itself a physical step back from one’s life, even for just a moment. Suddenly all the decisions I make come into question, the time for reflection is. Both a blessing and a curse.

Unlike other times of introspection, however, I feel happy about the direction my life has taken these days. Although I still struggle under the weight of my past, the people in my life, the “lucky” few help lessen the burden, and for that, I am grateful.

Foto Friday – Abandoned Office

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Happy Foto Friday everyone! Today, we continue our new series. I took these photos when I first started my current job. We used to be housed in a very old building, which is where unpopular departments go to die. Eventually, the old building was to be torn down. Only our half was being maintained at that point. Before the demolition crew was to arrive, my boss gave me the okay to go into the unmaintained half to see what was over there. I brought my camera and got this photo (among the rest of the series). Enjoy!

I can do this

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So, we leave for vacation soon. There’s still so much to do, and honestly my motivation has been waning hard. I’m often caught in moments of near total paralysis when I realize how little time is left. (Note to self: stop looking at the travel app which counts down the days for you!) But, whether I’m ready or not, in a few days time, I’ll be on a plane and everything will fall into place. Or it won’t. And either way, I won’t have any control over it.

I like to travel, don’t get me wrong. But travel has taken a different form for me since my son was born. This is a trip where he can’t come, so my husband’s family will be watching him for us. I worry, but he’s resilient and will be fine. I hope. I’m going to miss him, I know. And the pangs of guilt for leaving him will be hard to get over, in spite of being in the City of Light.

I’m stressed, but I feel dumb asking people to feel bad for me. Because I’m going on such an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience, people seem to let on that I have no reason to complain. I’d gladly trade the time for a week home with my son and husband, though. I could care less about a city I’d never choose as a destination, mostly because I can’t speak a lick of french and Paris is hella expensive. Instead, I sit quietly, muttering over and over to myself that “I can do this.”

Creature of habit

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We’re about to go on vacation. These are the moments in my life when I become acutely aware of how weird I am. Most people are like, “Yay! A vacation! Can’t wait!” because they’re normal and well-adjusted and don’t mind their carefully crafted routine being interrupted for the sake of seeing the world outside of their door. And yeah, all that stuff is neat, I guess. But I’m also very reliant on my routine for maintaining my (illusion of) mental health. Leaving for a trip on a whim is something I used to be able to do, but since my son was born, travel has a very different meaning.

As fun as the trip will be, there’s so much planning needed to make it successful. In the age of the internet, I’m able to research my destination, find reviews, and locales that interest me, plotting everything out in my handy-dandy notebook. Of course, I’m flexible too, and if something kickass comes along, I’ll probably ditch the scheduled stuff for the adventure.

But, when it’s all over, it will be things from home that make me happy. Things like this:

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(I took this w/ my new camera lens. So awesome!)

 

The mugs only fit if we put the littles on the bigs, and stack them “just so” in the cabinet. And yeah, the outside world is neat, but this is the comfort that keeps me coming home. When I come back from my trip, I’ll know that I’m home, seeing these site, knowing my first cup of coffee made exactly the way I want it is only moments away.

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