Sunday, May 29, 2011

Time for a Change

So long, and thanks for all the trips.

Inside this suitcase is another, matching one, as well as a small carry-on bag.  This set of luggage has seen me through countless voyages: four times to France, in and out of multiple apartments and houses, back home and away again for year after year of holidays.  As I removed all the personal bits and bobs, I found an address label with my dad's name on it.  Had I lent it to my parents for a trip?  I also found an airport security label with Miss Chef's name on the smaller bag, though neither of us remember her using it.  Altogether there were at least three different addresses on different labels, a testament to the big changes in my life.

Inside I knew I'd find a 15-year old small paper bag from Fauchon--which has helped me remember to put that store on my list for this trip.  I didn't know I'd find the sonograms and x-rays I thought I'd lost, from my visit to the doctor in Brest when I thought I was having a re-occurrence of kidney stones.  (One kidney is 3 cm. longer than the other.  Good to know.)  Or a friend's wedding invitation from 2005, as well as a Newsweek magazine I must have bought at the airport.  ("Spirituality in America."  "Iraq: Soldiers and Stress."  Some things never change.)

All the items that pointed to me came off and out, except the large sticker that said "Mon pays: L'Europe."  Pre-1990 PR for the European Union.  I would have kept it, but it was now a part of the plastic I'd smoothed it onto over 20 years ago.  Whoever uses this luggage next can enjoy creating my story from that piece of evidence.  It can hardly be more satisfying than the one I've lived.

Yes, 23 years ago, my parents bought me this set of luggage for my student year abroad, right out of high school.  Like I said, it's seen me through a lot.  The girl who first packed these bags has learned two languages, studied a few others, earned a Master's degree, changed careers and lived in about four states.  But now these bags are outdated and worn.  One wheel is broken, a corner is poking through, and this old design tips easily when it rolls.

In spite of the scuffs and rips, the slightly stretched-out straps, it's a little hard to let go of the old beast.  But with the promise of my flashy new luggage leading me into another few decades of fascinating travel, I can walk happily away from the past, dreaming eagerly of the future.

So long, luggage, and thanks for all the trips.

And, because I know you'll ask...

It's big.  It's shiny.  It spins in circles.
The old bag never had a chance.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Big Trip: Giving In

I've had Blogger-related trouble commenting on some of your blogs, so apologies for my continuing absence.

Ah, the end of another busy week.  My eyes are drooping, but my head is buzzing...could it be that 20-oz Coke I had today?  Could it be the prospect of having not just two, but three days off??  (I can't remember the last Saturday I didn't go into the office.)  Or is it all these thoughts about pubs in London, excited children and introducing Miss Chef to the Sainte Chapelle?  You know the answer: all three.

I'm finally sitting down now to try to empty some of these thoughts out of my brain.  Remember, this blog is my journal, so I'm warning you, this is about to get very self-centered!  And I don't have any pictures to break up all this text.  But I'll try to break it up for you, if you want to skip down to the actual plans we're making!

Chapter 1: Background and Introduction
or, I told you this might get boring

With less than a month to go before boarding our flight to JFK (and thence to Heathrow), I am feeling less odd and defensive about obsessing over the details.  It also helps that several key items have fallen into place, and that I'm ready to leave much of the rest of our time relatively unplanned.

But as our plans become more detailed, I feel like I should back up and give you a bit of context.  I have visited both London and Paris before, though in entirely opposite ways.  In fact, I visited London from Paris!  You see, I've actually lived two separate school years in France, one as an exchange student just out of high school, the other about eight years later as an English teaching assistant.  That second year, as an assistante de langues, was in Paris.

I was actually less than thrilled to be assigned to such a large city, since I'm so attached to nature and open, uncrowded spaces.  But that didn't stop me from taking advantage of my once-in-a-lifetime situation!  Soon after taking up our posts at different schools, a new acquaintance and I realized that it was too easy to say, "The Rodin museum?  Yeah, maybe next week." and end up never doing anything.  So we each drew up our own separate list of places we wanted to see.  Every Wednesday afternoon, taking advantage of the early day off in the French school schedule, we met somewhere, decided on an item in common, and went a'touristing.

It was a fantastic way to see so much of what Paris has to offer.  Not only were we doing things off-season and during the week, but as employees of the Académie de Paris, we had free entrance to all state-owned museums and monuments.  No lines at the Louvre, just flash your attestation professionelle, and wave goodbye to the folks queuing up for tickets.  The subsidized monthly metro pass didn't hurt, either.  And, of course, being fluent in French might have had some advantages, too.

Now on the other hand, my acquaintance with London is....well, not even an acquaintance, I would say.  I visited as part of a five-day tour of England organized by one of the French schools where I was teaching.  Naturally, every day was scripted, and much of our time spent on those picture-window travel buses.  Although I have dear memories of a day wandering in York, and a solo stroll on the heath in Haworth (home of the Brontë sisters), the only memories I have of London are of a brief view of Trafalgar square and a couple of hours in Covent Garden.  I had no idea of the layout of the city, other than Parliament and Big Ben being right smack on the river.

Chapter II: Revenons à nos moutons
"Let's get back to our sheep."

All of the above is to explain my recent spate of obsessive research.  I really had no idea what was important in London.  Now, after reading Rick Steve's travel guide nearly cover-to-cover and spending...well, yes, hours on TripAdvisor's London forum, I more or less know what I want to see.

Even more important, I think I know what Miss Chef wants to eat do.  You see, after laughing at Bossy Betty's suggestion of inviting Big Trip over to meet Miss Chef, I did finally have to allow the inevitable to occur.  This week, Miss Chef, Big Trip and I sat down over wine and cheese to get to know each other.  And it was a very productive meeting, much less dramatic than it might have been.

Chapter III: What's the Plan?

So, here's the plan, for those who are truly interested in the details (I'll bold the sights we're going to hit, if you just want to skim).  First, we are visiting family, so we have several days set aside for a trip to the beach, a visit to Stonehenge and some fun with the kids.  On our own, we've got two full days to spend in London, with a third unplanned day right before we leave, which we may well use to go back in to the city again.

The day after Miss Chef and I visited with Big Trip, I had what I consider a brilliant idea: each of us claim a day as our own, to lead the tour and visit what's important to us.  So one day I'll force lead Miss Chef to Westminster Abbey, St Paul's Cathedral and up The Mall...or to the British Museum...or maybe into Soho or the City.  We'll see how our feet feel.

Then on our second day, we've already got tickets to see All's Well That Ends Well at the Globe Theatre. Then Miss Chef will probably direct me to find the Borough Market, Foyles bookshop and a short pub crawl.  (Her sense of direction and unease in busy streets leaves me the de facto Chief Navigator...which suits me just fine, liking to take charge the way I do.  This way!)

We're also hoping to work in a good Indian restaurant, perhaps dining with my brother in the City after he gets off from work.  Oh, and the day we get back from our beach trip, we have reservations at Artichoke, in Amersham, Buckinghamshire.  We tried to get reservations at both of Heston Blumenthal's restaurants, Fat Duck and Dinner, but they are both impossible to get into.  Miss Chef is quite satisfied with this alternative, though!

Chapter IV: Qu'est-ce qu'on fait ?
...Mémé ?

Ok, are you ready for Paris?  We're actually a little less scripted there.  My brother and his family will be there for the first three days, so we'll be doing some of the traditional touristy stuff: Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre.  However, I'm also eager to take them along on a boat trip up the Canal St. Martin.  My Paris apartment was half a block off the Canal, and it's an unusual experience, as it goes underground for about two kilometers and then through locks and drawbridges up to the Parc de la Villette.  Here there is an outstanding Cité des Sciences et Industrie, a very hands-on museum, as well as a modern, wide-open park great for picnicking, with climbable sculptures and themed gardens.   Doesn't it sound like a great kids' afternoon?  (Note to self: pray it doesn't rain.)

The kids have already been to Paris a couple of times (I know, I'm jealous of them too!), so I'm not sure what they've done already.  I'd like to take them to the Sainte Chapelle, and maybe to the market on Rue Mouffetard.  If not, well, Miss Chef and I have three and a half days on our own!  Miss Chef wants to go to Versailles, and I'm considering using a half day to go to Giverny--one of the few things I didn't cross off my list last time.  I'd also like to wander the streets, both in our neighborhood in the lower Marais, and in the windy, twisty residential streets of Montmartre.

As for food and drink, we have reservations for lunch at Joel Robuchon's Atelier, and I am dying to go to a new wine bar opened by "What Parisians Like" blogger Olivier at Ô! Château.  They are the only place in the world to offer some of the most illustrious, grand cru wines by the glass.  We'll probably also pick up some gifts and souvenirs at the food shops of Fauchon and/or Bon Marché.  Not to mention the fantastic-sounding restaurant at the foot of our apartment building!

Chapter V: Now What?
Finally, a conclusion!

We've still got plenty of time to get through before we start packing our new walking shoes in our new suitcases.   And I think I've planned just about enough for anyone's mental health.  So how will I spend this upcoming gloriously free three-day weekend?  Oh, I think I 'll find some time for the farmers' market, a little whitewater rafting and then have some friends over for lunch!

Phew!  I'm not used to all this activity.  Just thinking about all these plans makes me tired. I'd better get to bed.

Enjoy your weekend, everyone!

But don't forget, there's meaning behind those flags.  Today more than ever, we need to remember that those who sacrificed themselves for our country aren't all in the history books.  Their families are all around us, and they're still remembering, every day.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Belated Kayaking Photos

Believe it or not, I've been racking my brain, trying to come up with some fascinating nuggets to share with you all.  Unfortunately, all I've got is pieces of lint and a couple of dust bunnies.  I'm all cluttered up with little things like "return shoes to store...sometime" and "eat spaghetti sauce before it spoils."  Yeah, that's worth memorializing in electronic ink.

So here on a Sunday morning I find myself waiting patiently for Miss Chef to arise, and see if she still wants to go kayaking at the US National Whitewater Center.  She had a late night; one of the servers is leaving for a summer job in the Hamptons, and I got a text message last night that she was at a bar with him after work.  I went to sleep, but I think she came in around 1 am.  I don't know how she does it.

Anyway, this all somehow reminds me that I never did share our last kayak trip with you.  I finally bought myself a dry bag for the camera, so was able to take some pictures on the water.  Without further ado, here they are...six weeks old, but fresh to you!

Miss Chef leads the way, as I am too busy fumbling with camera and bag to make much speed.

This was most of our view.  We went a different way this time, and found all kinds of small inlets and dead ends.  Not as pretty as in the fall, but it's nice to be surrounded by nature...or as much as you can be on a pretty well-traveled river.

Last time, in the other direction, we saw an actual osprey near an established nest.  This one hasn't been used, but these poles are dotted up and down the river.  I don't know who's responsible for putting them there, but it's reassuring that such programs exist.  This pole was at the downstream tip of a small islet.  (If you click on it to biggerize it, you can read the sign.  Obviously, there are no literate ospreys around.)

Some kind of slalom course belonging to the USNWC.  Not sure how it's supposed to be used, but Miss Chef and I played around with it a little.  These big, bulky sit-on-top kayaks are not designed for slalom work!

Ooo, look, wildlife!  Totally's hard to manage a kayak in position and take a picture without scaring the animals.  In fact, there were two turtles here before I came fumbling around.

Ah, but when we cut through a narrow pass, we came upon these guys...

Yeah, semi-feral pigs.  Actually not a good sign for wildlife, as they are very destructive to the environment.  Bet they'd make pretty good bacon.  But since there was already another couple watching them, and I'm not in the habit of carrying a shotgun with me, we were pretty happy to watch them scratch their butts on the the trees.

And finally, Blogger and my slow DSL connection were kind enough to allow me to upload a short video.  You can hear Miss Chef laughing in the background.  Enjoy!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Saturday Segments

A little of this, a little of that...let's see what pops into my head.

Three course meal:

Yes, I've enjoyed a first, tiny harvest from the spring garden!  This was, in fact, all I had for dinner that night.  It was delicious, and so sweet it counted as dessert, too.


I've decided my feelings about our Big Trip closely resemble a rather unhealthy obsessive romantic attachment.  Whenever I have the freedom to let my mind wander, it goes to London or Paris.  My leisure reading is Rick Steve's guide to London.  (Seriously...I take it to work and read it on my lunch break.  I'm past the Westminster & West End walks and into the museum section now.)   Everything I do, everything I buy, every plan I make (every cake I bake, every...), I consider in light of The Trip.  Should I pack these pants?  How many pairs of shoes can I get away with?  What are the in-flight movies?  I've been trolling the London forum on TripAdvisor and posting questions about charging my mp3 player and which museums are more essential.

Recently I've realized how deep I'm in.  I was was startled to acknowledge that, thanks to my buddy Rick, I'd expanded my list of Must Sees to a stress-inducing, can-we-see-it-all? level.  I'm not that kind of traveler.  Sure, I want to see Westminster Abbey, and I'm still pretty sure I want to climb the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral...but if I don't, it's not going to ruin my trip.  I read a comment online  from a woman who'd done the Must See Tour of London, rushing from sight to sight to check them off the list--and now what she really remembers are the times she and her husband deviated from the list and did something unplanned.  I needed the jolt of a reminder that traveling is not about "collecting" famous sights, but about just seeing what's around the next corner, stopping to look in a window, strolling through everyday streets to absorb the vibe of a place.

So I've started to try to focus on the here and now, especially trying to make sure that all my conversations with Miss Chef don't start out with "When we're in..."  Yes, anticipation is all fine and good, but what will happen when it's all over?  I don't want to feel adrift and alone, pining after the Big Trip because it erased every other activity from my mind.  Oh, sure, I can reminisce about the great times we had together, but then I'll be living in the past.  No, I think Big Trip and I are going to have to Slow Things Down a little bit.  Just for a few weeks.  Just so Miss Chef doesn't suspect, or get jealous.

I'm sure the jig'll be up once we're sitting on the plane and she sees the big ol' smile on my face, though.


Miss Chef cooked last week:

The light wasn't very good...what we've got here is a pre-made couscous or tabouli salad, steamed asparagus (local!), wilted bordeau spinach (local!), grilled portabellos, and leeks and caramelized onions in the back.  The middle is a pot of homemade pimento cheese.  I didn't know you could make your own...but then, I'm a Yankee and pimento cheese is a southern thang, y'all.

I was going to write a bit more, but I've suddenly got dinner plans, and the house is a diZASter!  Happy weekend to everybody, and I'm trying to get around to your blogs a bit more.  I'm still reading!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Just Popping In... say hello!

Flartus has been a busy girl, of course, and when I've had time to write, I haven't had the energy or the inspiration.  So here's a quicky to catch up on what's been going on (photo free, I'm afraid).

Last week:  I don't remember last week.  I'm sure it was busy.  Rosie didn't get walked enough.  Miss Chef didn't sleep enough.  I ate a bunch of garbage because I didn't cook enough.

Last weekend: I do remember that!  Sunday was Mother's Day, which meant I worked at the restaurant for brunch.  Which meant that I had to get all my lessons and essential housework done on Saturday.  After I went into the office again.  Yep, we had a month-end rush, which translates into a month-beginning rush in our department, so I'm once again trying to cram in the overtime between classes, lesson planning and the odd quality moment with Miss Chef.

Anyway, I impressed the heck out of myself by doing my lesson planning Friday night.  Yes, I'm a boring adult.  But I had a plan in my head for Saturday: work in the office 9 to 1, go home to finish up a bit of grading and a couple of things in the yard, change and go out to dinner with friends.  Get to bed early.

And you know what?  I stuck to my plan!  I even got up early with Miss Chef on Sunday--she went in an hour and a half earlier than I did.  I used my extra time to vacuum and empty the dishwasher, because I knew I wasn't going to have the energy after the restaurant.

Mother's Day: Now, you should know I'd been dreading hostessing on Mother's Day for months.  It's not only the second busiest day of the year at the restaurant, but it's also the rudest.  There's something about adult children trying to impress Mom at an upscale restaurant that brings out the self-important entitled side of some people.  It's amazing; here you are with the woman who supposedly taught you your manners, and you're berating a total stranger who's working on a holiday, because you have to wait ten minutes for your table?

Yeah, I had some choice replies ready.  Like, for the guest who fusses, "I came here to have a nice meal with my mother..." my reply would be, "That's lovely.  My mother is six hours away, and I'm here, on my feet for seven hours, being treated like a servant.  Why don't you go stand by your mother and enjoy your time together?"  Another one I was pondering was "Ma'am, I think you have confused 'service worker' with 'servant.'"

What were they gonna do, fire me?

Well, as it turned out, there was no fussing.  Ok, maybe a little, but everything went like clockwork.  All the 10:30 tables were out, bussed and re-set with time to spare for the 12:30 seating.  I looked at the empty dining room and said to the busser, "Can you believe it?  I've never seen this before!"  I wanted to kiss somebody, I was so thrilled.

We did have a bit of a kerfuffle when a large party who had been seated on the back patio came breathless to me at the front door, saying they had a 90-something grandmother with a walker, who couldn't possibly make it up the stairs, and they had told them, and they said it was accessible.

"It is accessible, if you drive around to the back."
"Well, we've already gotten her out of the car, and it's a big deal to get her back in.  This is just so stressful."

Really?  It's a bigger deal to get her back in the car than to practically drag the poor thing through a super-crowded dining room without her walker, up a narrow sloped corridor, around several corners and up a steep, narrow brick stairway with a 180-degree turn at the top?  Ma'm, you're creating your own stress.  Have a nice day.  If I were your mom, I'd rather stay at home with my feet up and have you serve me a grilled cheese sandwich.

But that was the only bump in the road worth mentioning.  The kitchen pushed the food out, the servers picked up their orders more or less timely, and the last seating was practically empty.  I went home early, and had no idea what to do with myself.

This week:  Monday was an odd day; I had medical appointments in the morning (*squeeeeze*), and didn't get to work until after lunch.  So now I'm even further behind.  sigh  I couldn't work late, though, because it was off to class, to rally the troops in preparation for their mid-term Thursday.

Today: Now it's Tuesday, and my desk is spread with the makings of an exam, crackers and some homemade pimento cheese.  Another healthy dinner!  My mind is being tugged again by thoughts of our trip to London and Paris.  Now that I've got past Mother's Day, that's all I can think about!   My sister-in-law has drafted a schedule for us, to get everything in.  I spent an hour of illicit time at work responding to it via email.  Time I can ill afford to waste, but waste it I did.  I'm not proud of it.

The near future:  Who cares about wasted work time, this stuff is much more interesting!  During our time in England, we've got at least two full days in London itself, plus a visit to Stonehenge, possibly Hampton Court (or else a Legoland park) and a trip to the beach.  (Yes, we live less than three hours from the beach here, but have never been.  We have to fly across the Atlantic, it would seem.)

We'll have about three days in Paris with my brother's family--Eiffel Tower, Seine boat ride, Louvre--and then they'll return home, while Miss Chef and I enjoy the rest of the week exploring my adopted city.  As a poor graduate student, I spent a year there as an assistante de langues étrangères (trans: adjunct, temporary language teacher), and did a lot of museums, parks, monuments, etc.  Now I'm going back with a bit of savings, my dearly beloved and a slightly more educated palate.

Is it any wonder I'm obsessing?

Ah, well, this exam won't put itself together.  This was supposed to be a short and sweet post.  But while I may be short and sweet, my writing seldom is.

Au revoir, à bientôt!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Osama bin Laden has been killed, and Americans are jubilant in the streets.  Not me.  I cannot celebrate a death.

Don't get me wrong.  I am relieved, and proud of the amazing skills and courage of the small team that succeeded in this mission.  It was long past time for this man to be brought to justice.  But I feel like celebrating anyone's death brings us all lower.  It had to be done, but it's not something we should enjoy.

Martin Luther King Jr.: "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

(On the other hand...there's one guy out there who can say "I shot bin Laden."  Can you imagine being him today?  I wonder if we'll ever know his name?)

So, what about you?  What's your reaction?