Thursday, August 28, 2008

An Afternoon in Paris

Recovering from a mentally-draining two hours in the Louvre, Craig and I revived ourselves with lunch on a patio outside a quaint Parisian cafe. Though the restaurant was a bit up-scale for lunch, we were both too hungry to notice. Eventually adjusting to the occasional waft of cigarette smoke, Craig and I ordered a bite to eat from a waiter who was kind enough to speak in English rather than French.

"I'll try the French onion soup and a ham sandwich," Craig quickly decided after glancing through the menu.

Ordering a sandwich for myself, I waited for the waiter to walk away before whispering to Craig, "It seems so American of us to order merely sandwiches for our first lunch in Paris."

"Actually," Craig replied, "I've heard that the French are known for their baguettes and ham sandwiches. Besides, I couldn't leave France without trying the French onion soup."

Though I'm sure the sandwiches were tasty, the most remarkable memory came after our empty dishes were cleared from the table. "Dessert?" the waiter asked while gesturing to their dessert menu.

A sucker for anything chocolate, I looked pleadingly at Craig who gave in and said, "Sure, but only coffee for me."

Ordering chocolate mousse, I leaned towards Craig and said, "I can't leave without trying the country's best dessert."

And what a dessert it was! Honestly, I can't remember ever tasting anything as wonderful as this chocolate mousse. Light, fluffy, and generous in portion, I ate slowly so as to savor every bite. Craig ate a few spoonfuls and quickly agreed that it was fantastic. Scraping the last bite from my dish, I knew that I would be hard-pressed to find anything quite as wonderful anywhere else in the world.

Leaving our waiter a hefty American tip, Craig and I wandered over to Notre Dame Cathedral. Throughout Europe, Bill and I had visited several churches and cathedrals, but the great thing about Notre Dame was that it was Catholic. After spending a lot of time in albeit beautiful Anglican churches in England, I was happy to see a cathedral with more familiar religious rituals. Admittedly, Disney pictured the outside of Notre Dame rather well in their 1996 animation, but the interior was unlike any that I had ever seen. Expecting ornate windows and tile floors, I was surprised by the simplicity of the cathedral. Built of stone in the Gothic fashion, the church was primarily dark and bare with few frivolities seen in many later architectural styles. Though somewhat ominous in appearance, I actually found the interior to be calm and soothing in an uncluttered sort-of-way. Mainly, I liked it just because it was different.

Unfortunately Craig and I opted out of climbing to the roof of Notre Dame to see the gargoyles -- they were charging 7 Euro, and we were trying to control our spending. Craig did see a statue of interest as we were examining the sculptures on the outside of the church. A statue of St. Denis was located near the entrance -- with his head in his hands. St. Denis was a French martyr who was beheaded in downtown Paris. After they chopped off his noggin, however, his body bent down, picked up his head, and walked several miles to the Sacre Coeur Basilica at the northern edge of the city before finally dying there. Craig was interested in the sculpture because his family's church in Ohio was named after this unusual saint.

Practically next door to Notre Dame is Sainte Chapelle. Sainte Chapelle was a chapel consecrated in 1248 to house various holy relics such as Christ's crown of thorns and the Image of Edessa. Today, however, the chapel is mostly a tourist attraction famous for its original intricate stained glass windows. Sainte Chapelle was an interesting site for Craig and I -- mainly because we had two very different reactions. Craig was awestruck by the windows and was content to sit in the chapel for hours to examine the many patterns and colors. On the other hand, I found myself merely comparing it to a few churches in England and was soon ready to move onto the next Parisian sight.

"Julia," Craig scolded, "we are in one of the most magnificent chapels in Europe. How can you not be excited?"

"It looks a lot like the churches I've already seen," I nonchalantly replied.

Swallowing his frustration, Craig seemed a little irritated with my lack of interest. It was at this moment that I realized that perhaps I had been touring a little too long throughout Europe. When you see similar sights over and over in a matter of weeks, memories begin to run together and even the most magnificent views begin to appear a little lackluster. Bothered by this realization, I grumbled, "Maybe I'm just a little burnt out on churches."

Eventually, Craig was satisfied enough to conclude our visit to Sainte Chapelle and suggested that we begin the long trek back to our hotel in northern Paris. Backtracking our steps through Jardin des Tuilleries, we noticed that the Louvre was closing up for the day and dusk was quickly approaching.

"I can't believe that we've been in Paris for an entire day and I haven't tried the wine yet!" I exclaimed as Craig mentioned that France is a principle European wine country. Not wanting to miss our chance, we ducked into a small wine bar on our walk back to the hotel. Though not busy so early in the evening, the bartender walked over to our table to inquire which wine we would like to drink.

"Do you have any Bordeaux?" Craig asked.

Chuckling to herself, the bartender returned with a huge chalkboard outlining an entire list of wines from France's Bordeaux wine district. Randomly picking two glasses of red wine, I made the mistake of asking the following question: "Do you have a menu?"

At the time, I was hoping to order an appetizer to try with our wines, but I didn't realize that asking for a menu in France is akin to signing a contract that you will be ordering a meal. I was leery of ordering a meal at a wine bar because I knew that the food would probably be expensive and mediocre, but I had little choice as the bartender insisted that we stay for dinner. Ordering a plate of lasagna, I wasn't thrilled to see the bartender pull out a frozen TV dinner from a fridge underneath the bar and proceed to heat it up in a microwave. Without a doubt, the wine was wonderful, but I wasn't exactly thrilled with my over-priced Lean Cuisine pasta.

Heady from the potent Bordeaux, Craig and I continued backtracking our steps and marveled at the beauty of Paris at night. With Christmas only a short month away, the city had already hung hundreds of holiday lights and iridescent bulbs. The Paris Opera House towered above us as I recalled scenes from "Phantom of the Opera". Eventually spotting the unmistakable windmill of the Moulin Rouge, Craig and I knew that we were close to our hotel. Warming ourselves in the hotel lobby soon thereafter, we were happy to settle in for an early night.

Borrowing the hotel's computer to send a quick email to my parents, I briefly wrote:

"Dear Family,
Our first day in Paris was amazing. I'd love to stay longer, but tomorrow we'll be catching a train to Belgium for a few days in Brussels and Bruge. I can't wait to try the chocolate! Hope all is well at home!

Paris à pied

With the Paris transportation strike just firing up, Craig and I knew that reliable public transportation would be a long shot for the duration of our trip. Carefully studying our maps and asking the hotel manager countless questions about the locations of various sites around the city, Craig and I meticulously planned out our walking route the early the next morning.

"We'll definitely need to prioritize our time and group sights together by location so that we don't waste time backtracking on foot," Craig reasoned.

"Agreed," I nodded. "I know you're not a fan of art museums, but the Louvre is top on my list."

"Don't get me wrong," Craig said while glancing over the map, "I want to see the Louvre, too. It looks like the museum is also near Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle."

"We'll probably need to hit the Louvre first since the lines can get really long later in the day," I replied. "So what do you think of hiking downtown, grabbing breakfast at a coffee shop, getting in line at the Louvre before it opens, and seeing the Mona Lisa first before catching the churches?"


More silence.

It was at this point that I realized my boyfriend had unmistakably tuned me out to whatever was flashing across the television screen.

"Craig!" I exclaimed waving my hand across his face, thus breaking his mesmerized gaze. "Did you hear what I just said?"

"Of course," he shrugged, "we'll see the Louvre first."

"I'm amazed you caught that much of the conversation," I mumbled. "What are you watching?"

"Rue Sesame."

"Rue what?!"

"Rue Sesame... I had no idea that they had Sesame Street in French."

Intrigued, I turned towards the television only to see the blue "Healthy Foods" monster nibbling vegetables. "I miss the cookie monster," I sighed.

"Me too," Craig groaned while flipping off the TV.

Picking up my purse and pocket maps, Craig and I left the hotel to begin the long trek into downtown Paris.

The sky was still dark when we left our hotel well before 7 a.m. Unsure how long the line outside the Louvre would be that day, our goal was to reach the museum's glass pyramid before opening in hopes of avoiding a long wait.

Our walk into downtown Paris was surprisingly refreshing. After countless trips on the London subway, we were thrilled to walk through narrow streets, watch shopkeepers set out produce displays, and listen to disgruntled Parisians argue with delivery truck drivers. There was something charming about the city just before dawn. Strolling hand-in-hand, Craig and I arrived at the Louvre's glass pyramid as the sun was just beginning to rise. Quietly walking through the Jardin des Tuileries ("Garden of Tuileries"), Craig and I watched the sunrise alone in the park before the city had even begun to open her eyes.

Reluctant to break our comfortable silence, I softly said, "The Louvre doesn't open for over an hour and no one is waiting near the entrance. Would you like to find a place for breakfast?"

Bribed by the concept of food, Craig nodded, and we left the garden to find a cafe along the Seine River. Though unsure of what over-priced cafe we would find along one of Paris's most-touristy boulevards, I was too hungry to venture too far from the river in search of food. Eventually, we found a small cafe (doubling as a bar at night) that was serving a decent breakfast special: toast, jam, two eggs, bacon, and a drink for 5 Euro (approximately $7).

Though it sounds not far from typical American fare, I must admit that the French do breakfast spectacularly to a whole new level. First of all, freshly baked bread and homemade jam -- need I say more? And secondly, the hot chocolate is phenomenal. Throughout my travels, I sought to find Europe's best hot chocolate. True, the Americas own bragging rights to the best coffees, but hot chocolate and tea far exceeds expectations in Europe. Up to this point, Germany was winning hands down with the most decadent hot chocolate... but that was before visiting France. The hot chocolate at that particular Parisian cafe was the most creamy and comforting hot drink my taste buds have ever experienced.

As for Craig, the French finally convinced him to drink his coffee white. Like several caffeine-addicted college guys, Craig had grown accustomed to the standard black coffee -- no cream, no sugar. In France, however, most Parisians drink their coffee with lots of cream (1/2 coffee and 1/2 cream, to be exact). Wanting to fit in, Craig tried it their way and found his coffee to be a rather pleasant experience. Needless to say, his coffee habits have been converted ever since.

After enjoying a relaxing and somewhat robust breakfast, we tipped the waiter and made our way back to the Louvre. The famous art museum was scheduled to open at 9 a.m. that morning, but the transportation strike threw everyone's schedule a little askew. Stepping into a fairly short line around 8:15, a security guard walked to the front of the building to slap a sign on the door that read: "Due to the transportation strike, the Louvre will open at 10 o'clock."

When asked about the delay, he simply replied in surprisingly fluent English, "Our employees have not arrived yet." Apparently tourists were not the only ones affected by the strike!

Standing in line for an extra 90 minutes only served to build my anticipation of seeing the world's most famous art galleries. To be completely honest, I did not even know that the Louvre existed until Dan Brown wrote his controversial novel "The DaVinci Code". From that point, I had become almost obsessed with seeing the Mona Lisa, Madonna of the Rocks, and a few Michelangelo sculptures.

"Stop hopping," Craig chided with a grin.

"I can't help it," I replied. "I'm really really excited to finally be here."

Rolling his eyes, Craig wrapped an arm around me to stop my jittery jumping. "I know this isn't your cup of tea," I began, "but I promise this is the only art museum I'll make you endure while we're here."

"No worries," he said. "I've always wanted to see the Louvre... just not as much as you, I can see."

After endless waiting, the doors to the museum finally opened prompting at 10 a.m. Rushing with the crowd to the closest ticket kiosk, Craig printed our admission tickets as I unfolded a floor map of the museum. "We should probably start with the Mona Lisa since that'll draw a large crowd before long."

Shrugging, Craig handed our tickets to the woman at the ticket gate, and we quickly made our way to the Louvre's most prized painting. As I had expected, the Mona Lisa was rather small. Compared to the "Wedding at Cana" hung on the opposite wall, this womanly portrait appeared tiny. Though a few signs stating "No Pictures" in French dotted the gallery, few paid attention to them and the guards did not seem to mind as tourists snapped photo after photo of their favorite paintings. I was surprised by the fact that no one complained about the flash photography -- certainly, it can't be good for the centuries-old artwork. Not to be a hypocrite, though, I will admit to taking a few photos of my own, but I tried to avoid using flash photography on the paintings.

My best word to describe the Louvre is expansive. With several levels and thousands works of art, Craig and I had a hard time pin-pointing what we really wanted to see. Bypassing the audio guides in hopes of saving money and limiting our time, I had one interesting wish while we were walking throughout the Louvre. I wished that Bill was there with us. Bill and I had already toured several art museums in London and Madrid, but now I was experiencing the largest one without him -- and it was a lot harder to enjoy. When Bill was in high school, he took an AP Art History class that actually served him well while in Europe. Though not too enthused by looking at paintings in a textbook, Bill remembered enough to explain famous works of art and little-known tidbits about the artists as we walked through various art galleries. With all of the Louvre placards written in French, I had a hard time judging whether a specific painting was historically significant or simply pleasant to gaze upon. "Bill would really love this," I thought to myself.

Using my Rick Steves Tour Book and shoddy memory of the "DaVinci Code", I managed to catch a few well-known works of art while Craig and I strolled around the museum. In particular, I really wanted to see da Vinci's "Madonna of the Rocks". During his lifetime, Leonardo da Vinci completed two very similar paintings: "Virgin of the Rocks" and "Madonna of the Rocks". Both contain four similar characters, but legend claims that "Virgin of the Rocks" was painted later with several Catholic symbols to appease the Church. Lucky for me, I would get the chance to see both while in Europe. "Virgin of the Rocks" is owned by the National Gallery in London, and "Madonna of the Rocks" is housed in the Louvre.

Interestingly, the paintings exhibit polar opposite emotions as you view each separately. Glowing with Christian symbology, "Virgin of the Rocks" portrays a warm scene of the Virgin Mary with Jesus, John the Baptist, and an angel. With cherub-like cheeks, the painting appears similar to other Christian scenes completed in that time period. "Madonna of the Rocks", however, evokes very different feelings. Void of halos and crosses, the characters in the painting appear to have almost remorseful expressions and "Mary's" hands look almost claw-like in nature. Though many leave this up to speculation, I truly feel that each painting was design to serve a very different purpose.

Catching glimpses of Venus de Milo, Michelangelo's Slaves, Cupid and Psyche, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Craig and I felt ourselves trudging through gallery upon gallery until the paintings appeared virtually all the same. Reaching our limits at about the same time, Craig sunk into a gallery couch and said, "I don't know how much more I can take of this."

Ready to leave, we walked back through the Louvre's glass pyramid just as a tourist mob was pushing its way into the museum to see the Mona Lisa.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Taste of French Hospitality

Annoyed with our delayed flight to Paris, I pulled out my Enzymology notes to grab a few extra minutes of studying while waiting on the plane. Glancing over old PowerPoint presentations, I overheard the passenger sitting next to me ramble fluent French into her cell phone. When she had finished her conversation, I turned to her and asked, "Excuse me, but are you French?"

"Yes," she replied in flawless English and hint of a smile upon recognizing my American accent.

"I couldn't help but notice that you were speaking French a moment ago," I sheepishly replied. "Have you heard anything about the transportation strike in Paris?"

"I just got off the phone with my Dad," she replied. "He said that the city is a mess right now, and the taxis are taking full advantage of an unfair situation. If you aren't careful, they'll cheat you out of money very easily."

Nodding with understanding, I quickly introduced myself and Craig to our newfound acquaintance. Though we spent a lot of time talking to this young lady, neither Craig nor I can currently remember her name. I remember her as "Sophie" while Craig swears her name was "Camille" -- so for the sake of compromise, I will call her "Soca".

As our conversation progressed, we learned that Soca was a student majoring in political science. She had spent the past weekend visiting friends in London before heading back to Paris for a busy week of school and work.

"What do American's think of our new president, Nicolas Sarkozy?" Soca asked.

Believe it or not, this was actually a trick question. Americans have the notorious reputation of being completely ignorant of politics and culture outside of their own country. (In fact, many don't even realize that the major currency of Europe is the "Euro".) So by stating that I had no idea that France even elected a new president, I would once again confirm that Americans are stupid when it comes to global affairs.

Thankfully, Craig came to my rescue and replied, "We appreciate that President Sarkozy is making an effort to build ties with the United States."

Craig has always been well-informed of global events, and this was yet another time that he has saved me from making an ignorant faux pas. Smiling at his well-spoken opinion, Soca stated, "Sarkozy gets a lot of criticism for his policies, but I think that he has done a lot for our foreign relationships."

As Craig and Soca continued to discuss world politics, I folded up my tray table as I felt the plane lurch forward towards the runway. "Ladies and gentlemen," the pilot announced over the intercom. "We have now been cleared for take-off and will be departing shortly for Paris Charles De Gaulle. Thank you for your patience."

Almost on cue, the cabin lights switched off, and the plane began its rapid acceleration down the runway. As the plane climbed higher into the night sky, I laid my head on Craig's shoulder and instantly fell asleep.

However, my in-flight nap was short-lived as I was unexpectedly jolted awake as the plane crashed back to earth. With a startled gasp, I asked, "What happened?!"

"We landed," Craig replied dryly.

Pulling me close as my heart raced against my chest, Craig whispered, "We're finally in Paris."

With heavy winds and biting sheets of sleet falling from the sky, the plane's descent into Paris was a bit rocky from the high levels of turbulence. Ironically, I slept through the entire storm until our plane was forced to make a sharp landing and bounced dangerously on the landing strip. Climbing out of our seats as the pilot apologized for his rough landing, Craig and I ducked into the biting sleet storm and ran to the airport arrival gate. Once inside, we began to brush off our carry-on bags and looked around for the French passport control stations.

Spotting Soca nearby, Craig motioned to her and suggested an offer that would help all three of us to survive the Parisian transportation strike. "Would you like to split a cab with Julia and I?" he asked. "If you could negotiate a reasonable price with a taxi driver, then we could all get to the city at only a third of the price of hiring a cab alone."

Seeing the logic in splitting the taxi fare from the airport, Soca readily agreed to wait for us past the passport control gates so that we could travel together. Thrilled with our luck of finding a native French translator to deal with the taxi driver, I thanked my lucky stars that I was dating a resourceful guy that knows how to make friends in a difficult situation.

Passing through French customs without any mishaps, Craig and I found Soca speaking rapid French to an attendant at the airport information kiosk. Translating her conversation to us soon afterwards, Soca mentioned that the wait for a taxi would be roughly 30 minutes and that our only option would be to wait in line near the airport exit.

Rolling Craig's suitcase to the "taxi line", the three of us chatted while waiting for the next cab to become available. Luckily, we only waited about 15 minutes before making it to the front of the line and crawling into an idling taxi. Handing over addresses and haggling prices in French, Soca was eventually satisfied with the taxi service, and the cab driver pulled away from the airport.

The drive into Paris took about a half hour, but I was amused by watching French traffic weave across lanes at a speedy pace with no obvious order or logic. It wasn't easy to see the city from the taxi windows, but Craig and Soca were too engaged in another conversation on world politics to notice that we were quickly approaching Paris. As the cab driver maneuvered through the Parisian city streets, I spotted the Moulin Rouge only minutes before the taxi stopped in front of our hotel.

Clutching our coats, Craig and I thanked Soca many times before leaving the taxi. Wanting to express our gratitude, we handed her enough money to cover the cost of the taxi ride to our hotel as well as the rest of her trip home. Not wanting to accept the extra money at first, we insisted until she could only smile and thank us for our gift.

As the taxi pulled away, Craig mentioned to me, "I've always heard that the French are rather hostile to travelers, but I think that girl has just proven them wrong. The French are clearly some of the friendliest people I've ever met."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Parisian Catastrophe

Separated by merely the English Channel, there are three main ways that you can travel from London to Paris: plane, train, or ferry. By far, the most popular route is via a train route that travels underwater through a tunnel dug below the channel. My friend Bill decided to visit Paris with a group from the University of Surrey, and to save money, they crossed the channel via ferry. Asking Bill about the trip later, he admitted that the ferry ride was a bit long, but the price made the trip more affordable. Craig and I decided to bypass boats and trains to fly directly into Paris Charles De Gaulle airport from London Luton. I'll leave you to judge whether this was a smart decision or not, but my original reasoning for choosing flight went something like this:

Since we were already in London, Craig and I needed a transportation method that was close and affordable so as to not waste precious time in route. Location alone limited us to either flying or riding on a train to Paris. At first, I thought it would be best to take a train (a.k.a. "Eurostar") round trip from London to Paris and back. Compared to discount flights, train tickets were only slightly more expensive but it is a lot easier to travel via rail rather than plane. This plan would have worked fine except for the fact that Craig and I decided to add a few extra cities into our Western European tour. Wanting to take full advantage of our time in Europe, we thought that four days in London and four days in Paris would be too much time in only two locations. Rescheduling our travel plans, we decided that three days in London, three in Paris, and two days in Belgium would be the perfect balance for our short vacation. Our only restriction was that we had to start and end in London since this is where Craig would be arriving and leaving Europe. Logically, it would make sense to simply travel in a triangle: London, Paris, Belgium, and then back to London. This would allow us to skip all the airports and travel by train to all of our destinations. Unfortunately, Eurostar doesn't favor one-way tickets.

For my "triangle travel plan" to work, we would need three one-way tickets to Paris, Brussels, and London. In my American state of mind, I had assumed that one-way tickets would be roughly half the price of round trip tickets -- not quite. A round-trip ticket between London and Paris was approximately $150. A one-way ticket from London to Paris was $250. Why buy a one-way ticket when a round-trip is clearly cheaper? Though I still don't completely understand their rationale for over-pricing one-way tickets, I think it may have something to do with ensuring that travelers return to their country of origin.

Comparing train fares with plane tickets, I found that a flight from London Luton to Paris was only $100. Though airports are a bit more stressful than train stations, the overall travel and check-in time would be similar to riding the Eurostar to Paris. Assuming our flight would be running on time, I booked two tickets from London Luton to Paris Charles De Gaulle with the new plan of flying from London to Paris, taking the Eurostar from Paris to Belgium and back to Paris, and then flying back to London from Paris. Of course, things never quite work out exactly as planned...

After a very long train ride to London Luton Airport, Craig and I arrived just as the check-in desk was opening for our flight. Checking Craig's suitcase and handing over our passports, we quickly proceeded to a speedy security checkpoint and soon found ourselves near the airport terminals. Always having a lot of luck getting through Luton airport, I was once again pleased by the uncharacteristically quick airport service. With an hour and a half to spare before boarding, Craig and I found seats at an airport cafe and ordered two heaping plates of pasta to hold us over until reaching Paris later in the evening.

While twirling linguine with a fork, I felt my cell phone buzz with a new text message. Pulling the phone out of my pocket, I quickly read a message from Bill that quickly diminished my appetite. "What's wrong?" Craig asked, watching an expression of panic wash across my face.

"We might be in a bit of trouble when we get to Paris tonight," I moaned.

Handing him my cell phone, Craig skimmed Bill's message that went something like this:


"Looks like we'll be walking a lot," Craig said, handing back my phone.

"Or paying for an expensive taxi ride," I groaned. "The taxis are probably jumping their prices to take advantage of the situation. We would probably be able to haggle them down if we could speak French."

The good news in our situation was that Craig and I were able to learn of the Paris transportation strike before arriving in France. Earlier that weekend, Bill left Guildford to travel to Paris with a school group bound for Europe's Disneyland. Lucky for him, Bill's transportation around the city was covered by private bus, which meant that the transportation strike bothered him very little. Knowing that Craig and I would be depending solely on public transportation while in Paris, Bill gave us a little "heads up" with what to expect when arriving in the city. Without his thoughtful text message, Craig and I would have been much worse walking into the situation blind -- and not able to speak the native language.

Mulling over our options, I knew that the most important thing to cover first would be hailing an overpriced taxi to drive us from the airport to our hostel for the night. Everything else would have to wait until morning. However, I feared that the strike might severely limit our sightseeing for the week and prayed that we'd at least be able to make it to Belgium via train.

Trying to push our impending quandary from my mind, Craig and I finished dinner and then searched for a few seats in the waiting area with a clear view of the flight boarding schedule. Noticing that our flight was running a little behind, we relaxed for a few extra minutes before heading to Departure Gate 10. Since discount flights typically don't have reserved seating, Craig and I practically ran to the departure gate in hopes of catching a spot near the front of the line so that we'd be one of the first to board. Happy that we arrived just as the line was forming, our celebration was short-lived as a voice announced over the Intercom that our departure gate had just been changed to Gate 2.

Simultaneously, 60 annoyed passengers turned on their heels and began rushing to the opposite side of the airport. Grabbing my hand, Craig began speed walking towards the new gate at a pace that was hard to match with even my very long legs. Priding himself on his speed walking abilities, Craig and I were the first to arrive at Gate 2 and thus began a line behind the departure desk. Thrilled that we would still be first to board, our exhilaration was once again short-lived as the flight attendant informed us that we were standing in the "Premier Package" line and therefore needed to go to the back of the "Discount Boarding" line. Shrugging, Craig leaned over to me and said, "There are days when you just can't win..."

Luckily, Craig and I were still able to find two seats sitting next to each other even after being last to board the plane. Squeezing into cramped quarters, we buckled our seat belts and shifted our legs to fully take advantage of our limited personal space. Expecting to idle towards the runway any minute, we were surprised to hear the pilot's voice announce over the plane's speaker system, "Sorry for the delay ladies and gentlemen, but turbulent weather in Paris is forcing us to wait a little longer for clearance before taking off. We will give further updates shortly."

Rolling my eyes at our streak of bad luck, I mumbled, "Looks like it'll be a late-night arrival in Paris."

Friday, July 18, 2008

London Mornings and Paris Nights

Hungry after our visit to the Churchill Museum, I racked my brain for restaurants in London that I remembered having decent food and reasonable prices. "Are you hungry for anything in particular?" I asked Craig as we hopped back on the subway for a quick trip to the British Museum.

"Since I'm in Britain," he began, "I'd really like to try fish and chips while I'm here."

"No problem. There's actually a pretty decent place right across from the museum. Let's grab a bite to eat first and then catch an hour or two at the British Museum before heading back to the hostel to pick up our luggage."

Before that day, I had eaten at this restaurant only once after Bill and I had toured the British Museum. It was our first real experience with British food, and from what I could remember, it didn't seem too bad at the time. In the few months between visits to this restaurant, however, I had visited several British cities and had tasted some incredible dishes during our travels. In short, I had become an amateur food critic and was a bit pickier about sub-par foods.

One of my goals for this trip was to find the best British food for Craig to try while he was in England. Since the British don't have a very nice reputation for their food anyways, my best two options were "bangers & mash" and "fish & chips". Having satisfied the bangers & mash requirement during Craig's first meal in London, I thought that it would be easy to find decent fish & chips near the British Museum -- wrong.

As the waitress brought our platters, I noticed that fish didn't look as crispy and fluffy as I had experienced in other parts of England. Admittedly, it looked more like breaded fish rather than the typical beer-battered fish that marks the dish as distinctly British. Overall, the food was alright -- mediocre but clearly edible. Disappointed, Craig wiped his hands on a napkin and said, "No offense, dear, but I've found better fish & chips back in the States."

Some of you reading this may feel that Craig and I were being a bit harsh with our food criticism and the last few paragraphs were mostly a waste of space, but I promise that there is something to learn from this seemingly unimportant story. Many restaurants in highly-toured cities cater to tourists, and tourists are usually willing to pay high prices for low-quality food simply because the restaurant is located near a main tourist attraction. Local residents, however, know not to waste their money on mediocre restaurants when they can walk a few extra blocks and have a great meal at a much more reasonable price. So my best restaurant advice for anyone touring a European city is to avoid restaurants near main tourists sights -- you will have a better food experience by finding a place further away.

Leaving a tip for the waitress, Craig and I walked over to the British Museum for a few quick hours of free London entertainment. For those who haven't read my earlier posts, the British Museum is the world's largest collection of civilization. Organized by continent, each wing of the museum is arranged chronologically from the ancient Egyptians to more modern inventions of the 19th century. Undoubtedly, the museum's most prized piece is a hefty chunk of the Rosetta Stone, which was the first artifact translating Egyptian hieroglyphics into Demotic and Greek languages. In a sense, it was the ancient world's first translator and an essential key to understanding tomb carvings in Egypt.

Telling Craig what I could remember from my first tour of the British Museum, we strolled through rooms of Egyptian mummies, Greek Parthenon statues, and other various artifacts from the Ancient World. Getting a little burnt out on museum sightseeing, Craig and I walked through the exhibits much faster than my first visit to the British Museum. Though I'd be content to examine the intricacies of the Parthenon statues, Craig isn't as excited by art and quickly moved on to other artifacts. "Let's check out the Americas," he said as we left the European rooms.

"Seriously?" I asked. "Why would you want to look at stuff that we can find back home?"

"It would just be interesting to see, I guess."

Humoring Craig, we walked to the North and South America exhibits -- rooms that Bill and I had purposely skipped on our first visit to the museum. As expected, most of the exhibits were devoted to a large array of Indian artifacts (pipes, stones, headdresses, etc.), but two displays surprised and excited us both.

"No way!" Craig exclaimed. "Gum-gum!"

It's o.k. if you're a little lost by my boyfriend's exclamation, but you might recognize the reference if you've seen Ben Stiller in the movie "Night at the Museum". In the movie, Ben Stiller plays a nighttime security guard who is startled upon realizing that the museum's exhibits come to life every night after the museum closes. The funny part about the movie is that each exhibit has a quirky personality that constantly finds trouble. One of the movie's museum exhibits includes an Easter Island statue that protests in a booming voice until Ben Stiller finds a way to quiet the statue by feeding him bubble gum. Chewing the bum and blowing gigantic bubbles, the statue smiles in self-delight and booms, "Yum-yum. Me want gum-gum."

Though no statues came to life while we were in the British Museum, Craig did manage to find an authentic Easter Island statue in one of the South American exhibits. Pulling a pack of gum out of his pocket, Craig tried offering the statue a piece, but I suppose museum exhibits only come alive after the museum closes...

The second exciting American exhibit hit a little closer to home. Browsing through aisles and aisles of Indian artifacts, Craig abruptly stopped at a small case and astonishingly said, "That's in Ohio!"

Not believing that Ohio would have anything worth showing in the world's most prestigious collection of human civilization, I backtracked to where Craig was standing and glanced in surprise at an entire case devoted to the Hopewell Mounds found in Mound City, Ohio. As a kid, my parents would always try to find time to take our family on vacation. During some years, we would stick around Ohio and visit various museums and Native American burial grounds dotting the state. Not too long ago, our family visited Mound City and hiked around the mounds learning tidbits about Hopewell culture and burial customs. Craig actually grew up near Mound City and was shocked to see his hometown area in a European museum. Reading the museum placard about the burial mounds, I was reminded how important sights of human civilization never seem all that important when they're near home. For travelers, however, they can be quite interesting and leave a lasting impression.

Glancing at my watch, I linked my arm around Craig and said, "Well, dear, we should probably start moving out of here so that we can catch our flight to Paris tonight."

Both ready to leave, we walked out of the British Museum and began the long trek back to the hostel to pick up our luggage. Stopping on our walk to the subway at a Scottish wool shop, Craig spent a few minutes perusing through the cashmere scarves and sweaters before purchasing a few Christmas gifts and hopping back onto the subway. Nervously glancing at my watch every few minutes or so, we managed to quickly grab our bags at the hostel and travel to the nearest station to catch the next train to Luton Airport.

"Isn't it incredible?!" I exclaimed as we waited for our train to arrive. "We woke up this morning in London and will be asleep tonight in Paris!"

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"We are all worms..."

Sleeping like logs during the night, my alarm awoke Craig and I much too early the next morning. Accustomed to the waste-no-minute mentality of traveling, I hopped out of my bed the moment my alarm started beeping. Leaving Craig to snooze for an extra half hour, I enjoyed a hot shower and dressed for the busy day ahead. Snoring like a baby, Craig eventually stirred as I rummaged through my bag looking for a pair of clean socks.

"Good morning, sleepyhead," I cooed. "You need to get up so that we don't miss mass at Westminster Cathedral."

Sleepily rolling out of his bed, Craig dragged his feet to the shower and was ready in half the time it took me to wash up. Repacking our bags, we dragged our suitcases back down to the storage closet in the hostel basement before eating a meager breakfast in the ridiculously crowded dining room. "Better get milk for your cereal," Craig warned. "They're almost out, and there's a hungry crowd walking down the hall."

Sprinkling the last drops of milk over my cornflakes, I joined Craig at a long table to talk about our sight-seeing plans for the day.

"First things first," I began, "we'll need to keep track of time today so that we don't miss our 8 o'clock flight to Paris. The departure gates open at 6, and we'll want to be there right on time in case there's a long line. Bill and I have had too many close calls with flight plans for me to take any chances while you're here."

"Righto," Craig agreed.

"We'll need to check out of our hostel room before leaving this morning since we won't be back until later this afternoon to pick up our bags. Since we have an hour or so to kill before mass, I think we should catch the Tube into central London to see the lions in Trafalgar Square -- there are some great photo ops there. From there, we should be close enough to walk to Westminster Cathedral for mass. After mass, we can spend a few hours at the Churchill Museum, which will be a first for both of us. If there's time afterwards, you really need to see the British Museum since it's free and positively amazing. By then, we'll probably need to head back here to grab our luggage before catching a train to Luton Airport. If all goes well, we should be in Paris shortly after nightfall."

"You're such a planner," Craig teased. "Sounds good to me. Ready to go?"

After checking out of the hostel, Craig and I endured the lengthy subway ride into London and hopped off at the nearest stop to Trafalgar Square. On a nice day, Trafalgar Square is always packed with local lunch-goers and tourists, which makes it impossible to get a good photo with the lions on the square's central monument. Knowing this, I had planned for us to see Trafalgar Square early on Sunday morning while most Londoners and others would be sleeping off Saturday night's party scene. As expected, my foresight proved right and we had the square mostly to ourselves before mass.

"Welcome to Trafalgar Square," I said gesturing to the nearby area.

"Now this makes me feel like I'm in London," Craig replied.

Circumventing the central fountain, I walked Craig to London's photogenic lions. "These are the most photographed statues in all of London," I began. "You should hop on up so that I can click a few pictures."

Hamming up the spotlight, Craig carefully climbed all over the lions trying to get some funny photos without falling off the monument. Laughing as I took photo after photo, he eventually jumped down to let a few other early-morning tourists climb around the lion's mane. Though we couldn't spend much time in Trafalgar Square, we had seen enough of the now pigeon-less neighborhood and briskly walked to Westminster Cathedral in hopes of arriving before the opening song.

Contrary to popular belief, Westminster Cathedral is not affiliated with Westminster Abbey. To clear up any confusion, Westminster Abbey belongs to the Church of England and serves as the primary burial ground for British monarchs and other members of the royal family. By contrast, Westminster Cathedral is a Catholic church that was consecrated much more recently in 1910. For Craig and I, it was basically just a fancy place to go to mass on Sunday morning.

There's not much to say about Westminster Cathedral. Mass proceeded as it would anywhere else in the world, and the church itself was not very memorable. Sparsely decorated inside, Westminster Cathedral serves its most important underlying purpose -- worship. Though this might surprise some who view cathedrals as places of overwhelming pomp and circumstance, the bareness of the church did not surprise me. In Britain, Catholic churches were humbly designed so as to not upstage the Anglican churches. After centuries of quarrelsome debate, England hasn't been able to rid itself of Catholicism, but they won't let us gloat either.

Energy lagging a bit after the solemn mass, Craig and I ducked into a cozy coffee shop for much-needed cups of caffeine. Settling into a chair with a cup of Chai, I immediately pulled out my map of London and began circling the day's remaining destinations. Checking my Rick Steve's U.K. travel guide for museum hours, I said, "Looks like we can relax for a little while until the Churchill Museum opens. Are you up for a walk?"

"Sure," Craig replied while finishing his coffee.

Walking back to Trafalgar Square, we looped around London catching glimpses of Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and Parliament. Strolling through St. James's Park, I became a little befuddled with my sense of direction and stopped to ask a London police officer to point us in the direction of the Churchill Museum.

"I believe the Churchill Museum is closed today, but I cannot be sure on the matter," the policeman kindly replied.

Worried that my plans had been unknowingly foiled, we followed the officer's directions and eventually found the entrance to the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms. Thankfully, the officer was wrong and the museum was open for its normal Sunday hours. Breathing sighs of relief, Craig and I paid the admission fee and began our self-guided audio tour of the underground Cabinet War Rooms.

During World War II, the Nazis embarked on an all-out siege of Britain's capital city. Enduring bomb after bomb from the sky, Londoners were forced to either flee the city or seek shelter in underground bomb shelters. Unwilling to abandon the city of London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood firm as he continued to lead from his offices in England's capital. But how did he survive the attacks from the air? And how did he manage to speak securely with world leaders while Nazi soldiers were well within range of intercepting communication signals? Why were Nazi troops never able to conquer London?

Some of these answers can be found in the underground Cabinet War Rooms. Originally covering three acres, the Cabinet War Rooms were part of an underground bunker built beneath some of London's prominent landmarks. Protected by a steel-enforced roof, the bunker served as a safe haven for the Prime Minister, his family, and over 500 government employees seeking to discover new strategies for ending the war. Listening to our audio guides, Craig and I were able to experience a typical day under Nazi attack while hearing sound bits of Churchill himself. Walking down empty corridors with dimly-lit corners, we saw Churchill's living quarters, workplaces of military strategists, and bedrooms of the Prime Minister's detectives. My favorite part of the war rooms, however, was the quirky sense of humor that Winston Churchill still managed to work into his underground bunker in a dangerous time of war. For example, the Prime Minister had a private phone line connected only to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for important conversations on sensitive war matters. With hundreds of employees floating around very tight quarters, how was Churchill able to talk to Roosevelt privately without being overheard? By installing the phone in a very private place -- his bathroom! This makes me wonder if passing-by employees were ever unnerved by Churchill's rather lengthy trips to the toilet...

Eventually reaching the end of our Cabinet War Room tour, Craig and I were greeted by one of my favorite quotes while entering the remaining Churchill Museum exhibits:

"We are all worms. But I believe that I am a glow-worm."

Not much of a WWII history buff, I had never realized before how incredibly witty Winston Churchill was as Britain's Prime Minister. Not wanting to waste such well-placed humor, the Churchill Museum was covered with various Churchill witticisms that actually united a nation during a very difficult time of war. Here's a taste of some of Churchill's best quotes:

"I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly."

"If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce."

"My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me."

"Eating words has never given me indigestion."

Laughing over Winston's quirky remarks, Craig and I eventually bade farewell to the Churchill Museum as the former Prime Minister reminded us, "I am prepared to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter."

Monday, July 14, 2008

Memories I Have Already Forgotten

During our nightly phone call last night, Craig mentioned that he had finally found time to sit down and read through my most recent blog posts about his arrival in London. "You're writing style is good," he complimented, "but you've already forgotten a few memories of our first day together in London."

Undoubtedly, I knew that I would forget some details over time, but after my conversation with Craig, I was surprised by how many important stories had already left my conscious thoughts. Not wanting to forget them a second time, I jumped from my couch to grab a pen and scribble a few notes on the back of a recently-sent birthday card. Rather than inserting them into an already existing blog post and risk these stories being missed by anyone who regularly reads this blog, I've decided to write this follow-up post in hopes of fixing all of my chronological mistakes.

To clear up any confusion, here's a re-cap of Craig's first day in London:
1) I took a train from Guildford to London Gatwick Airport to meet Craig as he arrives from Cincinnati.
2) Craig barely makes it through U.K. passport control.
3) While questioning Craig's need for an extremely large suitcase, we ride the subway to our hostel and conveniently drop off our bags.
4) Craig freaks out as I almost lose him in the London subway.
5) We both have a great time at the Tower of London.
7) We finally arrived back at our hostel for the night only to discover that my mattress is soaking wet.

I must have suffered from a case of temporary amnesia as the hours between the closing of the Tower of London and arriving at our hostel were hazily blotted from my mind. So what happened during Craig's first evening in London that is seemingly important for me to re-tell now? Several things, my dear readers. Let us back up to the Tower of London...

As mentioned previously, Craig and I had such a great time at the Tower of London that we didn't leave Tower Hill until the museum was closing its doors for the night (rather, only late afternoon around 4 or 5 o'clock). After eating a late lunch, neither of us had an appetite for dinner at this point though pub dinners were just beginning for the evening. Wanting to make the most of Craig's visit to London, I suggested that we experience yet another aspect of British culture -- Evensong with the Church of England.

Though Craig and I are both devout Roman Catholics, my religious practices had changed a bit since living in England. Firstly, I had to adjust to the fact that Catholicism is not the primary religion in England. Though I had expected this, I didn't realize how challenging it would be to find a convenient place for mass on Sunday mornings. While it wasn't much of a problem to go to mass in Guildford, it wasn't always possible for me to attend Catholic mass while Bill and I were traveling across England and other parts of Europe. To make up for missing masses, I would simply adopt the local Christian religion for a weekend and attend nearby services on the weekends. Since many of our weekend destinations were in southern England, Bill and I had attended several Evensong services as well as Sunday morning services with the Church of England. To put it all in perspective, I never really saw many differences between the Church of England and Catholicism. If you remember your history lessons, you may already know that the Church of England arose from the Roman Catholic Church and broke off as its own religion when King Henry VII wanted a divorce that the catholic bishops were unwilling to give. Though establishing itself as a distinct and separate religion, the Church of England kept many of the same Catholic traditions including celebration of the Eucharist, scripture readings, sacraments, and a mid-service homily. Needless to say, I am still hard-pressed to find more differences between the religions than similarities.

On one of our many trips to London, Bill and I had visited St. Paul's Cathedral -- cornerstone of the Church of England. Though much newer than Westminster Abbey, Bill and I were both awe-inspired by the beauty of the cathedral. For Evensong, the cathedral is lit only by candlelight, and music sung by the Choir of Men and Boys is absolutely heavenly. Similar to a Catholic mass, Evensong lasts about an hour and includes singing, Scripture readings, a homily given by the pastor, and Eucharist. To further immerse my boyfriend into British culture, Craig and I reluctantly hopped back onto the subway (read my earlier posts to find out why we weren't fans of the subway) and headed westward to St. Paul's Cathedral.

Mainly, I had two motivations for bringing Craig to Evensong at St. Paul's: (1) the choir and church are gorgeous by candlelight, and (2) Evensong and other services are the only times when you can get into the cathedral for free (yes, we are both cheap Americans). Craig's first response to seeing the cathedral, however, was far from the quiet reverence that I was expecting:

"That's the dome they blow up in 'V for Vendetta'!" he exclaimed as we turned a corner and saw the cathedral towering in the near distance.

Laughingly, I replied, "Not exactly my first impression of the place, but at least you can say that you saw something famous today."

Eventually finding the main entrance, we quietly entered the church as Evensong was just beginning. Keeping our voices to a whisper, I pointed out various aspects of the church as we walked across the back of the chapel. Edging towards the middle of the church, we stretched our necks to catch a glimpse of the mosaic-clad dome before earning annoyed glances from the church attendants. Feeling slightly disconcerted, Craig nudged me back towards the entrance and whispered, "I think we should head out now."

Walking back outside, I asked him, "So what did you think of St. Paul's?"

"The choir was incredible and the church was pretty, but I didn't want to crash their evening service."

"We could have stayed for Evensong," I replied.

"No," Craig answered. "I think I saw enough to get the gist of the place. Besides, that relaxing music would probably have put me to sleep."

"Hungry yet?" I asked, changing the subject.

"Not really."

"Excellent!" I replied. "Then we still have time to hit Harrod's before it closes for the night."

Despite visiting London several times before, I had yet to see inside the infamous Harrod's department store. On par with Macy's or Nordstrom's in New York, Harrod's is not only the largest store in London, but it also gains a fair amount of fame from its owner. The owner, Mohamed Al Fayed, was the father of the late Dodi Al Fayed -- Princess Diana's lover who died with her in a Paris car accident. Wanting to commemorate the death of his son and Princess Diana, Mr. Al Fayed erected a bronze statue of the couple and placed it in a side entrance of his department store. Besides the vast amount of shopping opportunity, this statue alone attracts many tourists to enter the store as they peruse through the streets of London.

Walking towards the store, I noticed a large crowd gathered outside Harrod's main entrance. Grabbing Craig's hand so not to lose each other, we gingerly stepped through the mob of passionate protesters trying to convince shoppers not to enter the store due to its refusal to boycott fur coats and accessories. Annoyed, I led Craig into the store and was instantly greeted by an attendant holding a pile of store maps. Taking a map, Craig and I coughed through the overwhelming perfume aisles and entered room after room sporting a variety of specialty items. Not wanting to add any extra weight to our already heavy luggage, we contented ourselves with only window shopping rather than spending money on somewhat pricey souvenirs.

"Do you know where we could find a loo?" Craig asked me, sporting his best British accent.

"Darling," I answered in my even worse British impression, "let us consult our Harrod's map."

Following our map to the nearest restroom, Craig gave me a quick kiss on the cheek and whispered, "Be back in a sec," as he ducked into the Men's Restroom. Thinking that this would be a great time for me to check out Harrod's bathrooms as well, I stepped in line at the Women's Restroom and patiently waited for a stall to become available. As we are all familiar with the differences between men's and women's public bathrooms, probably the biggest difference is the ever-growing line that winds throughout the women's restroom -- and for some reason, never occurs for the men. Eventually earning my turn to use a stall, I enjoyed the clean bathroom, washed my hands, and touched up my ponytail before leaving the restroom to look for Craig.

I immediately spotted Craig pacing outside the men's restroom with a distraught expression spread across his face. Nonchalantly walking over to him, I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Nice restrooms. Ready to go now?"

Spinning around, Craig caught arm with a look of half-relief and half-scolding, "I couldn't find you again!"

If you can recall one of my more recent blog posts, you'd remember that Craig had developed a rather overwhelming fear of being stranded by himself in London on his first day in Europe. After nearly losing him on the London subway, I could understand how he could have legitimate concerns... but now??

"I just went to the restroom!" I exclaimed with an incredulous look on my face. "Didn't you see the line waiting outside the women's bathroom?"

"I thought you had wandered off again," Craig began, "and I'd have no way of finding you in this store."

"Craig," I started with an annoyed yet firm tone, "I am not going to lose you. You need to relax and just trust that I know what I am doing around here. Whether you believe it or not, I am always looking out for you around the city and know where you are standing at all times. All you need to do is relax and start enjoying yourself."

And that's when Craig finally started to relax...

Having seen enough of Harrod's, we left the store in search of a bite to eat. Walking on the sidewalk hand-in-hand, Craig abruptly stopped, almost causing me to trip over the sudden change in pace. "What's wrong?" I asked.

"Cars..." he salivated. "Porsche, Aston Martin, and Lamborghini!"

Rolling my eyes, I humored Craig for a few minutes while he walked up and down the street ogling high-priced cars that we'd never see dotting the streets of Cincinnati. Since I'm pretty content with the latest Ford models, I had to ask Craig this morning for the "complete list" of cars that we saw sitting outside Harrod's Department Store: Lamborghini Gallardo, Aston Martin DB9, Maserati GranTurismo, Mercedes-Benz SLK McLaren, Ferrari F430, Bentley Continental GT, Jaguar XK, and Porsche 911.

I must admit that I'm impressed that Craig can remember the models of these cars nearly 8 months after our week in Europe together. I guess some things just leave a lasting impression on guys. ;)

Eventually, rumbling stomachs interrupted Craig's appreciation for London cars, and we continued down the street eyeing nearby restaurants. Too tired and late to grab a plate of inexpensive pub grub, we quickly settled on an Italian sports bar and hungrily devoured two plates of pasta while watching recaps of the latest British soccer match.

Wiping our mouths and paying the bill, we set out on the long subway ride to the Globetrotter Hostel. And, well, you know the rest...

Now I can officially conclude the story of "Craig's First Day in London". See what you would've missed if I had simply left this post out?

Lucky for you, our trip gets even better! Stay tuned for Westminster Cathedral, the Churchill Museum, another trip to the British Museum, and the Paris catastrophe that made our week unexpectedly fantastic!