Paris for a Day

If l had my way
I’d just … wander
Down the Champs Elysées

(Joni Mitchell, Free Man in Paris)
I sang this about 100 times today.  We had so much fun.  After the hundreds of kilometers we’ve logged across the heartland of Europe over the past two weeks, we felt like we made some kind of triumphal reentry into Paris yesterday, where we began.  We know each other a lot better now and have a bunch of great, shared memories.
Today was a celebration of our time together, and of Paris, and winter.  We started at our groovy B & B about 20 km outside of Paris.  I haven’t stayed in a B & B since the early 90s.  This really took me back and made we wonder why I stopped seeking them out.
The morning was spent gaining a little perspective at the Versailles grounds.  I love formal gardens in winter when you can see all of their structure and design.
The afternoon was dedicated to the Eifel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, finished with the wished for wander down the Champs Elysees.  It was a little cold and a little drizzly, but never so much that it dampened the day.
We finished the day with a supper of bread, cheeses, salami, and pate in Le Sucrerie’s living room, before retiring to big fluffy beds upstairs.
  Boys go home early tomorrow morning and I can say we’ve lived every minute to the fullest.  Great young men.  Fantastic company.

Relying on the Kindness of Strangers

           We have had some gracious hospitality on this trip from friends (Thank you again and again Greens and also Rops.).  It has been really fun to see how they are living their European lives and so nice to stay at the Green home and eat at the Rops table.  What we didn’t at all anticipate, however, is the unreserved help from people we don’t even know.  It began soon after we crossed the border into Germany.  At about the only restaurant open in Freidrichsberg on Boxing Day, the uncomfortable proprietors went and fetched their young adult son when they realized we spoke mostly English.  Their son was so cute, much like ours,  and gave us a charades walk through the menu so we could order something, sometimes flapping his hands to help him think of a word or making very literal translations like “The pig meat is covered with wheat”.  We took his suggestion for his favorite menu item and it was excellent:  their house schnitzel.  So sweet.  Lots of warm goodbyes from his family when we left.
            We are trying to travel through Europe as economically as we can and so we asked a friend who teaches at an international school in Germany if anyone on his staff would be interested in a vacation home exchange.  This would involve a place in Germany for a few days in exchange for a vacation in mild Tunis.  A single woman immediately responded to the request even before she knew there was an exchange offer on the table.  She was happy to have five people she doesn’t know stay in her beautiful apartment in Munich while she is away on Christmas vacation.  Absolutely unbelievable.  I hope so much that she takes us up on our end of the offer, brings along a friend, and gives us a chance to say thanks in person and return this whole-hearted gesture.
            When our study of the train schedule and ticketing options went from 5 minutes to 10 to 15, an engaging woman wearing big white sunglasses came to our assistance.  She had worked in Florida for six years and recognized our type.  With her help, we successfully purchased our tickets from the vending machine and then she went ahead and walked us to the station so we could visit for a few more minutes.  She gave us several gut busting laughs enroute and then she said goodbye, shaking each of our hands, and left us to our day.
            Finally, we have only kind things to say about the staff at the Pasing Klinikum where we took our Jordan (Steelquists, he’s our Jordan for the time being) to finally deal with the possible parasite he has been carrying around for about 12 days.  Shy receptionists rushed off to get coworkers who spoke some English to help us.  A bilingual doctor got accurate information and some tests to diagnose the problem and get some antibiotics started.  Everyone on duty pitched in to serve the Americans and we got the treatment we needed.
            This all reminds me of the quote from the Bible about being kind to strangers.  In that quote, the strangers are made out to be the angels, but in our case, it’s the other way around.

Better for Being in Poland

Krakow was cold, cold, cold.  It’s so hard to remember what cold really feels like until you’re in it again and then it comes back to you.  You have to cover every patch of exposed skin.  You must stay completely dry.  Much as I encouraged my sons to consider proper winter footwear before meeting us here, one of them showed up with simple canvas shoes.  Just a few hours of walking on the cobblestone streets in slushy snow and he was suffering.  We rescued him with some emergency boots and wool socks, but we all began to appreciate the harsh conditions of a Polish winter.
We entered the Birkenau concentration camp this morning in a thick fog and couldn’t see where we were until the arched brick wall with the train track leading in was right in front of us.  We were the only ones there at 8:00 AM and made the first tracks in the snow, tromping from barrack to barrack.  Still the fog was so heavy we could only see a step at a time and  we heard dogs barking and gunshots in the distance as if a soundtrack was being played to unnecessarily add to the atmosphere.   Following those long train tracks to their terminus, we stood at the well-documented spot where they were unloaded and the fates of millions of lives were decided with a hand motion.
I never knew if I was capable of visiting Auschwitz.  At least 20 years ago, I stopped watching Holocaust movies and reading books on the topic because I just couldn’t bear the inevitable any more.  There would be the dear elderly character with wire-rimmed glasses who you adored, but knew terrible things were in store for.  The middle of the story would be filled with the chaos and fear of the train loading and unloading, followed by the separation of families.  Finally, there would be the gradual deaths of everyone you were pulling for and the hopeless feeling of loss at the end.  I knew the plot and I just couldn’t watch it reenacted one more time.
Twisted mound of wire-rimmed glasses
I walked into these infamous sites today and as I suspected,  I did cry when I saw the case of gnarled wire-rimmed glasses and the room of baby clothes and shoes.  I saw photos of the very real victims, Jews from Poland, but also Hungary and almost every other part of Europe.  Additionally,  there were also thousands of non-Jewish Poles, and Gypsies, and Russians.  There were a lot more people than I realized who were considered undesirable and were murdered there by the thousands.   I listened, spellbound, to our tour guide, Symon, who had also needlessly lost an uncle in that camp.  He led us through the story of Auschwitz, helping us connect with the humans, but also working on some answers to the enormous question, why?  He actually answered that question in a basic way right at the beginning.  They were Jews and Hitler was obsessed with hatred for them.  He also needed a scapegoat on whom to blame the dire economic state in Germany.  There actually wasn’t one grand beaurocratic plan for the mass extermination of Jews except to gradually eliminate their rights in Nazi-occupied cities throughout Europe and then transport them to labor camps in several locations.  They were just truly work camps for the first two years, but then the extermination steam-rolled and in just over a year, over a million Jews were killed.  Again, you play the why game.  Why didn’t Polish villagers try to do something?  Answer:  they had all been relocated and it was SS soldiers and their families living in the nearby villages.  Why did the Jews go along?  Why didn’t they resist?  Answer:  Their choices were narrowed further and further until their only chance of survival was to cooperate and make the best possible conditions for themselves within the camps.  Why didn’t more of them escape?  Answer:  The SS were ruthless.  If you resisted you were punished through the torture or death of those you most loved.
The SS made a game of systematic dehumanization, humiliation, and terrorization.   The Nazis had effectively sealed all levels of society in the region in terror.  It was effective and pervasive.  These were simple people and they all had to make the best choices they could given their own circumstances and information.
By the end of the tour, I had a much better mental structure to which I could attach my emotions.  I feel now like I can take another look at some of the films  and literature and rather than wait for the foregone ending, I can study them for what they say along the themes of power and choice.

Taking in Prague

            I feel like I’ve come for Christmas to the place that invented it.  The most elemental images of the season:  chestnuts roasting on an open fire, trees in city squares, trimmed with simple bows (more tree than decoration), chapels, and sleigh bells.  You, yourself, feel like you are inside of an ideal Christmas village, walking, bundled, with friends. You are spontaneously singing, laughing, and stopping, frequently, for a hot drink (did someone say gluhwein?) to warm the hands and insides.   For as hard as we try to conjure that spirit in most other parts
of the world, it is just happening here in Prague.
Angelic gift wrappers in the Swarovski store window.
            When people tell you you’re going to visit one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it’s hard to know how to think of it.  There are a lot of types of beautiful and some things in life that are said to be beautiful don’t feel that appealing because they’re not relatable.  And this is what I would say makes Prague truly beautiful.  It is almost visually perfect and yet you explore it in small, intimate vignettes.  You can’t often see very far ahead and so you simply cross a bridge and enjoy being there, not trying to get on to what you see ahead.  You round a corner, pass through a gate and then there is an exquisite church or castle and it’s all you see of Prague for that moment so you can pause and really take that in.  Prague makes you take your time and expect surprises.
            After a day of wandering and amazing, thawing and rechilling, it is so, so nice to come home to our friends’ apartment, where the Wi-Fi and the water pressure are strong.  The washing machine is efficient.  We drop off in cozy beds, surrounded by the artifacts of their family, thinking of them and imagining how it feels to be them, living in Prague.  And we wish they were here.

Henri Matisse and the Olive Forest

We’ve had tastes of Nice urban life, and the seaside.  Today, we had some blissful time to marinate in Provence which means olives, oranges, lavender and country life.  We went to the Matisse museum which is a renovated country French chateau that is now very much in the heart of suburbia.  So many of his sketches and paintings focus on simple subjects:  the form of a common woman, a still life of fruit.  I love the colors he pulls in to his paintings as they are the colors I find naturally work their way into the beige background of my life on the Mediterranean.

The spire you see in some of the photos is a Franciscan chapel on the property.

I forget how inspiring and energizing it can be to walk through beautifully designed and manicured urban parks.  This 19th century structure is surrounded on one side by an olive forest and the other side by rustically designed French kitchen gardens.  That means that most of what is growing on this property is edible.  I want to remember to mix pansies and calendulas with chard and kale.

This enclosed herb garden is a perfect place to come and sit in the sun on a Saturday morning with preschoolers.
Next time I come to Provence, I hope to go straight to the country to soak in the sun, earth, Mediterranean plant life and the colors.

Menton, Monte-Carlo, Monaco

Here’s what’s different about the Mediterranean from the French side.  First of all, the coastline is long and uninterrupted.  When you’re out all day, you don’t just catch glimpses of it, the shoreline is protected from development and you can view it with the expanse of a wide-angle lens most of the time.  Second, it looks like the ocean right after God made it.  It is baby blue, and effervescent, and perfectly clean.  I was trying to capture that essence and I think the heading photo got some of it.

            We figured out the local train line today, which always makes us feel like self-sufficient travelers.
We went to the last town on the line that is still in France: Menton.
Here, we had a picnic at the beach and watched retirees taking morning swims, riding bicycles, playing tennis, running and then meeting each other at seaside cafes for an express.
Clay courts
It’s November and this is Europe.  The water is not actually warm.
            This would be a fabulous place to spend retirement days, living a healthy life between sea and ski.  I could certainly embrace it as long as my own dear friends came along to share it with me.   I’m saving those days for them and my family.
           Almost exactly two years ago, our friend Bryan had a James Bond themed 50th birthday party in Kathmandu.  Allan and I weren’t the most cleverly dressed, but we did win the “Most Likely to Actually go to Monte-Carlo” award.   These friends already knew that we were moving to the Mediterranean so it was a hedged bet.  Now,  two years later, we have fulfilled the prediction.  It was a little hard to get the whole sense of Monaco/Monte-Carlo.  These twin cities in the Monaco principality are practically chiseled into the steep, rocky hillside.  You have to go up one hillside and around a small mountain to get to the other one and you can’t really see it all at once.  You end up taking elevators and escalators through the inside of a mountain and then you emerge … somewhere, look around and try to determine where you would try to go next if you reentered the mountain transit system.  Here are little peeks into hillside lives.
It was clear, however, where the marina was.  It was down.  This picture does not do any justice to the yachts we saw.
          Allan estimated that we were looking at probably 50 yachts in the Monte-Carlo marina of 150 feet or more in length.  It was actually a little weird.  I don’t mean that to sound particularly judgmental, but to just see that much wealth in one place is like seeing a Martian landing.  It’s unfamiliar and otherworldly.  We for sure saw the 1% of the world today.

Thanksgiving on the French Riviera

Can you imagine writing those five words?  I never could either.  I did not grow up thinking I would travel anywhere in my life, didn’t really even think about it.  Funny reality now is that the French Riviera is a whole lot closer than going to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, though not necessarily sweeter.

            Thursday morning, we caught a 9:00 AM flight and were in Nice for lunch.
I really did not have any preconceived expectation of what Nice would be.  As I trolled the Internet for an affordable boutique hotel, I became more and more concerned that Nice was a typical beachfront resort town, completely overused by northern Europeans.  The hotel rooms looked a little sweaty, faded, and expensive.
            What I’ve encountered in Nice so far is a crisp, clean, underpopulated city.  The city clearly values its natural beauty, preserving miles and miles of beachfront promenade, framed by the snow-capped French Alps in the background.  The air is chilly enough to wear leather coats and boots, but when you sit in the sun at a café for lunch, you can shed your coat and sit comfortably in your sleeveless dress.  And there are many, many fit, suntanned retirees (almost all walking French Bulldogs) who generally keep the prices down in a town.  I really like it here; I can feel myself already falling in love.  By the way, after hours and hours of Internet searching, it turns out I chose a wonderful boutique hotel:  It is La Villa Nice Promenade (11 Rue Saint Philippe).   Perfectly located near the Promenade, but quietly tucked away off the busy street, it is clean and simple, but has a decorative flair.  Best yet, it is under $100. 00 US per night.
            This is the only turkey we saw today.
            The best gelato in Nice, according to Kaye Syrah.  I’ll have to go back when it’s not siesta time.
            An old carousel in the central park.
            A couple having lunch under a laden, rectangular orange tree.  I know it’s anal, but I love French gardening.