Friday, June 18, 2010

Paris Part Deux: Where Paris wins the battle

When last you read, I had just gotten off the train with a broken shoe and a sweat drenched cardigan.  I was determined not to let either ruin a perfectly Parisian day.

The plan was to get to Gard du Nord, stash my case and explore the City of Lights for about 6 hours.  I couldn't decide if it was better to save money or time, but opted for the former and went to the taxi line.  No joke, there were about 50 people in it!  With cabs pulling up every three minutes!  GAH!  At this rate I would miss the mimes in front of the Eiffel Tower.

But heck, I've lived in New York, I could hail me a cab.  After trailing my suitcase down one length of the station (which was a long one) I discovered there was no exit.  So I trailed my suitcase the other way.

The back sweat had come back.

I then went outside, tried to hail a cab for five minutes, crossed the street and tried again, walked up the block, tried again and then crossed the street a second time.  Damn it, there was a reason to that stupid line.

My plan of saving time had already cost me more than half an hour.  Time for the metro.  I had to lug the case down about 50 stairs.  SHOOT ME.  Then another set of stairs and into a large building where metro lines surrounded me, escaltors took people in all directions and about thirty high school groups were trying to find a subway to the Eiffel Tower.  It took me approximately 10 minutes to dechiper my route on the map.  My route involved 2 changes and no elevators. God, just where in Paris was I?

Back to the taxi line.  Wasted time?  Almost an hour.

Luckily the line was shorter and I finally got a cab.  Unfortunately the French doctors were striking that day (the French strike all the time apparently, luckily I had read 'A Year in the Merde' so knew this), but the strike made it so that all the roads around the train station were blocked!  GAH!  It took twenty minutes and 13 Euros JUST to go three blocks.

Paris was really starting to piss me off.

My driver was awesome though, and he got us through traffic and past pedestrians quickly.  I was trying to get my bearings when I happened to look out my left side window and there was the Eiffel Tower, shimmering proudly in the distance.  I clapped.

It just looks so majestic from far away.  As if you are looking at it through a gauze curtain.

My mood was starting to lift.

Checking my luggage was easy, getting on a metro was easy, and starting to explore Paris was easy.  

First, off to my favourite creperie near Notre Dame where I ordered a ham and cheese crepe as well as a Nutella crepe.  The woman thought she misheard me but I assured her that I 
was, in fact, quite piggy and I did indeed want both.  I don't know what it is about this place but seriously the best crepes I have had in France hand down.

I sat back, catching my breath and watching the tourists flock by.  Teenagers rough-housing, girls giggling at boys, gangly almost-men skulking around the crowd.  I couldn't help but smile at these kids.  I was 19 the first time I saw Paris. I cried.  This was my third visit and it hadn't yet stopped taking my breath away (albeit that could be my 50-lb bag).  

I noticed that the Latin Quarter and Saint Germaine had new bicycles that looked as though you could rent them, then drop them off at another location.  Perfect!

Except that is not how they work.  I needed a card that I didn't have, and you have to be a local (I think).  I still don't know.  They want to be the new city of bicycles but apparently not for tired tourists (especially ones that just wolfed down two crepes).  

It was a pied.  

I wandered down along the Seine.  But the wind had picked up and my eyes were beginning to fill with dust.  Leaves were hitting my head.  I tried to catch a water bus.  But no.  It wasn't running on the side I was on (again, I think.  I never really know what is going on).

My hair was ruined, I had Paris dust in my mouth and my feet were already hurting.  I looked up to see the ET (yet again, I don't get sick of it) and couldn't help but smile and clap again.  That's right.  Crazy Canuck just stands on sidewalk and claps. I didn't mind the ruined hair.

What is it about the Eiffel Tower that makes me feel so girly and happy?  It must be the symbol of all things feminine and pretty.  I stood there just smiling like an idiot.  I WAS IN PARIS!

And what does a girl do in Paris?  SHOP!!!!  Printemps for my favourite tea

Fauchon for some amazing macarons (oh god!  The macarons!!)

then a random cheese shop where I picked up several cheeses for my British family, and of course some shoe stores.  

I must sadly report that fashion in Paris is reflecting only 1980's clothing.  WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!  And the nautical look. But to be frank, I was already feeling like crap and trying on small fitting clothes was not on the agenda.

I felt like wandering through the city, around the Arc du Triomphe and then over to Eiffel Tower.  Unfortunately, the weather had turned from bad to worse and I was starting to limp.  My shopping trip felt more like a chore and my back was aching.  Things had changed since I was 19.

Why does everywhere I go have scaffolding???

After five hours of stomping through the streets, I felt like I had been hit by a truck. And I almost was once!  I went on a long subway ride only to discover I had just got myself around the corner.  And being in a big city was feeling very strange after spending so much time in the country.

I knew Paris was magical.  I just wasn't feeling it.  By the time I was under the Eiffel Tower I was pooped.  

Sitting on a bench, I stared at all the people taking their pictures. Posing, smiling, kissing.  I was under a blossom tree so I took my shoes off and laid back, staring up at the tower and pink blossoms.

France had been so wonderful and amazing.  Could it be that I was happier in the smaller villages?  Or was I simply tired and missing the Engineer?  Paris is lonely without sharing it with someone.  It doesn't have to be a man, it could be your best friend, or a new friend.  It's a city that should not be seen alone.  I never thought I would think that, but there you go.

I wanted to be back in a place where I could hear the frogs and the nightingales. I wanted to see stars and the moon, not tourists and towers.  Paris could wait for another time.

I smiled, kissed the tower goodbye and headed for my Eurorail that would carry me to London.  

The honeymoon was officially over.

Too bad that wasn't my last experience.  You'd expect some drama right? 

Well, I got to Eurorail, went through customs and was about to board when I discovered I had lost my ticket! GAH!  Leaving my overly heavy bags with a nice American family, I dashed back to security, explained that I left my ticket on the passport counter and had to be 'escorted' three feet.  It was still there!  Hooray!  I would have had to pay another 50 Euros if I had lost it!

Let's just say that my the time my day was ending as I arrived in London, I was pretty grateful.  

What else could go wrong?

Nothing except that on the train up to my family in Manchester, my cheese was smelling so strongly the guys sitting across from me thought the toilets had overflowed.  I didn't want to tell them the 'poop' they were smelling was in my bag.  And that it would be eaten tomorrow by my family.

I smiled.  Smelly cheese is always the best.  France taught me that.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Paris: 1, Sarah: 0 Part 1

Now that my French and Italian Jellymoon was at a close, I felt spending an afternoon shopping in Paris would be the perfect sendoff.

I drove myself to the Tours railway station, lugged my suitcase full of wine (I also had my laptop/backpack with three bottles of wine), dropped off the car (and ran really fast in case we had speeding tickets), bought my ticket and hopped on the first train out.

I decided to splurge on the TGV as not only did I want to get to Paris in less than an hour, but I wanted to see what a big deal this fast train was.  Let's just note here that the train I got from this rail station was only 6 minutes and it was taking me to the station where the TGV was.

Seated comfortably next to a window, with my arm slung around my wine-filled backpack, I congratulated myself on doing such a good job without the Engineer.  I didn't get lost, I didn't have to pay for unknown speeding tickets, and I had arrived in plenty of time.  I wanted to reflect on my journey so I decided to look at the pictures on my camera.

And that's when the problems started.

I had left the camera in the car.  With 30-seconds to spare I jumped out of the train (with 70lb suitcase and backpack), ran to Hertz and hurriedly explained problem.  If I could retrieve my camera, jump in a cab, I could still make the TGV for which I held a non-refundable ticket.  Only problem being that the car was already at the car wash.

Luckily for me, I had seen the car wash the day before and it was on the way to the train!  Woohoo!

Dashing outside, I grabbed the first cab, explained where I needed to get and that there was a stop and we had to vite vite!  He clearly understood as he whipped my suitcase in the trunk (and when I say 'whipped' I mean he picked it up, said 'oeff' and with my help pushed it over the lip of the trunk).  Speeding down the street, he honked, swerved and came to a halt as I pointed out the car wash where Mr. Hertz was standing with my camera.


I then kept my eyes on the clock as we sped through Tours.  Seven minutes, 5 minutes -Vite Vite!  My pulse was racing and I could feel the sweat dripping down my back.  I chucked 10 Euros at him (4 of which were a tip for speeding) and, with super human strength, yanked the suitcase out and ran through the station.


Staring at the screens I found my platform, ran as fast as my aching legs could carry me and sprang up the 10 steps to the platform.  Again, when you read 'sprang' think more like I dragged a dead elephant while making 'ugh ugh' noises as French people stared on.

But I had made it! ON TIME!  With 30 seconds to spare. So much so that the train hadn't even pulled in yet.


It did arrive, and on it I got, throwing my back out as I lifted my case up the steps.  Some very nice French men behind me watched the whole display, never once offering to help.  I am using the term 'nice' loosely.

I was so freaking relieved that I plopped down in my seat with a great sigh.  The guy across from me moved.

So much for arriving in Paris dressed beautifully, relaxed and sweat free. Instead, I had to remove my shirt, let my back dry, and clip my hair back because it was plastered to my neck.

Then, to add insult to injury, when we arrived in Paris, I once again had an all-out battle with the suitcase that had become my enemy (again while two able-bodied French men watched me), dropped it on my foot and broke my shoe!  Well, the floral jewels broke off my shoe.  The French guys said 'oeff' and picked up the scattered jewels.  Thanks guys, now is the time to be helpful.

So that was my arrival in Paris.  If it was any indication of the day ahead I refused to believe it.  I was in Paris, and everything was going to be perfect.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Cozy at a Closerie

The Engineer and I stayed at incredible and amazing places throughout our jellymoon - thanks to my super sleuthing skills!

Our last stop, Chinon, took us too La Closerie Saint Martin a lovely bed and breakfast (with half board) that I had found when I was looking for places to get married in France.  Isn't it crazy how a few hours on google can help you discover little treasures? It makes those hours seem less wasted :)

La Closerie is run by a husband and wife team, Marcel and Katharina, who left their office jobs in Zurich to run this bed and breakfast in the middle of France.  I was hoping this would inspire the Engineer to declare that this was the best idea ever and that we too should pick up sticks and move to Europe.  Alas, he did not think this was a good idea.  For now. I’ll keep working on him!

Anyhoo, I already knew I would love Marcel and Katharina because when I asked if they knew anyone in the area who did a cooking class they offered up their own kitchen!  Plus they read my blog!  

Love it, I did.  To top it off they had a dog named Fado and we became fast friends.  The Engineer and I agreed that with each stop we met people who were interesting, dynamic and inspiring (okay, those are my words).  But it’s true!  Marcel and Katharina are close to our age.  And they risked everything to buy a bed and breakfast in France.  Looking around me, I can totally understand the appeal.

After the Engineer left, I felt pretty lonely and sad.  But it didn't last long!

I can’t stress enough how great this place is for a girl all by herself.  Firstly, it’s all closed in and quiet.  Next, Katharina makes a really good pot of tea that you can have in your room or outside in the courtyard.  Finally, even if you don’t take a cooking class, you have the option of having dinner at La Closerie which means you always have friends!

Katharina and Marcel taught me how to make an apple tart, how to cut up a guineau fowl (is that right?), and how to make a really yummy asparagus soup.  I cut up a bird! ME!  I’ve never done that before.

After my day of castle hopping and wine-tasting, I had dinner at La Closerie with a wonderful group of people from Italy, France and England as well as Marcel and Katharina.  It was perfect.

We started off with appertifs in the ‘cave’.  When building all the chateaux, many caves were left behind now void of their rock.  They are now homes to the thousands of  barrels of wine in the Loire Valley. 

Thank you Loire Valley (and a note here:  seriously the BEST wine!).  Marcel and Katherina had lit the way down with candles so that it had a delicious and eerie glow.  The cave was even complete with their adopted black cat who was affectionate and cuddly, even though she refuses to leave the cave most of the time.  We chatted over nuts and wine (I had sparkling wine with grapefruit syrup – so good!) getting to know each other before dinner.

Ah, dinner. Good wine, good company and good conversation.   Plus Marcel brought out what might have been the best cheese platter in history.  Three types of goat cheese that taste nothing like they do in Canada – why can’t I sneak unpasturized dairy products back to Canada?  DROOL.

We talked late into the night – how great was this?  Perfect strangers who all shared this one love of France and food in common.  I went to bed full and happy. 

I felt well taken care of.  I feel as if I was staying with friends and I look forward to many years returning to this lovely and endearing spot nestled between chateau, fields of wine, and blue-roofed villages.

Castle Country

So we’ve seen the Romans, checked out medieval villages, hung out in cafes frequented by artists of the “Belle Epoque”, and roamed the fields of two world wars.  All that was left was the Garden of France.  The land of aristocratic wealth and splendour.

Loire Valley:  home of over 300 Chateaux that seem to rise from the land with such grace and awe that once again I was back in a fairytale. 

The Engineer and I both felt that covering only a few Chateau was best; as just like medieval towns and castles, they stop losing their wonder when you see too many. 

Wow.  How spoiled are we?  Ugh.  Another castle.  Blah blah blah. (especially that as I re-write this I am back in the land of Starbucks where my current view is an greasy haired man scratching himself and talking on his bluetooth whilst sipping on a non-fat extra-hot latte and a bank.)

My pick was Chateau Chenonceau.  It was apparently also the pick of half the poulation of France. And, of course, it was covered in scaffolding.  Clearly, avoid timing your travels to Europe if I am going in the same year.

It was still pretty amazing.   I mean it’s a castle bridge thing.

  We made the mistake of getting the audio tour.  Why why why do we think this is going to be good?  It never is. 

Albeit, Mr. Audio Man had some interesting points.  In the kitchen he asked us to use our imagination and visualize the room busting with people.  The Engineer and I looked at each other at the same time – this needed no imagination, the place was swarming.  Granted five hundred years ago the servants would not have been  bum-bags bearing with cameras slung around their neck.

Sightseeing would be so much better without tourists.

The off to Chinon and our bed and breakfast. 

Chinon itself is, like everything else in France, pretty and perfect.  A town atop a hill (what else is new?) with a  castle that was the home of Henry Plantagenet.  It’s white with blue roofs, bright cobble-stoned streets, and wooden medieval buildings that squish together looking all higgledy piggeldy.

We were finally hit with not so pleasant weather and our hot air balloon attempt was thwarted again!  BOO!  What to do?


The Engineer and I shared one last meal together.  I, of course, had to drag him around to several restaurants to find the perfect one.  Unfortunately the perfect one was full so he got to choose. Luckily they had delicious rose, but not so delicious Coq au Vin.  I was happy to realize I had not made Coq au Vin/Ick wrong, I just really don’t like the way it tastes.  Take that Martha Stewart!

And that was it.  That was our Jellymoon over.  No more long drives on French freeways, or gin rummy tournaments sitting outside and drinking wine, no more night-time hikes trying to find trains, or building fires, or eating gelato three times a day.  No more bad audio tours. 

I drove him to the airport the next day.  It was so sad.  But luckily for me I had my bed and breakfast to go home to!

And of course, a few more chateaux.  I mean, when in castle country right?

First off I had to go to my Chateau du Rivau – the whole reason I was here in the first place.    This was definitely a fairytale castle – it had a peacock and a Rapunzel braid.   I pulled the 'bride' card and got to in for free!  MUHAHHA!  I was actually quite into the idea of hosting a wedding here - especially when I walked under the trellises admiring the roses and I could hear lovely music being piped in through the leaves.  Seriously.

Unfortunately, the wedding man told me I was not popular enough for a wedding at this Chateau.  That's right.  When I told him I might have 30 guests he sniffed and said I could not have such a small wedding here.  Well.  Excuse me.

On my way to one chateau #2, Langeais, I had to turn down a country road that led to a perfect forest.  As I checked my rear-view mirror my breath was taken away.  There, in my mirror, was the castle quipped ‘Sleeping Beauty’ castle.  Chateau Usse.

Okay, this is not exactly as I saw it but isn't this a pretty picture?

That's more like it.

Well dear God.  There is a freaking castle in my mirror!  I didn’t have enough time to go inside (and like I said, they are all pretty much the same once you go inside) but I did have time to stop the car, get out and admire the fact I was in France, surrounded by castles and this was the best thing ever.  Sadly I had no one to share it with.  Except for the passing bikers whom I waved to energetically and informed them that there was a castle.

I was drawn to Chateau Langeais due to the fact they were having a special display about medieval food.  Well, I love food and I love history so it was a perfect combination!  Unfortunately, I didn't count on all the information being in French.

This castle is really amazing - even with the French signs that after some bad translating I deduced that medieval French people ate birds.  Not only do they have the rooms made up to look as they might have, but they even have a 'wax wedding ceremony' of the famous King and Queen who lived here.  Of course, I forget their names and am too lazy to look it up.  This would have been more enjoyable had the figures not been so creepy.

I mean look at them!  ACK!  I would not want to be here at night when the old waxy men come to life and wander the castle looking for medieval ghosts to scare.

Enough of the castles, it was time for the other thing this valley is famous for:  WINE!

I stopped at one winery, Bernard Baudry.  I was supposed to stop at more, but I sort of got stuck.  I was also supposed to ask for a tour of the wine caves but I chickened out with, well, you know, my lack of French speaking abilities.  I walked into a room, where three barrels were placed upside down.  One was surrounded by five men with moustaches.  They all turned around, red wine in hand, and said ‘Bonjour’.  Five times. I said ‘Bonjour’ back (five times).  Then we all stood blinking at each other until I said in English that I didn’t know what to do. 

One of the men laughed and raced to find his English-speaking son.  Matthew came to my rescue and insisted I try some wine.  He joined in with me (I love this part) and we talked over 6 glasses of wine (granted little ones and he spit out his wine).  At one point, three older French ladies joined us.  He asked if they wanted to try the rose.  Typically French, they all refused (apparently the French are not as big on this rose craze as us North American plebs).  But, in my broken French, I told them how good it was and convinced them to try it!  Hooray! They indulged me but I think they still prefer red.  Whatever, more for me.  And they sell it in New York!  DOUBLE HOORAY!

After a day of castle hopping and wine-tasting (with ten bottles of wine tucked into my suitcase!), I had dinner at La Closerie with a wonderful group of people (I will fill you in on them in the next entry).

I went to bed that night, stuffing my suitcase with wine, foie gras, jam, and no new dresses thinking back on the past four weeks.  The next day would take me to Paris and back into the 'real' world.  The Engineer and I had got lost in the Italian and French countryside, revelling in small villages, rolling hills and nights so dark that we could actually see stars and country so still we could hear nightingales.  We had slept in rooms older than our home country!

We had been so lucky to stay in homes that felt like home, and met truly wonderful people. I was happy to be heading home to see the boys but I was also terribly depressed.  I mean with the honeymoon over, what else is there to look forward to?

Oh right.  The wedding.

Mayenne who?

Tearing ourselves away from the fairytale land of Dordogne, the Engineer and I spent nearly seven hours on the road for the Loire Valley/Mayenne.  I think I expected the entire Loire Valley to be just like Dordoge.  ROLLING hills dotted with chateaux and cute medieval villages – but was surprised to find our next location looked a lot like where I come from in Alberta. 

Gentle rolling fields of canola and wheat and happy cows munching on grass.  Of course the similarities end there.  Our next gite, Gite du Moulin, was not only the site of a mill thought to date back to ancient Rome, but it also housed the Resistance during World War 2. 


The best I have in Alberta is a Tim Horton’s and a butcher shop called ‘Crossfield Meats’ whose slogan is ‘The Place to Buy Meat’ (how original).

This country never ceases to amaze me.  It’s as if we are not only traveling through amazing countryside, but we are traveling through history.  It’s just normal to live in a house built in the 14th century.  It’s a regular thing to see remains of the Roman Empire in your backyard.  Kids now fly kites on what once was a gory battlefield that claimed so many lives but also created thousands of heroes. 

As like every place I had chosen for this trip, Gite du Moulin did not disappoint.  Set on a lovely piece of land by a babbling brook, our house was a converted barn (I think) and we were met by yet another lovely host, Sylvaine.  She showed us through our little home that already felt like a home.  I just love these French farmhouses!  Bright, airy, perfect for writing.  Well, more perfect for eating cheese.

Sylvaine has been reading my blog so she knows I love cheese.  Therefore she stocked our fridge with cheese!  Oh God, I can taste it right now.  It’s delicious.  Smokey and fresh goat cheese,  ridiculously ripe camembert that made me realize I clearly do not know what camembert should actually taste like and therefore now am forever ruined.  I had become accustomed to opening the fridge and being met with the smell of the Engineer's dirty socks.

The best touch at this place was the hen Cocotte, who I called Henrietta, stomping around.  Sylvaine has three hens, who lay really yummy eggs, in a coop, but Henrietta prefers to hop the coop and explore her surroundings.  We were warned that she might try to get into our house when we are eating – much to the Engineer’s chagrin.  Sylvaine also had three cats that would like to come into the house.  The Engineer promptly shut the windows.  I quite liked the idea of a hen and cat at dinner. 

You know what I loved about this place?  Drinking rose on the little bridge above the brook.  While eating cheese.  I swear, does life get any better?  One of the cats seemed to want to sit with us, so I went over and picked him up.  He was so happy and cuddly, but when I brought him to the table he went wild, screeching and flew out of my arms leaving claw marks.  I found out later he had an electrical collar on.  Whoops.

The other thing I loved about this home was Sylvaine’s husband, Bob.  As I was still singing ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and finding parts of the movie everywhere, I was thrilled when Bob told us he was an inventor.  AN INVENTOR!  And he had wild white hair just like Maurice!  AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

We sipped Blanquette and munched on hummus with Sylvaine and Bob, letting the water flow past us.  Turns out that Bob was one of the men who invented the difibulator!  AAAAAAAH!  This was also when we found out that the old mill (now the couple’s enormous house) was once where members of the Resistance gathered in the dark of night to await instructions from London to trick the Germans for D-Day.  When dawn broke, they would hide the radio back under the grain and sneak back off to thwart the Nazis. 

I thought it would be fun to play 'hide from the Nazis' but even 60 years later it is still wrong.  And really weird.  The Engineer would rather build fires anyways, and I sat it our kitchen, sipping wine (theme) watching the flames crackle and roar.  The fireplace had two sides to it, so he sat in the other room and waved at me through the glass.  

Ahhh, separation.  Best Honeymoon ever.

Okay, let's go back to the cheese again.  Have you ever tasted goat cheese so fresh you can practically hear them chewing your socks?  Probably not.  Sadly, the thought of returning to Canada where we do not have a cheese course nor do we devote entire grocery aisles to cheese was starting to get me down.

I decided to go for a walk.  First to the manor house next door.  I was told they were away so happily explored their property - peeking in windows to check out the manor lord's decor scheme and eating stuff from their garden.

I then hopped to the field across the road where some cows were roaming.  I felt I should get back in touch with my farm girl roots so I delicately marched through a field of stubble and cow patties only to find a stream separated me from the vaches.  I tried to jump the stream, which as you can guess did not go well.  When I recovered with mild wet feet, I noticed three French men smoking and fishing.  I waved to them, said 'Bonjour' and pretended I was normal.  I'm pretty sure they muttered 'Stupide Americain' under their smoky breath.

I later found out that (A) the Manor house was indeed occupied and the lady of the house watched me peer into her living room and (B) one is not supposed to trespass on farmer's field when said farmer in fishing.


Needless to say, the Engineer and I stayed put from then on in, enjoying our two sided fire, separate living rooms, and copious amounts of rose.

The Bride is BACK

Sorry lovely readers!  I took a bit of a hiatus - AKA stopped writing for a week, then felt bad so didn't write some more, then felt worse, so wrote less and it spiralled into a month of no entries!  GAH!

But I have a whole whack of entries on the way - including the end of my awesome Jellymoon!

Stay Tuned!