Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Last Night in Paris

When I got back to Paris this afternoon, I came back to the apartment, had lunch, and posted to the blog. And then I started to get extremely depressed. The realization that this amazing experience is quickly coming to an end is hitting me hard. I've been fighting back tears on and off all day. I know many of you don't understand that. All I can say is that I love this place more than any other and I feel like this is home. I have always felt that way about Paris, but even more so now that I have spent an extended time here. And so to have to leave this place is sort of heartbreaking.

I thought about running all over Paris tonight - you know, one last hurrah. But I have done that every day for the past two months. And what I'm going to miss most is 'living' here. So I decided to spend my last couple of hours this evening just walking around 'my neighborhood' trying to memorize every detail of the sights and sounds that have become so familiar to me. One last visit to the market. A swing by the metro stop I walk to several times each day. One last check of my mailbox. A few last photos and video clips.

I can't believe how fast my time here has gone by.

It's 8:00pm here now. I just cooked my "last supper". I haven't started packing yet. Once I start packing, I won't be able to maintain any sense of denial.

I loved every minute of living here and still can't believe I was lucky enough to have this chance - it's something I wanted so badly but never thought I'd ever be able to do.

I just wish it didn't have to end.

Time to pack...

Click here to view all of today's photos (12/20/08)

Almost Missed My Train Back to Paris!

I got up early today so I could spend some more time browsing around the Christmas market and taking another stroll through the Grand Place before I had to catch my train back to Paris. 24 hours in beautiful Brussels just wasn't enough!

I made it to the train station and into my seat literally 5 minutes before the train pulled out of the station (big surprise, right?). I was actually a little worried when it started getting down to the wire, but figured what was the worst that could happen? If I missed the train, I'd just take the next one :-) Luckily, I didn't have to do that though.

For those of you who get some of the Belgian chocolate I bought this morning, you'll thank me for almost missing my train - ha!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Bienvenue a Brussels

The train from Paris arrived at the Brussels Midi station right on time at 3:47pm. From there I had to take the Brussel’s metro to get to the stop closest to the Warwick Royal Windsor hotel. The metro took about 20 minutes and the hotel is a 5 minute walk from the station. I only stayed at the hotel long enough to drop my bag and freshen up – then I was off to the Grand Place!

I have to say it again - I LOVE THIS HOTEL! I’ve stayed here every time I’ve been in Brussels and it is so wonderful. The location is phenomenal (right around the corner from the Grand Place) and the rooms are beautiful – dark wood, gorgeous bedding, marble bathrooms… ahhh! I was in heaven :-) This hotel is definitely on my "Favorite 5" hotels in the world list.

So Paris has its crepe stands on every corner and Brussels has its waffles and frites stands! Of course, I went for the frites (french fries) for dinner! Served up in cones with all different sauces, the most common of which is mayonnaise – which is quite yummy! (Remember the frite stands Sherri?) So I walked around eating my frites as I checked out the Christmas market ;-) Did you know... 'french' fries aren't french? They were created in Belgium!

Even though I don’t like them, I have to admit that the waffles were a thing of art. Every sugary, sweet topping you can image. Almost too pretty to eat! (Sabrina, you would have liked the ones with TONS of whipped cream on top!)

I’ve been to Brussels several times before. Why do I keep coming back? For one thing, it’s so easy to get here from Paris – just 1 hour 20 minutes by high speed train. Also, Brussels is the seat of the EU – so I love that about the city. It's so international! Most of the signs are in French and German (though Flemish is also spoken here). And the architecture of the buildings in the Grand Place is spectacular – especially when they are all decked out for the holidays.

Le Grand Place
So as I rounded the corner and caught my first glimpse of the Grand Place, it was already dark and it literally took my breath away. Brussels really out did itself this year! The orchestrated light and music show was so stunning it actually – and this is going to sound dorky, but it’s true - brought tears to my eyes. The beauty of it against the buildings surrounding the Grand Place was like nothing I had ever seen before.

I took video – lots of video. Five clips will play when you click below! Hopefully it will give you a glimpse of what I saw and experienced. (You can also go right to YouTube by clicking here, and then clicking on the link underneath the video window that says 'watch in high quality' to see a higher res version.)

In addition to the video I took a ton of photos, so check them out as well!

Meeting Mr. Mama Kotroo from Kashmir
There was a booth in the Christmas market that was selling hand-painted ornaments and hand-woven pashminas from India. They were very beautiful and I stopped to look. The gentleman selling the items was Indian and spoke English so we started chatting and ended up talking for about an hour! He spends his summers in India where he owns a few houseboats in the region of Kashmir. And when he’s in India he takes groups of travelers on treks through the Himalayas – he has a whole crew that goes on the journey. How cool is that? I got his business card ;-) And he spends his winters in Brussels. I asked him how that ended up happening and he told me that he had met a Belgian woman – ended up marrying her – so they live here part of the year and India part of the year. He was so nice and so interesting to talk to.

Of course we talked about politics. And I don’t have to tell you what he thinks about Bush… He said he knows a lot of people who think Americans are bad. And he always corrects them and says Americans are wonderful, generous people - it’s just Bush that is bad. It was a little troubling to know that many people around the world don’t distinguish between Bush and the America people, but it goes to show you how invaluable traveling is as an avenue towards greater global understanding and world peace. Had Mr. Kotroo not met and befriended Americans, he may not have made the distinction himself. And now that he has, he tries to educate others who have not had the experience of meeting and getting to know Americans themselves. The example holds as true for us. Until you travel outside the United States and see different parts of the world and experience and learn about other cultures, it’s difficult not to let the bias of government and media impact the way you see the world and America’s place in it.

Ok, I’ll stop philosophizing now ;-)

But the moral of the story is: "Spread World Peace.... TRAVEL!

Click here to view all of today's photos (12/19/08)

My Last Day of Class at the Alliance Francaise

Today was my last day of class at the Alliance Francaise. The teacher had us meet in the cafeteria instead of the classroom and we started out the day with fresh croissants and friendly conversation (in French) about the various customs and songs of Christmas in each of our countries. So interesting! I don’t think I've talked much about the students in my December class. They were even more diverse than the 1st group!

This time, I was the only American. And other than a girl from Canada and a girl from Australia, everyone else was from non-English speaking countries. But just as before, they ALL spoke at least some English and that was how we communicated with one another during breaks (the only time English was allowed). The people in my class came from: Uganda, Pakistan, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, Japan, Sweden, Brazil, Luxembourg, Ukraine and Israel.

The guy from Israel (Ron) was a polo player who has traveled (and lived) all over the world – including the U.S., and South Florida. He knew West Palm and even mentioned City Place to me. Small world, huh? The girl from Canada (Celina) was really nice. It was too bad we didn’t meet sooner on my trip as we likely would have hung out together. But she had just arrived in Paris as my trip was coming to an end. Her husband’s company transferred him to Paris and they will be living here for at least two years. It was interesting hearing her stories about figuring out how to do the things necessary to actually live there – search for an apartment, apply for a residents visa, etc. I envy her opportunity of being able to spend the next few years in Paris. We exchanged email addresses, so hopefully we’ll keep in touch.

After class, I went to the office and picked up my certificate (Rebecca will appreciate this) showing that I completed 4 weeks (or 80 hours) of instruction – Basic, Level 1. So when I continue my study of French I can use it to help get placed in the correct class (or show to a prospective employer who may requires a basic proficiency in French). After that, I was off to the train station – Gare du Nord – to catch the Thalys train to Brussels!

I’m actually on the train now writing this. The Thalys trains all have WiFi – free for 1st class passengers, at cost for us 2nd class citizens. So I’ll wait until I get to the hotel in Brussels to actually post this ;-

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Village Saint Paul & the Marais

I walked until I could walk no more.
And then, I walked some more.
And so it goes it Paris…

I decided this afternoon to explore the Village Saint Paul in the 3rd Arrondissement, an area of Paris called the Marais. In the past few years, this area has become quite popular with many cafes and antique stores.

I ran across a store I had read about called Thanksgiving. It’s owned by an American woman from New Orleans who now lives here in Paris with her husband. The store sells impossible-to-find American groceries for ex-pats and tourists longing for a taste of home during a stay in Paris.

I saw things like Fruit Loops, Dr. Pepper, Stove Top stuffing, Betty Crocker cookie mix and Zataran’s cajun rice. Everything was of course ‘tres expensive’ averaging about 4-5 times their actual cost in the U.S. But potentially well worth the price, depending on how big your craving is! I’m glad I didn’t see this place before – I may have been tempted to eat American-style my whole time here!

After that, I once again stumbled upon an amazing church I had never seen or even heard of before. The Church of St. Paul St. Louis looked very dark and gothic from the outside, but inside it was serene and beautiful. The organist was practicing, so that made the visit even more special and I took some video so you could see and hear what I did.

After some meandering around, I found myself at the Place de la Bastille so I jumped on the Metro and zipped over to the Hotel de Ville where there was supposed to be ice skating for the holidays. The rink is set up, but it wasn’t open - I’m thinking maybe because it isn’t quite cold enough yet.

There is a department store called BHV close to the Hotel de Ville that is decorated brilliantly. I had never been inside, so I decided to go in and look around. Not as high end (or as immense) as Printemps or the Galeries Lafayette, but still nice. One funny thing I noticed about the large department stores in Paris – they ALL have a sewing department with bolts of cloth, yard, thread, patterns, etc. Imagine walking into a Saks 5th Avenue and seeing a sewing department!

From the BHV and the Hotel de Ville it’s an easy walk over to Notre Dame and the Latin Quarter – and despite the fact I’ve been over there several times already on this trip, since it’s my favorite area of the city, I can never spend too much time there!

The first little bare-bones hotel I ever stayed at in Paris is in the Latin Quarter on Rue de la Huchette. It’s called Les Argonauts and is one of the many Greek establishments on the street. The room I stayed in had a private shower, but no TV or radio – just the basics. You couldn’t beat the price or the location though (just steps away from Notre Dame). Below the hotel at street level was the Les Argonauts restaurant – a fun and lively Greek place (Mom, remember I took you to eat there a few years ago?). I can still remember the sound of Greek music and breaking dishes from the restaurant that kept me awake well into the night! But that was part of its charm :-)

Out of nostalgia, I always go by Les Argonauts when I’m in Paris. And on this trip I sadly discovered that the restaurant is no longer there – it’s now a bar with a name that is distinctly not Greek. Thankfully the Les Argonauts hotel is still there though. How sad this was to see! That restaurant had been there for (at least) 18 years. So many of the places in the Latin Quarter stay the same decade after decade, kept in the family. I can only guess that it was a victim of the global recession. With so many little restaurants in Paris, I’ve often wondered how they all do enough business to stay open. Somehow, they always seemed to though because year after year I’d come and they’d still be there. But now, Les Argonauts is no more. Very, very sad…

Click here to view all of today's photos (12/18/08)

I Can Hear the Clock Ticking...

I just got home from school and made myself some lunch. Tomorrow is my last day of classes at the Alliance Francaise. Even if I were staying in Paris longer, I think I'd have to take a little break from classes - we started working on other 'tenses' (i.e. past tense) and my brain is about to short circuit - my 'internal CPU' is running at maximum capacity :-) I do hope to find a class I can register for back in Florida so I can continue with French and not lose too much of the ground I've gained here acquiring these language skills.

Tomorrow as soon as class is over, I will go straight to the train station to catch the Thalys (high speed TGV train) to Brussels, Belgium. It's only 1 hour 20 minutes away. I love Brussels and they have a wonderful Christmas market, so I decided to squeeze in one more country (ha!) before my 'adventure' ends. The Grand Place is so beautiful at Christmas, click here to check out "Winter Wonders" in Brussels during the holidays.

I'll be staying overnight in Brussels tomorrow night at the Warwick Royal Windsor Hotel Grand Place (a wonderful hotel by the way), returning to Paris on Saturday afternoon.

And then the fun really begins....
packing for the return trip home :-(

My shuttle is picking me up at 10am Sunday morning to take me to the airport, so yep, you guessed it - I'll likely be up ALL night Saturday trying to stuff everything into my suitcases!

But today - just this one more day - I still have Paris. So as I write this, I'm putting on my boots and heading out the door. Not sure where I'm going this afternoon, we'll see where my wandering feet take me :-)

More later...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Lunch at Le Grand Colbert

Just 5 minutes walk from my apartment is a restaurant called Le Grand Colbert. If you saw the movie "Something's Gotta Give", you know the restaurant because a scene in the movie was filmed there a few years back.

Towards the end of the movie Diane Keaton and Keanu Reeves' characters are in Paris celebrating her birthday at the restaurant when Jack Nicholson unexpectedly shows up because he has realized he is in love with her. (Great movie by the way!)

I decided to sit down and have a late lunch at Le Grand Colbert today. I loved the ambiance of the restaurant - very Parisian, with soft/dim lighting. I thought it might be touristy because of the movie being filmed there, but it wasn't. The restaurant has a Tea Room that supposedly serves up the best Chocolat Chaud (hot chocolate) in Paris - maybe that's where the tourists were. But in the main restaurant, I was surrounded by mostly French business men taking their long, mid-afternoon lunch break. The restaurant is very close to the Bourse (the Paris Stock Exchange).

I ordered Onion Soup Au Gratin to start and it was unbelievably good. One part homemade croutons, two parts onion soup and 5 parts melted cheese. Talk about rich! Really, I was full after finishing the soup. But then came the main course...

Beef Moelleux with Mashed Potatoes - yum! This was basically a slow cooked pot roast topped with roasted tomatoes and served with homemade mashed potatoes. I was so stuffed when I was done eating, I felt like crawling under the table and taking a nap!

The meal was pricey. But except for that splurge in London at Gordon Ramsey's restaurant, I haven't really eaten out at all. So since I only have a few days left in Paris, I decided to indulge in some fine dining :-)

Click here to view all of today's photos (12/17/08)

I won't be intimidated by terrorists...

After lunch, I went to Printemps - one of Paris' large department stores. I went there today for two reasons: 1) because it probably is the last time I'll be over in that area before I leave Paris on Sunday; and 2) to make a statement. What statement you ask? The "I won't be intimidated by terrorists" statement.

I almost hesitated mentioning what happened here yesterday, but everyone's probably seen it on the news anyhow. So here's the scoop... yesterday morning, the police were informed that several bombs had been placed in Printemps. So the police swarmed the place, cleared the entire store (which is huge) of customers and conducted a search. They found one bomb - several sticks of dynamite - but with no detonator, in one of the restrooms. Apparently the 'terrorists' did this as a warning, demanding that France remove their troops from Afghanistan.

So today I went to Printemps. The place was packed - clearly the incident is not keeping people away. There were store personnel stationed at every entrance and they were checking everyone's bags and purses before you could go into the store.

Later in the day I went to another department store across town called Au Bon Marche (hadn't been there before) and they were doing the same security checks of everyone entering the building.

If you want to read the full story, it's all over the wires - CNN, Reuters, etc. Or click here and read the story that ran in the New York Times.

These are definitely crazy times. But despite it all I still believe you can't let fear stop you from living. When you do that, the terrorists win.

Monday, December 15, 2008

So I've been listening to French radio a lot and there are a couple artists I really like, so I wanted to buy their CDs. I went to the Virgin MegaStore, but they didn't have exactly what I was looking for. So I decided to do what I would do if I were in Florida - buy the CDs online on Amazon.

While did have the CDs I was looking for - since they would be imports, the cost was high and the delivery time (on at least one) was several weeks. So I decided to be brave and go on like a real Parisian would :-)

Even though is completely in French, the site is set up exactly like our English version. So between that and my newly found quasi-ability to discern some words in the French language, I found what I was looking for, put the items in my basket (or "panier" as it is called here), and placed my order - to be delivered to my address here in Paris.

Success! Just 3 days later I checked my mailbox and voila - there were my CDs! I was very proud of myself :-)

The one CD I bought is by Stanislas. Just Stanislas - like, just Madonna! The song of his that is on the radio all the time is called La Belle De Mai - if you have RealPlayer installed on your computer, you can click here to listen to a clip of the song.

The other CD I bought is by Marc Antoine. There are a couple of songs on his CD that are on the radio a lot, but the most popular one is called Triste Novembre. Again, if you have RealPlayer, you can click here to listen to a clip.

I also ordered a copy of Ernest Hemingway's book A Moveable Feast - in English of course! I decided since I kept running across that quote of his, that I should check out the book. Pretty interesting so far - it's a memoir of the time he spent living here in Paris in the 1920s. What's cool is that I've walked down all the streets he mentions and some of the cafes, restaurants, etc., he talks about are still around - so amazing. You know, I don't think I've ever read a book by Hemingway before. I wonder why I didn't have to in high school or college? Odd...

Paris Department Stores ~ Christmas 2008

The animated store windows at Printemps draw huge crowds each Christmas. And the huge Christmas Tree suspended from the beautiful ceiling of the Galeries Lafayette is truly a site to behold!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

In Pursuit of Liberty

New York Harbor? No. Try a tiny island in the middle of the river Seine, just a bit down and around the bend from the Eiffel Tower.

I had seen Lady Liberty's twin before, but only while looking out of a moving train window. So I decided today that my quest would be to go and visit her. And just like the pursuit of liberty itself, it wasn't easy.

Two Metro trains, a ride on the RER C and lots of walking later, I finally found myself standing at the base of the statue. No tourists here - none. Just a lone jogger. Granted, it was a cold and rainy day. But still, it was sort of sad - she looked kind of lonely.

I wasn't clear about the history of the statue until I read the inscription on the base. Apparently this smaller version of the Statue of Liberty was presented to the city by the American Community in Paris in 1986 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of France giving the original statue to the United States in 1886 (on the 100th anniversary of the American Revolution in 1776). Kind of cool, huh? Lest there be any confusion here... FRANCE IS OUR FRIEND PEOPLE :-)

I really wanted to get a photo of the statue with the Eiffel Tower in the background, but to do so, I had to walk way down river to the next bridge. Which I did. But the problem is that it is so far, that as you see in the photo, you can hardly see the statue.

The trick - for those of you who come here someday and want to try this yourselves - is not to make this quest on foot. The best way to see (and best way to take photos of) Mademoiselle Liberty is by taking a boat ride down the Seine on one of the many Bateaux Mouches, and you'll float right by her.

Click here to view all of today's photos (12/14/08)