Travel tips from yours truly

 


Don’t you hate people who try to give you travel advice? I know I do.

Here’s some travel advice:

–          Make sure your electricals are in good order before you leave. I was startled to discover that my iPad was perfectly happy with French-style 220-volt current. I still, however, needed a plug adapter, since every country in the friggin’ world uses a differently-shaped plug. A company called Walkabout provides a very nice transformer / plug kit for a reasonable price.

–          Use the Internet. We did everything online: hotels, dinner reservations, the works. Once there, I discovered that everyone has either a website or – better yet – an app. (The Paris Metro system, for example, sells an adorable app on iTunes for ninety-nine cents; it shows you the whole system, finds you on GPS, and helps you get to the station of your choice.)

–          Look for bargains. Partner found a five-day Paris Visite card, which saved us lots of money; there’s also a Paris Museum Pass (the museums aren’t terribly expensive, but if you go to more than two or three, those admission prices start to mount up).

–          Take the train as much as you can. I always marvel at the European train system; it’s easy, it’s inexpensive, and it’s comfortable.

–          Make sure you set aside some time to relax. We didn’t relax enough, and ended up exhausted much of the time. Plan a down day here and there.

–          Don’t get trapped into eating tourist food. If (like us) you stay in a touristy neighborhood, you can be sure you’re paying a premium for your steak and frites. Explore the side streets instead. Bakeries sell nice sandwiches and pastry; little groceries are everywhere, once you know where to look. We were paying an average of $2 for a small bottle of water at first; then I discovered that I could buy a two-liter bottle in a grocery for $1 or less.

–          Use Skype. Before leaving, I purchased a real phone number from Skype (three months for thirty bucks); it even had a Rhode Island area code. We were able to call back and forth from France to the USA for approximately two cents a minute, using my iPad. And it even had voice mail! (No camera necessary, by the way; Skype works just fine with audio only.)

And now you know everything you need to know.

All together now:


For Sunday: “archy at the tomb of napoleon,” by Don Marquis


The first time I went to Paris was in March 1984. I was hopping from the USA to Morocco and had only about six hours to waste, so I raced into the city from the airport, had a cup of coffee and a brioche, and visited the Hotel des Invalides, which houses the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Why? Because Archy the Cockroach went there back in the 1920s and wrote a whopping good poem about it.

Partner and I visited the Invalides again in October. Napoleon is still there, in his gigantic stone tomb that looks like a cross between an overstuffed sofa and an enormous old-fashioned radio. And, like Archy, we left feeling “solemn but likewise uplifted.”

Herewith: “archy at the tomb of napoleon,” by Don Marquis.

paris france

i went over to

the hotel des invalides

today and gazed on

the sarcophagus of the

great napoleon

and the thought came

to me as i looked

down indeed it

is true napoleon

that the best goods

come in the smallest

packages here are

you napoleon with

your glorious course

run and here is

archy just in the

prime of his career

with his greatest

triumphs still before

him neither one of us

had a happy youth

neither one of us

was welcomed socially at

the beginning of his

career neither one of

us was considered much

to look at

and in ten thousand years from

now perhaps what you said and did

napoleon will be

confused with what

archy said and did

and perhaps the burial

place of neither will be

known napoleon looking

down upon you

I wish to ask you now

frankly as one famous

person to another

has it been worth

all the energy

that we expended all the

toil and trouble and

turmoil that it cost us

if you had your life

to live over

again bonaparte would

you pursue the star

of ambition

i tell you frankly

bonaparte that i myself

would choose the

humbler part

i would put the temptation

of greatness aside

and remain an ordinary

cockroach simple

and obscure but alas

there is a destiny that

pushes one forward

no matter how hard

one may try to resist it

i do not need to

tell you about that

bonaparte you know as

much about it as i do

yes looking at it in

the broader way neither

one of us has been to blame

for what he has done

neither for his great

successes nor his great mistakes

both of us napoleon

were impelled by some

mighty force external to

ourselves we are both to

be judged as great forces of

nature as tools in the

hand of fate rather than as

individuals who willed to

do what we have done

we must be forgiven

napoleon

you and i

when we have been

different from the common

run of creatures

i forgive you as i know

that you would forgive

me could you speak to me

and if you and i

napoleon forgive and

understand each other

what matters it if all

the world else find

things in both of us that

they find it hard

to forgive and understand

we have been

what we have been

napoleon and let them laugh that off

well after an hour or so of

meditation there i left

actually feeling that i

had been in communion

with that great spirit and

that for once in my

life i had understood and been

understood

and i went away feeling

solemn but likewise

uplifted mehitabel the

cat is missing

archy

The Moulin Rouge


Before we left for Paris, Partner got us tickets for the Moulin Rouge. The tickets were hard to get; the show sells out very quickly.

And now I know why.

First of all, the neighborhood is exactly what you want it to be: it’s a slightly less grubby version of the old Times Square in Manhattan, or Boston’s late lamented Combat Zone. We arrived early and had a drink in a sidewalk café, and watched a pretty young prostitute pick up a nice young man at the next table. Romance!

The show was old-fashioned burlesque: big costumes, big musical numbers, and a little dash of Cirque du Soleil. The theme was “Feerie”: Fairyland.  There were two jugglers, one serious, one very funny. There was a big “exotic” musical number that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be Indian, or Chinese, or Japanese. There were little ballads. There was, of course, the Can-can. (We were seated at a table with two very serious Frenchwomen, who only applauded the Can-can.)

Then there were the breasts.

They were everywhere, and they gave me quite a turn. I think I must have seen seventy or eighty of them. They were (mostly) very pert. (There were lots of bare behinds too, but they made less of an impression on me, for some reason.)

There was very little beefcake. There was one very nice number with two handsome acrobatic male dancers, one shirtless and the other in a t-shirt, who did elaborate handstands and carries. I could have done with a little more of that.

Upon leaving the club, I realized I’d left my American cap behind. To hell with it! I thought. I went to a street vendor and bought a very rakish hipster hat for seven euro.

So now I take a piece of the Moulin Rouge wherever I go, and my little American cap is floating around Montmartre somewhere.

Who knows? Maybe that prostitute has it.

Vive l’amour!


Caffeine nation


I have not been drinking much coffee for the last ten months, because of my kidney stones. (I read something online about “dark beverages” making them worse, and – although no one can really quite agree about what causes kidney stones – I decided to make the great sacrifice.)

It hasn’t been that bad. I have a cup or two of coffee in the morning, just to wake up; then, at work, I switch over to a mug of ice water. I like the sound of the ice tinkling in the cup; it reminds me of summer evenings on the veranda.

But, while in France recently, I decided to drink coffee again. Why not? They brew coffee the way I really like it: brutally strong and dark. Even the instant Nescafe in the hotel was delicious. I had three or four cups every morning, and usually a cup or two more after lunch or dinner. It was invigorating. (Most days I took a Xanax too, just to keep from vibrating myself to death.)

The French love their coffee. There’s a café / bistro every few yards; I saw very few people eating, but everyone was having a cup of coffee. We watched a French TV game show one evening – one of those stupid panel things where comedians try to top one another – and they were jumping around and screaming so much, you’d have sworn they were all on meth.  Aha! I thought. Caffeine!

My kidney stones hardly bothered me at all during the trip. Okay, I thought. So much for “dark beverages.” So, upon my return to the office, I went back to my cup-of-coffee-every-fifteen-minutes routine.

I became a different person.

I was snappish and irritable. I popped off at people. I became anxious about stupid things. (Also, my kidney stones began gnawing at me again. Go figure.)

It’s just not worth it.

I’m back on ice water, and I’m a lovely sweet calm person again.

(For what it’s worth.)


Travel tips from Apollonia


My colleague Apollonia has been to Europe many times over the past few years (she has family in Italy), so naturally I sought her advice before our recent trip to France.

She gave me ten euro in bills and coins, and some travel tips.

Here are the tips, and some commentary:

#1: “Wear this scapular on the plane. I wear it when I fly. It couldn’t hurt. You don’t want anything to happen, do you?”

 

 

 

No, of course I don’t want anything to happen. I wore the scapular on the flight from Boston to Paris, and sure enough, nothing happened. Then, as a control experiment, I carried it in my hand luggage on the return trip. Nothing happened then either. (Actually, the return trip was faster and easier than the away trip.)

#2: “You’ll need the change I’m giving you. You have to pay to go to the bathroom, you know.”

Only partially true. Some bathrooms have an attendant (whom the French call, charmingly, “Madame Pipi”) who collects her fifty cents as you go in. Some have an honor system: a little box outside the bathroom into which you can drop a few coins. Many are free altogether (we encountered many of these). Some, interestingly, are self-cleaning. Here’s how they work: you put in your money (usually thirty cents) and the door unlocks. You do your business and leave. After the door closes behind you, an infernal device sprays the toilet – and the whole room – with water and disinfectant.

(At the Deauville train station, an elderly couple taught us how to get around this: you pay your thirty cents, use the facilities, exit – but you don’t quite close the door. Your accomplice / partner dashes in while you hold the door, and voila! Free bathroom!)

(Of course, if you were to let the door close while your friend was in the bathroom, he’d get a blinding faceful of disinfectant.)

(Which would be very funny.)

#3: “Versailles was filthy. There were dust bunnies under the furniture. All the glass surfaces in the Hall of Mirrors were dirty. It was worse than Nazi Germany in there.”

 

 

Okay, I didn’t see any dust bunnies in Versailles. The mirrors are plenty warped, but – hey – they’re over three hundred years old.

As for Nazi Germany, here’s Partner’s comment:

“I used the bathroom in the Visitor’s Center in Honfleur. It smelled worse than a barn in there. I still have the stink in my nose. Please tell Apollonia that, if she wants to experience Nazi Germany, she should go there and give that bathroom a try.”

Travel is so broadening, isn’t it?


Montmartre


Our very first day in Paris – though we were both still deathly weary from the plane flight – we went, on foot, up into Montmartre.

(This seemed appropriate to me, since my favorite composer, Erik Satie, used to walk back and forth between le Chat Noir (the Montmartre bar in which he worked as a cabaret pianist) and his home in Arcueil (south of Paris) every day. He drank his way from bar to bar on both trips, and he carried a hammer in his pocket, just in case he was attacked on the way.)

So we climbed Montmartre. It was a brilliantly sunny early-autumn day. Partner knew the way, as he’d visited it several times on Google Earth, and he amazed me; he knew exactly which streets to take.

We ended up in front of Satie’s house on the Rue Cortot:

 

Next door is the Musee de Montmartre. It is a huge rambling old house, in which Renoir worked, and Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo lived, and Aristide Bruant, and many others.

It is beautiful. All of Paris is laid out at your feet. Look:

Partly we were still dazed and jet-lagged. But partly also we were wandering in an earthly paradise. If I didn’t have a photographic record of it, I’d swear it was a dream.

Two of my friends in Tunis used to call me “Hajj” as a joke; it’s the title of respect given to a man who’s visited the Holy Sites in Mecca.

Well, I’ve earned the title, because Montmartre is my Holy Land.

But don’t call me Hajj.

Call me Monsieur Hajj.


Les Maisons Satie, in Honfleur


Erik Satie, one of my favorite composers, was born in Honfleur, on the coast of Normandy, in 1866. His birthplace has been transformed into a –

A what?

Not really a museum. Not really a performance space.

A happening.

Satie was an oddball: a medievalist, a surrealist, an independent. He wrote his odd little pieces of music while working as a cabaret pianist. He wrote pieces called “Dessicated Embryos” and “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” and “Next-to-Last Thoughts.” He was probably at least a little mentally ill. He died of acute cirrhosis (too much bourbon and absinthe) in 1925.

The good people of Honfleur have transformed his place of birth into a kind of performance / representation of Satie’s music. In one of the first rooms, you encounter a six-foot-tall pear, slowly flapping gigantic albatross wings. There’s a room of shadow puppets and cutouts. There is – outrageously, unexpectedly – a carousel, which you are invited to ride. I mounted one of the bizarre-looking bicycle-creatures and began to pedal, and the mechanism activated itself, and a cabaret piece of Satie’s – “Le Picadilly” – began to play, and the carousel opened up, brandishing peculiar hybrid musical instruments: shoe-trumpets, umbrella-trombones. An inscription on the wall says (in part): “It won’t hurt you to be ridiculous. And remember: Satie is watching you.”

Then there’s the white room: white walls, white benches, and a white player piano. The piano, eerily, plays one Satie score after another.

 

Finally, you enter a small movie theater. You’re greeted by Satie himself – a voice from an empty armchair. He narrates a film showing scenes from some of his late ballets – “Parade,” “Mercure,” “Relache.” I knew the music to all three, but I’d never seen the dancing; it was beautiful and odd and otherworldly. Picasso designed the costumes and sets for “Parade,” and it shows: the circus managers who open each scene wear bizarre cubist outfits that look completely alien.

I was idiotically happy through the whole museum.

Here’s a video that gives you a nice impression of the place, through the eyes of an excited child:

My dears, do yourselves the favor of a lifetime, and visit Normandy. Sample the cheese and the fish. See the churches, and the villages.

And visit the house of Monsieur Satie in Honfleur, and ride the carousel.

It won’t hurt you to be ridiculous once in a while.

And remember: Satie is watching you.


French as she is spoke


A long time ago – in the 1980s – I spoke French pretty well. I got a Foreign Service score of 4, which means that I could converse on a university level with people; I still had an accent, however.

And this years, after twenty-five years, I was going to France.

Imagine my nervousness after twenty-five years of not speaking French on a daily basis. I was terrified. I read a lot of French to prepare myself, and tried to practice as much as I could.

As it turns out, I was worried about nothing. Language is funny: once it’s in your brain, it’s there forever. It took me a few days to get going (mostly nervousness, I think), but by Day Two of the trip, I was having long involved conversations with people.

(Please note: my accent was still atrocious (even I could hear it), and my grammar was not the best. But I could make myself understood.)

I’d forgotten the picturesque phrases: all the different ways to say “goodbye,” depending on the time of day and the situation. “A tout a l’heure.” “A bientot.” “Adieu.” “Au revoir.” These came back quickly, thank goodness.

Then there are all the English-language borrowings (I think there are more of them now than there were in the 1980s): “sandwich,” “parking,” “weekend.” I bought a package of Petit Ecolier cookies with a contest advertised on the front: “GAGNEZ UN BABY FOOT!” Can you guess what a “baby foot” is? It’s a foosball table. Charmante, non?

Then there are the faux amis – the “false friends.” These are words that look like English, but aren’t the same at all. These work both ways. “What’s that sign?” Partner asked one day on the bus.

“Deviation,” I said. “It means ‘detour.’”

“Why don’t they just say ‘detour’?” he asked. “Isn’t that a French word?”

“Well, yes, but –“

There’s no explaining these things.

Best of all: we were watching the French version of “The Price is Right” (“Le Juste Prix”), and the contestant – a man named Fabrice – mentioned his “conjoint,” a man named Emmanuel. “Aha!” I said. “Now I know the correct French term for ‘partner’! It’s ‘conjoint’!”

“As in conjoined twins?” Partner said darkly.

“Well, indirectly, yes,” I said, “but – “

“I don’t like it,” he said positively.

“I do like it,” I said. “Maybe I’ll start referring to you as le conjoint in the blog.”

France has an effect on people. Partner looked at me with Gallic disdain. “Non,” he said definitively.

And that’s the end of that.

(But I still think it’s a better word than “partner.”)


 

French rudeness! (Or not.)


We do love our cultural stereotypes, don’t we? Germans are regimental and precise; Spaniards are passionate; Italians are argumentative; Russians are moody and unpredictable.

 

And the French, of course, are supercilious and rude.

Right?

On our second day in France, we took the train from Paris to Caen, and then took a cab to the hotel. Our driver was a big cheerful bloke who hoisted our suitcases into the cab’s trunk while grunting the word “Hop!” (I’d only ever seen it written. It’s closer to “Hup!” in English, but it’s also indefinably different. You kind of have to hear it to get the distinction.)

I struck up a conversation with him in the cab. He was very animated. He wanted to know where we were from, and when he found that we were American, he brightened. As it turned out, he had a brother in Sacramento, and visited him a few years ago. He went to Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon, and a place called Yosameet (I’ll let you figure that one out on your own), and he loved it all. He wants to go back, and he tells his kids that they need to go to the United States.

All that in a five-minute cab ride!

Then there were the concierges at the various hotels. All of them were cute, and most of them were funny. (But none of them had names. Even when they wore nametags, the “name” field was blank. Why? Are their names unpronounceable? Are they too high-pitched for human ears? Do they not have names at all?) One in Caen, a tall blondish fellow who looked like a slightly more soigné Jason Segel, turned out to be a passionate history buff, and regaled us with stories about Caen during World War II. (I’ll tell you that story another time.)

Then there was the saleswoman working outside the department store near our hotel in Paris (they had sidewalk stalls every day). I was pawing through the shirts, not sure what size I was, when she glanced at me and chirped (in French), “Forty-one.”

“You can tell just by looking at me?” I said.

“It’s my job,” she shrugged, grinning.

We went through the stack of shirts together. (They were only ten euro each, so they’ll probably melt in the washing machine, but – hey – I have shirts from Paris!) We both exclaimed over a nice pink one. “Rose!” she said. “J’adore cette chemise rose!”

Moi aussi,” I said, and we put that one aside.

The next two were bright red and dull gray. (The French, for some reason, are favoring dark colors this year; we didn’t see many people wearing bright colors in the streets.) “This gray is very nice,” she said.

 

“I like the red one,” I said.

She regarded me very gravely. “But the gray is very nice,” she said in an almost-stern tone.

Well, I got the red one, and the pink one. But I think the clerk was unhappy with me, a little.

How about the lady in the Deauville train station? I was buying tickets for Partner and myself for the next day, Caen-Bayeux, round trip. She regarded me with the famous Normandy deadpan. “May I ask your ages?” she said in a quiet regretful voice.

“He’s sixty-six,” I said. “And I’m fifty-five.”

She shook her head at me very ruefully. “You, monsieur, are too young.”

I exploded into laughter, and then tried to do the Norman deadpan back at her. “You, madame, are the first person who has ever said that to me.”

So Partner got his ticket at a reduced price, and I got a good laugh out of it.

Then there was the candy store next to our hotel in the Marais in Paris. I was browsing in there one day early in our stay, and a funny bright young man waited on me, and gave me a chocolate for free, and told me (in French – funny how much they open up to you when you speak French!) he’d lived in Boston for a year and a half, and been to Cape Cod (“Les baleines!” he said. “The whales!”).

We ended up spending over a hundred dollars in that store, and let me tell you, it was worth it. On our last visit, our clerk was a very sweet young woman.  “There’s a little ceramic tajine candy dish over here,” I said. “Can you tell me what it costs?”

“Oh, a couple of euro,” she said. She rummaged under the counter, and then she looked up at me slyly. “Is it a gift?”

“No, no,” I said. “It’s for me.”

“No,” she said. “You misunderstand. It’s a gift. For you

And she handed it to me with a very serene smile.

Don’t let anyone tell you the French are rude, kids.

They’re just fine in my book.


 

Restaurant review: Le Bouchon du Vaugueux

 


Food in France is wonderful and plentiful, but it is generally not cheap. Even lunch at a corner bistro will set you back maybe thirty or forty euro. We lunched one day at McDonald’s (well, you need to touch home base once in a while), and even that was nearly twenty euro for the two of us.

As a result, we ended up eating prepared sandwiches and pastries a lot. This was not a problem, really; these are very inexpensive, and easy to find, and really pretty good most of the time.

But Partner and I agreed that we needed a few really good meals, just to complete our France experience.

Before our departure, Partner did a lot of web-surfing, and found a small restaurant in Caen called Le Bouchon du Vaugueux. The pictures were charming, and the menu was tempting. Here’s the current prix-fixe menu (a few items have changed since our visit):

MENU A 20 EUROS

Persillé de jambon et palette de porc aux lentilles  ou
Velouté de potiron toast au fromage de chèvre  ou
Salade de joue de porc et saucisson de volaille, vinaigrette de châtaigne.
*******************************

Carré de porc épais et moelleux , laqué à la moutarde douce et cornichons ou
Pavé de colin à la plancha beurre blanc poivre rose et ciboulette ou
Lapin braisé aux raisins et confit d’oignons.
********************************
Assiette de 3 fromages Normand ou
Crème chocolat-café et nage de poires à l’anis ou
Mousse ivoire aux litchis pulpe de framboises  ou
Pudding façon pain perdu au rhum.

(I do not translate, on purpose. I want you to get the full flavor of the place.)

Partner corresponded with the manager, Mme. Poussier, and she confirmed our reservation well before we left.

We ate there on the evening of Friday the fifth of October.

I will remember that meal for a long time.

Mme. Poussier welcomed us warmly. “I know, I know!” she said when we arrived. “From the Internet!”

We both started with the celery soup, garnished with sesame seeds and served with toasted bread and cheese. Does that sound too simple? It was very simple. It was also wonderful. (I know we should have had two different appetizers, but we’re stupid tourists, and we both thought that the soup sounded too good to pass up. It was.)

For a main course, Partner chose the “carre de porc epais et moelleux” (thick juicy pork steak), with sweet mustard and French-style pickles as a garnish.

I had the rabbit.

Yes, I know.

(My mother long ago told me that, when she was growing up, her mother would serve rabbit from time to time, and tell the kids it was chicken. Grandma’s father, who lived with them, would wait until Grandma’s back was turned and then make little hippety-hop motions with his hands. And the kids would refuse to eat it, and Grandma was invariably furious, and never did figure out how the kids knew.)

Rabbit, if you’ve never had it, is delicious. You can certainly make believe that it’s chicken, but it’s really like nothing else. The rabbit I ate at the Bouchon – served in a sauce flavored with onions and raisins – was heavenly.

Dessert? I went with the cheese plate. Partner had the grilled pineapple with chocolate sauce. Both of us were very happy.

When we arrived at seven-thirty, the place (which is not large) was almost empty. By eight-thirty, it was packed: a few tourists like us, and lots of very contented-looking locals.

The service was immaculate. Mme. Poussier had the dining room running like a Swiss watch: I saw her more than once give instructions to a waiter with a nod of her head or a glance.

And all of the above, with the addition of a few beers and mineral waters and two cups of coffee, ran to sixty-five euro, which is approximately twice the price of two burger-and-fries combos at a Paris bistro.

I am also pleased to tell you that Le Bouchon has earned a Bib Gourmand citation from the Michelin guide, which means they provide “excellence on a budget.”

I know, dear reader, you’re probably not planning a trip to Caen in the near future.

But if you are: please go to Le Bouchon du Vaugueux, and treat yourself to a wonderful meal.

And, when you’re there, please let Mme. Poussier know that we think of her daily.


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