Sitting in a park in Paris, France,
Reading the news and it sure looks bad.
They won’t give peace a chance,
That was just a dream some of us had.
~Joni Mitchell, California
Just before we left for our long-planned-for Paris/Brussels adventure, our own country suffered a blow when a crazed gunman opened fire on nine people participating in a Bible study class at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. After so much gun violence in recent years, and the reports of so many hateful acts against Black Americans, I needed to take a news break. I would avoid news and social media for much of my vacation. A luxury, I realize, of my own status and sense of relative safety. At the same time, I re-committed to my work goals. After my return from Europe, I would continue to reach out and support people in need. I would walk through the discomfort, learn more about racial injustice, and take a chance on making mistakes on my path to making a difference.
mardi 23 juin 2015
The first leg of our trip went like clockwork (no traffic jams or back-ups at airport security)—consequently, we were at Logan Airport 4 ½ hours before our international flight!!! I did note that another family arrived BEFORE us. The layover in Iceland was simple enough for the overtired. Nothing like being confused by doorknobs and toilet flushing to alert you to the fact that you are no longer in the USA.
mercredi 24 juin 2015
After arriving at Charles De Gaulle Airport at 6:30am Paris time, we were cursed with walking in circles. Our first challenge was finding the RER train to Gare du Nord, and finding a method of getting tickets for the RER. We finally stumbled upon an automated machine, but it rejected all of our cards. A kindhearted young woman saw our distress and informed us that none of the offices were open that day because of the holiday (Fête de la Saint Jean, we wondered?) She offered to purchase tickets for us, and we handed her 20 euros. Good thing that we had cash in hand. She walked us to the train platform and wished us well. Au revoir, mademoiselle. Merci beaucoup!
We were not out of the metaphoric woods yet. Gare du Nord likewise confused us. We had difficulty feeding the RER ticket into the gate so that we could exit. We ended up closely following other folks and yanking our luggage through the closing gate doors. We selected the wrong Sortie several times in an attempt to get outside of the building. After lugging luggage up a flight of stairs, we found ourselves at another train platform rather than the street! Finally emerging, we collapsed into the smoky Le Nord Express, ranked in TripAdvisor as the worst café and owners ever.
The uninspired café and croissant was enough to set us on our way. In our mutual stubbornness to not hail a cab (?!), we wandered up into the 19th arrondissement. Clearly not a tourist area. Back again through the 10th, into the 9th, and finally up into the 18th, with our rolly luggage bumping behind us. Eventually, that sound would elicit PTSD in us. Exhausted and joyful, we found Place Emile Goudeau. Up three flights of winding wooden stairs with huge sighs of relief, we sank into the bed of our charming apartment until we could summon the energy to shower and change our clothes.
Revived, we decided to stock our larder. One of the advantages of our apartment was the ability to prepare a few simple meals. We easily found the local Carrefour Market to purchase hummus, ratatouille, lentil soup, eggs, butter, milk, olive oil, pasta and beer. At small specialty markets, we purchased goat cheese, cherries and a baguette. Our groceries purchased, we settled into Le Relais Gascon for our first Parisian meal. A cassoulet of white beans, duck and sausage. Salmon à l’oseille (with sorrel sauce) and frites. And, a half carafe of Touraine Sauvignon. Time for another nap.
We roused ourselves once more to hoof it up the hill to Sacré-Cœur to hear the nuns sing Vespers. About a dozen nuns, clad in white robes and black veils, sang prayers in French. The priest recited a few prayers, the last several dedicated to John the Baptist, as it was his Feast Day. I lit a candle before Saint Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, my namesake and the namesake of so many women of Irish heritage. I asked for strength to help my loved ones through life’s challenges. During this private prayer, I “heard” the advice to lift some responsibility off my own shoulders and into the hands of God. The consequence of this skill (of letting go) will enable me to be more effective rather than less. May I remember this advice.
jeudi 2 juin 2015
We slept for a solid eleven hours. After a breakfast of bread, goat cheese, hummus and cherries, we caught the metro to Musée d’Orsay. We purchased our 4-day museum passes and entered this renovated train station which now houses Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works by Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Women artists Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt receive a small amount of attention. This museum is lovely and airy, with rooms tracing the artists’ progress and comparing styles. I was swept up in the ability to stand close, looking at the actual brush strokes, and then step back (crowds permitting) to take in the ultimate results. Breathtaking!
After a café and raisin pastry, we were off to find the Eiffel Tower. We walked along the Seine, where scores of Parisians and visitors made good use of the recreational options at the riverside–playgrounds, picnic areas, the ability to walk, run or bike in the sunshine. We headed down Rue Cler until we reached the street market, and stopped at the very crowded Le Café du Marché for dejeuner. Bountiful plates of inventive salads unlike anything we’d be served at most restaurants. Mine had couscous, coleslaw, pickled beets, green beans and tandoori chicken pieces, accompanied by an Estrella Damm pilsner. Neither of us could finish. So much for small French portions!
Onward to the Eiffel Tower, and the hawkers and scam artists. We snapped a few photos and silly selfies, wandered through the Parc du Champ de Mars, walked by the Hôtel des Invalides and encountered a labor protest (health care workers) before reaching the Musée Rodin. Turns out, other parts of Paris were seeing more violent outbursts than what we witnessed–taxi drivers protesting Uber.
Around the corner to the peace of Rodin’s collections and garden. Much smaller than d’Orsay, this museum was well-worth the the extra energy it took to visit. Inside, sketches and preliminary sculptures. In the garden, some of Rodin’s most famous work. Rodin captures emotion in the jaw, in the placement of a hand… an emotion that reaches into your soul. Victor Hugo reaching out to calm the waters of his critics. Stunning. VH is my literary companion for this trip. The delight of reading The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in little bits.
Sorbet framboise helped power me back to Montmartre. We hopped on the metro, making the fatal error to opt for the stairs (rather than the elevator) to emerge from the Abbesses stop. Endlessly spiraling steps. I counted each half-flight in French. Un, deux, trois… onze! As Gary Snyder states in his poem Off the Trail: And our ankles, knees, shoulders & Haunches know right where they are.
A quick shower and wee nap before heating up some ratatouille and pasta and opening tall cans of Leffe Blonde, Kronenbourg 1664 and Amsterdam Navigator. Below in the courtyard, the evening’s busker was a guitarist. Last night, it was a saxophonist. An accordion player, playing the obligatory La Vie en Rose, would make an appearance as well. Other nightly sounds included the cooing of pigeons in the horse chestnut tree and the tour guide recounting Picasso’s time at Place Emile Goudeau during his Blue Period. Exhausted, we expected to sleep well. We did not.
vendredi 26 juin 2015
We had a rough night due to the youthful exuberance of club-goers unwilling to call it a night at 1am, 2am, 3am, 4am… smoking, drinking, laughing, shouting, clapping, singing Gnarls Barkely’s Crazy and that song “Alabama, Arkansas, I still love my ma and pa” in the courtyard below our window which, despite being closed, emitted much of their celebration. By 7am, workers were in the streets. I probably cobbled together 4-6 hours of sleep. Six would be a stretch.
Relax my shoulders and my jaw. Repeat to myself– I am sleepless in Paris! These are Parisian youth disturbing my well-earned rest. I hoped to pace myself during the course of an unusually hot day in Paris (high 80s, or low 30s Celsius).
As I wrote in my journal in the cool morning air, I thought of Hemingway, retreating to his frigid rented room with his l’orange to write short stories and start on the novel The Sun Also Rises. His need to protect his solitude and, at the same time, to socialize with other English-speaking writers and enjoy the warmth of his love with his young wife Hadley Richardson. Here I was journaling, when I’d be much better off sleeping now that those kids have gone home. But my need to capture my experience was too great. I’d pay for that time by the end of the day.
Ed and I hit the metro after a breakfast of eggs, toast and tea. We walked through the Jardin des Tuileries, found the Paris City Vision office and arranged our Giverny tour for Monday. I braved the Louvre for a visit limited to the Origins of the Louvre as a Medieval Palace. Note: I have subsequently learned that this tour is ranked easy for those on the Autism Spectrum. Whew! Just what I needed for my overloaded brain.
Despite the simplicity of the exhibit, I found it hard to intellectually grasp that we were viewing a structure built nearly 900 years ago. The toil to lift and place those stones. Just hard to to absorb the reality of that. Wow. At this exhibit, we began to hear about the influence of Charles V. His name continued to crop up throughout our trip to Paris/Brussels.
After touring the cool darkness of the Middle Ages, we took a brief walk into a room of Grecian statuary. I declared “too much like shopping at the mall during Christmastime!” and dodged the camera- and phone-laden tourists of all nationalities to make my escape back to the Tuileries and café crème by one of the small ponds. Water is a great healer, and Ed is learning more about my limits.
Thus refreshed, we walked to the Marais by way of the highly commercialized Rue de Rivoli. Our route (alongside the Hôtel de Ville) is slick with clothes-and-shoes shopping options. In contrast, the Marais is cramped and ancient. This section of Paris has been traditionally Jewish since the 12th century. We stopped for an outrageously delicious falafel plate with roasted eggplant, shredded cabbage and carrots, and a tomato-y onion-y sauce. Très bon.
After eating a little too much, we found the Musée Picasso. I had a little meltdown after touring the first floor. I retreated into a cool, quiet hallway. I rested my eyes and watched my breath for 20-30 minutes while Ed buzzed around the upper floors. I needed to compose myself for taking in these exhibits, a visit I had been looking forward to. This museum houses a broad range of Picasso’s works and his own private collection of works by his contemporaries Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Renoir, Degas and others.
I am glad that I rested. Seeing these exhibits was gratifying in an unexpected way. Picasso (1881-1973) created for so many decades, and we benefit from the breadth of his experimentation. An inspiration for artists to not self-destruct, and for all of us to keep creating throughout our lives. I decided that I would take up painting and drawing, a pursuit of my teen years, as a way to observe the world–not as any sort of “second career”. To create for the sake of creating.
I don’t know why I thought I could push myself beyond the Musée Picasso. We should’ve called it a day. But, I knew that Ed had craft beer options that he wanted to explore and Friday night seemed like a good night to search those out. We had done a bit of research and A la Bière Comme à la Bière in the 18th arrondissement looked promising. A small menu of tapas. Just 3 stops beyond Abbesses. We would taste a few beers, eat a little food and be able to easily make our way back to the apartment. Well. This area of Paris was unlike anywhere we’d been thus far.
As soon as the metro pulled into Marcadet-Poissonniers, we knew the vibe had changed. Other metro stations were clean and well-kept. Here: graffiti, dirt and disrepair. The term “racial inequity” leapt to mind. We had stumbled into the African section of Paris, and clearly the metro station was not attended to with the same care as the tourist areas. As we exited the train, I felt my anxiety rising. I said to myself, “Margot, these are working people. Look around you. These are families coming home at the end of the week.” Indeed, the streets above were lively with markets selling everything imaginable. Peanuts, grilled corn, handbags, clothing. My sense of my own foreignness overwhelmed me.
I’d be lying if I said that I was able to relax. I was tired and anxious. I didn’t know where I was. And, we still needed to locate A la Bière Comme à la Bière, manage a financial transaction and then find our way back to Place Emile Goudeau. This would not be like visiting a brewpub in Syracuse, NY or Portland, OR. Here we were, on a crowded sidewalk, consulting a map to find Rue Custine.
We found it! Alas, it was not a pub of any sort. A small beer store, managed by a white Rasta Frenchman with good English-speaking skills and an incredibly courteous attitude. After recovering from our initial shock that we would not be sitting down to eat and drink, Ed asked for help finding hoppy local beers. And some less hoppy, but unusual and local, beers for me.
Our proprietor graciously suggested four beers: IPArisis by Brasserie Parisis , Hop Hop Hop by Brasserie du Caou, Orange Mécanique by Brasserie Sainte Crucienne, and Bérotte Bière Blonde au Seigle by Brasserie de la Vallée du Giffre. He reassured us that we were not far from Montmartre. Seeing the mad crush of people entering the nearest metro station, we opted for walking back to our apartment.
Still hungry, we grabbed a table at La Pignatta Société on Rue Martyrs, just two blocks from our apartment. Pizzas au feu de bois (wood-fired). Not the gastronomic highlight of the trip, but pizza and beer was satisfying and necessary before we walked up to Place Emile Goudeau, up the stairs to our apartment and up to the comfort of our bed. We’d purchased earplugs at a local pharmacie along the way.
Scrambling William Shakespeare, that night I hoped to dream, perchance to sleep.
(By the way, A la Bière Comme à la Bière has another location in the 20th arrondissement. Maybe that one serves food?)
In France, they kiss on Main Street,
Amour, mama, not cheap display.
~Joni Mitchell, In France They Kiss on Main Street
samedi 27 juin 2015
I had a better night’s sleep, although I had trouble falling asleep. My brain was buzzing from the day’s activities, but once I fell asleep– I slept for a solid chunk of time. Maybe 5 hours? We started our fourth day in Paris with some housekeeping.
A small load of laundry (another advantage to the apartment was a washer/dryer) and marketing for our Sunday picnic. We stopped in for peaches (pêches) at the marché featured in the film Amélie before heading down to the Carrefour Market for artichoke hearts, olives and sundried tomatoes in oil. Back into Au Levain d’Antan, perennial winner of the best baguette in Paris, for a round loaf. And, into a charming charcuterie to purchase our fromage et jambon.
After dropping off our purchases, we headed toward Abbesses, bound for the Latin Quarter. We were acclimating well to the metro, and were especially appreciative of the above-ground displays of city street maps. Vous êtes ici. In the metro, Ed finessed the flick of the wrist necessary for unlocking the train door handle before exiting. I took advantage of the strapontins (fold-down seats by the doors).
Our first stop in the Latin Quarter was Shakespeare & Company, an English-language bookshop famous for being a meeting place for the “Lost Generation” (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Joyce) and the “Beat Generation” (Corso, Ginsburg, Burrows, Kerouac).
This cramped shop is the ultimate for book lovers! New titles as well as an eclectic used book collection. Upstairs, nooks filled with original owner Sylvia Beach’s personal collection (not for sale, much to Ed’s dismay). I dithered over selecting a book before discovering What Flowers Say, an English translation of children’s stories written by George Sand for her grandchildren. I encouraged Ed to purchase Pull My Daisy, Kerouac’s text for the film by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie. This little hardcover book includes stills from the film, and would add to Ed’s collection of Beat novels, poetry books, and biographies.
We sat down at Cafe Le Dante for our daily dose of café before heading down Boulevard Saint-Michel (Où est la Boulevard Saint-Michel, s’il vous plaît? My Pimsleur coaching…)
We happened to be in Paris for Gay Pride so–mais oui, we attended the parade! The scene was primarily a celebration of the college-aged set. A few drag queens and rainbow tee-shirted older folks, but mostly young people pumping their arms to dance music. Caught up in their enthusiasm, we joined in the fun. Meanwhile, back in the USA, the Supreme Court released a landmark decision making same-sex marriage a right nationwide.
Disentangling ourselves from the crowd, we walked back up Blvd Saint-Michel towards the Sorbonne, home of the historic University of Paris. Charmed by the fountains and the street noise from the ongoing parade of young people, we sat down at L’Ecritoire for a late “formule” lunch of salad, chicken and frites, and dessert: chocolat mousse for Ed, crème caramel for me. We ordered a full carafe of a Bourdeaux and settled in.
Afterwards, we headed down a few more blocks to Jardin du Luxembourg. There are many gateways into the garden. Our entry point happened to be at the Fontaine de Léda. Around the corner, we pulled together two green metal chairs at the Fontaine de Medicis. This fountain and grotto was the perfect spot for me to rest. Goldfish glinting through the dark waters. Breeze through the trees and vines. After some time, we heard the sound of jazz standards from a nearby bandstand. I watched several couples pose before the fountain statues of Acis and Galatea in a passionate embrace, unaware of Polyphemus peering threateningly down upon them.
I saw numerous displays of affection in Paris, from a photographer posing a sweet young couple against the backdrop of the Louvre, to a man spontaneously smooching his beloved on Rue Ravignon. We never know where love will take us. Will someone eventually drop a boulder on the whole affair? The Story of Acis gives a deeper meaning to the grotto where we rested. The transmutation of murdered lover into flowing water. I need to ponder that a bit more.
As the streets emptied of Gay Pride participants, onlookers and security personnel, Ed and I made our way back to Montmartre.
dimanche 28 juin 2015
Another sleepless night in Paris. The revelry began at 3:30am and was still going strong at 5:00am. Very LOUD guitar playing, clapping and singing. VERY LOUD. Bob Marley, French songs, Flamenco, and Sam Cooke’s “I don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology, don’t know much about a science book…” I don’t know much about the French I took, either. And this–is it permissible in Paris to disturb the peace in the wee hours of the morning? Pouring myself a cup of tea, I emailed the landlord.
Am I willing to sleep during the day and miss seeing Paris? No, I am not. These kids are LOUD, shouting their songs and there is no effort to silence them. I could not read my Hunchback book for the noise they were making. At 5:30am, three cops showed up. I peered over the window railing and watched them disband a group of 8-10 young people. They seemed to detain two of the young men, and a couple of young ladies said sorrowful farewells. Ultimately, the two young men walked off on their own. I was not convinced this was a permanent fix.
My landlord apologized. He lives on the 4th floor and heard the noise as well. He explained that this has never been a problem except for 2-3 hot summer nights per year. I accepted his gesture of a small reimbursement. By nature an optimist, I rallied for the day.
Our day was successful despite this rough start. An early café at Cafe de la Butte, in the courtyard below our apartment. As I wrote my postcards, a young father walked by, baby on his hip and a curly-headed 4 yr old girl trotting alongside him. Within minutes, he returned with a baguette under one arm, the baby on his hip and the girl following with a small loaf of bread cradled in her arms. She suddenly stopped on the sidewalk, captivated by the trash truck.
The automated loader picked up one trash barrel after another. Transfixed, the girl did not hear her papa calling her name. He stood watching her, chuckling at her fascination. This was likely to be what she’d remember most about her trip to Paris. All trash barrels emptied, she was released from the spell and dutifully followed him back to their hotel.
Back up to our apartment for our Sunday omelets and to pack a picnic for the Bois de Vincennes. Ed had figured out simple metro connections that would get us within 2 blocks of the Parc Floral section of the Bois. We thought we’d “pop in” at Notre-Dame first, but the crowds were thick and the sun was hot. We snapped a few pictures outside and got back on the metro.
We were heading to the Paris Jazz Festival, a low-key event held on weekends in June and July. Indeed, this was family-oriented. More local, less touristy. I thought of all those “picnics” paintings as we strolled through the grounds. Monet, Renoir, Manet… Berthe Morisot’s watery Women and Girls in a Natural Setting. Here we were, at a live action picnic.
We found a bit of shade, ate our picnic of fancy cheeses, sundried tomatoes, ham, olives, artichokes and bread. Nearby, Israeli innovators Maya Belsitzman and Matan Ephrat began their set, including an unusual interpretation of Paranoid by Black Sabbath. Check out their version of Nature Boy:
After eating and listening for a bit, we headed across the street to tour the only castle on our agenda, the Château de Vincennes. This destination is bare of the frivolities of Versailles. We visited on a brutally hot day, to roam about in the cool, empty rooms with arched doorways and spiral staircases. Another mention of Charles V. In the 1300s, he had a latrine installed in the northwest turret, as well as a place to keep his money. These specific rooms were locked and for his use only.
The Sainte-Chapelle, gorgeous and light-filled, took my breath away. Sand-colored walls and pastel stained glass. Through a side archway, Ed discovered these statues.
Back to Parc Floral to catch Ester Rada’s performance. Also from Israel, she is gaining international popularity. I was grateful for the opportunity to dance to her reggae-inspired music. Allowed me to work out some of my tight places and let the energy flow through my body again.
For years, my preferred method of experiencing music was through moving my body. I’d go to concerts and clubs, barely look at the band, choosing to twirl on the sidelines. In Parc Floral, I closed my eyes in the hot sun and felt the music through my muscles and bones. Allowed my brain to become infected with rhythm. The curative powers of music.
Before taking our leave of the Bois, we sat down in one of the park’s cafes, ordering deux bières, s’il vous plaît. Our waitress brought us tall, cold glasses of Charles Quint (Charles V) Mystic. Perfect for a summer late afternoon.
Caught the metro back to Pigalle so we could snap a picture of the Moulin Rouge. Around the corner, a glace à la mandarine for me. And, we spotted Café Des Deux Moulins, the restaurant featured in the film Amélie. Ed tried his hand at fancy picture-taking. See the ghost of Amélie in the window pane? Indeed, the film has boosted the tourism for a handful of locations in Montmartre.
We headed up the street and around the corner to our apartment. Figuring out that a 1:10pm EST is 7:10pm Paris-time, Ed opened up our laptop to stream the Red Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays game. I climbed into bed. I fell asleep early, listening to the comforting sounds of Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien calling the game.
lundi 29 juin 2015
Our day to visit Giverny. I had a more successful night of sleep and I was grateful to have more energy. I got out of bed to give myself a couple of hours for yoga and meditation. Ed slept in a bit more (he had listened to the Red Sox game while I had gone to bed early). We had a relatively leisurely morning before heading out. This was our last full day in France.
In search of La Poste, we hopped off of the metro at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. We kept our eyes open for the distinctive blue-and-yellow signs as we walked toward the Tuileries. Found one. I think our postal worker was more nervous about selling international postcards stamps than we were about buying them. After licking (yes, remember licking stamps?) and dropping our postcards in the box, we headed into the Tuileries for a bit of lunch at one of the garden’s cafes before meeting our tour bus at 1:00pm.
The trip to Giverny was glorious. We had an English-speaking tour guide on the bus. Ed and I had just noted that we hadn’t seen the Arc de Triomphe and Voila! there it is. Our tour bus was rounding the Arc de Triomphe as a tourist stunt. And, off to Normandy to visit Monet’s home and gardens.
Monet’s gardens are vast and breathtaking. The surrounding environment is so lovely. Wheat fields, blue skies, trees along the spine of the hills. More inspiration to delve into painting and drawing as a way to observe the details of all this beauty. En plein air. We did our best to capture some of it in photos. A little gift shop visit, and deux glace at a nearby cafe, and we were back on the bus.
Claude Monet (1840-1926) moved to Giverny at the halfway point in his life. He had experienced success by the time he was in his 40s. After a nomadic artist lifestyle, he made a home at Giverny with his second wife, Alice Hoschedé. His first wife, Camille Doncieux, had died shortly after the birth of the couple’s second child. Giverny was a haven for Monet. He was surrounded by his gardens, his family and visiting artists. At times, he retreated to his room in states of depression. He still traveled–to paint and exhibit in Norway, Spain, England, Italy as well as other locations in France.
From the tour bus to the metro and back to Montmartre. We popped into the Carrefour Market and picked up a tall cans of Pelforth Brune, Jenlain Ambrée and Grimbergen Blonde. I found a novelty: one fresh mozzarella ball in a plastic bag. This would be the perfect addition to our pasta and veggies dish (poivron vert, oignon, tomate, et courgette rond–a little round squash). Easy dinner and early to bed. Au revoir, Paris! We were heading to Brussels for three days.
The wind is in from Africa,
Last night, I couldn’t sleep.
~Joni Mitchell, Carey
mardi 30 juin 2015
Directional confusion dogged us during our journey to Brussels. After cleaning up the apartment and returning the keys, we started pulling our rolly luggage (cue PTSD) through the streets of Paris toward the Gare du Nord. Tell me, why does Paris insist on have Rues and Boulevards with the same name? My saving grace was that I was eating a peach, finally ripe after sitting on the kitchen counter for several days. And, in my head, singing Elton John’s Amoreena. “The fruit juice flowing slowly, slowly, slowly, down the bronze of your body; Living like a lusty flower, rolling through (the streets of Paris) for hours…”
I had my least pleasant customer service encounter at Gare du Nord. Rolling in, I walked up to an information desk and showed the gentleman my train ticket. I wanted to know which platform our train would leave from. “You are too early!” he barked at me. “Come back later.” Reluctantly, he told me “Platforms 7-10″. True, we were 2 hours before departure and the train hadn’t been assigned yet. We were relieved to sit and drink the worst coffee we’d had in Paris, reading our novels while we waited.
The train ride to Brussels Gare Midi was easy. Disembarking from the train, confusion reigned. We did not see the easy connection to Gare Centrale. We exited this area (most likely an unnecessary step) and found the metro. Entering again, we figured out which lines would bring us to Gare Centrale. The trains were crowded and our stress levels were rising.
Just a few stops and we were out on the street again, walking in circles with our rolly luggage bumping behind us. I suggested that Ed go in search of our hotel without me, and I would rest with our luggage in a small park by the station. Gesturing to Brasserie La Madeleine, he suggested that first we have a beer and something to eat . Well, no food here–except a plate of approximately 1 lb of cheese cubes–but I enjoyed a glass of cold blonde while Ed selected Brasserie LeFort. Our waitress let us know that we were literally around the corner from the Royal Windsor.
For our time in Brussels, I decided to go for a luxury hotel–nice bed, elegant decor, hot shower, A/C–on the chance that our apartment fell short on comfort. The Royal Windsor delivered on all counts, except the A/C wasn’t quite up to the challenge of the heat wave (90s F, 30s C). We were cool enough. I certainly don’t like freezing cold hotel rooms. My first luxury was to order room service. Second was to let Ed know that I’d be taking a nap every day for the remainder of our trip.
This meant eliminating some site-seeing. I’d already tossed the idea of taking a day trip out of Brussels. I indicated that I would not be up for a tour of Cantillon Brewery, top on his must-do list for either Wednesday or Thursday. Seeing my exhaustion, he accepted this. True to my word, I threw back the covers on our hotel bed and collapsed there for a couple of hours before heading to the Grand Place for Ommegang.
Months ago, we had purchased tickets to Ommegang, described as a spectacle. Indeed, it is! The audience is welcomed with a sampling of Charles Quint specialty brew “Ommegang”. And, then the spectacle begins!
Ommegang means parade, and this event re-enacts the historic visit of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and his son Philip in 1549. Charles V abdicated his rule over the Netherlands (including Belgium) to Philip. People of all ages paraded in costumes. The parade included singers, flag throwers, stilt walkers, musicians, horses, wagons, and large puppets. As night fell, the Grand Place was lit up with an otherworldly light show. A flock of pigeons was tossed into the air during a musical crescendo. Fireworks were lit when the wizard appeared.
The whole event was three hours of amazing. Most mind-boggling was the contest between stilt walkers. The goal is to knock your opponents off their stilts onto the cobblestones. These guys were totally into it, and remarkable athletes. The last three opponents took some time to battle it out until only one was standing victorious.
The full moon on the rise, I was grateful for a short walk back to the hotel.
mercredi 1 juillet 2015
Ed and I began our day with the sumptuous hotel breakfast, followed by a walk to the Cathedral of St. Michel et St. Gudula. Built during the same era as Notre Dame, but far less popular and crowded, we took advantage of the ability to walk around with more tranquility than would be possible in other venues. I paused before St. Michel, healer and protector. I lit a candle for the vulnerable, for those at risk for disease and untimely death.
As much as I am grateful for the progress in marriage equality, I cannot put aside my concerns about how deeply embedded racism is and its subsequent impact on well-being. Currently, we are hearing about the stress of having one’s gender assumed. Skin color has justified horrific treatment for centuries, and the stress of that is astounding. My own work brings me face-to-face with hard statistics about health outcomes. I know it is complicated. People are complicated. And, we are dealing with this worldwide.
On to lighter topics…
We walked down toward the Grand Place. Finally, I began shopping. With the exception of purchasing some books, postcards and a chapeau for myself, I had not done much shopping. I wanted to pick up a few gifts for our kids and our baby grandson. We found some success at a lace shop in Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. As the shop owner wrapped up our purchases, he told us about Ommegang-related activities taking place throughout the city. We commiserated about the heat. He explained that it was due to jet streams moving heat up from Africa.
That done, we headed to the Museum of the Belgian Brewers, located in the basement of the historic brewers guild. We were seated before a short film and provided with a glass of beer. Now ready for lunch, we happened down a street of cafes. We were bombarded by wait staff, aggressively pursuing our business with offers of great deals and free drinks. No way. We hurried around the corner and spotted Cafe Georgette. Perfect.
I ordered a Caesar salad, knowing very well that I’d be surprised with the result. And, I was! Artfully arranged, this salad had all the ingredients of “Caesar” with the unspoken invitation to blend it all myself. Tiny heads of lettuce, anchovies, shaved Parmesan, soft-boiled egg sliced open, small pieces of chicken, croutons, and a wedge of lemon. A bottle of olive oil and Dijon mustard alongside.
We retreated to hotel for a 3 hr nap. I slept for a solid 2 hrs. A deeply needed respite. We watched the beginning of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Great Gatsby on the hotel TV. Time to go out and eat again.
We decided on Taverne du Passage, located in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, for our dinner out. Ed selected sole meunière, and I chose cabillaud royal dijonnaise (cod), both served with fingerling potatoes. Closing the extensive wine menu, we asked what beers were available. “Beer?” the waiter asked. He nodded his head, and said he would bring us two beers. Wait! Do we have a selection to choose from? He gave us two choices, recommending the Maes Pils for our meals.
Afterwards, Ed looked dismayed as waiters carried a variety of beer bottles and glassware to other restaurant patrons. He rallied during an after-dinner stop at a neon-lit brasserie. I sat with a Kriek Mystic (yummy cherry-flavored beer) while he enjoyed a sampler of Kriek Mystic, Tongerlo Blonde, Tongerlo Brune, Charles Quint, and Primus. After that we were back to the Royal Windsor Hotel and found Godiva chocolates on our pillows.
jeudi 2 juillet 2015
Another sumptuous hotel breakfast. Today, we were offered Middle Eastern food (couscous, hummus, pita) in addition to the American/European fare: eggs, hearty breads, sliced meats and cheeses, fruit jams, roasted tomatoes and herbs, waffles, bagels. Our waiter recognized us and brought a small pot of coffee to our table. Ed picked up the international edition of the New York Times. I read Politico. Funny, I didn’t know Politico was available in paper. Top headline: economic crisis in Greece.
After breakfast, Ed headed to the Cantillon Brewery and I stepped into the hotel’s “Business Center” to purchase our train tickets to Brussels Airport. I retreated to our cool, dark room for a morning of doing nothing.
Unencumbered by concerns about me, Ed went looking for Cantillon, purportedly a 1/2 hr walk from the Grand Place. According to the website, “an individual visit is possible on any moment of the day”. Ed showed up as head brewer Jean-Pierre Van Roy was giving a tour to a group of young Italian women. These ladies were on a wine tour of Europe, and were learning about lambics in Belgium.
Jean is a folk hero among beer geeks. His great-grandfather started the brewery in the same location. For over one hundred years, his family has been brewing using open fermentation. This means that no yeast is added. The “wort” is left open to the elements to naturally ferment. Like wine, the beer is aged in barrels for years. Tart, acidic and bubbly, Cantillon is considered the champagne of beers. This is not your father’s Miller High Life.
Ed immersed himself in this tour, taking pictures, asking questions, tasting samples. Cantillon releases a limited number of bottles annually. The only distributor in the USA is the Shelton Brothers of Belchertown, MA. This is an expensive beer if purchased in the USA, and IF you can find a bottle. Ed picked up a 3-pack to bring home.
In the afternoon, we were back to eating and shopping. We stopped at the Cafe du Bruxelles. I had a delicious piece of salmon, while Ed ate some weird fried seafood. I purchased some suede booties for my grandson from one of the craftspeople set up for the Ommegang festival. In the city’s parks, vendors sold medieval-themed goods, magicians entertained children, and some of the grounds were prepared for jousting events.
At the park near the Royal Palace, I sat in front of a fountain to catch a cool breeze on this 90 degree day. Ed shopped at the Slumberland Bookshop, located at the Belgian Comic Strip Center. Many people know that Belgium is home to Tintin, but did you know that Smurfs hail from Belgium? Smurfy!
We had wanted to see the jousting, but it was too hot. We returned to our hotel room to hang out. I was figuring out that Ommegang’s Charles V was not the same as the Château de Vincennes’ Charles V . In fact, their reigns are separated by 200 years. Charles V (the latter), a.k.a. the Holy Roman Emperor, is described as the eldest son of Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad. I’ll need to follow up on that story.
For our last European dinner, we headed to the hotel’s restaurant, Chutney’s. Ed selected the rump steak with pepper sauce and a goblet of Brasserie LeFort. I chose the rigatoni with truffle oil and arugula, and a delicious Tripel Karemeliet. For dessert, we split a moelleux au chocolat avec framboises (flourless chocolate cake with fresh raspberries).
Early to bed for us. The next day would be our long journey home. Our interrupted nights were capped by the police knocking at our door at 11:30pm. The young policeman was very apologetic, but needed to search our room. Apparently a bomb scare. So, our trip did include witnessing a labor protest in Paris and and bomb scare in Brussels. Fortunately, neither of these events was threatening to us personally.
vendredi 3 juillet 2015
Our journey to Brussels Airport was flawless. We made our final purchases of Belgian chocolates and beer at the duty-free shop. On the plane, I watched the movie Philomena while Ed watched The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Layover in Iceland was easy. We arrived at Logan, caught the Logan Express to Woburn to get our car. Picked up pizza and beer in downtown Wakefield, and crashed at my daughter’s house for the evening. We gratefully postponed our drive home until the next day.
samedi 4 juillet 2015
Independence Day in the USA. After a lazy morning, we headed to my dad’s for a 4th of July cookout. We shared some of these stories with family. Mid-afternoon, we were ready to return home. Bois de Montague. Our new name for our abode. Next year would be the Year of the Bois. House repairs and landscaping projects. Not as glamorous as Europe, but there is no denying the beauty of the Bois.
Nearly two weeks after our return, Rhiannon Giddens posted this video in response to the crazed gunman who opened fire on nine people participating in a Bible study class at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. She is calling on us to help.