Christmas Spirit in Amish Country

If you live near Pennsylvania Amish country as I do, the National Christmas Center Family Attraction and Museum in Paradise, PA, is a perfect way to kick off the Christmas season.  A self-guided tour through this museum delivers history, culture, tradition, fantasy and faith to showcase Christmas throughout the world.

When you enter the museum, you see life-sized vignettes of American family celebrations of the holiday.  The cultural reference points include jolly Santa, children trying to sneak a peek at Santa, children tearing open presents with delight, and the traditional Christmas tree topped with a star.  These images — part of our national consciousness — actually date from mid-20th century American Christmas celebrations.  You (or your parents) might be catapulted back to these very familiar moments.

In the corridor leading to the museum proper, you are treated to an exhibit of the history of Santa Claus.  Santa is derived from St. Nicholas, a Turkish bishop known for giving gifts to the poor.  St. Nicholas was depicted wearing his bishop’s miter, a tall conical hat.

St. Nicholas

As the legend of St Nicholas evolved to Santa Claus, the clothing and depiction changed, too.  Some images are of an ugly, gnome-like creature, while others are both ugly and disturbing on many levels. Dare we say the forebears of Santa — the beloved icon — looked creepy?  The Dutch, the Belgians, and the English all added or subtracted elements over the course of Santa’s evolution. You will be fascinated with both the images and the history.

St. Nicholas - Dutch tradition

Creepy Santa 1

Creepy Santa 2

European Santas

One of my favorite exhibits was the crêches (nativity scenes).  I love these because they demonstrate that Christianity is celebrated all over the world with each culture injecting their own race, nationality, and heritage into their understanding and depiction of the story.  Indeed, it is easy to see the manifestation of God’s gift to the whole world through these crêches.

Kenya Creche

Kenyan Nativity Scene

Guatemala Creche

Guatemalan Nativity Scene

Columbia Creche

Colombian Nativity Scene

Ireland Creche

Irish Nativity Scene

I was taken back to an era when a Woolworths 5&10 store was the nerve center of a community. Lancaster, Pennsylvania was the home of the original Woolworth’s.  The museum has a replica of the store’s Christmas section.  You can walk around the space like a shopper and marvel at the cost of trinkets, decorations and gifts from back in the day.

Woolworths - Lancaster

In the museum proper, we find Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim from Charles Dickens’s, A Christmas Carol.

Dickens's booksdickens' christmas carol

From there, you can wander through one “country” after another, approaching a front door, looking in a window, and being transported to Christmas celebrations in other times and places.  There are a variety of Christmas trees, decorations and depictions of Santa and other figures important to the season.  Vignettes are captivating, inviting you to return for another look to see what you may have missed.  Be warned, this could take you into serious visual overload!  The wonderfully curated vignettes match sounds — music, animals, Christmas carols, or spoken word — with the scene.

Dutch house

Dutch home at Christmas

Dutch Santa

Dutch Santa

British Santa

British Santa

Santa Lucia

Santa Lucia – St. Lucy’s Day is celebrated in Scandinavian countries during Advent.

Moving on, you find Tudor Town and delight in the animals’ storybook Christmas.  As you move through this exhibit, you can read the story and see the characters in charming vignettes—pure fantasy.  Your inner child will approve.

Tudor Towne entrance

tudor towne scene 1

While all the fun and delight of Christmas is great, it’s easy to forget the point of the celebration. The next several rooms set the stage for Christ’s birth, beginning with “O Holy Night,” a life-size panorama of the desert and the travelers at night.  You begin to quiet inside, letting the images seep into you.

O Holy Night

After “O Holy Night,” you are back in daylight experiencing a walk through Bethlehem and the market place.

Middle East market scene

You look inside the type of dwelling Mary and Joseph would have called home; and realize they were in the Middle East.  Think about it in light of current events.  I did.  The curator did a fantastic job of making this transition and leading us into “the Holy Land.”  The mystery and wonder begin to envelope you.  You remember the Christmas story as it unfolds in front of you: the angel appearing to a shepherd; the good news heralded by horn; and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in the manger.  The tour doesn’t end here, but the Christmas story does.  You have reached the apex.

Heralding the birth

Winding down, you are shown gifts and ornaments from different cultures arranged as if in a small boutique.  There were lovely things, odd things, some you would expect, and some you wouldn’t.  Two displays, in particular, struck me as almost heretical for today’s consumer.

Did you know that cartons of cigarettes were popular gifts in the ’50s?  And, did you ever see an advertisement for the gift of a gun?

“To give or receive a Winchester Rifle or Shotgun affords pleasure and satisfaction.  At Christmas time or at any season, a man, a woman, or a boy who enjoys life will appreciate a Winchester as a gift.”

Seriously, Santa?

Sinister Santa Ads for Guns

Santa and Cigarette Ads

The National Christmas Center Family Attraction & Museum has something for everyone and is worthy of an annual pilgrimage, if you can make it.  It is open most months of the year, and now…well, ’tis the season! You can enjoy the museum with or without kids—though the teachable moments with kids are numerous.  You will experience nostalgia, hope, and the realization that there are common bonds among all peoples.

National Christmas Center

Merry Christmas, Everyone!


Author – Cheryl

Planes, Trains, and Vehicles: Getting Around Europe (Part 3)

Amsterdam is a two hour train ride from Brussels, and trains run frequently. I was fine buying my ticket the day before I’d travel.  The price: €42.  After two weeks in Europe, I was in the home stretch and near the end of my travel budget.

Imagine a city with slightly over a million people having more major train stations than New York City.  Brussels Midi Station is impressive. Here’s a practical tip: there is a gated entry to “les toilettes.” You can “go” for a fee. This seemed to be standard in public places, especially train stations.  Paying to “go” spares people from a nasty bathroom.

bathroom gate at Brussels Midi

Au revoir, Bruxelles — so nice to visit you again!

Au revoir, Mollie!

snapseed-kim and mollie 10-12-15

Amsterdam train platform

It was worth staying awake to watch the landscape go by and see what’s different about The Netherlands.

I saw farm land striped with water-filled drainage ditches, and cattle grazed between them. Like Flanders in Belgium, this is polder country, meaning the land is well below sea level. This is so for 26 percent of The Netherlands. Much farm land has been reclaimed from the sea through different methods, including the use of windmills to pump water.  (No wonder The Netherlands could offer expert assistance to the U.S. when New Orleans was flooded from Hurricane Katrina. This country knows how to hold back the sea.)

Dutch polder landscape copyFarmland en route to Amsterdam

Greenhouses and windfarm en route to Amsterdam

Greenhouses and windfarm

windmill in distance

Windmill in the distance

grafitti en route to amsterdam

Grafitti en route to Amsterdam

Street art en route to Amsterdam

Street art en route to Amsterdam

Train announcements were in French, Dutch, and English. About an hour into the trip, I heard, “Due to an individual  on the tracks, we will terminate this train.” This message was conveyed in a casual tone. Mollie told me this could happen.

train to amsterdam

I missed every announcement in English that followed because everyone started buzzing. I only knew we’d be changing trains. So, I followed the crowd. The two trains we switched to were packed. On the first one, those without seats sat on bags or stairs in the area between train cars until we changed trains again. Then, I managed to snag a seat and cram myself in with my bags. Once things were sorted out, we were about an hour behind schedule.

The bicycle culture revealed itself when we stopped in Rotterdam.

Bike rack en route to Amsterdam

Rotterdam – parked bicycles in background

Hallo, Amsterdam! Hoi!

Amsterdam Centraal Station

Centraal Station — grand, vast, and busy — was not generously equipped with restrooms. “Waar zijn de toiletten, alstublieft?” It was a hike to the “toiletten” and, again, you had to pay to “go.” Keep coins handy!

At the station, I located the tram my Airbnb host instructed me to take. Trams are priced in an interesting way. You can pay one price for unlimited rides for a set period of time. When I reached my stop, I had a nice, long walk to the apartment. I was wowed by what I saw of the city along the way. It was clearly different from Paris and Brussels.

As a pedestrian, you need to be extra-vigilant in stepping off sidewalks to cross cyclist lanes and streets. Intersections are regulated by lights specifically for each mode of travel — trams, cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. It’s a little complicated.

My head moved like a metronome every time I stepped off one path and onto another. Crossing a street sometimes meant going from one pavement island to another before reaching the pedestrian area. It was a gauntlet of sorts. This is not the place to walk with your eyes glued to your phone. Beware the bicycles and scooters, especially at rush hour!

Amsterdam streets - cyclists scooters

Cyclists lane at rush hour

Cyclist in training - Amsterdam

Tiny cyclist-in-training

Road traffic - Amsterdam

Cyclists stop at traffic light

It seemed that canals and bridges were everywhere. For €16 — more than I paid for my Megabus from Paris to Brussels — I took a boat cruise to see the city at water level. The cruise was a little over an hour long. We went in and out of various canals, while the boat operator told us interesting things about the city and its architecture. Part of the cruise was on the Amstel River. I knew of the beer, but didn’t know it was named after a river.

Amsterdam viewed from boatAmsterdam Canal - filter

From the boat, we saw the bike parking garage that holds 2,500 bikes. You can’t get “greener” than that! But, apparently, this is still not enough space for bicycle commuters and the city will have to create more parking.  No wonder car traffic was light.

Amsterdam Bike Garage

Bike parking garage on the right

Amsterdam is a very walkable city. There is a subway, but I never went underground. I traveled either on foot, boat, or tram. Next time, I’ll explore Amsterdam and the countryside by bike.

After three days, it was time to return to Paris. I’ve mentioned before the possibility of transit strikes. Had I not been paying attention to signs and cafe chatter, I would have been waiting in vain for a tram. The transit system planned a strike for the morning commute. To reach Centraal Station on time, I decided to walk to the Marriott Hotel where I knew I could get a cab. Cab fare was €18, more than the Megabus trip from Paris to Brussels. Just sayin’.

I’d made a reservation about a month in advance for the Thalys high-speed train to Paris.  (You may recall, this is the train on which a terrorist was thwarted from an attack by American servicemen.) The ticket cost €120. I thought this was a decent price until a local told me it was high. Here’s a tip:  make your reservations three months in advance and you’ll get a much better price. Wish I’d known this before.

Amsterdam Centraal - en route to ParisAmsterdam Centraal - train platform

Onward to Paris. I spent one final night there in a different neighborhood than I was in before. I spent a little time getting oriented so I could decide if I’d be comfortable taking Metro to the airport. After all, I’d have to walk to the station in the dark. Hmmm…would I pay €10 on Metro or 60€ for a cab?

I took Metro, of course.

Bonjour, Aer Lingus!  We meet again for the trip home.

Aer Lingus over Dublin

Aer Lingus jet landing in Dublin


Planes, Trains, and Vehicles – Getting Around Europe (Part 2)

Onward to Brussels!

I thought three weeks would be enough time to make a train reservation from Paris to Brussels. The cities are less than 200 miles apart and a high-speed train could get me there in an hour and a half. My plan was to arrive in Brussels early on Friday and leave for Amsterdam on Monday. My new friend, Mollie, was expecting me. Plus, I wanted to get there in time to check out Marolles Flea Market at Place Jeu de Balle.

Alas, travel by train was not to be. I scoured train schedules, and a 10:45 p.m. arrival on Friday was the best I could do. I was on the phone with my sister, Cheryl, as I waged battle with the Thalys reservation system; and then surrendered. She knew I was frustrated when we hung up. How else could I get from Paris to Brussels?  About a minute later, I had my answer. I was excited! I immediately called Cheryl to tell her I would be traveling by….


Megabus! This is the same bus company I use to go to New York. It’s cheap and comfortable on the East Coast. And it’s really cheap and comfortable in Europe. My bus ticket from Paris to Brussels cost just under $13! For that price, I didn’t care that the ride would be three hours longer than the high-speed train. My Megabus was going to get me to Brussels by 12:20 pm!


Megabus departs from Porte Maillot, which is on the Metro line. The station is within sight of the Arc de Triomphe and the cars racing around L’Etoile.

Arc de Triomphe et L'Etoile

I left the apartment around 6 a.m. and walked along empty streets to the subway. It was still dark outside when I arrived at Porte Maillot. I didn’t know the lay of the land so I gave myself plenty of time to get lost. At Porte Maillot, I glommed onto another traveler, who was also looking for her bus. She was headed home to Germany on another cheap ride — FlixBus. Europeans really know how to get around, don’t they?

Au revoir, Paris! A bientôt!

The bus ride was relaxing, and I was able to sleep a bit. We had one 30 minute stop for water, snacks, and the restroom; otherwise, we went straight in to Brussels. I snapped photos of the scenery along the way.

The bus pulled into Brussels Nord (North) Station. I missed an opportunity to photograph the train station exterior because I was desperate to find le toilette. Durn! Now I need to return to Brussels someday to photograph the train station. Speaking of les toilettes, keep coins handy because a trip to a stall will cost you.

There wasn’t a lot of action at the train station when I arrived. Why? Train employees were on strike that day. Strikes are planned in advance and probably the reason why I couldn’t buy a ticket for a train that would get me to Brussels at a decent hour. No matter… I had discovered Megabus.

I took the flea market off the itinerary. I was starved and needed to meet up with Mollie. She’d given me instructions on how to reach her office building via Brussels Metro. The Metro is great, and includes subway and tram lines. Have I mentioned before that I love mass transit?

Brussels Metro stations have interesting artwork. I remembered that from when I was there in 2007. Photographing the art in all the Metro stations is another good reason to return to Belgium. (Every excuse will do.)

Metro station - BelgiumBelgian Metro station art

Although mass transit factored large in getting around cities, I’ll give a shout-out to walking as an underrated mode of transportation. Mollie and I enjoyed a long walk to National Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It’s popularly known as Koekelberg Basilica.

The Basilica is a marvel of Art Deco-style architecture, and it is the fifth largest church in the world. Construction started in the early 20th century, but was interrupted by two world wars. It finally opened in the 1970s.

Basilica - BrusselsBasilica interior 2Basilica interior - BrusselsBasilica exterior - Brussels

After visiting the stunning Basilica, we took Metro into the city.

Metro stop with Basilica in background

Metro stop with Basilica in background

With Mollie in Brussels

Grand Place is an iconic Brussels site I wanted to see again. This town square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its scale, compared to other town squares in Belgium, or elsewhere in Europe, is immense and majestic. Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), constructed in early to mid-15th century, is located there.

Hotel de Ville is surrounded by guild houses because tradesmen and merchants were held in high regard. Guild houses are sort of like trade unions in the U.S.  The great French writer, Victor Hugo, had a house on Grand Place as well.  You can find Grand Place in miniature, along with other iconic European Union structures, at Brussels’ Mini-Europe.

Day trips are incredibly easy from Brussels because of its three major train stations: Nord (North), Zuid (South), and Central (Central).  Back in 2007, my mother and I took day trips to Brugge, Antwerp, Ghent, Liege, Namur, and Tournai. Those cities, along with Brussels, are in six of 10 Belgian provinces and Brussels-Capital Region.

Mollie and I went to Brugge for the day. It’s a city in West Flanders province, popularly known by its French name, Bruges.  You can reach Brugge from Brussels in a little over an hour by train for about €30 roundtrip. Advance reservations aren’t necessary. (Tip: Check the website’s Stations and Trains page for a list of “Disturbances.” It will notify customers of strikes.)

Once in Brugge, you can rent a bike, take a boat ride, or walk. This small city is perfection.

Brussels is a wonderful destination in its own right. It is also a great base for day trips throughout Belgium. I highly recommend it!

Next … the finale of Getting Around Europe (Part 3).

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Planes, Trains, and Vehicles – Getting Around Europe (Part 1)

As you know by now, I love to plan my travel. This year, I traveled to Paris, and went from there to Brussels, then Amsterdam, and back to Paris. The European Union includes France, Belgium, and The Netherlands, making travel through open borders especially sweet. My only passport stamp, despite visiting three countries, was from France. That was in October 2015. Who knows how this may change since the November 13 attacks on Paris.

After terrorist events in 2001, the U.S. had a period of restricted air travel.  Transit infrastructure was damaged and service suspended. A behemoth federal government department for all things security was created. We lived for years under daily Code Orange security threats. Worldwide, travelers now tack on more wait-time at airports due to robust security screening. Even though things changed immediately after 9/11, people are back in the skies, back on the trains, and they’ve accepted the new normal.

I’m betting on Paris to rebound like New York did. Parisiens will eventually get their joie de vivre back. If I only had more time from work and the money, I’d return there in a heartbeat. However things may change, don’t give up on any of these cities. I still highly recommend Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam as beautiful, historical, and accessible destinations.

Getting to Paris

Google Flights was my first great discovery. This website was better for searching flights than all these subscriptions I had that were clogging up my email. Through Google Flights, I found my second great discovery: Aer Lingus, Ireland’s national airline. This airline had the best prices and travel times to Paris.

Sure, I could have paid a crazy cheap roundtrip fare on a particular new airline I will not name, but the flight would have arrived in Paris anywhere from 11-14 hours after I left Washington, D.C. I wanted savings in money and time. Maybe if I had all the time in the world, I wouldn’t care. This is what worked for me: a flight from D.C. to Dublin, short layover, and then a flight from Dublin to Paris.  Aer Lingus gave the best bargain for price and flight time.

Another big plus for Aer Lingus is the flights were not over-sold and were all ON TIME.  What??!!!  (Now, I’m a fan.)

Aer Lingus over Dublin

Aer Lingus Landing in Dublin

Getting from the Airport to the Apartment

When I arrived at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, I had some options for reaching my Airbnb apartment. A cab would have been more than 50€. Mass transit from the airport is an option at most major cities.  I took the train from the airport and transferred to the subway. The apartment was near several subway stops. The cost? €10. Much better.

Using Paris Metro

The most economical thing was to buy Metro tickets in “bulk,” so I bought 10. I did this twice, and have a few tickets left over to give my sister when she travels there next year.

Paris Metro tickets

Three things I loved about using Paris Metro:

  • The subway system has outstanding connectivity, especially when I compare it with some major transit systems in North America. I loved navigating the system and figuring out which route to take.

Paris Metro map

  • Subway tunnel entertainment is a cut above the usual. I saw an opera singer, vibraphonist, and jazz singers. Parisians were blasé, but not I! I took a moment to check out this dramatic opera singer (lip syncher?) and give him a couple of euros. After all, I really was entertained. (Beware the volume for this one!)
Arts et Metiers subway station

Arts et Metiers Subway Station (Paris Metro)

Train in Arts et Metiers

Train at platform in Arts et Metiers Station

Champs-Elysees Clemenceau (Paris Metro)

Champs-Elysees Clemenceau (Paris Metro)

Two things that were not lovable about using the subway in Paris:

  • Wheelchair-bound or mobility-challenged people can’t use the subway. I only saw stairs everywhere. (If I’m mistaken, someone please tell me.)
  • If you’ve overpacked your bags, you will not be happy pulling, carrying, or dragging that bulk up and down the stairs to get to your subway platform. My backpack and small bag were manageable, but that doesn’t mean I was happy when I had to carry them up a flight of stairs.

Although I didn’t do it, I also recommend using buses to get from Point A to Point B so you can have a surface-level view of the city. It adds something to the transportation experience. But, I walked…a lot. I wish I’d known about the fitness app that was already on my Smartphone so I could have tracked my steps!

Day Trips

Europe has an awesome rail network. Paris has seven train stations, including the one at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Day trips are easy to do. Check out the train schedules to various destinations and figure out how much time you want to commit to traveling somewhere just for the day. I have a book, Day Trips – France, that counts Lyon as a day trip. Lyon is 288 miles from Paris, but those miles fly by when you’re on a high speed train. The cost is variable, depending on when you buy your ticket, and the trip is two hours each way.

I wanted to make good use of my days, wherever I would decide to go. I chose Chartres and we caught the train from Gare Montparnasse. Chartres is a little over an hour from Paris by train, and the schedule gave us plenty of options. The cost:  €30roundtrip. I’d been to Chartres before, but felt like I hadn’t spent time in the city. This time, I hung out in Chartres with my new local friend, Charlotte.

Gare de Chartres

Chartres is best known for its Cathedrale Notre Dame de Chartres. It is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites and is a magnificent example of Gothic architecture. You can see it from anywhere in the city. Notice the Cathedral’s distinctive, mismatched towers.

Chartres Cathedrale

How could a city of 40,000 support such a massive cathedral? Chartres belongs to the faithful world-wide and those who want to marvel at its architecture and original stained glass. There have been pilgrimages to Chartres Cathedral since the early Middle Ages. It is on a pilgrimage route called Chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle (Way of St. James). The Spanish portion of the route is known as the Camino de Santiago.

Chemin de Saint-Jacques plaque

Charlotte wandered off while I took a tour of the Cathedral. There was scaffolding in places for the long-term restoration, including cleaning grime from the stone. Despite this, the Cathedral inspired awe and wonder.

After the Cathedral, I finally saw a bit more of Chartres. Leisure was the theme of the day. We had lunch at one cafe, explored shops and streets, and then stopped at another cafe for dessert and people-watching.

Our only time constraints were train arrival and departure times. In the hours in between, we hung out and enjoyed Chartres on a beautiful day!

Stay tuned for Planes, Trains, and Vehicles: Getting Around Europe (Part 2).

On the Paris Attacks

I had already written a three-part series on “Getting Around Europe” based on my recent travels to Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam, when Paris was attacked by terrorists. I decided the timing was wrong for publishing these posts. They might seem frivolous in the face of world-wide shock, and the suffering of those living through this ordeal and those who lost loved ones.

Then, I thought of what I’m trying to share in my posts — that travel is a good thing, and there are many marvelous places in the world. Paris happens to be one of them. No acts of terrorism can change that.

Inevitably, some people will think the world is too unsafe and unpredictable for them to leave home. Or, they might think Paris is particularly unsafe because 2015 opened with the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack and closes with more of the same. Some of my sister’s friends know she is going to Paris in the spring and asked her to reconsider. She won’t, and I don’t blame her.  Unless there is a State Department warning or alert, we would not hesitate to return to Paris. These terrorist attacks could happen anywhere.

Cheryl and I talked about the relative danger here in the U.S.  Do we tell kids and teachers not to go to school because there might be a mass shooting? Do we decide to work from home because our office building might get bombed? Do we forego Bible study at our church in case someone in our group will open fire on the rest of us?  Do we stop training for, and running, marathons because they might end in bedlam and carnage? Terrorism and hate crimes have happened here, too.

You can’t stop moving, living, or experiencing regions and cultures because of these frightening events. There’s a reason why they are called acts of terrorism. When dealing with adversity, resilience trumps all.

Resilience is already evident in Paris. The people there are determined to press forward in the act of living, even though they’ve been asked to remain indoors. They mourn and stand vigil in various places around the city. And, eventually, Parisiens will regain their trademark joie de vivre. They know that if they give in and give up, then terrorists win after all.

Playing in a park near La Tour Eiffel

I’ll publish my first post in the series Wednesday, November 18.

Vive la France!

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How to Live like a Local When Traveling

Staying in an apartment gets you into a neighborhood and off the beaten path. You can become part of the neighborhood, if only for a little while. I stayed at an Airbnb in Paris for 10 days, and one in Amsterdam for three days. It was my first time to use Airbnb, and I loved the experience of having an apartment as home base.

After I dumped my bags in the apartment, I explored the neighborhood. I wanted to check it out during the day so I could feel comfortable returning there at night. I wanted to see what restaurants were nearby; and the nearest laundry, yoga studios, public transportation, and food markets.

Amsterdam canal

An Amsterdam canal in Oud West area – Airbnb apartment was one block away.

Random arch in Paris

Street arch near the Airbnb apartment in Paris

Synagogue in North Marais

Synagogue de Nazareth in Le Marais – often guarded by soldiers

The Paris apartment had a “full-size” refrigerator — still tiny by U.S. standards — and I went to markets for breakfast foods, snacks, and beverages.  I was able to eat bread and cheese as the French do because I found a market that sold gluten-free baguettes.  They were delicious — crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, as a regular baguette would be. I noticed that cartons of eggs in markets are not refrigerated. Eggs were on shelves just like cans of peas. I bought and ate a half-dozen unrefrigerated organic eggs. I live to write about it.

Organic market in Le Marais

Organic market in Le Marais (Paris)

Gluten-free baguette and log of chevre cheese

Paris market purchase: Gluten-free baguette and chevre

Market mural in Marais

Market Mural in Le Marais

To feel like a local, I cultivated favorite places. In both Paris and Amsterdam, I was recognized as a repeat customer at some neighborhood cafes. It was great! Although, maybe it was my poor French and lovely — as opposed to “ugly” —  American-ness they remembered (??)


In Paris, I found a charming creperie called Divin’ Art close to Arts et Metiers Metro station. The restaurant was a straight shot from the front door of my apartment building. Divin’ Art had only been open for business a week. It worked for me because all their food is gluten-free. It was reasonably priced and the restaurant had a small bar with a nice selection of hard cider.

To think that, before I found Divin’ Art, I had spent hours one Sunday trying to find a gluten-free creperie I’d read about. That creperie’s website claimed it would be open on Sunday. It was closed when I got there. I was starved and indignant!

Divin Art exterior

savory crepe

Savory crepe: fried egg, caramelized onions, and smoked salmon

In Amsterdam, I found a great breakfast place and became a “regular.” The second time I went there, they remembered my special order from the day before. If you’re ever in Amsterdam, check out Ted’s All Day Brunch in Oud West (Old West) Amsterdam. It has wifi and is two blocks up the street from my Airbnb apartment.

Teds All Day Brunch

Ted’s All Day Brunch

Ted's All Day Brunch - my breakfast

My breakfast – scrambled eggs with sides of mushrooms, smoked salmon, and sauerkraut

Another way to live like a local is to continue your usual activities. In Paris, I took a vinyasa yoga class at Make Me Yoga. I was lucky to have stumbled upon a studio that accepts drop-ins. The studio was in an area called Oberkampf in the 11th arrondissement, and a walkable distance from the apartment. The teacher offered to teach the class in English because of me, but I asked her not to. I wanted to be guided through the poses and meditation in French. I followed along just fine by watching her and the others. I even started to understand the French instruction for sun salutations.

A bonus was seeing a French yoga student in an Ohio State Buckeyes shirt. She had no idea how it warmed my heart to see O-H-I-O, my home for real.

Make Me Yoga classOhio State Buckeye Fans in Paris

Now a few words about the apartments themselves:

The Paris AirBnB. I selected a studio apartment for the wifi, location, price, and full kitchen. It was a third floor walkup. My first impression was shock when I put in the door code at street level and entered. In the U.S., the building might be considered derelict based on the entry and uneven stairways. The lonnng walk from the front door to my set of staircases was creepy. Actually, that’s an understatement.  I dreaded what it would be like to enter the building at night. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.


Creepy hallway

Well, chalk this up as a bohemian experience in the Marais. I memorized where the lights were in the hall so I wouldn’t find myself in the dark, and set the fears aside.

Bottom line: the apartment itself was updated, unlike the common spaces of the building. I knew the building was seriously old, not that its ancient history should excuse chipped paint, falling plaster, hanging wires, and an epic lack of aesthetics. Regardless, when I returned to the apartment at the end of a day, I was “home.” The apartment was clean and the area was safe.The building itself didn’t lose its creepiness; but, as I always say … you can get used to almost anything. (However, if there had been any pests and bugs, I think I would have lost my mind.)

A note about the apartment’s shower stall: it was the tiniest ever — a perfect little 2×2 square. Unbelievably, it had a luxe array of shower heads, including the rainfall. I had to sidle out of the shower sideways to exit, and I’m not a big person.

Tiny shower stall

The street where I stayed had an entrepreneurial, semi-gritty, and artsy vibe. It was also near three Metro stations, which was a huge plus. A variety of good cafes, bars, Pilates and massage studios, coffee shops, boutiques, bars, galleries, supermarkets, and a guarded synagogue were in walking distance.

My building was next door to two bars, whose clientele gathered at tables and chairs set up outside. It seemed the courtyard below amplified the noise. Even with windows closed, I couldn’t sleep until the bars closed around 2 a.m. Being unable to sleep when I was ready to sleep was my deal breaker. Had I only known….

[BTW, my nephew and his partner stayed at an Airbnb in Marais also. It didn’t take long to figure out we were not only in the same part of the Marais, but on the same street! He said their staircases were so steep they had to hang onto a rope while going up three flights. They called their apartment Les Miserables.]

David's Airbnb

Les Miserables staircase.

The Amsterdam Airbnb.  I got great sleep at this apartment! The bed was so comfortable. The studio was a spacious and clean third-floor walkup. It was adjacent to the host’s rooms, and I had complete privacy, a bathroom and washing machine. I also had for my use a small refrigerator, electric teapot, and pantry. The apartment’s location was Oud West, near the city center and Jordaan. It was also a walkable distance from the main museum district. If I’d used my fitness tracker, I would have racked up the step count in this walkable city.

View from Amsterdam apartment

View from Amsterdam apartment

Amsterdam rowhouses, houseboat, and bike

Amsterdam row houses, houseboat on the canal, and a bicycle

The apartment building’s architecture and staircases were typical of Amsterdam. I had never climbed such steep stairs in my life. They were the closest thing to a ladder that a staircase can get. Thank goodness the host met me at the door and carried my bag up. He was very accommodating and helpful throughout my visit. When it was time to leave, I wondered whether the bags and I would both make it down the stairs. I admit I thought about throwing my bags down each flight. (See my Airbnb review of the apartment here.)

Amsterdam apartment staircase

Amsterdam apartment staircase

All in all, staying in apartments gave me a different way to experience Paris and Amsterdam. I was happy with the neighborhoods I selected and the price I paid for the apartments. And, I would definitely stay in the Amsterdam apartment when I visit the city again!