American Womankind Magazine: Review 2.0

My love affair with American Womankind magazine has not abated. I opened Issue 7 (February – April 2016) of the magazine and thumbed through its entirety, as is my habit. That first look was all it took for me to renew my subscription right away.

This magazine continues to deliver.  It is an exultation of color.  Charis Tsevis, who does the cover illustrations, created a stunning portrait of a woman of color. She could be Caribbean, which was a focus of this issue.  The colors capture vibrancy and excitement, not hinting at some of the darker parts of Caribbean history, except maybe in her gaze.

A number of articles in this issue resonated with me.  But, first…the art.  The art of Shari Erickson, whose tropical paintings are placed throughout the magazine, draw me into the island vibe.  When Erickson first visited the Caribbean, she said she had been led “to a world without grays.”  Her tropics are just as lush as we would want them to be.  Who even remembers gray?  Interestingly, Erickson’s studio is in Appalachia.  Her artistic process and the things that move her are fascinating.

The next thing that captured my imagination is the work of artist, Jason deCaires Taylor, whose work appears, not in a conventional museum, but in the Museo Subacuatico de Arte in Cancún, Mexico.  His central themes are water pollution, ocean acidity, and over-fishing. I had seen some of this artist’s work before; but the presentation in Womankind tells me what his mission is: “to prove that we can revivify nature if we only try.” The artist makes his point with this underwater installation of sculptures.

See how the sculptures changed over time when claimed by the sea and its creatures.

AW Jose DeCaires Taylor 1

Sculptures in the National Marine Park of Cancun. (Photo from American Womankind magazine)

AW 2

Closeup of the underwater sculpture (Photo from American Womankind magazine)

AW Jose deCaires Taylor 3

Ocean effects on sculptures over time (Photo from American Womankind magazine)

I don’t relate only to the eye candy, though.  One of the things I like best about the magazine is that it is introduces under-represented, but not insignificant, bits of history.   Did you know Jamaica had a “Warrior Queen”?  Read about Queen Nanny.  Then move on to “The Story of White Gold,” and the impact of sugar on 12 million slaves.  These were not subjects in any of my history books.

Another item that caught my interest is historical, artistic, and design focused.  There are eight of the most stunning pages of fashion I have ever seen.  Here, we are introduced to Vlisco, a Dutch textile designer who invented a wax printing process for the production of African textile prints. These designs go back 170 years.  You will be as enthralled as I was if you appreciate great textiles.

While I have focused on highlights that particularly captivated me, there are many more thought-provoking articles that round out American Womankind’s on-going themes that include happiness; ideas to change your life; money and consumerism; and society.  For the full experience, you have to buy your own copy!

Author, Cheryl


What I Think of Parisians

When we think of Parisians, we think of artists, fashion designers, style trendsetters, and people who express the joy of living. On that last note, I’ve always heard the French embrace the “work to live” ethic. It’s so much more in line with having a balanced life.  (Sigh.)

These are my additional thoughts about Parisians.

1. PARISIAN DOGS HAVE A SPECIAL PLACE IN SOCIETY.

Parisians have little dogs. Parisian dogs can go almost everywhere their owners go —  unless they’re expressly not allowed (like cemeteries). I think French bull terriers are a favorite breed.  No surprise there!

French bulldog at Le Pain QuotidienFrench bulldog at lunch

Usually, Parisian dogs are on a leash; but sometimes they’re not. This particular dog looked like he belonged right in that spot. People had to walk around him because he wasn’t budging.

Unleashed and ignoring everyone

I came across this dog — ancient, toothless, and dearly loved by her owner. She accompanies her owner to antique shows and flea markets in this antique baby carriage.

Elderly dog in antique baby carriage

Parisian dogs have attitude — a certain je ne sais quoi. This one had a stylish strut, like his owner. The Parisian dogs I saw didn’t consort with strangers and were downright aloof. I couldn’t get their attention at all.

dogs with je ne sais quoi

(My sister’s dog, Lulu, would never be mistaken for a Parisian dog. She’s the right size, but, bless her little heart, way too friendly and undisciplined.)

Lulu and Wiley copy

Lulu – on the left.

2. PARISIANS ARE NOT RUDE SNOBS. 

I don’t understand the reputation the French have in the U.S. for being snobs and rude. I’ve never had that experience, especially in Paris. Parisians interact with “politesse.”  The word originates from the Latin word polire — meaning, to polish. Politesse means formal politeness. Courtesy. Basic civil interaction. Good manners. Geez…what a concept.

These four little French words can earn you some engagement with Parisians:  “Bonjour” (hello), “Merci” (thank you), and “Au revoir” (goodbye), and “Pardon” (Excuse me).

I stopped people on the street regularly to ask for directions. I would get someone’s attention with “Pardon, (Madame / Monsieur). Bonjour.” To which they would respond, “Bonjour.” I would ask for directions in a way that was not brusque or entitled. I’d start my  question in French with “Je cherche….” (I am looking for….) and pull out my map. I’d always be respectful, because … guess which one of us needs help. After awhile, I understood directions en français:  “tout drois” (straight ahead); à droite (to the right); and à gauche (to the left).  Even the most rushed person would stop, listen intently, and pull out their smartphone for Google Maps to show me where to go.

Parisians — they had me at “Bonjour.”

3. PARISIAN KIDS PLAY AND ARE TRAINED TO BE INDEPENDENT. 

I was struck by the number of kids I saw un-tethered to adults. We call them “free-range” children in the U.S. I saw these kids independently making their way to school, none of them with eyes glued to a device. Some kids looked as young as eight. They were usually in pairs or small groups, talking and laughing with each other.  Some kids rode through Paris streets on their scooters. I also saw plenty of Parisian parents with their kids, especially in parks.

place des vosges - kids

Teenagers – Place des Vosges

kid on scooter

Young musician on scooter at Pont St. Louis

place des vosges playground

Kids playing – Place des Vosges

Father - daughter playing in front of Eiffel Tower

Father – daughter playing: Parc du Champ de Mars

On a side note: I saw a Parisian dad publicly discipline his son. The child was a hellion, willfully disobeying his dad and charging across the street on his scooter with dad in hot pursuit. I stopped to watch the spectacle. (I had a flashback of the uninhibited discipline U.S. parents gave their kids before “helicoptering” took over.) This dad snatched that boy off his scooter, and spanked him down to the ground. The boy got up, and reached for his scooter. The dad didn’t give it back.  Maybe he was training the boy for the day when he could safely and independently ride his scooter on Parisian streets. Good for that Parisian dad!

4. CAFÉ DINING IS A PARISIAN WAY OF LIFE.  

Parisian cafes are equipped with awnings and heat lamps. Bad weather won’t stop the unabashed people-watching. If  you notice, everyone sits facing the sidewalk and the chairs on the other side of the table are empty. The outdoor café diners are the audience; and you…passersby…are the show.

parisian cafe culture

5. PARISIANS DO TINY SPACES WITH STYLE.

I gave myself a splurge at the end of my trip and decided to spend my last night in Europe in a traditional hotel. But, I didn’t really want an ordinary hotel. I checked out quirkyaccom.com to find something different that I could afford. The price, about €135,00, was right for a splurge in the 15th arrondissement.

Circular bed at Platine

Hôtel Platine is a cinema-themed boutique hotel. Hence, the blonde babe as the focal point over the bed. That bed was a huge playground! Alas, I was solo. Just so you know, the blonde bombshell over my bed gave me neither nightmares nor a complex. I slept very well, and was happy to wake up still me with black hair and smart.

The bathroom was the most efficient use of space. Lighting options were a Hollywood production.  For instance, this shower could be lit with regular lights or amped up with red lights, as shown here.

Hotel Platine Bathroom ShowerHotel Platine Bathroom Sink

I was dazzled by the glass-walled bathroom, and it took more than a minute to realize this was a two-piece bathroom.  As the French would say, “Oú est le toilet?”

Hotel Platine Toilet

In a room that was only yea big, I opened doors until I…found it! Behind a door that I thought was another closet, there was the toilet and this lip-smacking wallpaper.

Other unique hotel features were the movie screen in the elevator, the Turkish bath available to hotel guests, and spa services for additional cost. The hospitality was top-notch here, too. I’d come back for another splurge.

I look forward to traveling to Paris again, and discovering more of the city and its residents. About those Parisians: I’m a fan.


Gratitude in the Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Here we are at the beginning of another year. Often, whether we want to or not, we reflect on the year that just passed. We can either be happy about it or sad about it — whatever. But, as we go into 2016, we can decide to tip the attitude scale away from negativity and toward positivity.

How we look at a bad experience (or a loss) changes when we focus on the good that might come from it.

I’ve been thinking about certain women who had something in common with me. I started with a woman I knew as Mrs. Carter. She was the mother of my oldest friend, and my mother’s BFF.  Mrs. Carter was also the first person I’d known with Stage 4 cancer.  You see, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 when Mrs. Carter was in her seventh, and final year, of her battle with ovarian cancer.  We went through chemotherapy at the same time. Because of this experience, we related to each other in a way that only cancer patients can understand. Mrs. Carter was my touchstone for how to live graciously with a chronic disease.

Fast forward to 2015… I knew three more women who were Stage 4. Two had metastatic breast cancer; and one, a close friend, had squamous cell oral cancer. All of them died this year. Before you think, ‘Damn, this post is by Debbie Downer,’ just bear with me.  I have to put my chatty, witty posts about great food and travels and my occasional witty rants on pause for a bit.  Sometimes bad stuff will remind us of things for which we should be grateful.

My gratitude is not “Thank God it’s not me at Stage 4.” It’s gratitude for being witness to the grace these women had as they faced our common adversary, Cancer, to the end.

Ever since I was diagnosed with cancer, I’ve been referred by friends to other women going through the same illness. That’s how I met Rhonda and Lisa: we all had tennis and breast cancer in common. Rhonda and Lisa never met, but each came into my life on the same day for the same purpose — through mutual friends, who wanted to introduce one breast cancer survivor to another.

Lisa was already in Stage 4 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We met for lunch through a tennis friend. Lisa was in good spirits when we met, but admitted her own doubts about whether she’d reach her 50th birthday. She told me about the extravaganza 50th birthday party she’d hosted that year when she turned 49. Lisa hung on most of the next year. She almost made it to 50, but died a few months shy of her birthday.

Rhonda and I met for dinner through another mutual friend on the same day I met Lisa. Rhonda was a Stage 2 survivor, who’d had the same diagnosis as I. But, Rhonda chose to treat the cancer only with surgery and forego the rest of the treatment protocol of chemo, radiation, and five years of a hormone drug. After she healed from her mastectomy, Rhonda quit her job with a Florida newspaper and became a freelance writer. She pursued her dream to live abroad for at least a year, starting in Costa Rica.

Kim Lisa Rhonda and Zee at True Food Kitchen 2014

Rhonda (in striped shirt)

Rhonda’s sabbatical was cut short last January when pain sent her to the hospital. The doctor diagnosed her with metastatic breast cancer. Every time I thought about Rhonda, my thoughts would turn inward and I wondered if I’d be going down this same path one day. What scared Rhonda was scaring me, too, only I wasn’t living with it.

Rhonda wrote a couple of poignant pieces about her diagnosis and living with metastatic cancer here and here. Her theme was the strength of surrender. Rhonda’s own words were her guidepost for living.

Rhonda and I stayed in touch and followed each other’s blogs. From time to time, she would reach out to me for health advice.

In 2015, Rhonda became a certified life coach, and she enjoyed spending lots of time with family and her boyfriend. She was also present for every life milestone achieved by her loved ones. Rhonda continued freelancing for on-line publications, sometimes inciting controversy. She had a classy way of shutting down ugly comments from fools. And, among other things I learned about Rhonda, she was fearless when it came to her convictions.

My sister and I ran into Rhonda at the BlogHer15 conference in New York. I remember Rhonda’s response to a loud, boisterous group of women in the middle of the lobby. Even as she flinched at their behavior, she said, “Hashtag (#)nohometraining.” That’s a quick wit.

BlogHer15 with Rhonda Swan

Rhonda (in orange)

Rhonda and I were last in touch right after Thanksgiving. She told me about a spiritual conference for women she was organizing in Hartford, Connecticut for January 2016. She also shared news about her medical treatment. She said, “The Tamoxifen stopped working unfortunately and cancer in my liver got worse. Not exactly the best news but the doctor has another hormone drug she wants to try. I’m speaking its success into existence!”

I reflected on Rhonda’s message and noted that she literally continued to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. I told her I hoped she’d find a successful alternative treatment. I made a mental note to offer help with her spiritual conference.

Rhonda died right before Christmas, less than a month later.

I only knew Rhonda a short time, but I’m grateful for what she reminded me — a cancer survivor — about life. Stay in the moment and cherish each one. Show grace when things appear to not be in your favor. Truly keep living.

 

This post is dedicated to Rhonda Swan — journalist, author, blogger, life coach, and awesome spirit.

Logo final


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

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!

Sweet!

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).