A New Experience: Backpacking and Camping in Yosemite (Part 2)

I’ve asked myself:  Would I have done this trip if I’d had all the facts beforehand?

Before leaving my cousins’ for Yosemite, I did a five mile practice hike on hilly terrain with 15 pounds in my backpack. A friend of theirs suggested I hike nearby Mount Tam to prepare for the altitude. He told me I’d be climbing for the first three miles from the start at Yosemite.  He considered altitude to be a significant factor. Crap…I hadn’t trained for it…and this was no time to start.

Everyone had advice. Cousin Doreen suggested I swap my brother’s sleeping bag for hers because of size and weight. So I did. Brother David suggested I leave the heavier legging and shirt base layers of clothing behind because of the weight, plus I wouldn’t need them. So I did. After those adjustments, my backpack weighed 22 pounds.

Sleeping bag comparison

Sleeping bag comparison

The first part of my adventure was getting to Yosemite. The drive wasn’t complicated, though I lost the highway around Oakdale, California. When I stopped at a store for course correction, the shopowner gave me a package of nuts. That was very nice of her, and I accepted. But, it would be more weight in my backpack, and I knew I couldn’t leave the nuts in the car.

I’m a snacker, and didn’t snack in the car for the entire road trip. Why? I’d read that no food, crumbs, packaged food, or coolers should be left in the car. Any food left in the car had to go in a bear can or a food locker. Otherwise, bears can sniff out the food. They’ve been known to bust in and rip out back seats for food stashed in the trunk. Now that’s a powerful sense of smell. This snacker was not going to put the rental car at risk.

wind farm - en route to Yosemite-01 copy

Wind farm

Foothills en route to Yosemite

Foothills en route to Yosemite

The drive to Yosemite was beautiful.  The topography changed from gentle hills with wind farms around Livermore, then orchards around Oakdale. I was in the agricultural Central Valley and passed produce stands.  I started seeing foothills, as the road gently started to climb. The Sierra Nevada mountain range began to reveal itself.

Mariposa lily?

Mariposa lily (?)

Beginning of alpine country - Yosemite

Beginning of alpine country

The first elevation sign I saw was at 2,000 ft. Groveland is the last major town before Yosemite. The elevation there is 3,136 ft. (I was getting a little oh-shit concerned because, even if I could have prepared, I live at 341 ft elevation. En route to Yosemite, I was still climbing upward.) At that point, the temperature was hot-as-hell 90+ degrees.

After Groveland, I reached the “Priest Grade” part of California State Route 120. It climbs. It has dropoffs with no guard rails. (My mother would have lost her mind if she’d been with me.) The road went up, up, up and the signage showed higher and higher elevations. As I began to get drowsy, I knew my problem was the altitude.

Priest Grade portion of CA Route 120 - Yosemite

I entered Yosemite National Park at Big Oak Flat Entrance. This did not mean the trip was over. I had 1-1/2 hours more to go inside the Park to reach Tuolumne Meadows and the backpackers’ camp.

A few facts about Yosemite National Park:

  • The Park is 1,169 square miles, 94% of which is wilderness
  • The Park’s 10 highest peaks are between 12,446 – 13,144 feet
  • There are 800 miles of trails
  • Yosemite has five of the world’s highest waterfalls
  • The Park is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list
  • It is the U.S.’s oldest wilderness park
  • The 9th Cavalry regiment of the Buffalo Soldiers became Park Rangers in 1905 for Yosemite and other state and federal lands. (I did quick research to see if my grandfather had a link to Yosemite. He was a Buffalo Soldier between 1905 – 1910, but he was in the 10th Cavalry.)

I parked at turnouts to photograph the scenery. One of my ‘wow’ moments was when I saw Tenaya Lake, adjacent to Route 120.  The lake is at 8,150 feet elevation. I was only going up in elevation and not down. It is what it is, I thought.

Tenaya Lake - Yosemite

Tenaya Lake – Yosemite National Park

Tenaya Lake 2 - Yosemite

Tenaya Lake – Yosemite National Park

I reached Tuolumne Meadows — elevation 8,600 feet.  The temperature was now mid-70 degrees outside. I unloaded my gear and looked for the REI group. On the way, I met a young woman who was backpacking alone. She was from Texas and at Yosemite to hike the John Muir trail. Now that’s intrepid. It was heartening to see. I hadn’t been exposed to this world at all and, even in its most basic form during scouting, I managed to avoid it.

Breathing hard and totally winded, I lugged my backpack up a little hill to find the group. My physical reaction to this little tiny trek of 300 yards did not bode well. I hoped my body would acclimate overnight to the rarefied air. I knew the next day would be the most challenging of the whole trip.

I met my fellow backpackers. Ages ranged from 18-57+. We came from Mexico City, California, Colorado, Illinois, North Carolina, and Maryland. Some were novice backpackers (like me), and some were experienced. Four of us were lawyers, which is a weirdly high number among a group of 12 backpackers.

Our guides cooked dinner, which is a big bonus.  As we sat around the campfire in REI’s camp chairs, they told us what to expect the next morning. We were instructed on how to use the “facili-trees” when it was time. Doing “No. 2” required special instruction, having to do with the use of a shared trowel.

1st Night BP Camp - Tuolumne Meadows - YosemiteBackpackers camp - Tuolumne Meadows - Yosemite

The temperature started dropping in early evening. I was glad I’d brought layers of down outerwear.

KAH at Backpackers Camp 2 - Tuolumne Meadows - Yosemite

It was a long night. I was in a tent by myself, as I’d initially feared. I kept my pack outside the tent, my boots inside the tent, along with my head lamp. My next day’s hiking clothes were folded inside the sleeping bag with me so they’d stay warm.

I tried to get comfortable, but I’m a sprawler.  A sleeping bag is confining. I followed David’s advice to sleep in underwear because he said I wouldn’t need more. It got colder and colder…down to 42 degrees. I regretted letting Doreen talk me out of David’s “Mars grade” sleeping bag — suitable for extreme cold. (Doreen’s was suitable to 40 degrees.) And David had talked me out of bringing heavier base layer leggings and shirt.

I was cold. You can’t sleep when you’re cold. I don’t like to be cold. Somehow, my head finally found its way into the sleeping bag hood because it’s a mummy bag. That was my “Aha” moment. That’s what I needed so I could get warm. I went with it, zipped all the way up, stayed still, and warmed up. I may have even finally slept a little. Other than our guides, I was up at first light and dashing to the toilet (while I still could).

First morning 2 - backpackers camp - Yosemite

We stayed at Tuolumne Meadows backpackers’ camp only one night. We had the luxury of flushing toilets and cold running water (but no soap) in nearby bathrooms. We used REI’s cups, plates, and utensils. We had camp chairs. We had an actual water cooler and a bear locker. We had a picnic table and bench, and commercially-purchased wood for the campfire. We were spoiled and didn’t know it. We were “glamping” that first night, in comparison to what was coming.

First Morning - Backpackers Camp - Yosemite

When everyone was up, we ate breakfast and made our lunches. We had to re-pack our backpacks to include a bear can, a portion of camp equipment, and our tents. Each bear can had a share of the group’s food in it. We put our personal snacks and toiletries in the leftover space. Why put toiletries in a bear can? Because bears can still pick up a scent. It is part of bear-proofing the campsite. With the extra supplies, my backpack weighed closer to 40 pounds.

Re-packing the backpack - First morning - Yosemite

Re-packing the backpack – Bear can labeled “Tioga”

And so it went as we prepared to hike higher into Yosemite’s wilderness….

(Check out Part 3 of this series! )

 

 

 


What is it about Belgium?

Belgians might sum up their country’s national identity by saying: “It’s complicated.”

This country appealed to me because of the cultural duality I saw in its tennis stars, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. They represented Belgium as Fed Cup teammates, but were not friends. These two tennis competitors mirrored their country’s competing regions. That bit of intrigue, and the fact that relatively few Americans travel there, is why I wanted to go.

I spent two weeks in Belgium in 2007; and three days there in 2015 with my local friend, Mollie. Even Belgians wanted to know “Why Belgium?” No one could understand how I could spend an entire two weeks in the country.  To put it in perspective, Belgium is about the size of Maryland. I can’t imagine traveling in Maryland for two weeks and being as enthralled. So, what is it about Belgium?

Belgium map from Insight Guides Belgium

Map from Insight Guides – Belgium

I’ve seen Brussels described in news articles as a second-tier European capitol, which means the rest of the country is probably held in the same regard.  Belgium’s cities, though, have been major financial centers throughout the centuries. For instance, in the 17th century, Ghent, in Flanders, was the second largest city in Europe after Paris.  Liège, in Wallonia, was a major producer of steel during the Industrial Revolution. Now, the European Union (EU) is headquartered in Brussels, which is known as the Capital of the EU.

Did you know…

  • Dutch-speaking Belgium is known as Flanders; and French-speaking Belgium is known as Wallonia. These two regions are culturally, economically, and politically different, and sometimes at odds with each other. Cultivating a single national identity is a challenge.
  • Ancient cities, Tongeren and Tournai (in Flanders and Wallonia, respectively) were part of Roman Belgium (or Gallia Belgica) in 27 B.C.  Earliest reference to Brussels is around 960 A.D., known then as “Bruocsella.”
  • The “Flemish Painters”  — Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Sir Anthony Van Dyck and others — flourished in the Baroque tradition in the 17th century. (Don’t confuse them, though, with the “Dutch Masters.” That group includes Vermeer and Rembrandt.) René Magritte was a famous Belgian surrealist of the 20th century.
  • There is a saying about “meeting one’s Waterloo.” Waterloo, just south of Brussels,  is where Napoleon finally got his little arse kicked by a combination of British, Dutch, and German forces back in 1815.
  • Portions of what is now Belgium were controlled at different times by the Romans, the Spanish, and the French. Belgium was part of The United Kingdom of the Netherlands until 1830 when it gained independence (and its own monarchy) under King Leopold I. Though younger than the U.S. as a nation, some of Belgium’s cities and villages date back a millennium.
  • Belgium is bordered by France, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Germany. Its official languages are French, Dutch, and German. Brussels is a mandated bilingual (French and Dutch) city and province.
  • Belgium was invaded twice by Germany in World Wars I and II. The Second Battle of Ypres inspired the famous poem “In Flanders Fields.”
German WW II bunker - Flanders, Belgium

Remnants of German Bunker – Flanders

Poppies in a field - Flanders

Poppies in a field – Flanders

  • Belgium’s regions are mostly politically autonomous and the government is de-centralized. Amazingly, Belgium went 541 days without an elected government from 2009-11.
  • Belgium currently has the third most robust economy in the EU.
  • Flanders has a fierce lion on its flag; Wallonia has a cock (male rooster!) on its flag; and the national flag of Belgium is identical to the German flag in colors — the only difference being vertical versus horizontal stripes.
Gravensteen Castle with the Flemish flag

Gravensteen Castle – Ghent – Flemish flag above

belgiumflag copyRooster - Ghent 2

What is it about the Belgian brand?  For food that has been exported world-wide, there’s Belgian endive, Belgian waffles, Brussels sprouts, Belgian chocolate, and Belgian beer and ale.  People have made a pilgrimage to Belgium for the beer and ale alone.

Belgian beer-tasting

Beer-tasting in Flanders

Even some dog breeds rate a Belgian brand, like the Belgian shepherd, Bouvier des Flandres, and the very interesting-looking Griffon Bruxellois. Maybe, just maybe, a Belgian brand means Belgium has a national identity after all.

Belgium is a diverse country. When I was there in 2007, I was struck by the number of Muslims and Africans living there. In the 1860s, Belgium became a colonial power when it stole the Congo (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo).  The exploitation continued until the mid-1950s.  Belgium also controlled a territory, formerly known as Ruanda-Urundi, and now known as the Independent Kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi. Hence, the African populations in Belgium from the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi.

I wondered when and why Muslims migrated to Belgium. In the 1960s, the first wave of migrants came from Morocco and Turkey. They were in Belgium on guest worker passes. Later, these migrants were followed by those from Algeria and Tunisia. Muslim populations in Brussels and Antwerp are comparable in size to those in Marseilles and Paris.

From my observations, North African Muslims and Africans did not appear to be thriving or part of mainstream Belgian society. I thought the same thing about Paris back in 1998, and recently in 2015. But, I was just passing through, so what did I know? Since then, I’ve learned my observations were on point. As an African-American, I have radar for this sort of thing.

What is it about Belgium? Why do people from these groups still come? Linguistically, Belgium works for native French and Dutch-speakers from anywhere in the world. And Belgium’s “balance sheet” is very much in the black. Migration generally occurs in the direction of opportunity. The question is whether everyone can partake in opportunities.

After the Brussels terrorist attacks on March 22, 2016, media outlets seemed to focus on Belgian authorities as being a bunch of boobs. That the Belgian government is mired in incompetence. That Brussels is an incubator for jihadists. That the EU is a failure when it comes to communicating intelligence to its member states. That Belgian nationals were among the Paris terrorists, and it’s Belgium’s fault because they were radicalized there. Any iota of sympathy for loss of lives and property in the Brussels attacks was overwhelmed by the recriminations.

What is it about Belgium? The public response toward Brussels was not like it was toward Paris when it was attacked in January and November 2015. Did someone press the mute button on the sympathy response? Where was the Belgian flag overlay for the Facebook profile photos?  Some people think it’s because Belgium is not as well known as France.

Shortly after the Paris attacks, I wrote this piece. It applies to Belgium’s tragedy from jihadist attacks, too.  Mollie was on her way to work when she was turned away at the Métro station and sent home. The Métro had already been attacked. In Mollie’s words, “the fear is palpable.” Belgium’s predicament has been ours, too. Terrorism occurs all over the world.

What is it about Belgium? Tiny and complicated though it is, Belgium is an historical treasure, and a major player in contemporary European politics. Without a doubt, Belgium and the EU have particular challenges.  I’ll give Belgium a moment or two to regroup before I travel there again…and I certainly will.

Logo bigger final

 


Paris: Eating Like a Local

I’ve been thinking about my trip to Europe last October because my sister, Cheryl, will be traveling there soon. We’ve talked about how food is a major part of the travel experience. And we definitely love food.  What does it mean to “eat like a local”? It can mean eating where locals eat; eating the way locals eat (with locally-used utensils or hands) and even eating at the time of day locals eat.

Of the three European cities I traveled to, I spent the most time in Paris. I love French food, but my diet has changed over the past eight years. No béchamel sauce, crêpes, croissants, pastries, and baguettes for me. So I thought. But, I also figured I could navigate my little food quirks, even in Paris.

The French take their entire culture — language, art, music, wine, and food, very seriously. They are clear about what it means to be French. France has a Minister of Culture presiding over touchstones of French identity and French contributions to the arts. French words pertaining to food, like restaurantgourmet, café, connoisseur, and cuisine are commonly used in English language.

French cuisine has always been a gold standard for trained chefs; and I have read that the cuisine is in crisis.  So what does that mean? Food at an authentic-looking bistro may have been previously frozen, perhaps pre-assembled, and not totally prepared in-house with raw ingredients. Read about it here.

(Good lord…that sounds like American restaurant chains! I didn’t have to leave home for that!)

So, with that awareness, I decided to be discriminating about where I would eat in Paris, same as I am here. I would not eat at bistros with burgers and pizza on the menu. I can get that food here (if I were so inclined — which I am not). But, then again, when you’re fresh off the plane and it’s lunch time, you might just bust those standards and eat anywhere. People who know me know that I go from very hungry to “hangry” fast.

I found Bistrot La Bonne Cécile a mere two blocks from my Airbnb and ate lunch there. The menu is rotated seasonally. The restaurant served fresh food made in-house. I could not have been more delighted with my first meal on the Continent, and glass of Sancerre. The restaurant was charming and the service was exceptional. (Tip: you do not tip in France.)

Soup course - La Bonne Cecile - Paris

Soup course – La Bonne Cecile – Paris

Entree seafood pot and rice - La Bonne Cecile - Paris

Seafood pot and rice – La Bonne Cecile – Paris

Coffee is big in Paris, but I don’t drink it. I indulged, instead, in chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) made with milk and cream. Made right, it’s oh-so-rich. I’m lactose intolerant and didn’t get a stomach ache from drinking it!  Best cups are made with chocolate, not cocoa powder. As noted in this blog, using a powder instead of a high-quality chocolate bar with its rich cocoa butter, is really hot cocoa and not hot chocolate.

Paris has an abundance of ethnic restaurants. I enjoyed them, too. I also had great meals at very casual restaurants. One of them was Le Pain Quotidien. My friend, Charlotte, asked me to meet her there. We have one in D.C. — that I’d never been to — and I didn’t expect to go to that chain in Paris. Well, it was a cut above and delicious! I had a great salad, gluten-free bread, and a bowl of soup. I’ve since been to Le Pain Quotidien in D.C.

Some other casual restaurants in Paris:

Divin’ Art, near Arts et Metiers Metro, is a gluten-free crêperie in walking distance of my Airbnb. I ate a savory crêpe (smoked salmon, soft-boiled egg, and peppers), carrot soup, green salad, and a chocolate crêpe.

Savory gluten-free crepe - Divin Art

Gluten-free crepe from Divin’ Art in Paris (Marais)

While walking in search of Paris’ street art in the Oberkampf neighborhood, I found this vegetarian and gluten-free restaurant. I had a fresh juice, carrot soup, and a vegetable rice and almond dish. Simple, healthy, and delicious. And the meal was cheap!

Vegetarian gluten-free in Paris

L’esprit Tchaï – Paris

Rice and vegetables

I also ate food that was a little out of my comfort zone. The complete meal here was the salade niςoise and escargot, with a glass of white wine.

Salade nicoise

Salade nicoise with anchovies

Eating escargot was a challenge. I eat escargot because they are a super-beneficial food for my blood type. I take an almost medicinal view toward it.  I don’t go into a swoon over the taste, but escargot is more than just palatable. The challenge was dealing with the little animal in its shell, which was a first for me. The escargot I’ve eaten has always been hidden — thankfully, because they are rather ugly — under a garlic, parsley and butter sauce in a snail plate. No shells included.  But, I had on my big girl panties and would eat escargot like the French.

I asked the server to show me how to use the snail tongs. First, you grip the shell, which is when I had the Pretty Woman moment. The shells are indeed “slippery little suckers,” but at least they didn’t go flying across the room. Next, you use the little fork to pull the critter out. After an embarrassing struggle, I managed to grip three shells and pull out three escargot. I couldn’t get the last two out of their shells.  As far as I was concerned, no one was home. The server was watching me, so I asked him to try. I wish I’d taken a video of him trying to find the snails. He probably thought it was just me. He gave up, too, and put in an order to replace the two snails that had gone missing.

Escargot

Escargots

See this video for how to eat escargot.

Another outside-the-comfort-zone food was this dish of wild mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, and parasol) and poached egg.  I don’t like poached eggs, but I gave this dish a go.  It was a work of art, interesting and tasty. The restaurant, La Mazenay, was lovely; and the service was meh.

Le Mazenay - wild mushrooms and poached egg

A highlight was lunch with Charlotte at elegant Bofinger’s near Place de la Bastille.  I had this delicious fish and vegetable dish.

Fish and vegetables in sauce - Bofinger's

I also ate this dish of sauerkraut, or choucroute. It was not part of my order. It came from the table of diners next to ours. I was eye-ballin’ their sauerkraut because they weren’t eating it, and it looked good. They were eating the pork all around it instead. Charlotte asked the diners if I could have a taste. That was a little tacky, I know, but I guess they decided to help the American out.

Choucroute

Another food that is not everyday fare in the U.S. is  rabbit, or lapin. I had this very tasty rabbit and prune stew at Le Pichin 3 — a family-owned restaurant in the City of Chartres near the Cathedral. Damn, it was good!

Lapins at the market

Lapin at the market before one was turned into stew

rabbit and prune stew at le pichet 3

Rabbit and prune stew at Le Pichet 3

In addition to chocolat chaud, I enjoyed two other kinds of sweets:

Macarons — looking like colorful little hamburgers, these gluten-free cookies made of almond flour have a flavored cream filling. They are everywhere in Paris. Quality matters. Eat enough of them and you can distinguish the mediocre from the sublime.

Macarons

Les Macarons

Panna Cotta — the best I’ve ever had in my life came from a tiny Italian restaurant Charlotte and I ducked into to escape the rain. This was Charlotte’s dessert. After a taste, I had to order my own. The texture was perfectly smooth, and the sweetness came from the berries and sauce.

panna cotta in Paris

Panna Cotta

My main dining event was a six-course dinner at Pierre Sang in Oberkampf. The hostess took everyone’s food restrictions and preferences. You don’t order from a menu. The six courses are the chef’s choice and everyone gets the same dish, customized as requested.  The hostess answered our questions about what we had eaten afterwards. I was fine with that. It was part of the experience. Reserve a seat at the bar so you can watch the chefs and talk with other diners, especially if you’re solo.

I was thrilled that the Pierre Sang experience was only €45. For the same price here in D.C., a diner could pay that or more for uninspired fare.

There are so many options for dining in Paris. You can dine satisfactorily or fabulously for good value in this city.  Challenge your food comfort zone when you travel, and eat like the locals!

 

 


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.


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).


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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