Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Richmond Reflections

Sitting outside, on a beautiful (for me) warm, humid day. Just fed the birds (lots of dirty looks) so they are chirping away. Yesterday was our travel day and that’s all we did. I would include pictures (and may put a couple before I'm done), but most are just of big airplanes, which it seems only males like.

Thursday October 4, 2007 10:20 am Studley Va. 83°

We had an OK 3 hour flight to the (it seems) perpetually cold and rainy Reykjavik airport, where we got Rick some Fire and Ice vodka, checked in and waited.

My only concern was the scheduleded 2 hour window in Boston where customs had to be cleared, and a terminal change made. As it turned out our 5 hour flight to Boston left on time and in fact arrived ½ hour early, so that was good news.

Customs was easy, very easy in fact. (I had the "Midgnight Express" fear that they would be able to tell that we had stopped in Amsterdam so I was trying to look the customs agent in the eye and hide flop sweat and pounding heart, even though at this point I was 24 hours clean).

An easy walk to our Jet Blue connection, we checked in and … waited. It was only 6:45and we had an 8:45 flight. The weather was beautiful in Boston, about 70° so we killed an hour outside the terminal chatting about the trip, the pluses and minuses, what we learned (navette for example), our favorites, where we would return, etc.

We agreed that the Netherlands was a pleasant surprise, well ordered, charming, with warm and friendly people.

Upon returning to the terminal we saw on the monitor that our flight was delayed until 11:10 pm, or 5:10 am if you go by our body clocks. There were (we were told) major air traffic control delays in the New York area affecting incoming and outgoing flights to Newark, JFK and LGA. Great. We sat and snoozed and read until a Tampa flight came in at 10:30 which they turned around very quickly and actually got us out of BOS at 10:45. Impressive.

We landed at RIC at 12:04 a.m. Thursday, (that's what made it 16 days I mentioned in the beginning for you purists out there) and took the Groome shuttle (not taxi) to Studley, arriving at 1:00, a warm foggy night ending to our trip. I was asleep by 2:00 and awoke at 7:00 pretty refreshed, Kat is still sleeping bless her heart, a wonderful, wonderful, woman. A real joy.

The laundry is about done, the house is fine, but apparently we had very little rain for the past three weeks, and the basil has withered and died. The cilantro, hibiscus and begonias did fine, and the grass needs mowing. I checked the email and no correspondence from SIXT yet, so I don’t know if that is good or bad. I’ll be anxious to settle that.

So, good trip and we’re ready to go again.

May 13, 2008 - Reflections

I typed most of this from early February - 12th of May 2008. While most of it came right from the journal I’ve added some thoughts along the way usually in italics.

For a while I had lost track of what happened to the middle third of my Rookies special, so maybe there is something to the part about it killing brain cells. All I know is that it was worth it.

We definitely have to get back to Florence. In all the times we've been to that city, we still have not made it inside the Uffizi (lines are too long). Plus we have 2 new grandchildren since the last time we were there and we had planned to get leather boxes for each (with their initials embossed in gold on the top) in Santa Croce. All the other grandkids have one.

Spending time with my son and his new wife was priceless.

Now this is a heck of an idea. Although I imagine if all four slots were full the faces would be very close to each other, and hopefully no one had a Henkies Hoekie for breakfast.

I note there is little reference in the journal of our dinner at Aux Armes de Champagne (a gourmet's meal that I should have at least itemized). I don’t know why, and can’t remember much about it or our dinner there. I think we were all still absorbing the accident and the effect it had on us and all the feeling surrounding it. I think it would be fair to say that it subdued our good feelings about what we were seeing and experiencing. We like to talk about what went right, went wrong, what we would do differently, etc. each day, and of course it was impossible to have that kind of discussion. It will probably take some time before the four of us can reflect objectively.

I have nothing good to say about Iceland in my journal and I am not apologetic.

The guidebook said that this is the most picturesque spot in Delft. I agree.

The SIXT saga appears to have stagnated, and my only real complaint is their lack of communications. VISA contacted them (since I had opened a claim with them) and SIXT said that they were attempting to collect from the insurance company of the motorcyclist. That (and perhaps a very slight limp) would be justice in my opinion. They will let us know in the future if there is any claim against VISA. We appear to be in the clear, whatever that outcome. I would rent from SIXT in the future.

The last piece of unfinished business was cleared up this past week. Remember the broken handle on our luggage when Edward failed to negotiate the metro turnstile? Travelpro (excellent, strong, lightweight suticases) sent me a replacement telescoping handle this past week (May 2008 - $15.00 - and they didn't even charge me the $9.50 postage cost) and I installed it in about 10 minutes.

In other words, we are ready to ride again.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

"The Girl" and a Paris Nuit

For the record: A very full day and a beautiful way to end our vacation. A cool Netherlands followed by a warm misty Paris evening. We enjoy driving and road trips in Europe are usually interesitng if only for the rest stops that make our Burger King pulloffs seem silly in comparison.

We will not be denied again. Today we visit "The Girl." An easy checkout, (nice when you don't have to pay) and before we knew it we were on the highway to Den Haag. It was cloudy again but without the bite of the previous day, well on our way a scant 30 kilometers (about 18 miles) from where we were staying in Hoofddorp. Since we are so smart we decided not to take the first Den Haag exit (toward the Centrum), because everyone knows how packed that road must be with rush hour traffic. Instead we ended up in a major traffic jam and overshot the city.

Taking the next exit we worked our way back toward the centrum, and found the underground parking (exactly where my honey said it would be … she is a great navigator), parked the car and strolled over to the Mauritshuis. It was a cool, pleasant 10 minute walk and we arrived just a few minutes before opening time to a very short line peopled mostly with oriental tourists.

We had to wait a few minutes because workmen were unloading modern display cabinets, etc. from their trucks. It seems the museum is undergoing renovation and we wondered what this would mean to us, as we dearly wanted to see some particular paintings. That was the bad news, the good news was that because of the renovation, the museum was free, and they even threw in free headsets to listen to the audio commentary. Wow, we usually never spring for these, and it was fantastic. Because most of the museum was shut off,they arranged all the “masterpieces” into five galleries separated by the central staircase. How great is that.

In these galleries were Rembrandt’s last self-portrait and three paintings by Vermeer, including the Delft city scene which was magnificent. Diana, a dark and early work (there was some question about the attribution of this painting since it is so unlike the rest of his work).

Finally, the real reason for our determined visit, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. We stood before it, less than a meter away, alone in the room listening and looking. This close to the painting you can see that the white reflection in the pearl is but a single brush stroke, and the two dots of pink paint that is the slight moisture at the corner of her mouth. It was a fantastic experience.

As I have said the Dutch seem like very nice, polite, outgoing and interesting people. Even on the bus or train people smile. How often do you see that? I recall our new friend on the train who was going to the job interview yesterday. He was so apologetic and embarrassed because while chatting he told us he thought we were going the wrong way away from instead of toward Delft. We weren’t. Maybe it’s the weather after all that makes them so pleasant. Too bad it doesn't have that effect in England.

We were back on the road by 11:30 for our 4-5 hour trip back to CDG to return the car. Kat mapped out a course that put us about an hour ahead of our car return time of 4:00 pm. Just outside Antwerpen Belgium we lost that hour and ten more minutes backed up behind a tow truck and, we think, one squished car accident on a 2 lane highway. If that was a car at one time, it had to be a fatal collision, because it was as flat as one of those pancakes we didn't have at Orange Williams, looking like the product of a junk yard crushing machine.

We did get the car back to SIXT late, but within the one hour grace period they give you, so there were no additional charges. We liked the SIXT rental experience, all in all, given the problems we had. Upon return we could not get the attendant to understand that we wanted the original receipt back and would have no proof of the condition or time when we returned the car. So when he wasn’t looking I went back to the car (under the pretense of getting something out of the glove compartment) and liberated the receipt from the little compartment on the side of the door. (Tying to expiate some guilt here.)

Navette(ing) our way back to the hotel, we decided to go into Paris for dinner (that sounds so cosmopolitan). We walked from St. Michel (yes the train went there directly, the grève apparently being over for that section) and walked through a light drizzle to the Ile St. Louis to eat at the Silver Lily. Ferme, and foiled again. Instead we ate at a little Crêperie a few doors down and chatted with an American couple from Seattle.

The rain had stopped and the evening sky was breaking as we strolled down the street to Berthillon for a cornet of caramel cream (Kat as usual didn’t have any). It is a short walk back to St. Michel and on such a perfect Parisian evening tinged with sadness that it was our last. It was about 70° (warm after our northern exposure) and everything glistened from the rain. Notre Dame sat magestically on the other side of the Seine, lit and shrouded in mist. There was no pedestrian traffic and scant vehicular, and it seemed we had that part of the city to ourselves. Magnificent!

We trained back to CDG and took the wrong navette, how embarrassing, next time look for the Marriott sign on the side silly, so an hour later we got to our hotel. It was still beautiful out, so I took a short (1/3 Rookies) walk across to the park and those northern lights were sparkling for the last time.

Tomorrow we end our journey planning to be in Richmond before midnight. There are just a few critical connections that have to work out just right (Iceland and Boston connections particularly). Time will tell.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Den Haag and Delft

For the record: October came in at a very cool 48°, brrrr. I don't want to know what that is in Celsius as it will only feel colder out there. As I write this I celebrate a new week and new month, wondering how the kids made out getting back to the US.

The fascinating thing about travel is that when plans go astray, opportunities arise. Today was one of those times. Our original plan was to head to Den Haag (otherwise known as “The Hague”), to see Vermeer's painting "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" at a museum called The Mauritshuis. We took our now familiar #300 bus to the airport and picked up the train to Den Haag, passing through Delft on the way. The Hague is a pretty, compact city, with large government buildings, a modern center and the ever present (it seems) drizzle. It is a pleasant short walk past a park and large canal from the train station to the Mauritshuis.

Monday mornings have a certain feel to them I think, particularly if you are just observing and not participating. Not sure they want to start another week, people just seem resigned to their fate. No bounce in anyone’s step. There were the regular deliveries being made, including an interesting cheese delivery. You don’t see that in the US.

As we approached the Mauritshuis, we could see the huge "Girl" poster on the side of the building, our pulses quickened and we were thrilled to see that there was NO line at the entrance to the museum. We were quickly un-thrilled to see that the museum was closed … duh, Monday … we should have known better - nobody wants to be anywhere on Monday. Since we came through Delft on the way to Den Haag, and we had round trip tickets, how bout we go there? Yes.

Two things we noticed on the way back to the train station: the Henkie's Hoekie stand in the parking lot was not yet open (darn) and we got bikes. There were a slew (or better word if you can think of one) of bicycles outside the train station, which raised a couple of questions in my mind: how do you ever find your own upon return? and if one falls over ... ?

We made our short, 9 km. trip to Delft (which is just inland from Den Haag, and on the river seen in Vermeer’s paintings) in 20 minutes on a train that looked as though it had seen better days. Instead of row seeting, the car contained little compartments with sliding doors. On the train, which was almost empty, we were joined in our compartment by a young man who was going to a job interview in Tilbury, we think, and he was interesing and interested. Nice people.

What a pretty town! The woman in the magazine store at the train station sold us an excellent tour map of the city and when I asked her how to take the bus (in Amsterdam for instance you buy strips of tickets at the stores, or windows at the train/bus stations and they (or you typically) stamp them when you get onto the bus and cancel the appropriate number) she said “No bus … you walk” with such authority that we decided to walk. We are glad that we did.

It is a compact town, as picture-worthy as any we have been in (and that includes Annecy, France which is still number 1). We stopped at each and every spot marked on our map and read all about each. There are two main canals each with a number of (pick an adjective - pretty, charming, quaint, etc.) small, perfect bridges to cross. One thing we don't understand is why there are no railings on the side of the canals, and why there aren't more midnight dips resulting from an inebriated first step out of a hastily parked car.

An observation: the Dutch seem to be happy people, quick with a smile, and very friendly (not withstanding the morning fugue most everyone in the world seems to wallow in each Monday). We were standing on a corner looking at our map, and a very well dressed man stopped to ask us if we were lost and if there was anything he could do to help. A first in Europe.

There is style everywhere, even the door of the little Roti Schotels & Broodjes (whatever they are) shop which made us think of our Surinamese friend, Anne. Kat was clearly in style in her red scarf in front of a red-doored home (note the screens inside each window for privacy). After making the circuit we ended up at the main square which is surrounded by souvenir shops, (we bought a Delft tile and pin) and traditional pancake restaurants. We particulary liked the display of chainmail in the window of the “William of Orange” however Kat doesn't like pancakes, and I think of them as early morning fare. I settled on an omelet and Kat a ham and cheese sandwich and fries, all of which were very good.

At about 4:30 we trained back to Leiden (becoming routine now), then Schiphol where we went grocery shopping at the airport (pretty good selection and since the airport is also the train hub, it makes sense to have a mini-supermarket there) so we have a picnic just waiting to happen. We were able to keep the goodies cool in the room refrigerator (they think of everything).

(A note: Since Delft was not one of our planned stops, we were not as prepared as we otherwise might have been. Vermeer was born here, lived most of his short life here, is buried here, and it would have been a very short walk to the spot where he painted his View of Delft, that hangs in The Mauritshuis. Next time.)

We hope to take the car to Den Haag tomorrow morning then head back to Paris for a 4:00 car return. Kat went down to the lobby to do some internet stuff (while we were gone e-mails from Rick and Edward came in, so it’s comforting to know all is well back in the states.) So that’s it for now.

(ps. I did check out the "Northern Lights" and they were fantastic. And it looks like they might just shine on for one more night.)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Amazing Amsterdam

For the record: Amsterdam is expensive, plus the dollar hit an all time low vs. the Euro yesterday according to the TV, (that will teach me not to watch TV while on vacation), but worth every penny or guilder or Euro.

The sky actually cleared, and we made our connections like we knew what we were doing. Into the Central Station, then we took the local bus (electric down the middle of the streets which takes some getting used to) right to the Rijksmuseum. Are we good or what?

The masterpiece draw of course is Rembrandt's Night Watch. A tour guide was giving a talk, so we listened in and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is one of those paintings that you have to see to believe. Our immediate reaction was "Wow, that's big", but spending a half hour with it we left with "Wow, that's fantastic".

We were able to see 3 of the 4 Vermeer’s owned by this museum and they are so perfect and colorful, no reproduction I have seen even comes close to doing them justice. (A small aside: the 4th was visiting in Tokyo and we were disappointed. Vermeer is our favorite and seeing more of his paintings was the nexus of this side trip to the Netherlands. With only 35 paintings of his for the whole world to appreciate, (that excludes "The Concert" stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston in 1990) it was unfortunate that we didn't connect. 3 in Amsterdam, 3 in Den Haag, 6 out of 7 is not bad.) This link is the best Vermeer site I have found.)

Across an open park/square right behind us was the Van Gogh museum. Could they make this any easier? We ate our first meal of the day, a nice quiche for me, sandwich for Kat in a bright café, sun pouring into the windows.

In the Van Gogh, the paintings are organized chronologically, and walking along you find yourself on an interesting journey from one style to another and slowly into madness. The paintings sparkle in the light. The textures, particularly in his later works are intriguing. Presented another way, you might not notice the evolution. Not being a big Van Gogh enthusiast I didn't linger except on some of his better known works. (Not to take anything away from the guy, I'm sure he was talented, but reading as we went through, it appeared he became famous mostly through a lot of promotion by his sister-in-law. Probably unfair.)

Kat went through the drawings on the upper floor and was very impressed, apparently the boy did have talent. I opted to sit in the sun across from the entrance/exit have a cigar, and contemplate what I had seen in the past 4 hours.

The opportunity to see Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters" drew me into the building. I first saw a picture of it in one of those Time-Life art series books I bought for the kids when they were very young (about 25 years ago). I knew I wanted to stand in front of this painting. There is something about the dark, honest, strong, earthy family portrait that caught my interest and holds it today. All art is personal.

Three masters, three styles, all from this small remarkable country. Was it something in the air or the water? Seeing those 5 paintings made my trip to Amsterdam complete. (Almost)

We walked through the Leidesplein, past some outdoor chess players, and a girls gymnastic group displaying it's trampoline skills (dry synchronized swimming, per Kat), on our way to our real target. The Rookies is a famous café that sells cannabis, has a hotel, serves drinks, etc. where you can sit outside have a drink and a toke and be happy. It was quite an experience. A tubed “Northern Lights” cost €8.0 and awaits. I have to admit I was quite nervous, even though it was legal, I felt like I was doing something wrong, so it was kind of exciting as well. I didn’t tip the guy and still wonder if I should have.

Walking through this architecturaly beautiful city on a sunny day lifts your spirits. There was one house that I would have like to have stopped at to ask if I could just go to their top floor for the view. From street level I could only imagine how spectcular it must look from their balcony. Our next stop was what we feared would be one of the world's biggest tourist traps; the Anne Frank house, and we could not have been more wrong. Sure there are tourists, but it contained one of the most poignant scenes I have ever come across, the bedroom where the 14 year old glued postcards and pictures and magazine/newspaper clippings to her wall paper. A must see, that has an effect I didn’t expect.

Desiring a place of solitude after that experience we headed to the Begijnhof church courtyard. This quiet oasis in this loud bustling city is such a surprise. Behind the large wooden doors is a community green surrounded by very expensive (I imagine) three and four story residences. Formally dressed congregants were just arriving for an English Reformed Church service and we could hear singing and organ music. Interestingly across the courtyard is a Catholic church that was allowed to remain, as long as it was kept secret. (For more information see the Wikipedia article.)

After a flavorful dinner at a Mexican restaurant (where I forgot my Newport Vineyards hat) we headed back toward Central Station, passing again through the packed red light district. We read that it is unwise to take photographs there, so the only one I got surreptitiously without a flash, looks like modern art.

By 10:00 we were beat and ended this very full and emotional day by making beautifully choreographed train and bus connections to Hoopdorff. Tomorrow we hope to explore Den Haag and see "The Girl".

(Well in fact that was not the end of the day for me, because I still had my little “Rookies” rocket left and it was (figuratively) burning a hole in my pocket. I decided to indulge in a little of the local culture, so I carefully (no smoking hotel – bathroom did have a pretty good exhaust fan though) imbibed in what I can only describe as a delicious post-dinner delight. After almost 30 years, it was better than I remember, plus legal, and it ensured a very peaceful night’s sleep, with absolutely no hangover or post indulgence effect that I could discern. Plus the very good news was that at least 2/3 of my €8 investment remained safe in the blue plastic bank. Oh goodie.)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Paris to Amsterdam

We begin the second part of our trip with mixed emotions. We love Edward and Alicia. They are very nice people (and I’m not just saying that) and we will miss their company, and laughs, and the good natured ribbing. Having said that, we are “free, free, free at last”.

As predicted last night we ate breakfast alone, then jumped into the car to head north. We hope they had a good, and safe trip back to Rhode Island with a lot of good memories to keep them company.

After a scenic trip through parts of Roissy, going the wrong way, we spotted a sign for the A road to Lille, and motored on. It was rainy and foggy, but no problem driving as we headed north, with more traffic than I had expected. It is bucolic in this part of France, with never ending pastures and farmland. We went through the old Belgique border crossing guard station, which was empty and decrepit. In the past we have had our passports stamped when passing through the EU borders, but no more. The old glass and concrete building looks like it belongs in Berlin, next to where the wall was.

We were able to take a wrong turn because the Benelux map we bought along the way was missing the little border piece with France. Figures. It was a kind of crucial bit of information that we were lacking and we headed to Brussels instead of Ghent, and spent ½ hour backtracking through small towns, which were an absolute delight.

As we approached Amsterdam and were making our last major road connection, we noticed the traffic in front of us, on this long ramp, slowing then stopping. A tractor trailer truck had jackknifed on the curve of the ramp totally blocking it. It must have happened moments before we got there. We were about 35 meters from it. What to do?

After about 10 minutes with traffic really backing up behind us, people realized I’m sure, that it was going to be a significant amount of time before this truck was cleared. The second car in front of us pulled up a little and started BACKING down the off ramp from the major road we were trying to get to. (The risk, of course was that people flying along that road wanting to take that exit ramp ONTO the road we were getting off would slam into the back of our car.) With nerves of steel, and pants of wet, we took our turn, and ended up going the right direction on the road we wanted, all without negotiating the cloverleaf. Pretty slick. It would have been a perfect maneuver had not the wuss in back of us been blowing his horn all the time, apparently afraid I was going to back into the front of his Volvo. We were on our way again, feeling rather proud of ourselves. Kat navigated us beautifully to the hotel.

For the next few nights only ONE hotel. (The Marriott Courtyard - Still using points collected while I was working. We have found the airport Courtyards in the major cities to be a great deal when using points. Typically 20,000 points for rooms worth about $350 per night). We learned the best way into Amsterdam was to take the bus across the street to the airport (Schiphol) then the train to Centraal Station. Sounded easy and it was. The airport is modern, clean, and pulses with energy. Each train stop is designed with flair.

The first few moments in a strange place are exhilarating. The senses are bombarded with new and different stimuli: sights, sounds, and smells that don't have a basis in memory heighten your awareness. Amsterdam is very different from southern Europe, and the first moments as you emerge from the train station you know you're not in Kansas anymore.

We walked and walked, and asked and asked, and basically went round in circles, every canal and bridge looked like every other canal and bridge. Our target was the Anne Frank house and we arrived at 6:20pm. Since it closes at 7:00, we thought we were golden. Not quite. You can’t get into line if the line can’t get in by 6:30, (they seem to have a lot of rules for such a small country) so off we went to find food, our favorite comfort activity.

Walking past these canal side homes, you appreciate what an interesting city this is. Following a delicious Thai dinner we walked through an early evening drizzle (cold drizzle by the way) around the red light district, (drizzle, cold or otherwise was no deterent, it was packed) then back to Centraal Station to take the train to the bus to the hotel.

Upon my return to the train platform from the WC, I found Kat engaged in conversation with an American couple. He was on a business trip, she had traveled to meet him for the weekend. We chatted with them, said goodbye and headed to our train to Schiphol. Just as we expected to feel the lurch signaling departure an announcement was made that the train to the airport had been cancelled: a fire in one of the tunnels.

Back to the platform we went where we found Helen and Nick (our new best friends –should have guessed Greek), paying rapt attention to the same announcement with the same silly look on their faces that we no doubt sported. They were trying to get to the airport as well. The four of us, now joined by about 50 others, herded our way to the information booth searching out an alternative. We brainstormed (retired but sometimes I backslide): bus, dreaded taxi, car rental, etc. but ultimately decided to do what the rest of the cattle were doing.

There was a train heading to Leiden (wherever that was) from which we could get to Schiphol. I wasn't really surprised as I'm sure in a small country you could get to Schiphol from everywhere. Nick was kinda celebrating having recently been promoted to Vice President of his $5 billion a year electronics company (a Raytheon supplier). Now we were bosom buddies, and there was something about them both that was appealing. They seemed like down to earth people on an adventure. (I later learned that the announcement wasn’t yet official, however it was going to happen, and not to worry about getting back to the hotel, as he had a new expense account he was trying to break in with his new position, and he would pay for any taxi, limo, or private helicopter we needed to get us back to the hotel).

They were Greek Orthodox, and Eleni (Helen) kept referring to non-Greeks as xenos (just like in Our Big Fat Greek Wedding with Gus). They were funny and we had a lot of laughs on our little train ride, thrown together by misfortune and coming out ahead. Travel is great.

Arriving in Leiden, we found the connecting train to Schiphol, and along the way learned that they were staying at the same Marriott we were. What are the chances. We chatted about kids, grandkids, etc., life in general, what it was like to be retired. We finally got to the airport and learned (when Nick called the hotel on his cell phone - everyone has one but us) that we missed the last shuttle and they were not going to send another.

Kat and I were familiar with the bus routine at this point, so we all headed across the parking lot to try to find the #300 bus that would go through Hoofddorp (which is where the hotel was located).

While waiting for the (a, any) bus we noticed a couple of young people (boy and girl, about 20) who were smoking what appeared to be (to our untrained noses) cannabis. We asked if they knew where our bus would load, and they remarked that they were taking the same bus, and suggested we wait there with them.

We (Nick and I were nothing if not astute and curious) made a polite comment about what they might be inhaling. Kat and Eleni were chatting, ignoring us, so like two little naughty boys Nick and I asked them about the culture and pot in particular. So many questions, so little time, as the bus was just entering the parking lot. We asked where to get it, how much it was, did you have to imbibe (is that the right word when it is smoke rather than liquid?) at the coffee house, or could you take it with you, was it strong, or weak, etc. They answered our questions, and the girl asked if we wanted a hit on the joint she was smoking. We declined, but Nick asked if he might perhaps buy an “extra” joint from them if they had one. They agreed and wanted to give him one, but Nick wanted to pay them for it and gave them €5 for one, not knowing if that was not enough, too much, or just right. The kid seemed happy with the arrangement and Nick seemed thrilled.

Just then Eleni noticed something going on, came over and said sternly “What are you doing Nick?” The kid deadpanned, “… a drug deal” which broke us up laughing. What a great country.

When we got back to the hotel, Kat went up to do her laundry, so the other three of us sat at the lobby bar and had a drink, chatting about retirement, financial planning, how we were able to retire so young, etc.

I went upstairs and tried to send e-mail via the “easy” TV internet access that wasn’t.

By the time I was done trying it was 1:30 and sleep came easily.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Champagne and Paris

This morning we awoke to a rainy, 12° C, 54 F day in one of the most beautiful areas of the world. The vineyards in the Champagne region fill every available bit of land, so precious is their crop (since we all know that only grapes from Champagne can be used to make this elixir of the gods). I await in the car outside the hotel, and it appears that for the first time on this trip our honeymooners are not all huggy-kissy. Alicia is not her usual joyous morning self, (not sure why, but being cooped up with Edward for so long probably goes a long way toward answering that question), but we will soon be on our way to drink some champagne instead of eating breakfast. How much better can it get?

Our drive to Moet & Chandon for the cellar tour was interesting. We entered Epernay and decided to drive along the river opposite the champagne house since we were so early. We ended up in a dead end with warehouses, however the views looking across the river to the city were worth the detour.

We all paid tribute to the good Dom (“I am drinking stars!”) on the way into Moet & Chandon. The reception room gives an indication of the corporate culture of the company that produces the most glamorous and famous wine in the world. We peeked into the meeting rooms where the mega-deals are made, admired the freshly cut flowers, and made sure to use the toilette to check for gold faucets.

The tour itself was excellent, our guide well versed in the history of the company and the minutia of the wine making process. She was quick with a smile, clearly engaged with the topic and us (perhaps because it was the first tour of the day and not the 15th). The walking tour takes you by thousands (millions?) of carefully stacked bottles, with some vintage bottles that have been there a long, long time.

In the gift shop we sampled (This is the real breakfast of champions!)and browsed and met an interesting couple (Brits); he converts barns to homes, and is into various other construction activities. She took a good shot at our dear president Bush, and I only wish I had been quick enough to remind her of their Neville “peace for our time” Chamberlain* (the guy with the scarlet A on his chest), and that if it wasn’t for us Yankees she would be speaking German now and not the King's English. Next time.

The drive to the Marriott at CDG was rainy so it was not great for sightseeing, however this region continues to astound by the natural beauty of the place, plus my favorite French architecture. We checked in, parked the car in the underground garage, and off we went via shuttle (navette) to the airport metro/train stop to the Gare de Nord, then on to St. Michel. We were on a mission to the Cluny museum and since the kids had no desire to travel back in time (mentally) to the middle ages headed off to explore on their own, agreeing to meet us later at Notre Dame. (I had a fleeting memory of the same deal we made with Kristin and Adam in Rome before spending a terrifying 3 hours trying to find them.)

The Cluny museum and specifically the six tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn were on our list of things to see on the last trip with Emily, but we never made it there. We were determined to see them this time, and so glad that we did. They are larger, more interesting and vivid than I had imagined, hanging side by side in a round, softly lit room. It was not crowded and you could get up close and personal with them. Having accomplished our mission we made a half-hearted attempt to be interested in the rest of the museum, but IMHO you can take just so much looking at Middle Age stuff, so we left ½ hour before it closed, and sloshed our way over to Notre Dame to meet the kids.

Thanks to Kat we had an umbrella, and when we met the kids (who were ½ hour early and not ignoring us from some sidewalk cafe) she provided a second umbrella to Edward and Alicia, convincing me once again that she is incredible. Our first real rainy day of the trip didn’t dampen our spirits however and off we walked to St. Michel for dinner. We ate at the equivalent of a Newport Creamery, French style. The Crêperie de Cluny complete with faux glass Lady and the Unicorn tapestry windows (our waitress wasn’t sure what the subject of the windows was ... this surprised us since we were about 500 meters from the very famous, real deal) met our expectations (I did manage to have an excellent omelet ).

It seemed very cold when we came out, so I gave Edward my over-shirt to wear, and decided (well three of us decided) that scarves would be just perfect to keep the chill off. We headed to our favorite souvenir shop (Quasimodo’s by Notre Dame, where else) and we all bought scarves and worked our way back to CDG and our Marriott. (Ed was extremely resistant when it came to buying and wearing a scarf. However he looked dapper in it, when tied properly, and I think in the end he enjoyed it).

What trip to France would be complete without encountering at least one strike (grève, we know that word by heart) by some transportation worker or another. It was on the train line to CDG, so we changed at Gare du Nord again, then did a Keystone Cop routine up, down, and around to find the location for the shuttle buses (navettes – level 5 upstairs for future reference) and took a slow, torturous ride back to Roissy and our hotel.

I bought an internet access card and used about 45 minutes reading about the Patriots and doing some e-mail. Kat and I decided to leave the next morning about 9:00 for Amsterdam, so we said goodnight to the kiddies, and Edward insisted that he would meet us for breakfast at 8:00 the next morning. After 10 days of non-stop activity they looked beat, and if I had to make a bet that the next time we saw them would be in the United States, I would have laid better than even odds.

*For the record: I know it's commonly quoted as "peace in our time" but I'm going with the transcript of the speech.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Grasse to L'Epine

We are in Mouans Sartoux, just outside and sitting with a cigar, excellent cup of coffee and this journal on the patio outside our room. At 7:45 am it is cool, clear and promises to be another of those spectacular late summer days in Provence. Reflecting on the trip so far, we have seen many beautiful and memorable sights, had a lot of good times and conversations, and we have certainly enjoyed each other’s company, but (there’s always a but isn’t there?) the motorcycle accident and uncertainty about Kat’s mom have created some tension that seems to manifest itself during our lively and emotional dinner times. We all wish those two things hadn’t occurred.

Today is the day I get to refill my prescription for my favorite cologne, Fragonard's Magellan (of Portuguese explorer fame), which is made right here at the factory in Grasse. I have a bottle at home that I have been nursing for the past few years, using it only on special occasions. The drive to parfum street was a breeze, and if I had to give up retirement and work in a factory, this would be the place. The setting is beautiful, and we arrived before they opened. Familiarity in thic case breeds comfort, and we made ourselves at home in the reception area reading the explanatory boards and exhibits. The first bus arrived just before 9:00 and our English language tour started right on time. Our tour guide was excellent and we were enthralled by the slow, exacting, and costly process of extracting fragrance from nature. So many smells, so little time. No wonder this stuff is so expensive. The last room you view contains the "organ" where the master "nose" mixes the various fragrances to create the perfect scent.

Kat traded the tour for a walk around the area and a visit to the perfumed fountain. I headed to the gift shop and my dismay was evident as I was informed that they had discontinued Magellan (I guess that was not that big a market for old Portuguese explorer scent). The young saleslady called the other Fragonard outlets (including the one in Paris) and none had so much as a bottle left … hmmm - seems to belie the theory that it wasn’t a good seller. Try as they might to sell me something close (I was dizzy from all the fragrances I tested), I was having none of it, and left disappointed but smelling pretty good. I think Alicia found something she liked.

As we left the building I was taken with the subtle harmony of the surroundings and that the colors are so easy on the senses. As in Siena, complimentary colors are employed by nature, surely by design. It’s easy to understand why all the impressionists loved Provence.

It is a short and easy ride to Nice airport from the hills, and the dreaded moment of car return was at hand. Our real fear was that SIXT would immediately charge our credit card the estimated repair cost. In fact, the gentleman who rented us the car wanted a second credit card (in case the first one had too low a limit) at the time, and I told him to forget the upgrade. He relented, afraid he would lose the €100 fish he had successfully lured onto his line. The same nice SIXT lot employee (Anna) who checked us out when we rented the vehicle checked us in when we returned it. She marked the four locations of damage on the return document, and told us that our credit card would be charged only when the repair bill was received by them. Our credit card company would coordinate with SIXT in Germany and they should pay SIXT the approximate $3,500. So off we went, no problem. What a relief I felt as I lugged/dragged our bent handle luggage into the terminal, my heart filled with love for my son.

The clear beautiful day in the hills was not evident these 30 miles away on the coast. Sitting at a bus stop outside the terminal the sky looked nasty. There was some mild turbulence as we ascended and before entering the cloud cover we barely had a view of the southern coast of France. We were settled into the next to last row of the plane where Kat tried to do crossword puzzles through the constant chop and the kids were so affected by the rough air that they fell asleep.

Perhaps the weather will be better in Paris. Perhaps not. Retrieving our bags at Orly, we headed to the nearby SIXT counter where we declined an upgrade and happily marched over to our little Ford van-like thing in the underground parking (much easier than CDG for renting then locating a car). Without a fancy navigation system we had to do it the old fashioned way (map and brains) to make our way out to Dizy, and a local Campanile, which is the French version of Holiday Inn.

Tonight is the night of the big dinner in L’Epine at Aux Armes de Champagne, one of the finest restaurants in which we have eaten. We had to call and ask to push our reservation back ½ hour for a number of reasons (maybe those navigation systems are worth the money after all) including Kat getting locked in the room. Oh well.

For years we have kidded Edward about his buying us dinner at the restaurant of our choosing and this was our choice. He was very good natured about it and we all enjoyed an excellent meal. Kat and I were afraid to look at the bill so we didn’t, but we did thank them both.

Tomorrow it’s the real Champagne then back to Paris where Kat and I hope to get to the Cluny museum and Ed and Alicia want to go sight seeing. Then Saturday morning we head to Amsterdam and that afternoon they head back to Iceland.