w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
Let’s say you’re in Europe and you suddenly realize you have two weeks in which you can traipse, jumping planes and Euro rails to wherever you like. Sounds like a dream, right? Now add to it a limited budget, the most expensive and congested travel season, the high stakes of a family-less Christmas, five suitcases, two tired kids, one cranky husband and a partridge in a pear tree.
We had planned to stay in Rome through the holidays, but when the Pigneto loft fell through, we found ourselves scampering for substitute housing. The Trastevere apartment was wonderful, but unfortunately, only available until the 15th. We took it as a sign that we should see more of Europe and so we scrapped our plans for Croatia and decided to head north to Paris and Brugge before landing in London to celebrate Christmas with our friends John, Becky and their two kids.
When last we were in Paris, just as we were recovering from jet lag, Oona caught a nasty stomach bug so we spent the majority of our trip cooped up in a tiny one bedroom apartment in the Bastille, passed out between bouts of laundry. Isoo, who suffers from an extreme case of Emetophobia is still haunted by the trip, so much so that three years later, he still associates Paris with vomit. So debilitating is his fear that he is a chronic hand-washing germaphobe, hates flying for fear of motion sicknesss and is a very, very picky eater. It is both a miracle and a testament of his courage that all of his hair has not fallen out during this trip. But needless to say, he was not excited for our Parisian jaunt and was near hysterical when Oona, right on cue as if to torment her brother, boarded the plane to Paris and promptly threw up.
I tried to comfort her as Chris discretely walked up and down the aisle collecting unused airsick bags. Isoo had fled to the back of the plane and was facedown on the tray table, his coat thrown over his head and his hands covering his ears. By the time we landed in Paris, Oona was white as a sheet. I seriously thought she was going to pass out and/or get detained in Customs for Ebola.
Due to the last minute nature of our planning and our limited budget, we were resigned to an albeit spacious, but inconveniently located apartment in the 18th Arrondisement. We quickly rounded up our bags and hightailed it to the taxi stand only to learn that Paris was in the midst of a strike with cab drivers barricading the streets to inhibit the passage of Uber cars. We queued at the bus stop, Oona squatting on the ground as Chris used a map and his Google translator app to figure out how to get to our apartment on the other side of town. We boarded a crowded bus, and then an even more crowded metro train which deposited us in the middle of bustling Gare du Nord. I staggered up the stairs with two suitcases, my purse and a backpack cursing Gard du Nord for its lack of escalators and muttering “It’s okay baby, we can do it. Almost there, just take one step at a time,” words of encouragement as much for myself as for Oona. The boys led the way, briskly walking the 15 minutes to the apartment with Chris trying to shield Isoo from the trail of sick left behind by his sister. I followed with Oona, who stopped every few feet to lean against a pole or rest in a café chair. At one point she lurched forward and threw up all over a bus stop as I stood there helpless, trying to hold back her hair, surrounded by our bags, both of us soaked beneath our coats. A young man stood watching us, and I looked at him embarrassed and apologetic; two gross Americans who dare sully their gorgeous streets. But he returned my glance by digging into his pocket and passing me a packet of tissues. You can say whatever you want about the French, but everyone was absolutely wonderful to us. By the time we made it to the apartment Oona had thrown up at least a dozen times and in my desperate urging I had promised to buy her a car on her 16th Birthday. She crawled into bed and did not emerge for three days.
If we hadn’t prepaid for our hotel and already booked the car, we would have skipped our plans to visit Brugge. But the morning of our departure, Oona, bolstered by the idea of waffles and chocolate, peeled off her pajamas and climbed into our tiny Fiat. It's impossible not to adore Brugge. It’s a magical fairytale city of medieval buildings, cobblestone squares, horse drawn carriages, picturesque canals and many, many chocolate shops. Add twinkling lights, an ice rink and a bustling Christmas market and you have the makings of a perfect holiday distraction. Our visit went something like this: waffles, fries, chocolate, mussels, beer, chocolate, shopping, chocolate, canal ride, chocolate, birding Minnewater Lake, chocolate, ice skating, chocolate. You get the picture.
Due to Oona’s stomach flu and our side trip to Brugge we were in Paris several days before we hit any of the sights. Frankly, this was fine by us. Not only had we seen many of the sights during our previous visits, but, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, the magic and romance of Paris has for us…faded. Even walking around the once beloved Marais and Ile St. Louis districts, I felt the city had gone the way of New York (and I dare say, London), its charm and individuality depleted by too many chain stores; overpriced, uninspired restaurants; pushy, noisy crowds. With the exception of the residential avenues in Montmartre, I suspect it will be awhile before we feel the itch for a return visit.
Speaking of itch, we had even more trouble finding a place in London. The top contender was a three bedroom house in southeast London. On paper it sounded great: movie projector, a sprawling yard, treehouse, trampoline, fireplaces and even a fully decorated Christmas tree. The catch, and this was a big one, was Mr. Darcy, the resident cat who needed feeding and loved to sleep on everyone's beds. Chris is very allergic to cats, but after several futile days of searching out alternatives, we deboarded the Chunnel armed with a suitcase-full of Benadryl. Upon entering the foyer, we were more than a little dismayed to find that the house smelled strongly of cat and cumin, and was covered in a layer of Mr. Darcy's fine black hairs. After just a few hours, Oona walked upstairs to find Chris' eyes red and nearly swollen shut. Through the angry slits of his eyes, he was surprised to see a similarly puffy face squinting back at him. Who knew Oona, too, was allergic to cats? Like father, like daughter.
It's crazy the amount of time I used to spend researching and preparing for a trip. Months out I'd book hotels and restaurants, scour the library for books on the destination, read up on the history, prep the kids with movies, gently introduce the local cuisine, insist on learning the fundamentals of the culture, language, etc. But with spontaneous fast travel there's just no time to plan an itinerary. As soon as we shut the cab door headed to the airport, Chris and I would do a basic Google search: currency, how to say "Thank you," "Please," "Hello" and "Good-bye," tipping etiquette and whether the tap water was potable. Armed with this (very) basic knowledge, we'd hit the ground running, drop our suitcases and then bump our way through the city in the hope that something, anything would rub off on us by osmosis.
But the beauty of London is that it didn't require a tremendous amount of preparation and since Chris and I had already been, we didn't even pretend to do much sightseeing, opting instead to monopolize all of John and Becky's free time. We took in a play, made a fantastic dinner at their gorgeous home, and even left the kids with their grandparents for our first adults only night out in over four months. We drank fancy martinis at the Connaught Hotel and then caught a cab to the only burger restaurant open on Boxing Day. Who cares that it was a fast food joint located in a mall? The burgers were excellent and the company even better.
We may not have gotten much out of this leg from the homeschool/cultural enrichment/learning front, but I do know that what we got was more sorely needed: to sleep, recuperate, dumbly stand in front of a magnificent building noshing on crepes with nary a clue nor curiosity. The kids needed to play. We needed to go to the trouble of cooking a real dinner, to catch up with friends and NOT talk about our travels. We needed to shop for underwear and celebrate my birthday lounging in bed reading silly magazines. In true Christmas vacation form, we needed to simply shut off our bodies and our brains and enjoy our family, food and the company of our friends. It was uninspired, undisciplined and an absolutely perfect, wonderful waste of time. I sincerely hope your holiday was the same.
Next up? Several long, inconvenient travel days as we tour Turkey and finally make our way to Asia. Five flights in eight days. We'll see how the kids hold up!
Little lady trying to keep it together on the bus ride from Orly.
With Oona sacked out at home, Isoo and I walked around the 18th, home to a bustling immigrant community, lots of great ethnic restaurants and Halle Pajol, a sprawling new multi-use building housing a library, arts center and several cute restaurants.
Once Oona felt better we all walked to neighboring Montmartre, winding through the charming residential streets and even to the top of not so quiet Sacré-Cœur.
The view of Paris from Sacré-Cœur. Yes, the weather was as dreary as it looked.
Eating our millionth crepe.
Planted back in the 30's, this tiny "secret" vineyard in Montmartre is the only one that continues to grow inside Paris. It still produces 1,700 bottles per year with the proceeds donated to charity.
Moulin de la Galette - only one of two remaining windmills in Paris. The other, of course, being the one at the Moulin Rouge.
How is it that I've been to Paris a handful of times and never made it to Musee d'Orsay? We spent an afternoon rectifying the situation. The ladies outside the Orsay.
Christian Peacock's Clockface.
Looking for a charming, cozy meal in a fabulous Parisian bistro? Good luck getting a last minute table! Most of our meals consisted of (delicious) Thai and Indian take-out in our neighborhood. But we did snag a table at the institution Bofinger. It may not be Paris' best restaurant, but a favorite nonetheless.
Adding our love lock to Pont Notre Dame.
We were just one of many clowns who participated in the tradition.
Notre Dame dressed up for Christmas.
Wait! Something Isoo liked about Paris! Feeding house sparrows at Notre Dame.
An hour wait in the freezing cold and rain, but we finally made it to the ice rink at the top of the Eiffel Tower. The rink was tiny, but the views were great. And it made Oona so happy.
While Brugge is lovely in the summer, it's especially magical in the winter. There's something about walking in the crisp air scented with mulled wine, listening to the clip-clop of horse drawn carriages and knick-knacking the Christmas markets that just feels so festive.
First stop: the surfboard-sized waffles at Lizzie's Wafels. Yes, they were as great as they look, but even better was the hot chocolate: a clear mug of steamed milk served with a tulip shaped bowl made of chocolate and filled with chocolate shavings and fancy marshmallows. You drop in the chocolate cup, watch it sink and then stir. Best hot chocolate ever!
Love the gorgeous architecture.
A couple of tidbits about the buildings: It used to be that residents were taxed according to the number of windows they had in their home so homeowners would brick over extraneous windows before the tax assessor's visit. You can still see evidence of bricked over windows thoughout the city. And of course pianos were bitch to move up the steep, narrow houses so they hoisted them up from the outside and then in through the window. You can still see the hoist rings at the top of the older homes which were also pitched forward so the furniture didn't swing and shatter the windows. The more recent homes have rings imbedded near the front door to keep safe Brugge's most common mode of transport.
And I didn't even mention the canals yet!
We were surprised to find that despite the cold, canal rides were still being offered. Of course we had to take one. What we didn't plan for was our underage driver.
When the tour guide invited Isoo to drive the boat, he thought he was kidding. So did the other 30 passengers. His three point turn was a little sketchy, but he did a pretty good job despite the wind. After disembarking, I asked Isoo what he thought of driving the boat and he said (in typically dry Isoo fashion), "Well that was pretty unprofessional of him." But the opportunity was not lost on Oona who burst into tears, and shouted, "No fair! Isoo got to DRIVE! A BOAT! In BRUGGE!"
Fortunately, Oona had her own fun. Skating with Chris in Grote Markt.
This is the canal behind our hotel, the Walwyck. The main house has great views over the water, but because we needed a family room, we were given a larger room in the top floor of the owner's house, a mansion just around the corner. It was sort of weird to go tromping through their home after our dinner. The owner's son, who was about Isoo's age, was having a party and their family room was filled with tween boys playing video games and eating junk food. Isoo didn't say anything, but I'm sure the scene made him miss his buds. Anyhow, the big canals are nice, but this quiet little flower-lined one has to be my favorite.
We strolled/birded Minnewater Lake.
Last but not least, the chocolate. The chocolate in Brugge is not for mere mortals. They are works of art. Chicago has the Macy's window, Brugge shows off its holiday spirit in the chocolate shops. Yes, these sculptures are made of pure chocolate.
While the kids really, really missed home, we all had a great time hanging with our friends in London. Despite having a full house of visiting grandparents, we were grateful to be so generously included in their celebration.
We didn't have much Christmas shopping to do this year, but thought it would be cute to hit up Oxford Square and Carnaby Street for the Christmas lights. The streets were so crowded we could barely move.
We much preferred our night watching Theatre503's hilarious, family-friendly pantomime, Cinderella and the Beanstalk. The kids even snuck a picture with the actors.
This is the living room of the house we rented. Isoo was the only one who would sit in it because Mr. Darcy liked to perch on the couch and smother his cat hairs all over the cushions. (This is a rare Oona sighting.) While the house came with a tree, the kids insisted on getting one of our own.
This was the compromise. Tiny, but all ours. We used earrings and ribbon for ornaments.
These are the lame stockings I made. I know. So sad. But the kids didn't care because I was able to locate and include Reese's Pieces!
The kids did not ask for a single thing this year. I'm sure the knowledge that they would have to schlep it halfway around the world influenced their decision. With the exception of a couple of small souvenirs we'd collected throughout the trip, we were happy to oblige!
Post jolly Christmas dinner.
What's Christmas without a little birding? The boys in Regent's Park.
I was feeling a little guilty about not having done much London sightseeing so I let the kids guide me in selecting a tour. Their pick? The Muggle Tour of the locations included in, and inspired by, the Harry Potter movies. It was sort of fabulous. Here's the "Leaky Cauldron" Fun fact: In the third movie, the Night Bus drives down this road and delivers Harry to the Leaky Cauldron. They chopped off the top of a double decker bus and affixed it to another double decker bus to create three tiers. Unfortunately, when they delivered the bus to the site, they realized that it was too high and had to re-doctor the bus on site to fit under the bridge.
We also took a walk down the street that inspired "Diagon Alley" to this bookstore that sells first edition Harry Potter titles. And this is Oona with our excellent tour guide, Sophie McGonagall.
I swear I did try to show them a little more of merry old London. Evidence: the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace.
Look kids! Big Ben!
And Westminster Abbey, where either Isoo was going to die of boredom or I was going to kill him.
And then we did modern London. At the Tate Gallery for a little hands on crafting a la Turner.
And where Oona stopped in front of this picture and asked, "Okay mom, what's this picture about again?"
The whimsical Alice in Wonderland-inspired tea at the Sanderson Hotel was more relaxing.
Champagne birthday toast on the London Eye. A lovely farewell to the European leg of our trip, and a wonderful way to ring in the new year.