All posts by brucegk

Good News and Bad News

I’ll give you the good new first. We are sitting on our train to San Sebastián and it is, so far, on time. This is something of a miracle as only a fraction of the trains are operating. We took a taxi to the train station which is also good news since they were also on strike a few days ago. The station was so quiet it was eerie. Since we had to be out of our apartment by 10AM, we had a two hour wait in a huge station with only a handful of people. When our track was announced 10 minutes before the train departed, we went down to the track. There we encountered a track with two different trains on it and a mob of people who seemed to be running from one train to the other. We finally found an employee who told us the people were all running to our train. It was total chaos getting on the train, finding our seats, and getting the luggage stored. I’m not sure where all the people came from, but it appeared they were changing trains.

And now for the bad news. I got my pocket picked in the Metro Sunday night. We went to the Saint Michel area to hear an organ concert at the Saint Sulpice church. This church is famous for two things: one of the best organs in the world and a mythical line through it which Dan Brown featured in the Davinci Code. After that we had dinner and went to a tribute to Peggy Lee concert in our favorite jazz club in Paris. When we entered the Metro after the concert, Susan went through the turnstile first. I put my ticket in and grabbed it when it came out, but the turnstile jammed. The person behind me ran into me in the process as I backed up to try the ticket again. At that point the turnstile suddenly released and I went through. I didn’t think anything about it as this same thing happened to Susan and I a few days earlier. She went through first and I put my ticket in too soon. This jammed both of us in the turnstile which ultimately released her, but I had to go to the window to get my ticket renewed. I was thinking the poor guy behind me was going to have to use a second ticket since there was no open ticket window in the station. When I got down to the platform and put my hand in my pocket, I found my wallet was gone. I never felt a thing or suspected a thing. If I am right and you can jam a turnstile by putting a ticket in early, this seems like a design created by the pickpockets union.

When I got home, I spent the next 45 minutes on the phone calling credit and debit card companies. Fortunately, I had decided when we got to Europe, we should leave one credit card and one debit card locked in the room. My advice when traveling in Europe is to have a backup credit card and debit card from different banks and keep the backup separate from your wallet. I also lost my drivers license and insurance cards. I have arranged for a replacement drivers license which I will need in Ireland, but the insurance cards are not so important until I get back to the States. All the replacements will end up with David who is handling our forwarded mail. The next task is to find the best way to ship them to us in Spain.

Farewell Paris. We still love you.

Paris: Some Final Thoughts

Sadly, this is our last full day in Paris. We leave tomorrow ( assuming the trains and taxis are running) for San Sabastian in the Basque area of Spain. While we hate to leave Paris, we are looking forward to new adventures to come. This post has random observations about the French and Paris.

The French show no mercy when it comes to parking cars. These pictures are taken on our street. The first is looking down on the street from our window.

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Being on time is not a top priority for the French. On our bus trip in Normandy, the English speaking tourists were always back to the bus on time. The French speaking tourists were always a fashionable ten minutes late. Our guide said this is normal.

The people of Antigua, Guatemala pick up after their dogs far better than the French do.

You have probably heard someone say that the French are not friendly or maybe that they don’t like Americans. We want to say emphatically that is not true in our experience. Without exception, the French have been happy to help whenever we asked with some going out of their way to help. Others have volunteered to help translate a menu or to give us directions when we are studying our map. They are not going to smile and say “Hi” to you on the street, but that doesn’t happen in many parts of the US either. Many people have heard us speaking English and have initiated a conversation with us.

The French have to stand in line frequently and are very patient about it. All museums have a ticket and security line. Despite the fact that there is a patisserie on every corner, Susan had to stand in line for ten minutes this morning to get her fresh, hot baguette. In fact, it seems the French will stand in line for anything.

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The French are very demonstrative in showing their affection. One, two, or three cheek kisses accompany most greetings. Much more passionate kissing is common on the streets, on the metro, in museums, or almost anywhere.

France is not very senior friendly. The only senior discount we got the whole month was at the movies. Grand Budapest Hotel in English with French subtitles.

You can usually spot Susan easily on the street by her curly hair. That has not been the case in Paris. Susan’s observation is that the Parisian women have skinnier legs (let the record show this was her observation, not mine) than she was born with and many have curlier hair. She is convinced that they are all getting perms. Susan says it is back to the curly hair fad of the 70’s in Paris.

Au revoir Paris.

The Parks of Paris

There are parks of all sizes and shapes scattered throughout Paris. Our closest park, Saint Lambert Square, is one city block in size; but it contains all the necessary components for a Paris park: a large grass lawn, flower beds, a gravel jogging/walking path, lots of trees, a merry-go-round, table tennis tables, a playground, a sandbox, a marionette theater, an amphitheater, lots of benches in shade and sun, a crepe stand, a picnic shelter, a fountain (not operating), and free wi-fi. And the Parisians use their park!. The most popular activities are family groups sitting/picnicking on the lawn and people walking/jogging. But you will see groups of seniors sitting on the benches and talking, people doing yoga and other exercises, boys practicing juggling (this appeared to be a good way to attract girls), or even an old man sitting on a bench and writing a blog. All the equipment in the park gets used regularly. As I write this, they are holding a nursery school event in the amphitheater.

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And Susan has joined a group exercise class on the lawn. Look for the curly hair and vest toward the right.

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On school days, there is always a group of high school kids cutting class and sitting on the lawn smoking in plain view of their high school.
The park is well maintained by a crew of four mowing, weeding, planting, and cleaning every work day. You can see how this lady mowing the lawn manages to stay slim. I can’t imagine a worker in the US mowing a lawn this size without a rider mower.

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Except for the biggest parks, they are all fenced and locked at night. A man blows a whistle at the first gate and then locks it. He then works his way around the park blowing his whistle and locking gates. We saw a man in a suit with a briefcase who got locked in and was trying to climb the fence. He didn’t make it while we were watching. That could easily have been us since the whistle wouldn’t have meant anything to us.
Yesterday we attended a performance by a wind orchestra in the bigger park near us. We talked to the conductor afterward. They are a volunteer group who practice on Friday nights. The city tells them where to play and provides the chairs and music stands they need.

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Finally, what better place to watch the French Open than in the park by the Eiffel Tower?

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You have to love Paris parks!

Two Strikes Against Us (Normandy)

One of the problems living in a country where you don’t speak the language is you don’t really know what is going on. The papers and TV news are all in French so are of no help. Early in the week we decided to go to Normandy yesterday (Friday). There is a ticket office for the trains near us, but it is always busy so I decided to book the tickets online. With some trials and with the help of Google translate, I was able to book the trip and get the e-tickets loaded on our phone. Thursday night I got an email from the train company in French that contained some disturbing words like “alerte” and “suppression”. Again with the help of Google translate, I determined that our return train from Caen was cancelled.

After a little work on Google I discovered that the French railroad workers were on strike, but some of the trains were running. By accident during this research, I found the Paris taxis were also on strike. There is a taxi stand near us and I had noticed the last couple days that the only taxis parked there didn’t have a driver in them. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but the reason was now clear to me. The biggest concern was that next Tuesday we need to take a taxi to the train station to move to our next destination and I really don’t like the thought of dealing with our luggage on the Metro. Also, it would be nice if the trains were running.

After some more research and more work with Google translate, I was able to book a later return train from Normandy that had a warning about possible delays. The trip to Normandy and back went smoothly and the taxis were back at our stand Friday. The rail situation seems better today, so we are hopeful all will be well by Tuesday.

We were very glad we took the chance on the train and went to Normandy. We went to the large D-Day museum in Caen, and spent the morning in the museum and the afternoon on a bus tour operated by the museum. Both were excellent. The museum attempted to explain how Hitler was able to come to power, the effect of the war on France and the divisions it created within France, and the realities of the Allied liberation of France. The tour included Point du Hoc (a German command post on the highest point between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach), Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery, and Arromanches where you can see the remains of an artificial harbor the British built in about a week by floating huge blocks of concrete across the Channel. The cemetery was particularly moving and the Normandy villages and countryside were beautiful.

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After visiting Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor last year and the Paris Holocaust Museum and Normandy this year, I keep coming back to the words of John Lennon:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Whelks, Winkles, Macarons, and Falafel

Judging by what draws a lot of comments, food seems to be a very popular topic, so I am devoting this post to three interesting foods we have tried. The first was an appetizer we had at a local seafood restaurant called fruits de mer. It consists of various raw and cooked shellfish served on ice on a platter. The raw oysters were from Normandy and were simply devine. They had a wine vinegar concoction you could put on them, but they were delicious with or without it. Our platter was heavy on whelks and winkles (periwinkles), which are two types of sea snails. The waiter showed us how to use our skinny forks to spear them and gently twist them out of their shells. The whelks were larger and were pretty chewy. The winkles were very small, were often empty, but were much more tender. The rest of the plate included shrimp and langostino. It was an interesting experience, but the next time we will just get the oysters. I failed to take a picture of our plate, so this one is from the internet.

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In Rouen, we discovered the wonder of Macarons. The macaron is like a big Oreo cookie, where the cookie part is a colorful meringue based confection and the filling is a yummy cream or jam. So good! It is very hard to understand how the French stay slim.

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Falafel is not a French food, but is a popular middle eastern food. The Marais area (the Jewish area) of Paris has a famous falafel restaurant that is in all the guidebooks and was recommended to us by a number of people. The first time we went by was a beautiful Sunday and the line for takeout and sit down was too long.

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Yesterday, we went early on a rainy Tuesday and had no trouble getting in. The falafel was much lighter than some we have had and was delicious. We were very glad we went back on a week day.

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Last night we went down to the Eiffel Tower to see the lights come on. The lights twinkle for about five minutes on the hour. I was dreaming of a post called Winkles and Twinkles. Fortunately for you, the first twinkles were at 11 PM, and we decided not to stay that late; so you dodged a bullet.

20,597 Steps

Saturday we went by train to Chateau Versailles. We picked that date because the weather forecast was favorable and it was one of the days that the fountains were running. It must be very expensive to operate the fountains as they are only on for a few hours on the three days a week that they operate at all.

The Versailles visit consists of a tour of the chateau, the gardens, and several auxiliary buildings (In most locations, these auxiliary buildings would be mansions, but here they are summer homes to escape the crowds at the palace). To give you an idea of the size of the estate; at its peak,10,000 people lived there.

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We had both been to Versailles previously, but in my case the hall of mirrors had been under renovation. While I was excited to finally see the hall, the chateau was packed with people, so my pictures are mostly of other people taking pictures.

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The gardens are massive enough to absorb the crowds. The gardens include planted beds, statues, lakes, a large canal (big enough to accommodate numerous row boats) in the shape of a plus sign, forests, fountains in the open, and over a dozen groves (each the size of a large city block) with a fountain or something else hidden in the center. Clicking the link will take you to a one minute video of the fountains. They play classical music while the fountains are running.

The Grand Trianon was the recreational residence of Louis XIV. The picture only includes a wing of the building.

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The Petit Trianon was the domain of Marie-Antoinette.

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We put a pedometer app on our phone. If you can believe it, we took 20,597 steps that day and walked 9.75 miles. Does that look about right?

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Lunch with the Martins and Biking in the Park

As most of you know, we became interested in living like a local when a friend sent us a copy of an article in the Wall Street Journal by Lynne Martin on living home free. We both read the article independently and both reached the conclusion without consulting each other that this sounded like something we would like to do. Lynne went on to establish a web site on home free living and write a best selling travel book called Home Sweet Anywhere.. While we couldn’t bring ourselves to go homeless, we have downsized and adopted their philosophy of living like a local for extended periods in one place.

We have been friends with Lynne and Tim on Facebook and are happy to report that we are now real friends after meeting them for lunch today. It was fun to exchange experiences and to discuss future plans.

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After lunch, we decided to do what many Parisians do, spend the afternoon in the park. We went to a huge park on the west side of Paris that had numerous facilities including a lake, horse racing, horseback riding, rugby field, and numerous other facilities. We decided it was way too big to walk, so we rented bikes and rode around the park. We were concerned we would never find our way back since we were on numerous paths in the woods that went every which way. The concern was heightened by the fact that they had my drivers license for security. However, with the help of a park map, the occasional road sign, and some friendly Parisians, we found our way back without too much difficulty.

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It was another wonderful day in Paris.

Susan’s Happy Birthday

Yesterday was the BIG DAY! Susan’s birthday in the City of Lights. As mentioned previously, President Obama was indeed in town for the big event. Unfortunately, he made the choice to have dinner with Hollande and the Queen of England rather than with our birthday girl. He had some lame excuse about diplomatic protocol!
However, we soldiered on and had a wonderful dinner at a small restaurant we found on Tripadvisor. The restaurant had five tables on the lower level and six on the upper level. When I made the reservation, I let them know we were celebrating Susan’s birthday. They greeted us warmly, and wished Susan a Happy Birthday. We were seated next to a mother and her college age daughter from Switzerland who spoke excellent English. The tables are very close together in Paris to cram as many in as possible, so it is very easy to talk to the neighboring table. We probably enjoyed their company more than we would have enjoyed Obama’s company
We had a wonderful French dinner that was the best meal we had since leaving home. A French meal consists of an appetizer which they refer to as an entree, an entree which they call a plat, and a desert. You can have any two for one price or all three for a higher price. Every table in the restaurant was getting two different things for each course and switching plates when they were half finished. It worked great, and allowed us to try different things.
Everyone got a cup of delicious cold asparagus soup to start. I had foie gras and Susan had a sausage and onion dish for the appetizer. It was the first time I have eaten foie gras, and it was absolutely delicious. I know it is not a sound choice from an animal rights standpoint and I will not do it again, but I had to try it. For the main course Susan had lamb saddle, and I had cod. Both delicious and both accompanied by a wonderful assortment of fresh vegetables. For the all important desert, Susan had a molten lava cake and I had French toast with chocolate. While the cake was outstanding, the toast was a clear winner.
When the cake came out with a candle, a Japanese couple at a nearby table joined in the birthday celebration. They were from Kobe, Japan and were very excited to learn that I used to work for a company owned by Kobelco in Kobe, as the woman works for Kobelco. Again, it’s a small world and we both thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

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Street Entertainment

There is plenty of street entertainment available in Paris. The night we left Boogie Phil we ran into a three piece band in the Metro singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. If you have been paying attention to these posts, you know that is one of my favorite songs. They had attracted such a large crowd, that the entrance to the Metro was nearly blocked. I was so busy singing “hallelujah” with the crowd, I forgot to take a picture.

The next day we ran into this band on a street corner playing jazz music.

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A little further along we saw this band playing New Orleans jazz. They could easily have been playing in the Treme! But the best part was the two senior women who were dancing and having a good old time.

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The most surprising street entertainers were these two sopranos who were singing opera arias. They had drawn a large and appreciative crowd.

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Metro entertainment is common also. The entertainer will get on a car, play a few songs, pass the hat, and then get off the train to repeat the performance on the next train. You can see the sax player near the door.

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Last night we ran into this wind band playing music as part of a D-Day celebration in front of the city hall for the 15th arrondissement.

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It is certainly easy to find musical entertainment on the streets of Paris.

Playing Bridge in Paris

It was raining this morning, so we decided to try our hand at duplicate bridge at the local bridge club. On our very first day exploring our neighborhood, we discovered there was a bridge club only about three blocks from our apartment. On that earlier visit they told us we were welcome to play, and gave us a convention card to complete. The card was much shorter than the one we use in the States, but it focused on a lot of conventions we don’t use and don’t know.

We soon learned that the cards are not exactly like ours. The ace is a one, which was pretty straight forward. The king had a little bigger crown than the jack and was labeled “R”. The queen was a “D”, presumably for Dame and the jack was labeled “V”. Until we got the hang of the R,D,V, it was difficult counting our points as we had to study the pictures.

The bridge players were unfailingly polite welcoming you to the table with “Bon jour, Madame. Bon jour, Monsieur.”, to which we responded in kind. By the way, it is always insufficient to just say “Bon jour”. The proper title of respect should be added. At the end of the round when you moved to the next table, everyone said “Merci” to the opponent.

Our game got off to a rocky start when Susan knocked her bidding box onto the floor. This is always a disaster, as it is very time consuming to put the bidding cards back in order. The bidding and playing of the game was identical to the States. They played a lot of conventions we don’t play, so we didn’t understand a lot of their bidding, and I don’t think they understood ours. I don’t think the man running the game spoke any English, and most of the players didn’t speak significant English. We came in at 42% which is the lower quartile, but we had a good time and a good experience. We were pleased that we didn’t embarrass ourselves or mar the reputation of USA bridge!

The following is probably only of interest if you play duplicate bridge. We never heard a director call. There were two we could have made. One player made a lead out of turn, took it back, and their partner then led the same suit. Another time, a woman passed, I passed, and then she took back her bid. We figured we were there for the experience and had little hope of carrying the day with the language difference.

The scoring was done on a piece of paper slipped in a pocket under the board. The paper contained the way the hand should have been bid, what the final bid should be, and what the result should be. It also included a paragraph explanation – presumably how the hand should have been played or why it should have been bid as they recommended. Since all the final bids, results, and scores were on this paper, you got a feel as to how you were doing. There was a lot shushing if you made any noise.