Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Friday, July 31, 2009

Catching up post-France

July 12 - 22

Upon return from France we caught up on life around St. Johns Wood a bit, hit Rascals (indoor play spot the kids favor) and both libraries. (Claire's 25 ASL books on loan for summer, plus piles from our area libraries, will no doubt result in some confusion when it comes to finding the right homes for these books on their due dates...)

After the library the kids checked out a nearby fountain which is a popular water spot for the 2 to 10 year old crowd. Bit by bit they delved in until at one point I glanced over to watch as Ava slipped face first into one of the sprinklers. She was teary-eyed for about 30 seconds, then, realizing she was sopping, proceeded to immerse herself over and over, giggling all the while. Claire likewise. A lovely day for it so why not.

On Wed. I absorbed the Monet to Corot exhibit. It is temporarily at the National Gallery of Art and charts the development of open-air landscape painting up to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.

Featuring Théodore Rousseau, Jean François Millet and Narcisse-Virgilio Diaz de la Peña -- Monet and Corot, obviously, and others -- it is beautifully pulled together, not terribly lengthy to peruse.

And on Thursday the kids and I hit the Borough Market on a mission for good bread, cheese, coffee and fresh vegetables. We scored on all, the Parmesan cheese being a particularly good pick. And we made a stop at Carluccio's, our favorite local spot, for ice cream late in the afternoon.

Friday my friend the plumber, who was on his fifth visit to our house in an attempt to fix the guest room shower, spent the day at the house. Eventually, after running a hose from outside into the bathroom through the guest bedroom, he and his other plumber friend sorted out the problem. Let's hope we're done w/ that issue.

Joe and I went to War Horse Friday night, a play that has received great acclaim since it opened here a few months ago. It incorporates puppetry to depict horses, a goose and birds. A fascinating use of this puppet technique, it is a poignant story about a relationship between a boy and his horse and the role of horses in WWI.

Incredibly well done, it was the most enjoyable performance I've seen, along with Les Mis, since our arrival.

Over the weekend we celebrated my birthday. I very much enjoyed it (of note: great chocolate cake w/ a crunchy layer to it, courtesy of the French patisserie on High Street), and it's even better to watch the kids get into planning it. Kids and holidays: good match.

On Sunday I hit my favorite market, where there are always some tasty samples (good cheese!) and picked up some fresh food. Much better buying experience when it's close to the farm. I brought home lamb sausage, something we hadn't had. It's a keeper.

Good weather dawned on Monday, so we made a beeline to the zoo -- great day for it, too -- not crowded, and we were on hand for the porcupine talk and feeding time, kids got to feed the alpacas and llamas, the monkeys were in rare form, the lions and tigers sleeping as usual.

Tuesday the kids got to have a playdate w/ some friends while we moms caught up, which was great fun on a rainy day. And on Wed. we took a picnic to the park at Paddington (say that 3 times fast), where the playscapes rock, then hit what I've been told is "the area's best" bakery for pastries for our guests, arriving same day.

And as we were exiting the bakery they arrived so we hustled it back to get them settled in, then headed off with Joe's mom and brother to Westminster Abbey.

About the place:

Over 3,000 people are buried in the Church and Cloisters and there are over 600 monuments and memorials.

Westminster Abbey is steeped in more than a thousand years of history. Benedictine monks first came to this site in the middle of the tenth century, establishing a tradition of daily worship which continues to this day.

The Abbey has been the coronation church since 1066 and is the final resting place of seventeen monarchs.

The present church, begun by Henry III in 1245, is one of the most important Gothic buildings in the country, with the medieval shrine of an Anglo-Saxon saint still at its heart.

A treasure house of paintings, stained glass, pavements, textiles and other artefacts, Westminster Abbey is also the place where some of the most significant people in the nation's history are buried or commemorated. Taken as a whole the tombs and memorials comprise the most significant single collection of monumental sculpture anywhere in the United Kingdom.

The Library and Munument Room houses the important (and growing) collections of archives, printed books and manuscripts belonging to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, providing a centre for their study and for research into all aspects of the Abbey's long and varied history.

We did the audio tour, wandered around checking out tombs and statues, gorgeous architecture and stained glass. The kids had the highlight of the experience: a kind older gentleman who works at the Abbey invited them to sit in the Queen's box in one of the chapels (not something the rest of us typically get to do). They looked cute and very small perched on her seat of honor in this lovely, historic place where she sits with the country's highest profile dignitaries (Prince Charles' seat is on the other side of the chapel).

The docent also took the kids to see tombs of two children, the youngest people buried at the Abbey, in a different chapel.

After a few hours perusing, we headed back home via tube and had lamb steaks for dinner. Proper English welcome, in my mind. (Well, I guess maybe fish, chips and ale would have been more appropriate, right?)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Fountainebleau: French finale

Sunday, July 12

Our last day in France! (already?!?)

It dawned damp and gray; we headed out to a charming patisserie on the main street for breakfast – kids had the usual and I an apple pastry and double espresso. (I could get used to this breakfast.)

We then traversed to the Chateau, which is hear the hotel, and spent a couple hours wandering through, then checking out the grounds. The place is huge and lovely.

A hunting forest since the Middle Ages, Fontainebleau has had the favor of the kings of France since the 16th century. They built there one of their greatest castles.

Francois 1, the king who bought the Mona Lisa (it hung here for a while), built most of the magnificent Renaissance castle in the early 16th century. The castle was also a favorite of Napoleon, who left power there in 1814.

Originally called Fontaine Belle Eau or Fontaine Belleau, Fontainebleau settled on its ultimate name in 1169.

This hamlet was endowed with a royal hunting lodge and a chapel by Louis VII in the middle of the twelfth century. A century later, Louis IX, also called Saint Louis, who held Fontainebleau in high esteem and referred to it as "his wilderness", had a country house and a hospital constructed there.

Philip the Fair was born there in 1268 and died there in 1314. In all, thirty-four sovereigns, from Louis VI, the Fat, (1081-1137) (ouch; no need to speculate on how he got that nickname) to Napoléon III (1808-1873), spent time at Fontainebleau.

The connection between the town of Fontainebleau and the French monarchy was reinforced with the transformation of the royal country house into a true royal palace, the Palace of Fontainebleau. This was accomplished by the great builder-king, Francis I (1494–1547), who, in the largest of his many construction projects, reconstructed, expanded, and transformed the royal château at Fontainebleau into a residence that became his favorite, as well as the residence of his mistress, Anne, duchess of Étampes (did he favor the house or his visits with Anne, I wonder...).

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, every monarch, from Francis I to Louis XV, made important renovations at the Palace of Fontainebleau, including demolitions, reconstructions, additions, and embellishments of various descriptions.

The place is opulent and gorgeous, so big you could house half a city.

The gardens and forest are likewise huge and gorgeous – fountains, flowers, statues galore.

From the Chateau we set out in the rain for lunch – a lazy Sunday meal at a charming little French restaurant that served specialties from various parts of the country. The kids had chicken and noodles, I ended up with a very thin crusted pizza type item w/ ham, brie and carmelized onions on top. (I’m convinced I ordered something else but as long as my dish didn't show up raw or as an undesirable organ meat, I certainly wasn't going to complain.)

For dessert we returned to our cheery breakfast spot, as they had some great looking cakes in the window. The place was bustling with the Sunday lunch/dessert crowd. Nice atmosphere for our last Sunday afternoon in France.

From there we hopped the friendly bus, driven by same helpful man, back to the train station, traversed to Paris St. Lazare, then to Paris Nord and onto the Eurostar for our quick return to London. And tubed it home. Bus, cab, train, tube all in the space of 4 hours.

May we return to France many times while we're here!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rouen and Fontainebleau

Saturday, July 11

Per Claire’s request, we started off our morning in Rouen at a shop near the church (“church” doesn’t really do the cathedral justice, now does it?), where we picked up pain de chocolate and juice, then ate in the village square, taking in the morning bustle.

Lovely, sunny day after a cloudy, windy one, so that was nice. After breakfast we headed to the St. Joan of Arc museum, a little touristy place by the market square. The highlights: wax figures (life size) depicting scenes leading up to her death, as well as miniature scenes, same subject. Other memorabilia included copies of treaty documents, posters of actresses depicting Joan in movies, pictures and statues made by various artists throughout the years.

Supposition on how she looked is widely varied. Supposedly the Germans were the only group that viewed her as a warrior. Other depictions were more oft of a humble, courageous peasant girl.

We hit the market for fruit, the chocolate shop for (goes w/out saying) superb chocolate, checked out of the hotel and hit the road. En route to the train station we stopped at the tower where there seems to be discrepancy about whether or not Joan was actually held captive.

The Tour du Donjon, as the place is known, is a round stone tower and the sole remnant of the 1204 Chateau de Rouen. A 104-step staircase spirals to the top. Ava and I spiraled with it, Claire elected to check out the exhibits below.

On a couple of levels were exhibits, photos, memorabilia, and the place has windy old stone steps worn down from time and use. At the top is a non-descript round wooden area from which it’s difficult to see outside. If she was held up there it had to have been dark, dreary and depressing.

From the tower we grabbed sandwiches and hopped our train to Paris St. Lazare, then hustled it over to Gare de Lyons (with 20 minute to catch our train to Fontainebleau our driver put the petal to the metal).

We then asked about tickets for the local suburban train experience and were sent to “a b c” booths. Unfortunately the “a b and c” didn’t scream at me on the way by the first time and we ended up wandering by big queues for national rail travel. Eventually, a bit panicked as the clock ticked, we did recognize the a b c line up and got behind a group of Muslim women who began a progressively louder argument w/ the woman behind us. Not sure what they were saying, but they were all clearly angry, taking turns fighting w/ her while we white westerners were caught in the middle looking at the clock.

They did gather a pretty good audience, I must say. Eventually they had to ticket so the fight ceased, we got what we needed and made the train to Fontainebleau.

After rolling into Fontainebleau and trying to get in a cab that was already taken (I didn’t see the skinny businessman in the back seat) we spied a bus that said “Chateau” on it so I asked the driver about getting to our hotel.

He had us get on and told me when to get off, so that worked beautifully. And as he pulled away he even pointed around the corner to our hotel. So minutes later we checked in to the fine Hotel Ibis, then tooled about town a bit and got sucked into an English bookstore . Apparently there’s a large English ex-pat community in Fontainebleau, as it’s a desirable place to live with a manageable commute into Paris.

Armed with a book for each of us, we found a lovely sidewalk café with friendly service and enjoyed beverages. Later in the evening we set out for dinner; at our first stop we were turned away – I’m thinking we weren’t fancy enough for that establishment. He was very polite with his shake of the head, however.

We settled upon a cheery, paper placemat place a few doors down. Claire had a delicious gruyere crepe, Ava had fish that was so good – you could taste the butter in the breading, served alongside delicious carrots and potatoes. I asked for the woman’s recommendation (when will I learn) and was told fruits of the sea.
Since I couldn’t read the menu and she couldn’t translate, I agreed – I was assuming I’d get some cooked mussels, shrimp etc.

I did get the shrimp, along with raw oysters (which just don’t work w/ me) and snails. Ava ate most of the shrimp, the oysters just sat there and stared at me, and snails aren’t bad. Chewy.

For dessert we ordered a nutella crepe and A had chocolate ice cream.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Friday, July 10

Today we took off for Rouen, where Joan of Arc met her demise in 1431.

The historical capital city of Normandy, Rouen is located on the Seine and is currently the capital of the Upper Normandy region. It was one of the largest and most prosperous cities of medieval Europe and served as seat of the Exchequer of Normandy in the Middle Ages. Rouen was also one of the capitals of the Anglo-Norman dynasties, which ruled both England and large parts of modern France from the eleventh century to the 15th century.

Our morning started w/ Claire sad to leave the hotel, declaring the place fabulous (she loved the pool).

En route to the train station we had croissants and juice, sitting outside at a cafe. I must say I’ve gotten used to eating w/ a whiff of cigarette smoke regularly coming my way (the plight of the sidewalk café eater in France).

We took a short train ride from Deauville to Lisieux, then an hour ride to Rouen. The kids were excited to ride in first class (a bit nicer than India’s first class train ride).

Before long we hit Rouen, a seemingly bustling town on the river, were pointed toward the hotel Mercure (near the Cathedral) and headed down Rue St. Joan of Arc. A few minutes later we found the lovely Palais de Justice, which was once the seat of the Parlement (French court of law) of Normandy, then the hotel.

There we ditched our stuff, bought sandwiches and a delicious quiche and sat next to the Palais for lunch.

We then headed to the tourist info office for a map and spent some time in the Rouen Cathedral, which Claude Monet spent three years painting (he did 28 paintings of the facade).

Rouen Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen) is a Roman Catholic Gothic cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Rouen and Normandy. The building boasts a “butter tower,” which was erected in the early 16th century. Apparently butter was banned during Lent (how they got that edict enacted in France is beyond me) and those who did not wish to forgo butter donated money to fund the tower. Love how religion operates...

Like Deauville, Rouen has a little tourist train so we boarded that and took a ride around Rouen – hit the high points. It’s a lovely city, at least the old parts of town – cobble stone streets, several old churches (though damaged during WWII much restoration has been done). The old timber-style houses were preserved; they line the narrow winding streets of old Rouen.

After our train ride we found the Musee des Beaux Arts and looked at dozens of French paintings. The highlights were the Impressionist exhibits – a few rooms of works by Monet and his peers.

It was delightful to have just walked by the Cathedral, then see one of Monet’s paintings of it.

After perusing plenty of art we worked our way out of the place, which is big, and headed to the old market area (Place du Vieux Marché), where Joan was burned at the stake.

It’s a pedestrian area now, w/ lots of shops and cafes, a covered market area that extends from the modern church built in the 20th century and dedicated to Joan. The form of the building represents the pyre on which Joan of Arc was burnt.

Inside, the church is lofty, with a lovely ceiling of wood in the shape of an upturned boat. The windows are fabulous – they are 16th century stained glass from St. Vincent’s Church, which was destroyed during WWII. (The glass had been placed in safe storage in 1939.)

Next to the church, where Joan's death occurred, is a monument and plaque surrounded by lovely flowers.

After spending some time in the church we wandered through the market – fruits/vegetables, cheese, meat, fish, flowers, then the kids hopped around on the old stone foundation of St. Vincent’s, located next to the more recent St. Joan of Arc.

We then made our way to the Gros Horloge (big old clock tower) in the center of the old part of the city. It is an astronomical clock (dating back to the16th century) though the movement is considerably older (1389).

We bought tickets to go up – and were led through by the voice of a ghost on audio guide (he haunts the bell tower).

Great view of the city from the top. While we were in the bell chamber the clock struck six and scared us half to death. I’m sure our ears will ring for another month.

We then wandered back by the church and surrounding shops, checked out the antique area (Rouen is well known for its antique shops, we were told) and eventually made our way to the hotel.

Ava fell asleep so I parked the stroller in the lobby, where Claire and I caught up on the news (this hotel is more modern, with TVs in the lounge area, flat screen computer for guest use in the lobby, etc). We regrouped for dinner, got a restaurant recommendation from someone at the hotel and headed to a part of town we hadn’t yet visited.

Very quaint, tucked in amidst old narrow pedestrian passageways, half-timbered houses above, shops/cafes below. We saw several Indian, Afghani and Oriental restaurants but we wanted French. Our restaurant was in a great space, had a nice traditional feel to it and was warm, cozy, wooded.

Our waiter recommended steak for the kids, which they were all over until it appeared, a big hamburger patty cooked on the outside, raw in the middle.
They ate some of the potato, no sale on the beef. I can’t say I blame them.

And I failed on French dinner #2 – I ordered the veal (even though the waiter told me English people don’t like veal). My definition of it is different than what I was presented with – it was very rare and tasted like an organ meat that I don’t like.
My potato/olive dish was excellent though, as was the veal sauce.

We ordered another entrée – chicken – and it was devoured. Came w/ a delicious cabbage/carrot dish that I loved. The chicken meat was very dark and very tasty, unlike the typical bland white bird.

After wandering the area a bit we stopped at a charming little patisserie for dessert, ice cream for C and A, espresso for me. By this time it was 10:30 so we decided to push on for the outdoor light show in front of the cathedral. There we caught the tail end of the free village concert, then plopped down with 50 other people to await the 11:00 light show – it was cool – 15 minutes of different lighting techniques making the church façade appear painted in bright colors, pastels, metallic, speckled, dripping like an oil painting, as though it was underwater, etc. One effect made it look like the statues on the front were spinning.

Back at the hotel, cold and tired (must remember more clothes next time we do summer in Normandy) – but happy – we were asleep in minutes.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Off to the races in Deauville

Thursday, July 9

Today we headed down to the market next to the fountain. Apparently it’s a daily thing during summer here in Deauville, "one of Normandy’s most beautiful sea-side resorts; founded by the Duc de Morny and created between 1860 and 1864."

En route to the market we stopped for breakfast at a nice little café, where several people were reading papers and eating croissants.

I had a Swiss pain de chocolate, which had a filling along w/ the chocolate. Very tasty. And the kids stuck with their pain de chocolate.

At the market we bought shawls to stay warm – no great buys on sweaters or sweatshirts. Then we checked out all the wares: some great looking fruit, vegetables, salamis and other dried meats, the cheeses looked fabulous.

There were a couple of fish stands, some clothing and jewelry, perfumes, flowers, honey, beeswax statues of the Madonna, lots of preserves. All kinds of fun stuff to peruse.

Then we wandered to the Hippodrome, where we’d been directed for a tour and horse races. It was the wrong one (this isn’t just a two horse town; it sports two Hippodromes, one for polo, the other for racing).

This might be why: Home to the Deauville-La Touques Racecourse, the countryside around Deauville is the main horse breeding region in France and home to numerous stud farms. As a result, the city is twinned with Lexington, Kentucky and County Kildare in Ireland, both of which are world leaders in breeding thoroughbred racehorses. The important Ventes de Deauville yearling auction is held in mid-August each year at Deauville.

We got to wander inside this Hippodrome, see some horses and riders and the gorgeous course. Someone pointed us to the town’s other Hippodrome for races. En route we stopped at two or three churches – a lovely little chapel was memorable, with a nun who closed up shop as we left.

Eventually after skirting the entire other Hippodrome (plenty of walking today; Claire’s been a trooper – Ava’s got it made w/ the stroller) we found the entrance, I bought a ticket (kids free) and we were in time to watch the horses being led out to the track for the first race. Then we found a snack bar for lunch – sandwiches and hot dogs (best hot dog I've had in eons, I might add -- horse meat? I know, bad joke) – and went outside for another race.

Gorgeous horses and track, set in a little valley surrounded by Deauville/Trouville’s green, rolling hills. Around the viewing area were lots of gorgeous flower displays and a large playground with free entertainment for kids. Claire and Ava took pony rides (they looked adorable sporting riding helmets), rode in a cart pulled by a horse, did bouncy rides and climbing activities, pedaled horse carriages, etc.

We were there from noon to four, then collapsed after wandering back to the hotel.
Before dinner the kids swam again, then we chose a lovely little French café near the city center for dinner. Enjoyed wonderful, friendly service – I tried foie grois and am a French food failure – it’s just not my thing (though I did so enjoy the jam and bread it was served with – does that count?). My shrimp and risotto were excellent, kids had great pasta and chicken and we finished the meal with some amazing pots de crème – white, milk and dark chocolate.

Monday, July 20, 2009

To the northern coast of France

Wednesday, July 8

Off to Deauville! We checked out of the fine Crowne Plaza and headed off to the northern coast of France this morning. With stuff it was easier to cab it to St. Lazare, plus it was a gray drizzly Paris morning. At the station we caught a bite to eat, then boarded our train and shortly thereafter arrived in Deauville.

(On the subject of stuff, I sent everything we’d already worn or didn’t need or wasn’t easy to rinse out back w/ Joe, which left the three of us with a backpack and small suitcase. I’ve become a bit too adept at minimizing the packing; this time around I should have held on to the sweatshirts, but who knew the weather would be coolish?!?)

It was a short walk to the hotel, then we headed to the city center for lunch. Deauville is a gorgeous little town nestled between the coast and hills. Pretty houses and churches w/ tall spires line the hillsides around, lots of trees and flowers throughout. In the center of town is a fountain in the circle, with cute streets emanating from it, lined w/ shops and cafes.

We picked up sandwiches and crepes at a mom and pop shop and sat by the fountain for lunch, watching Deauville’s comings and goings. Apparently it’s a popular Parisian tourist destination. Most visitors that we ran into in our short stay were non-English speaking.

After lunch we caught the little tourist train for a run around town – after 45 minutes we’d passed through the streets and their lovely mansions, down to the beach and around the boardwalk. It was chilly with storms rolling in and out – gorgeous sky and clouds being blown in over the water. Despite the temps lots of people were on the beach and in the water; maybe this is good beach weather by Deauville standards. Or families determined to do the beach at all cost?!?

After pulling back in front of town hall – a lovely timbered building w/ flowers galore out front – we hit the tourist info shop, got a map and some agenda items for the following gday, then headed to the hotel for a dip in the pool.

The kids had plenty of water fun and I took in all the French family activity (no different from at home, just different lingo).

A couple hours later we dried off and headed down to a sidewalk café to enjoy the sun, which had belatedly made its appearance. We sat outside and had drinks and played cards, then opted to eat at a pizza/pasta place. I had a Normandy mushroom chicken dish which was ok – the mushroom/cream sauce was of course outstanding.
The kids had pasta and my chicken and fries.

We ended our Deauville day w/ ice cream at an outdoor gelateria on the square – lovely spot with cool bells in the center that ring hourly. I had a fabulous nutty ice cream, made even more decadent w/ nuts and chocolate coating on the outside.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tuesday, July 7

Today we headed out a bit earlier after kissing Joe good-bye; he cabbed it to Paris Nord for the eurostar back to London, while the kids and I took the Metro to Paris Lazarre (different train station – Paris has several) for tix and an hour-long ride to Vernon, near Giverny (Monet’s home and gardens). The slowest part of the process was obtaining tix but timing worked out. A very nice French woman in line assured me we were in the right place – where to ticket for suburban trains versus main line trains is a bit confusing.

On the subject of the French, so far we’ve had very helpful, friendly experiences – people stopping to help w/ the stroller, opening doors, giving directions as best they can. Parisians seem to have a polite way about them (don’t you love generalizations…have heard several times since we moved here that the Americans spend tons of money and are sue-happy. Personally we do our best to save money and haven’t sued anyone yet…).

After breakfast -- muffins, juice and coffee on the train -- we arrived in Vernon and the mystery of how to get from there to Giverny was easily solved. Signs and footprints painted on the floor led us to a big bus that, once packed w/ Monet tourists, lumbered us to the grounds near the town, where we got to walk through woods and admire fields of poppies, take photos of a bust of Claude Monet, then follow paths over a creek into town and down Rue de Claude Monet.

Our first stop (and that of many others) was Monet’s house and gardens. We started w/ the latter – they’re immense – row and rows of flowers of all colors and sizes – more magnificent than the Floral Parc because thousands of them are packed into a smaller space.

Paths weave through the gardens – one large one w/ an arbor overhead leading to the house. We wound our way to an underground passage, which led to the infamous, spellbinding water garden. Bridges span a few spots for lovely views of lily pads, some with pink, purple or white flowers. Hard to take in all the colors and smells.

Eventually we went through the house, which is lovely too – the walls have old photos and many Japanese paintings on them, and rooms are furnished to the time period.

The artist’s studio was roomy and felt comfortable, with a beautiful big old-fashioned window at one end. My favorite rooms were the dining and kitchen (it’s all about the food). The former is a lovely shade of bright yellow, airy and warm, seems like it would invite lively conversation.

The kitchen, a cheerful blue, was also lovely – with blue and white tiles and one wall lined w/ various sizes of copper pots. A huge stove rested in one corner. What fun to imagine smells of wonderful French food emanating…

The gift shop is huge (I think Giverny makes money hand over fist, thanks to Claude).

We had lunch under an awning at an outside café; thank heavens for the cover as it POURED shortly after our food came. When it ceased we made our way back up the soggy street to check out the American Impressionist Museum, which has numerous photos of Monet, his family and gardens on display. It also had several of his paintings, wonderful to see after walking through his garden and house.

Downstairs in the museum is a chronological diplay detailing how Giverny changed w/ Monet’s residency (town, a farm community, also becoming an artists’ colony).

Afterward we wandered to Monet’s grave, behind a church and at the corner of a lovely cemetery, green hills in the background.

And then it was time to track down the bus and make our way back to Paris! En route we passed through wheat fields, saw more green, rolling hills and flowers. Northern France's countryside is lovely. Apparently, on the ag note, lavender acreage has been increasing recently in France due to heightened demand for lavender related products. (Think fields in northern France next time you buy lotion.)

Back at St. Lazare we Metro’d to the hotel, regrouped and went to another restaurant recommended by our concierge. It, too, was delicious (though Oscar I liked just a bit better). At this restaurant I had a fabulous fried cheese/salad appetizer. The combination of cheese and was perfect. That was followed by a wonderful tender sea bass, served w/ caper sauce, sautéed zucchini on the side. Excellent.

Our waitress was very efficient and great w/ the kids – she hooked them up with roasted chicken that they devoured after a busy day wandering around Giverny’s gardens.

Most of the restaurant patrons were French (and most w/ reservations – we slipped in under the rug) – so it had a nice local feel.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Another day in France

Monday, July 6

Another day in France. Gosh that’s great to say. Reminder: in my next life I’ll be French.

This morning I peeled the kids off the bed at 9:30 (no 6:00 a.m. risers in this family except me). And no complaints. Except when school kicks in and I have to get Claire moving. But it’s July and in September I’ll let the alarm take care of that problem. Or we’ll just move to France. Joe says the Paris office gets moving at 9:00.
I could see the rush hour thing moving a little later as I wandered Paris again this morning – even between 8 and 8:30 it was quiet, cafes just setting up, lots of places not open until 8. On Sat. I assumed life would start a little later, Sunday of course (but was surprised to find nothing much moving uintil 10 either day).

Joe couldn’t even get his suit pressed at our boutique hotel over the weekend (what the hell is that?). Though I guess it would be a great place to work…hours less demanding, no 24/7 mode…

About our hotel: lovely little property with really tall ceilings done black and white w/ Renaissance style paintings…very nice. Doors likewise very tall – bathroom kept trapping me in as it slid back and forth – had a good bathtub so really if I must be trapped someplace – without kids – the bathroom at CP champs elysees wouldn’t be all bad.

On my way out to exercise and explore Paris, I noticed Joe’s beafast menu hadn’t been picked up so I got a speech about first round of b’fast being delivered…gee, I don’t know if we can handle getting ham and a baguette to Mr. Weber by 7:30…yada yada. (Given the place is overstaffed and they have a full service buffet downstairs I was thinking how hard can some ham, bread and juice really be.)

I just looked at the guy while he squirmed and eventually said they’d get something together. Hello boutique hotel.

Similar moment when I found an empty fruit bowl in the workout center. Apparently the fruit guy hadn’t had time to replenish so I was sent down to the full breakfast buffet to ask for fruit, wherein the biggest fruit basket I’d ever seen was at my disposal.

I’ve never thought that much about customer service, but have heard over and over that the Americans do it really well. Am beginning to think at least we have some idea of what service means, even if we don’t always have our act together…

For breakfast the kids and I went across the street to Josephine’s again for coffee and pastries, then headed to the Picasso museum, which is a great one – I highly recommend it. (Bonus: it’s open on Mondays, a rarity for museums in Paris.) Great, airy spaces, cool rooms and of course cool art – big and small paintings and sculptures, use of nooks and crannies, courtyards, etc.

No crowds, huge contrast from the Louvre in all aspects.

The kids were engaged on and off – they seem to like finding different shapes, media, abstract depictions of faces, arms, etc. that many of Picasso’s works feature. Photos of the artist on display, too.

On the way back to the metro we stopped at a supermarket to wander through and pick up cheap water and sodas, then a bakery for delicious looking sandwiches for picnic. We then metro’d it to the end of line #1, near Chateau de Vincennes, as our destination was the park of flowers, a huge park full, appropriately, of flowers (all sizes, colors, types, some random, some in mazes, and carefully landscaped in various designs. May I again say the place is huge – first we found a brick climbing area, then made for miniature golf, a course laid out w/ Parisian landmarks (Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, etc.). We golfed our way through, then made for the playgrounds and tons of playscapes, big yellow and blue slide complex in the middle.

Claire talked me into renting a 4-wheeling quadricycle for ½ hour to pedal around the park – it was a hoot. We then had ice cream (I needed it after all that pedaling, and walking, and stroller pushing).

We eventually made it back to the hotel, where Joe was waiting – he actually beat us home!

Three people came in to set up Claire’s bed (again, welcome to India). We headed off to a restaurant recommended by our concierge. Oscar’s. It was fabulous. We got a great table near the sidewalk , started w/ olives that Ava devoured, Joe and I shared a warm goat cheese salad – so good. I had wonderful lamb chops that practically melted in my mouth. We shared 1/2 carafe of white wine, ½ of a nice Beaujolais. And for dessert: incredibly good molten chocolate cake and chocolate mousse, shared by four. Great last meal all together in France!

Day 4 in France

Sunday, July 5 – day 4 in France

Today we got up early and zipped to the station to catch a train to Chantilly for a day at the Chateau and stables. It took a few minutes to sort out train stuff as there’s more than one train option to the place – we opted for the high speed version and were in Chantilly before 10. For breakfast: muffins and pastries at the train station.

We then walked through Chantilly to a big park that connected to the chateau grounds; we could see the immense, gorgeous Chateau in the distance – gorgeous paths with some bikers, dog walkers, joggers out.

Another lovely blue sky day in France. The trees in the grounds were huge, many planted in gorgeous rows, linking paths and serving as walls near and around the Chateau, which, with its grounds and outbuildings, seems to go forever. There’s also a horse track on one side. In the forested areas around the Chateau hunts used to take place. (Apparently the Chateau de Chantilly’s domain covers 7,800 hectares – not sure how big that really is, but the place’s web site says it’s located in one of the largest forests near Paris.)

We stopped at the back of one of the buildings to ask about the stables and were pointed in the right direction. En route we popped in at a lovely church: Notre-Dame de l'Assomption (built in late 1600’s – that’s the extent of my knowledge as everything I can find on the church is in French!).

After securing our tix we hit the house, which is immense and gorgeous and brimming w/ art:

The Château de Chantilly stands at the heart of a vast domain covering 7 800 hectares, located in one of the largest forests near Paris, Le Massif de Trois Forêts (Chantilly, Halatte and Ermonville forests).

The Château and estate have been built up by the owners of Chantilly since the Middle Ages.

The Château de Chantilly has one of the finest museums of historical paintings in France (after the Louvre in Paris) and a library well stocked with rare and precious books and manuscripts.

Claire and I took the audio tour; the chapel was a highlight; the art is amazing.
After perusing we had baguette sandwiches outside on the immense lawn that encircles the place, along with dozens of French families.

At 2:00 we headed to the stables to check out the museum there (supposedly the best stables in France – lucky horses).

We’d seen horses and riders coming in and out earlier – what a gorgeous place to ride. Inside: gorgeous stone building with antler decorations over arches above the stalls – lovely, pampered horses in them with names above. We went into a courtyard area where several were being worked, watched for a bit, then checked out the museum area where various harnesses and outfits are on display, along with wagons (race gear, riding habits of old, etc.).

Eventually the doors opened to the “spectacular” event arena and we all flooded in to grab good seats in another gorgeous, domed building decorated with antlers throughout, big fountain with statue to each side, small arena in the center.

The show was an operatic program with lovely music wherein riders and horses performed, horses danced, with and without riders. One performer did gymnastics astride a horse, for example. another, veiled Arab style, directed the horse with hand movements. Small ponies were used for some amusing parts of the show.

Combined, the performance relayed life in the 1700’s (I’m inferring given the program was in French).

Gorgeous, varied costuming – some peasant dress, one rider in white gown and wings, hair flowing as her white horse seemed to float effortlessly around the ring. One scene had six elegantly dressed ladies with the big Duchess of Georgiana style hats atop their heads. Some rode side saddle; each song had a different “stage” activity with narration to accompany so it told a story of the Chateau during the 1700’s.

The last song had someone dressed as the The Duc d'Aumale riding his horse (prior acts showed jockeys, small ponies pulling carts, a runaway pony, peasant ladies gardening, women showing off pony stunts, etc.). It was all beautifully done.

Ava enjoyed it so much she took a short nap.

Afterward we walked through the entire stables and saw the horses that performed, along with some of their riders.

From the Chateau we wandered to the train station, stopping for ice cream before boarding our train to Paris, then Metro’d it to the hotel area, ate at a sidewalk café on the Champs Elysees and called it a night!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Independence day in France? Sacrilege

July 4 – day 3 in Paris

I must say our 4th of July celebration in Paris was anti-climatic by American fireworks standards, but a great day, all the same. We were, after all, in Paris.
I started the day with another walk around the city and down the other side of the Seine, then had a cappuccino in the hotel courtyard. They do make a mean cappuccino. I’ve also enjoyed espresso here. Very rich and smooth.

After we got moving we stopped for a quick breakfast at a different patisserie with full view of the Arc de Triumph in the background.

We headed for the Louvre. Our concierge’s tip was to get tix downstairs in the shopping mall rather than the museum – worked great – no lines and we zipped into the Louvre, which was surprisingly not too crowded. We headed for the Mona Lisa, perusing Italian Renaissance and Middle Age art en route. We sought out the others on our list (the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Michelangelo’s Slaves, Venus de Milo, etc.), spending a couple hours total. Perfect amount of time -- no museum fatigue.

From there we metro’d to Jardin de Luxembourg to get a quick outdoor lunch (baguette sandwiches) and to watch the puppet show in a theatre in the park.

The Jardin du Luxembourg is the largest public park in Paris and is the garden of the French Senate (housed in Luxembourg Palace). Great park – tons of flowers, trees, fountains, a couple of cafes, play areas, tons of green folding chairs. Many Parisians were out reading the paper and napping in the sun around fountains and in green spaces.

We had some time before the performance so the kids took pony rides, then hit a cool playground. While Joe played w/ the kids (you had to pay a small fee to get into the playground, so the three of them ante-d up) I watched the ticket office and bolted for the window when sales started).

The people running the show rang a bell to announce sales, then another bell for kids to grab seats. The first four rows were reserved for children, so I sat in row 5 behind Ava, who was reluctant to march up to the front row w/ Claire.

The play was in French with music – some version of the three pigs and the big bad wolf, huffing and puffing houses down – straw, brick, stick. A goat and a narrator factored in, too. Despite the language gap the kids seemed to enjoy it very much. Lovely staging and puppetry – vibrant colors, detailed costumes, the scenery changed mid-way through.

At intermission every French kid in the place had a snack. They also participated heavily in the production and were encouraged to do so by the performers.

Following the puppet show we hit the merry go round, where kids on the outside were given stakes to capture rings as they went around.

We then proceeded back to Montmartre as Joe and I opted to get our portrait done. We looked for our artist but no go so opted for a Vietnamese man who said he’s been doing portraiture for 20+ years in Paris.

It was fun, actually, to pose as lots of people were perusing and commenting on the process – the area was much busier than the prior evening, given it was the weekend.
Joe and Claire, after making the rounds watching people model, smoke, chat and peruse the artists’ quarter, landed an outdoor table near our artist and had beer and fries. I opted for champagne when it was my turn to take in the scene.

Afterward we ate at a cheesy touristy place that was chipper, then sought out a good gelateria and ate outside so as to enjoy the view over Paris.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Day 2 in Paris

July 3 – day 2 in Paris

Today we all slept in – I walked Paris for an hour, down to the Seine and along its banks. Gorgeous day, sunny and warm. Paris was quiet this morning -- superb views of the bridges and water. Several joggers, walkers, cyclists about – rush hour was
just kicking in as I headed back to the hotel. I like to watch the business-attired Parisians cycling to work. They manage to look so elegant as they breeze along w/ traffic. Seems like a saner place to commute by bike than London. There cars seem to be number one, then motorbikes, then bikes and all the best to you if you’re on foot.
Here, where people drive on “our” side of the road, we’ve already had several drivers top to let us cross – not the norm in London.

After walking along the river I came back down the Champs Elysees, which was quite busy w/ foot traffic – elegant shops, touristy restaurants along the way.

For breakfast we headed across the street to Josephine’s patisserie – fabulous pastries. Mine had a delicious flaky/buttery crust and soft apple filling. Fabulous. Kids had pain de chocolate (it’s all about the chocolate).

We then made our way to the Metro for our first outing on the Paris underground. After securing tickets we headed to Notre Dame, hopping in a line that didn’t last long and wandered through the cathedral.

Claire and I did the audio tour to learn...

That Notre-Dame’s first stone was laid in 1163 and the building underwent four major construction campaigns.

It contains the “cathedra” or official chair of the Archbishop of Paris.

It was one of the first Gothic cathedrals and is considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture in the world.

Over the construction period, numerous architects worked on the site, evidenced by the differing styles at different heights of the west front and towers. The towers were completed around 1245, and the cathedral was completed around 1345.

There are five bells at Notre Dame. The great bourdon bell, Emmanuel, is located in the South Tower, weighs just over 13 tons, and is tolled to mark the hours of the day and for various occasions and services.

After we finished our tour of Notre Dame, we hunted down Sainte-Chapelle, which was closed for lunch, so we moved on to lunch ourselves – French fast food (delicious baguette sandwiches, wrapped in paper). We saw people everywhere eating them, lots of outdoor impromptu picnics.

We took ours to some steps along the Seine. How Paris, right?

Ok...does it lose some of the romance if the bag of chips gets whisked into the water by the wind? Oops. Thankfully for us only crumbs were left (gee how us to be more concerned about losing our chips than polluting). (Though judging by the water quality, we weren’t the only ones who’d lost a bit of trash in the river.)

At 2:00 we parted company, C and me to Galleries Lafayette, a HUGE dept. store w/ thousands of items to purchase. They boast the world’s largest lingerie dept, if that helps give an idea of size.

Claire and I were pointed to the 7th floor for our freebie fashion show, which I’d registered for weeks ago. After our names were found on the list we were escorted to seats in a small room w/ a few rows of chairs surrounding a runway. And for 30-40 min. we watched tall, thin, gorgeous (goes w/o saying, right?) models, 5 women and 1 man, showcase various summer outfits, each w/ a theme and set to specific music (white, western, etc.).

Lights out, spotlights on the models…fun to see these lovely people stride gracefully down the catwalk, stopping to pose in the corners of the room. The passed inches from Claire, who seemed to enjoy the experience very much, having watched models do the catwalk on TV. (I was just as fascinated; can we say shallow? YES and proud of it.)

The grand finale was a lovely African-French model (what’s the PC term?) walking down the runway in a stunning white western outfit, escorted by the male model in western hat and “faux” western garb (linen trousers). No John Wayne.

From the show we went up to the rooftop café for the view and ice cream as it was a bit warm. I had a lovely glass of wine in the shade looking out only Montmartre.
While all this was taking place Joe and Ava were checking out the stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle. We synced up at Montmartre – Basilique Sacré-Cœur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) (our original plan was to meet at the Louvre but it was simply too nice to be inside).

We found Joe and Ava in the bathroom after hiking up the steps and touring the church, located on the highest point of the city in Montmartre.

About Sacre-Coeur: The site of the 19th-century basilica is traditionally associated with the beheading of the city's patron, Saint Denis, in the 3rd century. According to legend, after he was martyred, Bishop Denis picked up his severed head and carried it several miles to the north where the city of Saint Denis stands today. The hill was later home to a large Benedictine abbey, which was destroyed at the French Revolution.

After France's 1870 defeat by the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian War and its aftermath, the Commune of 1871, the basilica was planned as a guilt offering and a vote of confidence to cure France's misfortunes.

The Basilique Sacré-Coeur was designed by the architect Paul Abadie in a Romanesque-Byzantine architectural style. Its foundation stone was laid in 1875. The basilica was not completed until 1914 and not officially opened for worship until 1919, after the end of the First World War.

The triple-arched portico is surmounted by two bronze equestrian statues of France's national saints, Joan of Arc and King Saint Louis IX. Even the great bell, the Savoyarde, has nationalist references: Savoy was annexed to France in 1860. Cast in Annecy in 1895, it is one of the world's heaviest bells at 19 tons.

The Sacré-Coeur Basilica is built of Château-Landon (Seine-et-Marne) stone, a frost-resistant travertine that constantly weathers out its calcite, so that it bleaches with age to a chalky whiteness.

Golden mosaics glow in the dim, echoing interior of the Sacré-Coeur. The mosaic of Christ in Majesty (1922) in the apse is one of the world's largest, and incorporates Joan of Arc as well as the Virgin Mary.

Ava had had too much Sprite (don’t tell the dentist) so she and I hung out while C and Joe went through the church (double dose for Claire).

Eventually A and I worked our way down the hill, stopping to play by the fountains and relax on the grass, then visiting a self cleaning bathroom at the bottom of the hill (I got an education on its use by an English woman: let door close after patron leaves, wait 2+ minutes while the thing flushes and hoses itself down). Indicator light turns green, then push the button, voila clean toilet.

Claire and Joe caught up w/ us, A got a 2nd wind and the kids hit the merry-go-round. Then we went in search of the artist area, were sent back up the hill…this time we used our handy dandy metro tix and the funicular to take us up. All glass, it’s a cool view as you’re sped up the hill by a train that seems ½ elevator, ½ train.

At first I was terribly disappointed, had memories of classmates getting Parisian portraits done by street artists when I was 15 on a weekend whirl through Paris. This time a few guys were wandering around with sketch pads. Not what I was envisioning, though one of them did say I was the sun, moon and stars…

We rounded a bend in search of a particular café and low and behold, there were 20 or so artists w/ easels seeking business. We decided to have the kids’ portraits done so wandered through, looking at art and hearing offers by various artists, got an idea of how much bargaining we could do, then opted for the first artist we met. A quiet bearded man whose young son hovered near.

We asked for a portrait of the girls together, Claire went first – it came out nicely, sepia tones.

We then ate in the same area, a little café w/ so so food. And fell into bed after a very big day in Paris.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Day one in Paris

July 2 – day one in Paris

Well after transporting ourselves via tube to the train station and scrambling to have our tickets reprinted (some Eurostar glitch w/ a seat change leading to printer issues), we had moments to check in and head off to Paris.

Upon arrival at Paris Nord we attained some Euros and caught a cab; the entertainment in the taxi line was the station drunk w/ big beer in hand trying to help patrons in exchange for a few Euros for more tall beers.

Our driver was a woman who spoke limited English but did her best to point out the important stuff on the way: The Arc de Triumph, the Champs Elysees, the Eiffel Tower. Hard to miss.

Our fine Crowne Plaza Champs Elysees location rocked. We found it to be a boutique hotel (good thing we have a whole passel of points from our residency at CP in India).

From the front of the hotel we could look to the right and see the Arc de Triumph. Not bad.

The staff told us they really get to know their guests; given the size of the lobby and small capacity, no doubt they knew our every move.

We had the concierge point us to a casual café nearby for lunch, scored on pasta and the chicken dish of the day, served w/ a delicious bright orange/red risotto.

Afterward we walked to the Arc de Triumph, which stands in the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle (“Place de l’Etoile”), with 12 avenues radiating from it. It honors those who fought for France; the names of generals and wars fought are listed on the inside and top of the arc. Beneath is the tomb of the unknown soldier from WWI.

Famous victory marches past the Arc have included the Germans in 1871, the French in 1918, the Germans in 1940, the French and Allies in 1944 and 1945.

Designed by Jean Chalgrin in 1806, it is the second largest triumphal arch in existence – so large that 3 weeks after the Paris victory parade in 1919, marking the end of WWI, Charles Godefroy flew his biplane through it.

BTW I learned that the eternal flame at JFK’s grave was inspired by the one at the Arc (Jacqueline and he had visited the Arc in 1961).

From the Arc we hoofed it over to the Eiffel Tower, which we could see a few blocks off in the distance. The breezes along the Seine felt good as it was hot in Paris, and the lines around the Tower were huge. We jumped in, though, enjoyed the mister as we wound our way through the ticket line. Then onto the line for the lift. And another lift line as we’d opted to go all the way up.

All those lines later we had a fabulous view of Paris and the river, which was full of tourist boats and people strolling along its side.

The Eiffel Tower, named for its designer Gustave Eiffel, is the tallest building in Paris. It was constructed in 1889 and is the most visited paid monument in the world. Every seven years 50 to 60 tons of paint is applied to protect it from rust (three separate colors are applied so it has a uniform appearance, darkest on bottom).

Originally Eiffel planned to build the thing in Barcelona but it was vetoed as it didn’t fit into the city design.

The tower was criticized in Paris as an eyesore and it was intended to be torn down after its permit to stand for 20 years was up, but because it was used for communication purposes it remained.

(FYI: bit of interesting trivia from wikipedia: Upon the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940, the lift cables were cut by the French so that Adolf Hitler would have to climb the steps to the summit. Parts to repair it were allegedly impossible to obtain because of the war.

In 1940 German soldiers had to climb to the top to hoist the swastika, but the flag was so large it blew away and was replaced by a smaller one.

When visiting Paris, Hitler chose to stay on the ground. It was said that Hitler conquered France, but did not conquer the Eiffel Tower. During the German occupation a Frenchman scaled the tower to hang the French flag.

In August 1944, when the Allies were nearing Paris, Hitler ordered General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, to demolish the tower along with the rest of the city. Von Choltitz disobeyed the order. The lifts of the Tower were working normally within hours of the Liberation of Paris.)

So that’s Eiffel in a nutshell. The green areas around the Eiffel Tower, also created for the world’s fair, were lovely, particularly from above.

Upon exiting we made a beeline for ice cream, having made our poor children suffer with hundreds of other foreigners in line (frankly it wasn’t all that bad – had it been in India, it would have been hotter without mist, dirtier, more crowded with much less personal space amidst people wearing layers of clothing…not the most perfumed experience we would have had).

Plus we would have been, 2nd to the tower, a site to behold: white people in western clothing. At the Eiffel we just blended in w/ everyone else from somewhere else, most dressed in western style clothing.

Anyway…after ice cream on the banks of the Seine, we hopped one of those touristy boats for an audio-guide tour of Paris via the water. Lovely, relaxing way to see many of the major sites along the river – Louvre, Notre Dame, Palais de Justice, a number of gorgeous bridges, etc.

We sat on the outside for the breeze and better view and watched Paris go by. Ava enjoyed it so much she fell asleep.

Upon return to the Eiffel Tower area we wandered down river to a restaurant near the water, opting for a table by an open window. Joe and I shared a cheese plate (Ava discovered she likes brie).

Every one of the cheeses was good, bread of course being perfect – simply baguettes but the ideal blend of chewy, crispy, soft, just the right amount of salt. How do they do that? We also had a beef skewer w/ Dijon sauce and prosciutto/melon/sundried tomato salad. Wonderful blend of flavors – who would have thought?

For dessert we shared molten chocolate cake and ice cream, then wandered back to the hotel to collapse.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Back from France

I dragged myself, kicking and screaming, back from France on Sunday (I've decided in my next life simply to be French; what a fabulous country).

Suffice it to say we had a wonderful 11 days, Joe with us for the first half, kids and I scouted outside Paris for the back end.

I'll do my best to recount our adventures over the next few days as we catch up on some things around the house and see what's cooking in London over summer.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Old McDonald, Transport Museum, Dublin and Paris, here we come!

July 1, 2009

Woo hoo! It’s already 19 degrees here at 7:00 so it’s going to be a gorgeous day. We’ve been so lucky with the weather this spring; London has been cheery and easy to enjoy in the warmth.

Last Sunday Ava and I maneuvered our way via tube, train and taxi to Old McDonalds Farm, near Brentwood, south of London, where one of her classmates had a birthday celebration.

The place is right off the road, set on a few rolling acres and packed with all kinds of animals, animal related entertainment, non animal related entertainment, snack shack, party rooms, gift shop…was there anything missing? (Though our cab driver warned us that it wasn’t Disneyland.)

We wandered through the animal kingdom (using that term loosely) to find sheared alpacas (they look even sillier without their fur, as their heads look huge, bodies skinny), pigs wallowing in mud, dozens of rabbits (along with a sign that said rabbits for sale 15 pounds), meerkats, ferrets, guinea pigs, birds, llamas, donkeys, goats, sheep…

There was a frog show and a chicken show (puppetry/music), and of course all the kids jumped into the indoor playground, which was filled with small balls.

After champagne for the parents (nice touch), chicken nuggets for the kids, we hit the slides, trampoline, roller coaster, miniature train portion of the farm.

Eventually we peeled our children away and retraced our path to London. Ava and I parted w/ our friends at Liverpool station and went on to Primrose Hill to meet Joe, Claire and friends in town from North Carolina for dinner.

We had great fun catching up at an Italian restaurant with deplorable (but friendly) service. After a few days in London they headed to Paris and hopefully had a ball there.

On Monday Claire and I, along w/ her friend Julia, explored the London Transport Museum, which is very cool. The kids each got a guide with spots to stamp as they canvassed the place. (Thus the kids flew through the museum in search of these stamping spots.)

The museum uses multi-media exhibits to illustrate the development of London’s transportation systems as the city has grown and evolved: Victorian transportation (carriages, buses pulled by horses, etc.), first underground system, pioneer tube, suburban development, impact of war on the system, transportation today, etc.

On display are buses (from Victorian years to today’s GPS models), tube simulators, London’s iconic cheery red double deckers, a wide array of passenger trains, maps of the city evolving, information on tunneling for tube development, etc.

Numerous posters on the walls illustrate messages and advertisements used over the years to educate/entice people to use public transportation. (The former include information on how to use the systems – ticket purchase, taking elevators down rather than up, use of escalators, etc.)

After the kids had their fill, we had lunch in the museum café, hunted down some cotton candy, checked out some street entertainment and stopped at Marks & Spencer for some dinner vittles on the way home. (I haven’t developed much of a loyalty to any one store in this urban lifestyle of ours; wherever I can pick up a few ingredients for the next meal or two I do – makes for more interesting shopping experiences and greater variety for my foodie fix.)

Ava was sick on and off Tuesday so we laid low at home for part of the day, hit the library, park and Carluccio’s (our favorite laid back Italian café in St. Johns Wood – one section in particular is very family friendly, and there’s usually a newspaper and some cookbooks lying around for perusing).

On Wednesday Claire and I hit the zoo with Lydia, another first grader, and her mom and little sister. Great day for it – perfect weather – and the kids had great fun on the merry go round, checking out the butterflies and a wide array of other animals.

I must say we are getting the most out of this zoo membership – great buy so far!

And Thursday Claire and I whisked her friend Hope off to Lady Diana’s memorial playground. Alas, the place was closed because of a broken glass incident, so I was talked into returning to the Transport Museum (no great hardship on my part). We wandered through again, this time at a less frantic pace, the girls stamping their guides and spending more time at the interactive exhibits.

We enjoyed lunch outside afterward, near the performers, so the kids could watch them while we awaited our pasta and pizza. After dessert (warm, soft cookies from Ben’s) we made our way back to the tube – the “silver” lady (mime dressed in silver w/ silver makeup all over her hands, face and neck), rubbed their noses, leaving them sparkly.

On Friday morning we left EARLY for London City Airport, headed to Dublin for the weekend. A short one-hour flight later (one of those where you’re just getting into a nap when you touch down), we were in green, sunny Ireland!

The kids and I parted company w/ Joe at the airport. He headed to Bank of America’s Dublin office, we went to the Portmarnock Hotel, checked in and headed off to Malahide, a village just up the road, to explore.

Our first stop was Tara’s Palace Dolls House. “One of the world’s most significant Dolls Houses,” Tara’s Palace is designed and built to 1/12 scale in the style of Ireland’s great 18th century mansions.

Creation of Tara’s Palace (which takes up an entire room!) was inspired by Sir Neville Wilkinson's celebrated Titania's Palace of 1907. Creation of Tara’s Palace began in 1980 and has taken over a decade to complete. Paintings by leading Irish Artists and miniature furnishing masterpieces adorn the State Rooms and private apartments.

In addition to the Palace, the museum features a collection of dolls, antique toys and other dolls houses, including "Portobello", circa 1700, one of the earliest surviving dolls houses from the Collection of Vivien Green. There’s also a Dolls House from the family of Lady Wilde (Oscar's Mother).

After perusing the dolls and houses, we went next door to the Fry Model Railway collection, a working railway of unique handmade train models. It features one of the world’s largest miniature railways (covering 2,500 square feet).

The reception area features a variety of model trains and historical information about transportation development in Ireland. Inside is the railway display, with an audio tour that took us through Ireland’s train/transportation development over the last two centuries. Most of it focused on train development with mentions of shipping and tram use and the Titanic, which was built in Ireland.

Very cool exhibit with sound effects, excellent narration, trains coming and going as we were led in a circle around the big display.

From the Railway collection we went to Malahide Castle, just around the bend.

Malahide Castle sits on a 109 hectare park with paths, playground, sports facilities, gardens etc. It’s gorgeous – grassy and green, with tons of trees. Many people were out and about with dogs, kids, bikes, you name it.

And speaking of dogs, that was the key attraction on this particular day – Claire and Ava met just about every dog we saw on our way around the castle grounds. Thankfully all were friendly, as were their owners, who stopped to chat and share information about their pets.

Kids and pets: great avenues to meeting people.

The castle rocked – it is one of the oldest and most historic castles in Ireland. From 1185 until 1975, it was the home of the Talbot family. (Long time for one family in same home!)

The estate began in 1185, when Richard Talbot, a knight who accompanied England’s King Henry II to Ireland in 1174, was granted the "lands and harbour of Malahide". Strongbow was granted the remainder of Leinster.

The oldest parts of the castle date back to the 12th century and it was home to the Talbot family for 791 years, the only exception being the period from 1649-1660, when Oliver Cromwell granted it to Miles Corbet after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland; Corbet was hanged following the demise of Cromwell, and the castle was restored to the Talbots.

The building was enlarged in the reign of England’s King, Edward IV, and the towers were added in 1765.

The estate survived such losses as the Battle of the Boyne, when fourteen members of the owner's family sat down to breakfast in the Great Hall, and all were dead by evening, and the Penal Laws, even though the family remained Roman Catholic until 1774.

In the 1920s the private papers of James Boswell were discovered in the castle, and sold to American collector Ralph H. Isham by Boswell's great-great-grandson Lord Talbot of Malahide.

Malahide Castle and Demesne was eventually inherited by the seventh Baron, Lord Milo Talbot and on his death in 1973, passed to his sister, Rose. In 1975, Rose sold the castle to the Irish State, partly to fund inheritance taxes.

Many of the contents of the castle had been sold in advance, leading to considerable public controversy, but private and governmental parties were able to retrieve some.

So that’s the castle story, or part of it…oh, and it's supposed to be haunted -- one article said by 9 ghosts, the guided tour said by a single ghost. We didn't see hide nor hair of anything ghastly during our walk through, though.

We then departed for downtown, where we’d been told the pedestrian area was full of good cafes. En route we came upon the playground of all playgrounds so spent some time there, then met Mary, dog owner/dog walker. She walked w/ us into town and pointed us toward Café Provence.

Someone else pointed us in the wrong direction from said café, so I asked a gentleman in whites – on a smoke break -- where it was. He said he cooks there and to wait two minutes; he’d show us the way. Two minutes later he came back with a bag of big yellow onions and we headed to the restaurant.

The chef is from Poland, his wife from Bellarusse, son (15 mos) named Sean. He’s been in Ireland for four years and said he loves living there, worked in a factory in Poland, prefers his cooking job at CP.

As for food, it was very good, the environment warm and cheery, filled with locals. Superb seafood pasta, Claire had some fabulous looking fish and chips and Ava’s face fell to her knees when her plain pasta came out with a red sauce.

Once rectified, she dove into her parmesan/butter coated noodle-age (more like high end mac n cheese than plain pasta). It did look decadent, and in fact I heard a woman behind us ask if she could have the dish that little girls was having…

As we wandered Malahide we were asked for directions twice (must have looked like we knew where we were going, or we looked like tourists who’d just come from the castle…probably the latter). And as we perched in front of a jewelry store eating ice cream, I was asked where the “nearest pisser” was. I came up short on that one.

From Malahide we meandered back to the hotel, which was only a short walk according to all the people we met. Their definition of a short walk and Ava and Claire’s might be a bit different. But we took plenty of breaks on our lovely walk by the sea, canvassing for cool rocks and shells.

Eventually we made it to the Portmarnock Hotel, connected w/ Joe and had a casual dinner at the hotel overlooking the sea. Lovely day.

Saturday found us sleeping in a bit, I wandered the path along the coast again -- the beach is best early and late in the day, in my opionion. After breakfast outdoors by the golf course, where food and goods were being sold in stands, I parted company for a massage at the hotel spa.

That was fabulous – first massage I’ve had since leaving India. My masseuse was Romanian, lived in London 3 years, Dublin for 11. She said she prefers Dublin’s closer knit community.

While I got pampered, then basked in the sauna, Joe and company watched a couple hours of golf: the AIB Ladies Irish Open, which was hosted at the hotel.

We reconnected for lunch and more golf spectatorship. Claire and I followed one group through nine holes; the course is laid out next to the water on a rolling landscape. Holes aren’t far apart, zig sagging here and there.

While Claire and I watched women from all over the world – South Africa, France, Dubai, Spain, Australia, Japan, the US, you name it – play golf, Ava and Joe hit the beach. She of course got in the water, despite the chill (the weather was fabulous – high 70’s and sunny, but the water is frigid). That doesn’t seem to stop children, though; they could be blue and have the time of their lives splashing around.

Later in the day we ended up at a table outside the hotel with a group of amateur women golfers, mostly Irish, who attend tournaments regularly. One was a caddy, another a leader in an Irish golf union.

They were a cheery happy hour group, so we had a nice chat.

For dinner we hit a very casual Italian restaurant near the sea. A popular local place, it had great pizza and a warm ambience. We ended the evening with a walk by the sea.

On Sunday we rolled out slowly, watched more golf until play was suspended due to fog. The air wasn’t moving much and visibility was nil on the course. It was fun to walk along the beach, as figures suddenly appeared and disappeared into the fog. So many families were out and about taking advantage of the weather; over and over people remarked how amazing the weather has been this spring/summer in Dublin. No doubt the Irish spend a lot of money on rain gear.

Eventually we pried ourselves away from the Portmarnock Hotel and went to the airport for our quick flight back to London. I think it took nearly as long to be driven back to the hotel as to fly from one country to the other!

On Monday the kids and I went to the hygienist and dentist, wherein Dr. Iona was less than thrilled to hear the kids enjoy chocolate brioches for breakfast, Claire drinks chocolate milk, juice is a regular part of our diet… Glad the kids managed not to tell her how much they enjoy Sprite.

No doubt I’ll win the parent of the year award for healthy dental diets.

High on Iona's list of acceptable breakfast foods are bacon, porridge, cheesy toast, etc.

Now I do wish our doctor and this dentist would get together, because the former advises chocolate milk for Claire, given she’s a non-milk person (as am I...along with the dentist, my doctor, the kids’ pediatrician, half the women I know…I feel vindicated that I'm not the only one who can’t stomach milk given so many people preach about drinking the stuff. Old advice, according to the dentist; she’s a proponent of cheese, broccoli, other ways of getting calcium into the diet).

I digress – anyway, I’ve got the doctor telling me fruit juice is good given Claire’s a little thin in the fruit and veg dept., I’ve got the dentist saying avoid it or at the very least keep it to a minimum, dilute it and buy big straws.

Then of course I’m having a hard time imagining the doc telling me bacon is incredibly healthful. (Though up against the chocolate brioche I’m sure it offers more nutritional value.)

Suffice it to say plenty of mixed messages; someone needs to develop a practice wherein doctors, dentists, etc. work together to advise patients.

I am happy to say we got a clean bill of health, Ava allowed the hygienist to polish her teeth, kids made off with a bag of goodies and no one was traumatized by the experience. And Dr. Iona seems to know her stuff so we’ll be return patients.
Afterward we had a lovely sugar free lunch at a sidewalk café because it was too nice to be inside, then hit a lovely park before wandering home to collapse.

Yesterday Claire and I met up w/ her friend Charlie and his mom for playtime at Lady Di’s Memorial Playground. The place is huge and fabulous; apparently on weekends there's often a a waiting line to get in. I’d pass on that.

No lines yesterday and the kids had a ball playing in the water feature while we chatted for a couple of hours.

Ava’s last day of school was a good one; she came home with all kinds of projects and an art portfolio larger than she is.

And last night I caught up w/ a friend and a couple of her friends at the Clifton Pub, a neighborhood favorite in St. Johns Wood. It’s tucked between homes on a nearby street and frequently occasionally by celebs, supposedly, though I’ve yet to see anyone of renown.

(Maybe if I went there more than once in a blue moon I’d stand a chance of spotting someone, but then I’d probably have to recognize them and given I’m a bit oblivious when it comes to People magazine it’s unlikely I’ll have any kind of interesting celebrity encounter.)

We had a delightful chat over dinner – such interesting multi-cultural families I’ve encountered here. One woman is from Iran – a Muslim who lived in NYC for 11 years, married an American Jew. Her parents are in Iran, where she doesn’t feel safe taking her husband and kids to visit this summer, unfortunately. She said she spends much time passing on information to her family via internet because they their news is so censored. She also said Iran is absolutely gorgeous – mountains, valleys, the desert.

Today is Sports Day for Abercorn, Ava’s school, so we’ll hustle over to Paddington recreation area for races, playground time and a picnic later this morning. Claire is less than enthused about watching four year olds run around. This would be where taking one for the team comes into play…

And tomorrow we’re off to France. Seems so un-American to be celebrating the 4th of July in Paris, doesn’t it? We’re taking the Eurostar there, Joe will return early next week, we’ll linger in France, checking out some spots up north via train.

Happy and safe 4th of July to all! And I hope to update this blog sometime mid month.

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India