Thursday, December 30, 2010

Our Christmas Vacation: Days Eight and Nine

On Wednesday, we went to the Louvre. Everyone always says that you need more time than you can even imagine for the Louvre, and it's very true. I sat in the hall of Italian paintings and wished, very hard, that I could spend a whole day there. Three days. With an art history book on hand. Then I'd do the same thing for the next area. It was amazing, and overwhelming, and I don't know quite what else to say about it. Do you want to see a few pictures, instead? Yes?

It was crowded but not horrible, and the Mona Lisa room was hilarious, and there are all of these random staircases that I think they just put in to weed out the weak.

I want to go back to Paris. Before very long.

We made it back to Brussels without incident--everything is easier the second time--and today, forgive me for complaining, I seem to have done something to my back. I hope it's just my back, and not something internal. I hurt. It sucks, and it's stressful to potentially be sick and not at home, and so we have taken it very easy today. I am sitting on the couch with this laptop, watching a re-run of last year's Doctor Who Christmas special (sadness!), and drinking a lot of water and hoping I wake up tomorrow pain free. We're leaving for London early-ish, and we have plans to see St. Paul's tomorrow after we get there.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Our Christmas Vacation: Day Seven

There are two things that I really love about Paris, so far. One, nothing here is ugly. Granted, we have mostly stayed near the center of the city, but even today, when we ventured out near the end of a metro line, I didn't see a single ugly building, or even a rigid, glassy, modern building. It's not just the buildings though; the metro signs are pretty. The street lamps are pretty. Even the traffic lights are lovely.

Second, and related to that, is the fact that Paris wears its personality. You know that person you knew when you were younger who seemed to choose to be a certain type of person, and they dressed a certain way to present themselves as that person, and you knew that it was a bit of a put on but you didn't mind because it worked, and it was so lovely? That's Paris. Paris says: I am artsy and graceful and self-aware. It's not just the old stuff; it's the shop signs and little chalkboards with meals written out and the awnings. I am not quite conveying what I want to say, I bet, but basically: This place is so pretty, and it works at it, it's genuine.

Nowhere else has that self-awareness been so strong as in the catacombs, which we visited today. We were going to go to the Louvre, yes, but it's closed on Tuesdays. We got turned around with days and thought it was closed on Mondays, but no. So we walked down there this morning and found it closed and traded today's plans for tomorrow's.

If you ever go to the catacombs, go close to when it opens. We waited in line for two hours today, because they only let a few people in at a time (200 max.). It was cold and my feet hurt and Melissa was grouchy that our Louvre plans were derailed, but we made it through and eventually they let us in and we forgot all of our misery. This is, possibly, a theme for our vacation--we struggle, we stress, and then we get somewhere and it's all sunshine.

Before the catacombs was a place to store bones, it was a quarry. We climbed down many stairs--130ish, I believe--to get to the quarry*.

The quarry itself was neat in the "we're walking through a tunnel under Paris" way, but the catacombs? They were amazing.

There was a sign above the entrance to the catacombs that said, in French, "Stop! This is the entrance to the empire of death."

Seriously! See what I mean about a city that can set a mood? There were signs all through the catacombs like this, little snippets about death and what it means and how one should feel about it.

There were also plaques like this one all through the catacombs, letting us know where the bones came from. When we saw a few for Les Innocents, I asked Melissa how well she remembered her Anne Rice. Les Innocents is where the crazy vampires lived, if you remember. If you don't, well. I understand. We did notice that many of the people in line with us were Americans--we heard more English on this line than anywhere else on this trip. I explained to Melissa that it's because we all read Anne Rice when we were teenagers. I'm sure that's why.

For dinner, we went back to Chartier.

We made a huge mistake for dinner last night. We were both very tired of bistro-y food and wanted something warm and starchy and comforting, so we decided to get Italian. It was, truly, the worst Italian I have ever had. The Italian I make at home is far, far better than this was. We are certain that the sauce was jarred sauce, and my pasta was cooked poorly, and the waiter was rude--the only rude waiter we've had in France was in an Italian restaurant, yes.

So tonight, we played it safe and went back to Chartier. This time, I had leeks vinaigrette and steak and frites and I got a half a bottle of wine and it was a perfect last dinner in France. Again, our waiter was great.

Now we are back in our hotel room, which is warm now because we asked for help and got a space heater, and soon we will sleep. Tomorrow morning, for real, we're going to the Louvre, then back to Brussels to hang with the cats and let our poor legs and feet rest.

*If anybody reading this has issues with heights and stairs like I do (I used to call it vertigo, but it's really just an extremely bad, physical reaction sort of fear that was born in Peru on a mountain, I suspect**): The stairs aren't that bad. There's a hand rail. They're lit, and not that deep. Going up is not exactly fun, but it's also fine.

**I have been thinking about this a lot, this trip, and yeah: I think I'm just so afraid of heights at this point that my legs kind of lock up in certain situations and I have a hard time descending--poorly lit stairs, escalators, really deep stairs, and when I'm extremely tired. I was never like this until I was in Peru, on various mountains, and had altitude sickness. I am trying hard to get rid of my fear on this trip, with a bit of success. I only just realized that it's probably not anything physical, and is all in my head.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Our Christmas Vacation: Days Five and Six

Our hotel room is cute, but it is so cold. I am sitting here in my scarf with pants and longjohns and a sweater and another shirt and two pairs of socks on, and I am still cold. The only reason I got out from under the blankets, where I had retreated when we got back to the hotel, is that Melissa talked me into blogging and whispered to me about how I love the internet. I think I was leeching out all of her body heat and this was an act to save herself. She has very advanced defense mechanisms.

Yesterday, I must tell you, was obnoxious. I mentioned that we are housesitting? Maybe? Anyway, we are caring for a lovely house and two cats in Brussels, and we have the use of our friends' car while we're here. We decided to drive down to Paris, park outside of the city, and take one of the RER (suburban line, basically) trains in. Which sounds like it really ought to be easy, but one, we couldn't really park long term at the first station we got to and two, Melissa was briefly stuck in snow at the second (and final) station we got to. This doesn't really convey yesterday's stress--it was really about being in a strange place and not exactly knowing what you're doing and where you're going. All of the little things, like not being sure what signs say and how to pay at the gas station and whether or not the toll booth will really take your credit card like the internet says adds up to, when one gets stuck in the snow at the end of all that, a little bit of a fit.

We made it to our hotel, though, without anything truly going wrong. We are staying at the Hotel de la Cite Rougement, which is in a pretty good location between Notre Dame and Montmartre. Not that we're necessarily going to Montmartre. We haven't decided yet.

After we got here, tired and grouchy, we looked around and said "Paris! We're in Paris!" and it was all okay. I decided our frigid hotel room is romantic, because it's on the top floor and the ceiling is slanted and we have a window that is pointed towards the sky. It's like a nicer version of Sara Crewe's attic. For dinner, we went to Chartier, where we had a nice enough meal and, despite warnings, a nice and funny waiter. Melissa had fish. I had beef tartare. We are both a bit bistroed out at this point, to be honest, and we're going to have Italian for dinner tonight. I came here with big food ideas, but I've realized that great food in France might have more to do with offal, and meat in general, than I can handle. However, I still have some pastry and soup eating to do.

Today was absolutely not frustrating. It was cold, but lovely. We walked down to Notre Dame down the rue Montmartre, with two stops: One for a coffee and a chocolate croissant, and the other to take the following picture.

I'm glad we rewatched the first Harry Potter movie the other night, or I might not have noticed.

Notre Dame was lovely, of course, but the audio tour? Sadness!

I was clearly spoiled by the audio tour in the cathedral in Cusco. That was a great audio tour. It set a mood and it was informative without being dull. The one for Notre Dame was all blah blah liturgical blah popes archbishops blah without many details about the art. Still, lovely place. Our pictures of the interior are horrible, though.

Shakespeare & Company is right across the street.

It's my kind of place. I didn't stay long, because it was crowded. I also didn't buy anything and--I couldn't say why, actually. What the heck? Shopping paralysis strikes again.

After lunch (onion soup for me, croque-monsieur for Melissa) and Shakespeare & Co., we took the metro to the Eiffel Tower, then we walked along the Seine, holding hands. We do not hold hands often, but in this case it was required. Even if it was below freezing and the Seine is totally overflowing its banks and we were trying hard not to slip on the ice along the path. C'est romantique.

Today's great French success: Asking an employee at the Carrefour around the corner if they had fingernail clippers and having him understand me.

Tomorrow, we're going to go to the Louvre. We've dedicated the whole day to it. We weren't going to, but we kind of can't resist. And it's supposed to be sleeting all day.

ETA: We have obtained a space heater from the front desk. Oh, I hope it heats this place up.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Our Christmas Vacation: Days Three and Four

I like churches at Christmas time (though, to be clear, that picture is of the royal palace).

I am not religious in any real way, but I love Christmas. It is, to me, the sanest reaction to winter--you bring in lots of greenery, you light things up, you spend time with family, and you eat hearty food. I really hate the cold, and Christmas is my antidote. I was probably pushed along into these feelings by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, with the whole "always winter and never Christmas" thing. What an effective way to let us know how awful the White Witch was.

A winter holiday is something I think that societies with winter have had in one form or another for a while. The traditions I was brought up with involved songs like "Away in a Manger," so you'll understand when I say I like well done nativities. We visited the Cathedral of St. Michael's and St. Gudula yesterday, and my favorite thing was all of the nativities set up by different groups in the city. The archaeological thing in the basement--I guess the ruins dated back to something like 1100--was cool, but the nativities and the Christmas decorations did it for me.

The reliquaries were pretty insane. Can you just imagine someone harvesting these things?

I think this is the head of St. Catherine. I can't remember--it was some female saint.

After we visited the Cathedral, we went to the art museum, where I am sure we saw a painting of whoever that last saint was.

I love going to art museums with Melissa. We alternate between trying to sincerely figure a painting out and making terrible fun of everything. We also agree on our approach: We stop for some things, but make no attempt to read every label or even look closely at a painting, and she is fine when I breeze through a room going "Jesus, Jesus, virgin Mary, virgin Mary, assumption, nativity, Jesus, Jesus, some saint, oooh look, some dudes playing cards painted by a Dutch guy."

Most of the pictures we have like the one below come from museum trips, when we sit down for a break. This one is no exception:

Today, we stayed home. We had originally planned to go to the Christmas market in Brussels, but it snowed a few inches last night and we didn't feel entirely safe driving, so we decided to have our Christmas dinner today and tromp around in the snow a bit. Melissa made a pie. It was amazing.

We also had a turkey breast, roasted cauliflower, green beans, and potatoes. It was lovely.

Do you want to see how deep the snow is?

Crazy stuff. Brussels doesn't usually get nearly this much snow, for what it's worth.

We are currently on the couch watching the first Harry Potter, and I really ought to be paying more attention to the movie and to Melissa. I hope we make it to the Christmas market tomorrow! Wish us luck, and I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Our Christmas Vacation: Day Two

Hello! I have finally slept a whole night through, and I feel fantastic. It's nearly 11 AM, and we've just decided that today we're going to go to downtown Brussels and see a cathedral and a museum (not the Christmas market, which is set for tomorrow).

Yesterday, we went to Bruges, which was like "walking around in a snowglobe," said Melissa.

Yeah, pretty much. I could write about the beguinage and the old mansion funded by beer taxes and the canals and Minnewater, but why don't I just show you pictures? That was the point of the place, for us. To see pretty old things.

Me, along one of the many canals in Bruges, with a monument in the background. The canals were frozen over, well enough at least for the ducks to walk around on top of the ice.

Nerdy Melissa, doing a silly little jig on a snow lined path,

Melissa couldn't help but take this picture of chocolate boobs. There were chocolate shops everywhere:

Melissa, looking out across the courtyard of the beguinage:

Shelly in the old town square,

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Our Christmas Vacation: Day One

I have to tell y'all, I was more anxious than excited when we left yesterday morning. I was stressed because I was leaving the kitties. I was sure I was forgetting something. And I was really worried our flight to Brussels was going to get canceled, what with the European Snowpocalypse. I wasn't even sure what happens when your flight gets canceled, save for a vague idea about maybe putting us on another flight if they could after we slept on the airport floor and started to become deranged (I don't do well without sleep).

Happily I never found out what happens, because our flight was not canceled. Ours was the only flight we saw leaving our JFK terminal for Brussels at all--the rest were canceled. Thank you, Jet Airways. Thanks for the decent meal, too--saag paneer is such an improvement over every other airplane food I've ever had.

I think the anxiety turned over into excitement when we started flying over Europe. For the most part, we only saw cloud cover out of the window as the sun was coming up, but just before dawn we flew over some city that was all lit up and I stared out of the window blearily thinking, "We're really in Europe. This is for real," and from that point on I've been floating along happily in my jet-lagged state. The best part was when we were taking the taxi from the airport to the house. Everything is covered with snow and it all looks so not American. I think a part of me expected any developed area over here to look kind of like the US does, with pockets of much older stuff. But no: I forgot that the roads are different. The trees are different. There are hedges everywhere. The houses look different. The signs are like puzzles.

I learned on the flight that the Dutch word for bedroom is "slaapkamer." How awesome is that? Sleep chamber! But funnier! I kind of want to learn Dutch. I am such a chicken about French, and it's about like I expected: I understand very, very little. I couldn't understand, for instance, that we needed to go weigh our zucchini. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

Back to my happiness: I was even happy when we made fools of ourselves at Carrefour. Carrefour is, like, the Wal-Mart of Europe, and this one was particularly Wal-Martty. I may be saying that because I'm embarrassed and want a little revenge; hard to say. Basically, I just want everyone to know that 1) you have to either bring bags or buy bags when you come to Carrefour and 2) you should weigh your vegetables and get a little scan label for them before you try to check out, or you will be the dorky Americans who are screwing up the whole line. And the cashier won't speak English. But she'll still be pretty patient. Oh, and this part wasn't embarrassing, but you should have a coin with you if you want to get a cart. I still don't know what kind of coin.

Melissa is a champ about driving. She hasn't driven a stick in a while, but she practiced a little before we left and today she drove us to the store and back here and was absolutely calm even when we got a little stuck in the snow when we were trying to park back at the house.

The house, by the way, is cozy and lovely and we are curled up here on the couch watching Good Eats. There are cats, which make a house warmer, and the bed is comfortable. I think we'll be heading back to that bed soon. I am hoping that I can sleep a lot tonight and wake up in the morning on the right time zone.

Tomorrow: Bruges!