This voyage includes a week spent with our choral group in Barcelona, followed by a week in Paris and another five days in London. I hope you will take the journey and re-live this with me. I loved writing every word….
Remains of the Day: Botched Departure Can’t Dampen Placer Pops Chorale Members’ Enthusiasm
Ola! More than two years in the planning, the day for boarding a plane for Placer Pops Chorale’s concert tour to Barcelona has finally arrived. Thirty eight people that include chorale members and their spouses, friends and fans came not only from the Sacramento area, but also flew in from the Northwest, Florida and the Midwest to gather for what promises to be a fun week of performing, sightseeing, musical fellowship, soaking in Spanish culture, enjoying Mediterranean sunshine and basking in the traditions of one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
Arriving at SFO at various times of the morning of July 12th, we receive baggage identifiers from our tour company representative and dutifully proceed to check in and then shimmy through security, shedding shoes, laptops, jewelry and outerwear to feel a sigh of relief on the other side, where all that is left is to wait to board an enormous 747 bound to Paris, where we will connect to our final destination.
As the group gathers in the International Terminal’s downstair A9 boarding area, we greet one another with hugs, introductions, laughter and anticipation. We are told at check-in that our flight, which was to leave at 4 pm, is now delayed for an hour due to a technical issue, and that regular updates will be afforded us as we get closer to departure time. Those announcements come and with each briefing, our flight gets pushed later and later into the afternoon. Meal and drink vouchers are handed out to what is now a hoard of nearly 500 passengers and finally, at around 6:30 pm, the captain — surrounded by airport police — comes to the boarding podium to inform everyone in the gate area that our flight has been cancelled. We are to retrieve our checked luggage and go back to the terminal’s ticket counter for further instructions.
By then, our tour representative is long gone, so choral director Lorin Miller takes charge with Air France, insisting they provide us with accommodations for the night. Soon, we board shuttle buses to an airport-close hotel. Most of us go to our rooms, and either fall on our beds and hunker down for the night or hang out at hotel bar that remains open until midnight.
As Saturday morning greets us, we look for word of what time our flight will be. No phone calls or texts have been received and no instructions given as members of the group began gathering within the hotel lobby’s breakfast area. Indignant we are not getting answers nor help from those responsible for our tour, several of us wield cell phones to get things figured out with the tour company and Air France to re-book passage, painstakingly retrieving reservation locator numbers for each member of the group. Faced with the prospect of having the group split up onto two separate trans-Atlantic flights, emotions begin to swell as some of the less experienced travelers do not want to be separated from the group.
Springing into action, Lorin Miller and several other chorale members begin doing damage control and within several hours, manage to get the entire group on one plane for at least the longer portion of the trip. By the time we arrive in Barcelona by way of Amsterdam, apart from a few pieces of delayed luggage, things begin to improve. Martin, our multi-lingual Barcelona host, greets us outside the secure airport baggage area and escorts us to a beautiful bus to take us to our hotel in the downtown area, close to Placa Catalunya, the metro, restaurants and shopping. We already sense a lot of tapas, sangria and paella in our futures…
Sleep-deprived travelers finally arrive at their rooms in two groups from two different Amsterdam flights, no doubt ready to begin their adventure. On tap for tomorrow: our first choral rehearsal at the music conservatory and a Barcelona city tour, both rescheduled due to the day we lost in San Francisco.
Day Two: Placer Pops’ First Full Day in “Bar-theh-lona”
Following what seems like a week spent on moving sidewalks, shuttle buses to hotels, and interminable plane rides, the travelers in our group were warned not to sleep the moment we reach our hotel rooms. “Stay awake until what might a normal bed time in Spain,” we were told at our pre-departure briefing. “Then you’ll get over jet lag much more quickly.”
So by the time afternoon rolls around a plan is in effect, prompted by director Lorin Miller’s invitation to go en masse to a nearby tapas (small plates) restaurant for dinner. Once there, those of us who are experiencing serial yawns put on our social hats and begin getting to know others we have not yet met, all the while drinking sangria and sharing paella dishes. By 9:30 (just about the time most Barcelona locals are THINKING about dinner), we all head back to our rooms to descend like timber onto beds in a drug-like state.
The morning finds us in the hotel’s breakfast room, a place containing an impressive array of fruit, pastries, hot food on demand and breakfast conversation to usher in our first full day in a city of which we had only had fleeting glances on our trip from the airport. The morning promises our first full rehearsal for the following day’s open-air evening concert in the town of Gelida. Our host ushers us off a bus to a beautifully designed music conservatory, where we descend steps to a theater-seating style classroom to go through our repertoire, discuss staging and try prepare ourselves for our upcoming performance. As usual, we feel we will never be quite ready to pull off a decent show, but it is times like these that determine the amount of study we need to accomplish in order to look and sound confident on stage.
By 3:30 we are on the bus for our first city tour, marveling as Mar, our tour guide, elaborates on the city’s architecture and style. We pass shuttered, wrought iron-railed balconies gracing elegant Barcelona residences, elegant retail stores, huge avenues and stately town squares.
Arriving at a park whose elevation affords us views of most of the city, its ports and its ancient quarters, iPhone cameras click and travelers bunch up for their first group photos set against a blue Catalan sky, suspended gondolas, green grass and swaying palm trees. Following our lofty drive, we visit the aged but ornate and beautifully preserved cathedral of Santa Cruz in the old city corridor, following our guide in duck-like fashion as she carries an object she called a “lollipop” so we would always know where to go. Our tour company host flanks the rear of the group, helping those of us caught behind on city corners catch up with her. We stroll through passenger alley-ways and pass stores we swear we will revisit as we dodge drivers whose speeds my husband swears fit one of three categories: “stop, go, or kill the tourists.”
Placa Catalunya’s magnificent fountain is surrounded by an expansive slice city of real estate, today glinting in the midday sun as we spill off the bus onto the Ramblas, Barcelona’s spectacular world-renown avenue lined with trees and bustling with commerce and fast-moving shoppers. Many of us make mental notes of where we want to revisit when left on our own over the next few days. This half-walking, half-riding tour gives us a taste of what to expect the rest of our week here, only whetting appetites for more.
By far the most impressive stop on the four-hour tour, however, is the last one: Antonia Gaudi’s never-finished and oft-controversial church dedicated to the Sagrada Familia (holy family). This is a personally significant sight for both my friend Kay and me, who were last in Barcelona as college students in the 1970s, when the church was a crazily ornate study in modern religious art that appeared to have no real final design in mind. Not yet fully enclosed at that point, we never forgot our mixed reaction to its then “plein air” architecture. Today, however, changes all that. Still incomplete, the edifice has easily quadrupled in size since then, but now boasts an incredibly interesting yet ornate modern design that includes stained glass soaring to the heavens, elaborately designed dual spiral staircases and so many delights to the eye that I swear you could sit inside the church for an entire day and not notice all the details. You just can’t beat the Catholics for the lengths they go to honor Christianity.
Having walked the eight city blocks to and from our bus to gain access to this sight, we board our tour bus for the last time on our first full day’s round of activities. Arriving back at our hotel, some of us make beelines for their rooms for rest and others don’t have to wander far to find local eateries for more sampling of local cuisine as well as some alcohol to enhance the self-pinching we were all doing when we think of how we still have the rest of the week to enjoy this world-class city.
Tomorrow will include a tour of the Palau de Musica, some free time and by late afternoon, a trip just outside the city to participate in a music festival in the city of Gelida.
The Barcelona Experience Days 3 & 4: Choral Groups (Especially Ours) RULE!
The past two days have been amazing, and although as the “official” blogger of the group I may have my own opinions and prejudices, I feel certain no one here would disagree with me in my assessments.
Before I launch into a diatribe of the events, however, suffice it to say that this 38-member group has bonded in a way that brings broader and broader smiles to all our faces. Apart from the trials and tribulations of a rocky start to the concert tour due to airline musical chairs (and a few pieces of delayed luggage), I think we can honestly say that serendipity began to take over the moment we arrived. Our ACFEA host has been attentive and informative, our hotel has been established as an upscale home-away-from home that is so well-located that not a single taxi has been used to see the city’s most famous sights. And the weather, while noticeably more humid than we are used to in northern California, has been as perfect as we could hope for.
Yesterday began with a tour of the Palau de Musica Catalan. Located just 4 blocks from our hotel, this performance venue was originally built with choral singing in mind, meant to showcase Barcelona’s choral traditions beginning with the Orfeo Catala, an amateur group founded in 1891. Opened in 1908, this magnificent theater is known for its modernist architecture, its musical and social events and its pristine condition. In 1990, the Orfeo-Catala-Palau de la Musica Foundation was formed to encourage musical culture through the search for material resource for the institution’s choral groups and the organization of concerts in the Palau that provide it with prestige and international recognition for the musical life of Barcelona.
Each year the concert stage and its newly-built lower-level alternate stage see more than half a million people attend approximately 300 concerts, now encompassing much more than choral groups to include dance, orchestral performances, and all types of musical offerings. The theater itself is a delight to the eyes with mosaic-encrusted columns, meaningful and whimsical statuary, and the recognition of the world’s greatest musical composers, all featured in various artistic mediums within the structure itself. Ornate does not adequately describe what Placer Pops singers and their tag-alongs experience as we walk through the Palau. Archways in the Moorish tradition, colored glass everywhere, colorful columns, marble stairways and skylights permitting natural light to flood the theater itself are a delight to the eyes as we catch a view of the stage from the upper levels. Here, we are informed by our tour guide that a performance venue that looks as if it can accommodate no more than 1,000 people does, in reality, seat more than double that number.
Some of the world’s most notable performers are showcased in a 15-minute video as our group is escorted into the theater’s chamber group venue/rehearsal hall, located just below the stage itself and in exact dimensions and shape to it as well. Musical giants such as Zubin Mehta, Andrés Segovia, Pablo Casals, Arthur Rubinstein, Yehudi Menuhin, and Montserrat Caballé, among others, have performed here and some describe their thoughts of performing at the Palau during the video. We all walk away with a new appreciation of how Barcelona and the Catalan people are HUGE fans of choral traditions, setting the stage for an interesting evening to come — the evening of the first of our two Spanish performances.
By late afternoon we are to bring our concert attire with us as we board our motor coach to take the half-hour drive to Gelida, a small town nestled in the hills overlooking Barcelona. Here, we see town bulletin boards graced with a poster-photo of our group portrayed in its full 70+ member size. In reality, however, only 16 representatives will be singing, prompting us to explain why the group is so small, hoping they will understand the entire group could not make the trip.
As we arrive in the quaint town, due to the narrow streets and a dirt road that access the castle-ruins-laden performance site, singers and musicians are asked to disembark our larger motor coach to take smaller shuttle buses while non-singers are left to discover the town and return with us later — but not before being told that since there are no restrooms at our venue, we should make a pit stop before going up the hill. It makes us more than a bit curious about the venue…
We arrive in the heat of the day, walking up ramps to a small, rocky, but picturesque performance venue with a small stage against a backdrop of an ancient semi-circular castle wall. A grand piano arrives the same time we do, painstakingly put into place by a crew of men. Sound and light technicians are setting the stage and director Lorin Miller surveys the area to get a sense of how he will stage our musical offerings.
Steady Spanish winds blow sheet music off music stands as Angel Contreras prepares to accompany us on French horn, and pianist Pattiey Leftridge asks for just the right piano angle to see Lorin and the singers in a single glance. Columns of perspiration roll down our backs and glint off foreheads as we are asked to arrange ourselves on stage to rehearse several numbers and before long, microphone levels, speaker monitors and physical positions are set. Time to go back down the hill to get a quick dinner (much later than originally anticipated) before returning to change into our performance clothing. Speaking of changing, we are led to a small, cave-like room under the hill where we are to perform. The stone walls are dusty and there is no light inside as we drop our performance outfits there to claim after dinner. At this point we are wondering how such a primitive performance venue can attract an audience as Lorin speaks of what is to come as a “great adventure.” We smile and nod, hoping for the best.
To speed up dinner time, we are taken to a local place and quickly served a prix fixe repast, The waitresses are hospitable and very efficient in trying to get the meals to us, and we gobble our meals down quickly, paying on the way out. Once back up the hill we revisit the now-lit cave-changing room and dress quickly. Several of us greet people who have walked up the hill or taken shuttles to see us as they arrive, saying “ola” and “grah-thee-as” (using Catalan pronunciation) as we are impressed to see a crowd beginning to gather.
Soon we are lined up and ready to climb the stage as our male singers grab female hands up a rickety set of temporary stairs. As we line up, the audience — perhaps 120 people or so — applauds us continuously. This show of appreciation is not something we are accustomed to, but we are thrilled nonetheless. Now that it is dark (10 pm) the castle wall backdrop is awash with artistically alternating colored lights as Barcelona twinkles below. Suddenly just being there is a treat and all thoughts of the Spartan performance venue and ancient changing room have been replaced with excitement at the idea of singing for people who went to so much trouble to set this all up to hear us that evening.
Lorin Miller and Terrie Jaramillo form a tag-team duo introducing our songs in both English and Spanish, entertaining the audience with their well-meaning descriptions while audience members help them pronounce words. The rest of us chuckle behind them. Then Lorin turns around and begins conducting us as we sing The Boy From New York City, a song made famous by The Manhattan Transfer. Our “ooo-wah-oo-wah-ooh-wa-didees” were received with a rousing applause and whoops, making us surmise few American groups traveling here on tour offer anything but a classical program for these jazz-and-pop-loving Spaniards. As the concert continues with a diverse selection of songs, the crowd shows marked appreciation, encouraging our encore of New York New York and clapping in time to it. We mingle with several audience members for a while and by nearly midnight, we are ready to grab our belongings and roll back to Barcelona, exhausted but grateful for the experience.
The next morning (Thursday) is a much-anticipated tour of Montserrat, the famous Catholic shrine and monastery nestled into the dramatic rock formations that loom large along Barcelona’s southern reaches. Joseph, our tour guide, is a wonderful story teller, explaining the history of the area and explaining how 90 or so modern day scholar-monks now live on the mountain. The monastery also houses a school for boys that specializes in musical and choral instruction to help traditions of the Catalan people endure. The site was breathtaking and included a museum, the basilica with its huge pipe organ and world famous black Madonna, several funiculars to take visitors to the top of the rocks, and a collection of stores and restaurants to satisfy the tourist in us all.
A snapshot of the interior of our return bus ride would reveal many of us napping, depleted by the heat and exercise after nearly a full day on the mountain. Arriving back at our hotel, we disperse to find food or rest awhile before about half the group emerges from the hotel around 8 pm to walk to the Palau for an evening Flamenco performance. Strewn along the sidewalk as we stroll back to our hotel afterward, we talk of the operatic as well as ethnic singing we had just witnessed, accompanied by skilled guitar-playing and athletic feats-of-the feet performed by the dancers. But most of all, we speak in almost hushed tones at the idea of having attended a show at the incredible Palau de Musica Catalan, surely a newly realized bucket list event for many of us…
Apart from our second concert on Friday, our time is now our own, ending with a group dinner at the hotel on Saturday night.
Placer Pops Chorale and Barcelona: The Recipe for a Great Choral Tour
The fact that the writer of these blogs is wide awake at 5:40 am in no way means she stayed up all night to see members of our group depart the hotel at the ungodly hour for the Barcelona airport this morning. It simply means she committed the atrocity of having drunk a cup of delicious Spanish coffee at the evening’s farewell dinner before thinking nothing would deter her from sleep. But if my travel buddies wanted to color this as sympathetic insomnia, I wouldn’t mind at all …
The last few days here in this beautiful city included a well-received, well attended concert given in the seaside-close village of Pals on the magnificent Costa Brava. The setting of the venue was (again) stunning, with our backdrop being a very old stone structure. After arriving there on our bus,we did our usual mini-rehearsal and then disbanded to find dinner on our own, meeting back at the venue to do a last-minute sound check. By 10 pm, the start of the concert saw most of the audience chairs occupied, but our audience also consisted of diners at a restaurant near the audience area, people sitting on surrounding walls and passers-by who joined us after hearing us begin the singing. We all agreed it was a lovely presentation and picturesque place for our second and final concert.
That day as well as our last day in Barcelona were full of free time. We traveled alone, in pairs and in small herds as we used our time to soak in the Catalan ambience and beauty after a fulfilling week together. Activities among us included cable-car-in-the-sky rides, boat rides, visits to the Picasso Museum, strolls through the world famous Gaudi-designed Guell Park, shopping and souvenir collecting, walking all over the old city corridor, and taking funicular rides to nearby mountain tops. One group member went to Girona with a friend who lived in Barcelona to tour what was once one of Spain’s largest Jewish quarters to learn about the historical influence and accomplishments of her ethnic group in this part of Europe.
Reflecting back on our time here, we seemed to be in agreement that the success of this experience in the more technical sense can be credited to a number of things: a well-arranged week of touring, concerts and activities by our tour company, a great host that stayed at the hotel with us the entire time (yes, he even accompanied the 3 am group to the airport), the hotel, which was luxurious by both European and American standards with its blue marble bathrooms and sumptuous breakfast buffets each day, and most notably, staying in one place the entire time so that we did not have to pack and unpack bags or climb on and off buses too often.
None of that, however, reflects the success of the trip as well as the company we kept. Among us were couples ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s (the 20-something couple was actually on their honeymoon!), single and unaccompanied travelers who bonded after hearing life stories and cementing new friendships forged through travel and common experiences, and, of course, the music: that universal language that binds us and keeps our minds sharp and engaged.
As we sit at long dining tables in the hotel’s restaurant for our farewell dinner, we talk excitedly of our time here, exchange email addresses and telephone numbers and even speak of where the group might go in a few years. A European riverboat cruise? A stay in Florence? Who knows? In the end, any trip can be fun when you love being together and singing together. Toward the end of the evening, hugs are the order of the day. Places some of us are heading include Paris, Madrid, Bucharest, Amsterdam, Vienna, and Rome, while the rest of the group are looking forward to getting home.
We hope you have enjoyed our Barcelona blogs and encourage you to get friends and family to “like” our Placer Pops Facebook page, since it has become a vehicle to not only entertain and inform you on our activities, but also serves to help augment our audience sizes — especially our newest audiences in the Folsom/El Dorado Hills area serving the Harris Center performances we began holding a few years ago.
Our thanks go to the organizers of this trip as well as the friends and family who tagged along to make our group large enough to make this happen. We love you all.
The remainder of this post covers the continuing adventures of Dena and George Kouremetis, having parted with our group to take the train to Paris, and after a week there, on to London.
First Full Day In Paris
After getting settled in our charming studio apartment just steps away from the Bastille monument/roundabout, we walk to my daughter’s temporary digs in the Marais along the Avenue des Filles du Calvaire, where we get caught up with news of our trips-to-date, order pizza and begin ruminating on where we could go with a 4 lb. poodle in tow. Much of Paris is extremely pet-friendly (restaurants, stores, etc.), but museums and some other tourist attractions make it verboten to stash a pet under an arm.
My daughter spoils us with “Uber” rides (cars and drivers that can be called in lieu of taxis in many major cities these days) as we set out for Montmartre to see the beautiful Sacre Coeur basilica by early afternoon. We are deposited onto a heavily-infested tourist street nearby. The area instantly reminds me of the Plaka area of Athens, but in this case, vendors boast cheap trinkets mostly made in China with “I’m in Paris” logos plastered in polyester. My memories of Paris of the ‘70s contain only cheap portrait painters and questionable book sellers in this location, so I guess not much has changed except for what they sell. However, we are able to drown our reactions in some gelato, so our spirits improve.
On our way down the hill trying to avoid tourist hoards, we walk in the direction of the Eiffel Tower. Before we arrive, however, we learn that Sophia’s thumb-typing prowess has procured a reservation on a “Bateau Mouche” — a riverboat that feeds you an elegant dinner as you glide down the Seine and witness activity along the quay and its berges — that place where lovers wave, the Eiffel Tower glistens in a sea of twinkly lights and people dance Tango on raised platforms. Another bucket list item soon gets checked off my list and we arrive back at our little place ready to check emails, write blogs and pass out once again.
Today will be spent trying out our museum passes while braving the Paris Metro.
It has been awhile. Still pinching myself.
Day 3 in Paris: Getting Around on Our Own
We began the day looking for a pharmacy after sitting down for a morning baguette near Place de la Bastille. Not prone to allergies, I seem to have developed one quite handily, complete with itchy, watery eyes, an alto voice deteriorating into a “vilkommen-bienvenue” whisky baritone, and tiring much too easily. Facing a French pharmacist, I use all the vocabulary I can muster to describe my situation. Soon I walk out of the tiny place armed with fizzy versions of aspirins and antihistamines, ready to take on a day of touring that includes the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides.
No longer having the luxury of my daughter’s “Uber”-ing” privileges, we hoof it to the closest Metro station, forcing me to see firsthand how things have changed since the 1970s. It’s only logical that everything has been computerized by now, but I must admit it changes the flavor or running around with a fistful of yellow tickets. Everything is well marked and train transfers are easy, just as they were long ago. Another thing that has not changed are the Metro musicians; from guitarists to Russian folk ensembles to gypsy clarinetists with their own computer rhythm sections, it is a circus of underground delight.
Les Invalides is a serious study in dead French military heroes displayed in larger-than-life monuments, but we also take the time to tour their military museum, outlining the role the French played throughout history. By the time we have reached World War II, I am beginning to hurry through rooms of displays much more quickly than George, who basks in history and loved analyzing weapons and military devices. This is fine, since my feel are already speaking plain English to me as I sit on benches and permit them to complain before moving on.
In some Metro stations, new glass barriers with their own automatic doors are set up like fences against the Metro tracks and in other older stations, nothing can prevent those who prefer a dramatic ending the privilege of hurling themselves onto an electric track.
The day has been filled with revelations and lessons, so in lieu of tedious paragraphs about the events of the day as well as my impressions to date, I have decided to give you a bullet-point rundown of enlightenments:
–French cafes and restaurants don’t truly compete on price. What you pay for the same cup of coffee can be all over the map depending on how close you are to a tourist attraction. Note to self: if the Eiffel Tower’s loftiest spires are anywhere within view, simply double the bill.
–Never hesitate when someone vacates a seat on the Metro. Flop yourself into it in a New York second or you will be standing with someone’s bosom in your face for ten stops.
–If you didn’t take the time to buy yourself an advance ticket to the Eiffel Tower, fuggetaboutit. The line is so long, you would be committing a kind of Twilight Zone-esque harakiri by thinking you will make it up the structure’s silver arches any time soon. Be satisfied with a few smart phone selfies aimed towards the structure’s belly with your faces stuck in the middle. Works great.
–Weather forecasts for Paris summers are useless. The weather can be sunny at one moment, overcast in another and raining like a cascade of Monet colors on a canvas with the blink of an eye.
–The French equivalent of a firm bed is a granite slab with a duvet cover.
Air conditioning is not common, so get used to open windows wafting the noise of busy cafes as you try to get the theme from “Charade” out of your head as you attempt sleep.
–Anything higher than a slightly chunky heel will have you rolling your ankles on Paris’ Les Mis-style cobblestone streets. If the French invented stiletto heels (from what I hear they were invented by under-tall French despots), they must have been reserved for brooding, lanky beauties on runways or for the Moulin Rouge. Ooo-lala.
–Europeans do not use washcloths. On two separate trips, we have taken our hotel or apartment’s small towels and violated them beyond recognition to create little rags that appreciate soap. Mea culpa.
–You can cook a meal with one hand and throw in a load of clothes with the other in a European kitchen. Clothes and food evidently get the same amount of attention here.
–Elevators are not designed for more than 4-6 people anywhere — in large stores, apartment buildings or airports. Small wonder there are far fewer obese French people. Everyone prefers to take the stairs than wait for the slowest lifts known to mankind.
–Saying “bonjour”, and “merci bien”, mimicking the very best French accent you can muster (while wearing your purse cross-body and making sure there is a little scarf around your neck) gets you everywhere — including fooling everyone into thinking you speak fluent French. It becomes a case of “be-careful-what-you-wish-for.”
More revelations to follow. My feet hurt so my brain needs a rest. Yes — there is a connection.
An Unbelievable Day….
Between George’s desire to get out of Dodge and my dangerous knowledge of French, we figure we were due for an adventure after nearly two weeks of meticulously planned activities, museum visits and city dwelling.
We hop the Metro to St. Lazare Station and buy train tickets to Bayeux on the Normandy coast. Not having planned this side trip before we left home, we had no idea what to expect. Tours seemed sold out when we Googled them in our Paris apartment, but these two Greeks are now determined to find Omaha Beach and the American D-Day cemetery even if we have to line dance our way there..
As the train pulls into the lazy little countryside station (no, George does not fail to make everything he possibly can into a song as he serenades me with a rendition of “Blue Bayeux”…), we notice a few taxis lined up. I ask one of the drivers how much he would charge to take us to the visitor’s center and George and I agree it sounds like a rip-off. So we say a friendly thank you and wander just beyond the train station to a tiny hotel with a huge sign advertising D-Day tours. As we approach the door, a short, stocky, balding, animated man with a tiny moustache emerges. His accent, looks and mannerisms are so authentically Old World French that I have to wonder if he is putting on an act. His name is Jean-Marc and he runs a tiny auberge as well as a touring operation. He names his price for a half-day tour and we are sold. Told we are to come back in about 90 minutes for our tour, we take the time to explore the picturesque town of Bayeux, which looks as charming as it must have been before World War II. Strangely enough, its buildings and homes were not harmed during the war (evidently not strategically important enough) and its magnificent Cathedral de Notre Dame stands still stately and stunning surrounded by tiny shops, homes and eateries.
Back in plenty of time for our tour, we wait to see who else might join us. “You will probably have a private tour,” says Jean-Marc a bit worriedly in his charming nasal accent. “Others say they want to go, but did not pay in advance and they are not back. So if they don’t show up in the next ten minutes it will just be you and your guide, Romain.” I look up to see a 30-something ruggedly handsome young man greeting us and instantly think private is good.
Soon a noisy, outdated van meant to seat nine tourists sees only three of us filling its front bench seat and we’re off, bouncing down a country road that reminds me of every war movie I have ever seen. Romain, who grew up in the area, begins telling fascinating stories as if the entire countryside were his personal backyard and the legends of D-Day were in his DNA. We arrive at the town of Arromanches, where the Brits had built a fleet of temporary docks unlike anything ever done before for a war effort. We see the town’s small museum and watch the 1946 film that documented the operation. The breeze is cool, the sun is warm and the salt sea air fills our nostrils — so welcome after a week in Paris fumes and stuffy Metro cars.
We are again on our way, this time to the American cemetery, memorial and visitors’ center — 70+ acres given to the U.S. in appreciation for its sacrifice of the more than 9,000 men buried there. Images from “Saving Private Ryan” fill my head and despite the crowds gathered around the memorial, a hush comes over the area as the Star Spangled Banner is played in chimes over a loudspeaker. People stop talking. They even stop moving. Tears stream down more faces than just my own as we gaze out over the sea of white crosses and Stars of David. It is difficult to describe the peacefulness of this lofty place, knowing what occurred there some 70 years before.
The visitors’ center is replete not only with films depicting what went on during the landing, but also the display of many individual stories of the men and women who gave their lives to keep Europe free — boys still in their teens who had never been outside their farm communities in Nebraska, and others who simply did what their country asked.
The rest of our day is spent reveling in the detail and dozens of stories Romain relates as he tours us around German long range gun bunkers, shows us bomb craters, drives us by the beach itself and speaks in awe of what went on there. Five hours come and go as Romain deposits us at the train station just minutes before the train back to Paris arrives.
As we slump in our compartment, George and I look at one another in disbelief over our good fortune. The day was entirely unplanned, yet turned out to be one of the most fulfilling days of our trip so far. We agreed the next time we return to France we would be renting a car and driving the countryside instead of hanging around Paris. The most exciting part, however, was that we are already planning to return.
Art, Patience and Coldcuts in Paris
The French know how to present art. Whether it’s the delight we take as we enter their gigantic galleries filled with abundant natural light, the sense of excitement we feel while climbing elegant marble steps leading to expansive “salles” containing impressive collections — or just our involuntary gasps at the way these masterpieces come into view, it’s easy to see why Parisians see their city as well as their art as the center of the universe.
Despite the fact that George and I have individually developed ideas of aesthetics, we agree on our love of the Impressionist era, when crusty upstarts railed against the formality and stuffiness of the upper classes and chose to paint and sculpt the world that lay at their feet. From scenes in restaurants to ballet classes to fields of gold to days at the beach, French life is depicted in all its common-folk glory by the likes of Monet, Renoir, Manet, Sisley, Seurat, Gaugin, Pisarro, LaTour, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne, Rousseau and others. While European art galleries are filled to the brim with intimidating religious depictions and gargantuan works showing majestic royalty, it is the Impressionists that truly captured the spirit of life here.
Like two kids in a candy shop at the stunningly-arrayed Musee D’Orsay, my life partner and I spend a few extra euro to schlep a device that, with a tap of a number on a small screen, explains the significance of many of the pieces displayed there. Narrators make the pieces come alive as we find ourselves hunting for the next objet d’art with a symbols matching those of our handheld friends.
It’s funny how museums-in-famous-cities visits go. When you get there, you are in disbelief, thinking, “I am here — in Paris — at the Musee D’Orsay and I am standing in front of Vincent Van Gogh’s self portrait. Pinch me.” By three hours into the experience you begin to feel guilty that you are beginning to leave one room to start looking at the next before stopping at every piece of art. Six hours into it and you are so exhausted that you sit on any observation bench you can find, rationalizing that you are seeing the art from afar — the way it was meant to be viewed. Suddenly all you can think about is sitting at a cafe and hoisting a cold beer. All thoughts of seeing another room full of priceless paintings or timeless sculpture become subjugated. We are cheap dates.
We find libations and a hearty meal at a nearby eaterie and as we clink our glasses, we easily get back into the “OMG-I’m-in-Paris” mode because the alcohol has temporarily numbed our throbbing feet. Following a dessert of crepes, bananas, chocolate and Chantilly creme, we lock arms and walk toward the water, where the Seine’s new “berges” have been built along its banks. Here lovers sneak kisses, families take their children to play, and tourists wave from crowded boats to glide by the Eiffel Tower. Along the riverbanks, Parisians built structures and play places for both adults and kids, with lounge chairs, hammocks, short rock-climbing walls, and even dance floors. Soon it is time to hop the Metro back to our apartment, where we fall asleep faster than David Copperfield can make the Eiffel Tower disappear.
The next morning we steel ourselves for an all-day visit to the Louvre, having read online about the horrible crowds and seas of tour buses that empty out like sprinkles on a cake. Fortunately, we are able to find an alternate entrance few others seem to know about (Google helped with this one) and breeze into the place. The Louvre is massive by anyone’s standards, so apart from the wing called “Denon”, which displays the museum’s most famous works of art, even huge crowds can thin out inside its many salons and corridors. By 5 hours into our visit, we give in. We HAVE to see Winged Victory and The Mona Lisa just to say we did. Now the throngs are stifling and no amount of air conditioning can cool us off as we snap photos and try to wheedle past mile-long Asian tour groups whose leaders carry ten foot poles with origami figures flying from the tips. And there she is — behind glass, smiling her stifled smile. Snap. Snap snap. Then you feel the elbow of someone who wants your spot to hold up their smart phone or flash their iPad.
Next thing we know, we are following every ”sortie” sign we can find. The museum is closing in an hour and still people are pouring in. It’s bizarre. At last we find ourselves outside, in front of the Da Vinci Code pyramid. We pay a vendor for a couple of Oranginas and hoof it to the Metro stop, grateful we now know how to get back to our apartment without studying a map and knowing which tunnel leads to the roundabout within steps of our pedestrian alleyway.
After a rest, we wander out to find a small eatery recommended by our landlords, just around the corner. I order a smoked salmon dish and George orders a selection of “charcuterie” — tiny slices of meats and cheeses.
He smiles as he cuts delicate bites to savor and swizzles his Languedoc wine. “You know, I could put together something like this at home that would look pretty much the same. I could buy the cold cuts at Costco and Corti Brothers and the cheeses too. But when I wake up in the morning, I’m not in Paris.”
So true. It’s all about location.
Reflections on Paris: “Bribes de la Conversation”…
I have always loved French expressions. “Faire des bises” refers to the greeting act of French “cheek-brushing” — a kind of air-kissing first done to the left, then to the right and sometimes to the left once again. But the phrase I love most is “bribes de la conversation” — an expression that refers to snippets of unfinished and sometimes unrelated things you hear people say in the course of a day.
That is how I think of this short week in Paris. Phrases and words I’ve heard here became flashbacks — to a time I when was 20 years old and spent three months here as part of a French language summer abroad study program with my university. In our group of a dozen or so students, I was, perhaps, an enigma. I had already spent a college year in Europe in Athens, Greece just 12 months before, so being back in Europe for another summer almost seemed like an extension of my earlier experiences. For that reason, I took things for granted and came to regret it — things like forgetting to snap photos of famous places, failing to solidify my relationships with other students with whom I might have stayed lifelong friends, and being the tag-along instead of the self-starter when it came to getting to know the City of Lights.
Being here 40 years later cements old feelings regarding this magnificent city, but also stirs emotion in me I was not prepared to feel. You see, Paris isn’t just a city. It’s a microcosm of experiences, sights, and people that represent an entire world of ethnic identities, art, music, and intellectual thought. Paris is a constant experiment; a place where people are just as concerned with observing others as being observed, illustrated by the number of cafes whose tables are accompanied by chairs that face perennially forward on city sidewalks. The French are talking all around you, having long, drawn-out discussions about all manner of topics, whether on a metro train or at a small cafe. They spend time psycho-analyzing experiences, relationships and even talk history. Life, to the French, is one long conversation comprised of a series of snippets. Punctuate this with young lovers stealing kisses along the “berges”, groups of small school children holding hands like a string of goslings following their teacher along a Paris sidewalk, an old woman with a sack of baguettes slung over her shoulder or the face of a crusty laborer sitting at a cafe for hours talking with his cronies, his face etched with tobacco creases belying happier times.
This morning as George and I sat at a small cafe breathing in the last of our Paris experience, I thought about how it turned out to be a perfect day for saying goodbye to this city that stole my heart so long ago. Being Sunday, our little neighborhood in the Marais/Bastille area looked different from an entire week of days before. Shops were closed, small cafes were open and at first, all we saw were older people walking by. This was in stark contrast to having felt as if no one under age 35 even lived in this city as we crowded into metro cars and walked down Parisian avenues.
I remarked that the younger generation was no doubt sleeping off Saturday night revelry, but I think it was more than that. I think Paris finally takes a breath on Sunday mornings. Noise dies down. Cars stay parked. People walk more slowly. The morning sun glints off old buildings while each floor-to-ceiling window with its wrought iron balcony-like barriers boasts curtains flung open to bring in the day. Old men with hats and baggy pants walk by as we sip our cafe cremes, contrasted only by an occasional family of well-dressed people heading toward a nearby church for morning mass.
While we made sure to see the basics — museums and places one is thought to be remiss if not seen on a trip here — we realize now that we will not be the same people when we return to Paris. We will have a different agenda stemming from the watershed feelings we experienced on this trip, just as I did from having visited some three decades ago. Our most memorable moments were those that were unplanned — walking along the Seine and reclining on a quay like lovers in our 20s, getting on a train bound for Normandy coast with no idea of how we would see a place George wanted to see his entire life, and finally, my looking down from our tiny apartment through its huge window at the sight below me in the pedestrian alleyway. There, my husband sits in a chair having a cigar, animatedly talking with a shop owner as if they were old friends. Laughter wafts up to me, along with cigar fumes and the idea that people, no matter where you go in the world, are all looking for connections. We delight in fleeting but meaningful glances, we get a thrill out of a conversation with a stranger. In the end, Paris is a state of mind, much like New York. And I will forever value its snippets of conversation, its craziness, its color, and its people.
It’s a Wrap: Londontown and Steps Toward a Lovely Reality
Today is our last day is Europe, the past five days having been spent in the lovely Notting Hill neighborhood in London. Tomorrow we begin subjecting ourselves to a grueling trip home with an ungodly layover, placing us back at SFO so late we are already exhausted just thinking about it.
The sequence of European cities we have visited over the past three weeks have sent us down a memorable path. From balmy, tropical Barcelona, with its Gaudi-esque charm and streets you simply want to get lost in, to Paris with its personal memories, beautiful language, huge roundabouts and statues, and then on to London, where George and I felt we needed at least a day to shift gears to an English-speaking country.
London is, of course, the most American-feeling of the three cities, since we need not refer to a phrase book to communicate. The hustle-bustle offers shades of New York infused in its downtown corridors, and the shopping looks just as world class. But the thing that strikes us most here is how intensely diverse this city appears to us. Of every 20 people we encounter on the Tube or walking down a street, looks-wise 15 seem to come from elsewhere. Accents and languages we hear range from exotic countries in Africa to Asia, to hijab-dressed Muslim women, with a definite dearth of the expected fair-skinned, freckled Brits to be found. It’s even more surprising when you ask a question of someone who clearly looks foreign and a perfect British accent spews forth. It makes us realize that many of the people we encounter may have been here for generations. Then again, I suppose that’s how Brooklyn-accented children of Greek or Italian descent may have appeared to New Yorkers a few generations back, so turnabout is certainly fair play.
References to royalty are everywhere. It’s plain to see that maintenance of the country’s monarchical tradition is one of its biggest points of pride, even if they do poke fun at it on the “telly.” What occurred to George and I, who love to imitate British accents back home (George is a die-hard Monty Python fan and several times I clearly heard him softly crying “bring out your dead!”) is that it’s just NOT fun to try to sound like a Brit when you’re a visitor here. Unlike my intense effort to speak French when I was in Paris and Greek when I go to Greece, speaking “British” should not be attempted unless one plans to become a resident. Even then, you’d feel like a big phony and you’d be sure to give yourself away by the expressions you use even if your accent were flawless. By the way, no one knows what cilantro is here. We had to ask each waiter if there was any dastardly coriander present in the food.
We are clueless as to how much the average Londoner gets paid in wages for various jobs. But when our landlord assures us that a restaurant she recommends as “reasonable” at 46 pounds (about $78) for a single meal, we know we’re not in Kansas any more. Our contemporary little AirBnb flat, therefore, has served us well with its well-equipped IKEA-like kitchen. Instead of eating breakfast or lunch out, George took to shopping at the local “Tesco” for eggs, bread, juice, milk and treats so the sting was taken out of our expense outlay for the five days we have been here. This has freed up our pounds (monetary ones, unfortunately not physical) to spend on the average tourist attraction that costs around to $40-50 USD each (no E-ticket rides anywhere to be seen, but the lines — oh, excuse me — queues — are just as long).
As spoiled-American as it sounds, we are eager to get back to our air conditioned home, our premium cable TV channels, our relative humidity-less heat, our kitchen island, and most of all to our bed, which conforms to our aging bodies in fine fashion (unlike the cardboard slabs Europeans pass off as “somewhat firm” and pillows that are suited more for sofa armrests than those delivering us into the arms of Morpheus….)
We have thoroughly enjoyed our time on the “continent” and I hope you have found some virtual fun by stowing away in our luggage as I posted blogs about our experiences here. In my dreams I picture some travel magazine finding my diatribes on my obscure web site (yes, I will be reposting these there), suddenly contacting me saying how badly they need me to professionally blog for them and sending me all-expenses-paid to exotic places for the rest of my blogging days.
In the meantime, I’ll take home anytime.