You Best Find Another Boulangerie

You sure ain’t gonna get bread from your regular one. It’s August, and many small stores and restaurants here close up shop for several weeks to go on vacation.

Most signs are simple and handwritten, such as this cheery one. 83.august.2014a   “Closed for the summer until Monday, August 25. Have a good vacation”

 Others are multi-part. Below this sign was a smaller one noting the address of a nearby boulangerie that would be open.
83.august.2014b“Annual closing of the boulangerie from August 2 to August 24”

Sometimes you must decipher multiple signs, much like parking in New York. Let’s look at this one together from the bottom-up. 83.august.2014c“Your grocery will be open all summer”
“Closes at 7:30pm on August 3”
“Your grocery will be open Thursday, August 15
CLOSED Saturday, August 17
Thank you for your understanding”

I like being in Paris in August. My commute is quieter, the weather is the best it’s going to get all year, and fun summer events abound. The days are long and made for leisurely walks along the Seine after work.

In this city there will always be another place to buy bread.

Maybe I Want to Know What the Specials Are Too

You know what annoys me? When I dine in a restaurant with a male and the waiter addresses my dining companion when reciting the specials, asks him if we want dessert or coffee, and places the bill in front of him. It doesn’t happen often, but each time is one too many.

Have you experienced this too?

Breathing Deeply

I was recently invited to friends’ old family home in Charente-Maritime, a region in southwest France about three and a half hours by high-speed train from Paris. I can only describe the weekend I spent there as tranquil.

Across the road from their home was a huge field of sunflowers, which in French are tournesolstourner means “to turn” and sol stands for soleil, or sun. Have you ever stood before countless sunflowers, all facing you? The experience blew me away. It was quiet all around, but I didn’t feel alone.100_6850

I walked on past the sunflowers and ended up wandering for about an hour and a half. I might have gotten a little lost. I found my way back, though. I took the “scenic route.” It’s often the best one.

100_6868100_6870 100_6861You won’t be surprised to know that I felt like I could breathe deeply there.100_6829100_6830My hosts attend Mass at this old Roman church that dates from the twelfth century.100_6833 I can only imagine how cold it gets in winter, but on the summer day that I took a look inside, it was airy and bright with the doors wide open.100_6834100_6835All weekend, the other guests and I had the company of a chat abandonné (doesn’t “stray cat” sound so much sadder in French?). When I arrived Friday night, he had already been there for at least two days. My hostess’s brother said that a lot of people come to the countryside and leave their pets that they no longer want to take care of.100_6831We became quite attached to the thin little creature. Well, most of us, anyway. The hostess threw water on him to shoo him away from the front door. She also freaked out when one person who was especially sympathetic to him offered him leftover chicken terrine.

The guest who slipped our feline friend tidbits decided to take him back to Paris. I was relieved. We discussed possible names, how to transport him, and that I would visit him. Imagine our dismay, then, then, when the cat didn’t appear on Sunday morning.

For a few days after I got back to Paris, I wondered what happened. Then yesterday I received an email from the cat’s new best friend. He told me that the cat had reappeared and that he had bought food and a carrier for it. For the moment they were going to leave it with a neighbor, but if no one claimed it, he wanted to eventually bring it to the City of Lights.

To be continued?

Milan

This photo sums up Milan pretty well: business, shopping, and the Milan Cathedral.81.milan.2014cWe saw streets and streets of high-end shopping. It was like being on the Champs-Elysées, except that stores closed far earlier.

The city is much less touristy than Florence and Pisa, and with good reason. There are less tourist sites. Most of them are concentrated around the cathedral.81.milan.2014aSpeaking of which, did I tell you about the time I was turned away from the Milan Cathedral? I was wearing a halter top and shorts, and the man whose job it was to assess visitors’ clothing deemed by outfit impassable. It was quite a sight to see all the girls in line stretching a scarf around their shoulders or legs to make it through. My friend offered me a large t-shirt he had bought earlier, but I felt ridiculous wrapping it half-way around my waist. Luckily, we had one more morning in Milan. We went to the cathedral right before going to the airport. I had my rolling duffel bag with me, so if the guard disapproved of my sleeveless dress I would have had an array of wardrobe changes for him to select from. My choice was fine, though. Of course, we weren’t allowed to bring in our bags, but fortunately there were two of us and hardly any line.

Some unusual and beautiful stained glass adorned the cathedral. Often stained glass figures are abstracted into pieces; these were like illustrations but in glass form.81.milan.2014gWe ventured to the southern part of the city to see the canals. Upon exiting the metro station, the streets seemed a bit grungy and graffiti-covered, but one of the canals was especially pleasant.

81.milan.2014eAfter a day and a night in Milan, we flew back to “real life” in Paris. A presto, Italy!81.milan.2014d81.milan.2014b81.milan.2014f

Siena

When my friend and I were planning our trip to Florence, Pisa, and Milan, I asked everyone I knew for recommendations on where to go. Many people suggested taking the train to other Tuscan cities that neighbored Florence. After hearing about San Gimignano and Lucca, I began to wish that we had two weeks instead of one to visit all these places. I couldn’t decide which day trip to suggest to my friend, seeing as only one would be feasible. Then I mentioned to a girl I work with that I was going to Italy, and she said, “Go to Siena.”

And so I did.

The train ride to Siena took only an hour and a half from Florence. It left once every hour from Santa Maria Novella. We left in the morning and came back in the evening.

Every single little medieval street in Siena was charming. We arrived without an agenda, and we didn’t need one. The city was made for walking and oohing and aahing.80.siena.2014a 80.siena.2014b80.siena.2014e80.siena.2014g Flags everywhere signaled the annual horse race that took place about two weeks prior and would occur again on August 16, the Catholic feast of the Assumption.

This red, green, and gold flag with a dragon in the center represents one of the seventeen contrade, or districts, of Siena.80.siena.2014kMy friend and I napped on the Piazza del Campo. Not bad to open one’s eyes to the Torre del Mangai.80.siena.2014cI like roofs.

80.siena.2014fNotice anything about this restaurant furniture?80.siena.2014iI think I glimpsed a princess behind these billowing curtains.80.siena.2014hIt was funny to walk around town and look up to notice St. Peter looking down at me. These kinds of religious reliefs are common in Italy.80.siena.2014jI would definitely recommend visiting Siena if you have the chance to go to Toscana.80.siena.2014d

Firenze

Everyone told me, “You will love Florence!”

I did.

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore enchanted me from the moment I saw it. Topped by Brunelleschi’s dome, the duomo is remarkable to see in person. Its construction spanned from the late 1200s to early 1400s. Aren’t we lucky to be able to see it completed?79.florence.2014a 79.florence.2014b 79.florence.2014cThe line to climb to the top was about one hour. My friend suggested that we take turns waiting and wandering about. He used his time to have coffee in a café where a local man started talking to him about the declining economy of the city. I found a side street where I bought a dozen postcards from a shop. I chose nine to send to friends, family, and colleagues, one for the collection on my wall, and a couple extra for good measure.

About ten minutes before we arrived at the entrance, my friend double-checked the sign in front of the door. He ran back and told me that they didn’t sell tickets there. We asked the people behind us where to buy tickets, and they directed us to the office down the street. My friend sprinted off and came back panting and bearing two tickets. I picked a good travel companion.

The ascent to the dome included narrow winding spiral stone staircases. Usually staircases were one way, but several of them, invariably the steep ones, were shared by people climbing up and people going down so that one side had to wait for the other to carefully make their way before continuing.

Prior to entering into the open air, we were treated to an expected interior view under the dome, which is covered with a fresco of “The Last Judgement” by Vasari and Federico Zuccari. I had never been so high up inside a church before.79.florence.2014eOutside, the view of the city was… well, look at it.79.florence.2014fWe circled the dome and soaked in each viewpoint. We must have been there for an hour.79.florence.2014g79.florence.2014hAfter lunch that day, we took a very roundabout way to another vantage point of the city. I don’t want to talk about it. By the time we arrived, I was so hot and pooped that I immediately plopped down on the ground in the tiny piece of shade of a snack stand. My friend eventually asked if I wanted to go, and I said okay, but I’d better go look at the view for a bit first. I had to admit that it was striking. 79.florence.2014i79.florence.2014jThe best cure for long walks in the heat was gelato. My favorite flavor definitely became melone. Every time we went to a gelateria, I would stuff a napkin in my purse but not always use it. Days later, I would dig for something in my bag and find another papery gelato napkin.

In terms of food, we ate pizza and pasta and it was good but made me feel like I just wanted to eat fruit salad for a week when I got back.

On our last day in Florence, after seeing Michaelangelo’s David at the Renaissance-filled Accademia Gallery, we feasted on spinach pizza, artichoke calzones, cold eggplant, sundried tomatoes, and spremuta (freshly squeezed orange juice). Also, can I just say that Florence is cheaper than Paris? This lunch for two was 13.50 euros. Not dirt cheap but certainly less expensive than my city of residence. 79.florence.2014kOur budget hotel room overlooked a quiet street walking distance from the action.79.florence.2014dFlorence felt alive, with many different neighborhoods easily traversed on foot. As a friend had warned me, the city is filled with tourists, and lines to enter monuments and museums can be one to two hours. My mindset was that I wanted to choose one or two sites where we’d be willing to wait, and the rest of the time I wanted to explore the city and enjoy being outside. That’s exactly what we did. We didn’t go in the Uffizi Gallery or pay to see the Boboli Gardens, but we did nap on the bank of the Arno River, walk across the charming Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), and have a laugh on a warm evening while sitting on a bench outside a lit shop as gelato melted in our mouths.79.florence.2014l

 

Italia

Last week a friend and I took a trip to Italy. I say that casually, but actually I find it amazing that in one and a half hours I can be in Italy.

Our first stop was Pisa. We saw the standard tourist sites, like the duomo (church) and Leaning Tower. I had been to Pisa before, but on a whirlwind nighttime trip, so this was my first time seeing it during the day.78.pisa.2014a78.pisa.2014b 78.pisa.2014c My friend quite liked this small Gothic church, Santa Maria della Spina, nestled along the Arno River.78.pisa.2014h 78.pisa.2014gI was taken by the late afternoon light on this building. The walls in Tuscany were superb.78.pisa.2014eA smiling girl and her pup charmed me. I was angling my camera up to take a picture of a dog looking out the window when she emerged with a big smile.78.pisa.2014fOur lodging’s décor wasn’t minimalist, but the spacious room somehow felt sparse and had the feeling of a convent. The sheets were pale blue and the floor was tile. There was even a picture of Mary and the baby Jesus on the wall. It was peaceful. We had a balcony that overlooked a quiet street.78.pisa.2014dThe last site we hunted down during our 24 hours in Pisa was Keith Haring’s mural. Bang.78.pisa.2014i

Blue, White, and Red

The other night I was biking home and saw the Assemblée Nationale lit up in the colors of the French flag for the upcoming Fête Nationale, or Bastille Day, as we call it in the States. This classic-looking building contains the lower house of the Parliament.77.assembleenat.2014Every year on July 14th crowds of people gather on the Champ de Mars to watch fireworks in honor of the holiday. Last year a friend and her visiting friend and I picnicked on a small side lawn for about five hours before the fireworks started around 11pm. As the fireworks began, the Eiffel Tower sparkled, but with the regular golden lights off so that you only saw a silhouette of sparkles.77.fetenationale.2014

French Ikea

For a long time I have been curious about how Ikea in France compares to Ikea in the United States. When a friend asked me if I wanted to join her in her shopping expedition in the suburbs, I jumped at the chance.

I have good memories of Ikea. When I was a kid, my family would go there not only to shop for furniture and household items but also to eat Swedish meatballs with lingonberry sauce and buy ginger snaps. The location we went to was next to an airport, and since the eating area had large windows, you could watch the planes take off.

Even when my sister and I became young adults, we had fun poking around the showrooms and picking up the quirky stuffed toys available.

The French Ikea experience was… almost identical to the American Ikea experience. The layout was exactly the same, so I knew where to find everything. It was even a bit strange to hear the cashier speaking French because I could have believed I was in the United States.

There was one marked difference.76.ikea.2014aMy Ikea back in the States doesn’t offer croque monsieurs, crêpes, macarons, or cafés gourmands.

My friend bought quite a few things for her apartment. While I didn’t get anything household-related, I went a little crazy in the food section, or épicerie suedoise. It wasn’t so much that I crave these items, but they reminded me of home. Funny that a Swedish furniture store could hold so much nostalgia for an American in France, isn’t it?

As a bonus surprise, the cashier gave me a cute green insulated lunch bag for each almond tart that I purchased.

After we went through checkout, my friend realized that she had forgotten to get two items. While she fetched them, I sat with her bags in the area where customers wait to be called to pick up the furniture they ordered. After a while, an employee came by and offered me a piece of chocolate for waiting patiently. That has certainly never happened to me in the States.

On the platform waiting for the train back to Paris from Plaisir, I snapped a photo of these extremely regular trees in the distance.76.ikea.2014c

Look Twice

75.eiffels.2014Yesterday evening some friends and I had a picnic to celebrate the Fourth of July. We were a mix of American, French, and Canadian. It was also the night of the French versus Germany World Cup match. I am sure that anyone who noticed I was wearing red and blue assumed I was coming from watching the game rather than on my way to an Independence Day get-together.

When I arrived at the Champ de Mars, there was an international horse show going on at the end of the green in front of the Ecole Militaire. I stayed for a few minutes to marvel with the crowd every time a horse leaped over a jump.

Moving on, I made my way around picnickers to find my friend, who had said that she was sitting in front of the red Eiffel Tower, to which I thought, “Red… Eiffel Tower?”

True enough, there was a replica of the Iron Lady surrounded by velvet ropes. Another friend later explained to us that it is built of chairs to celebrate the 125th anniversary of this type of bistro chair (which he has never seen in a bistro, he added). A French furniture company commissioned this sculpture of 324 chairs, a nod to the 324-meter high Eiffel Tower.

I had to agree with our friend that cafés here typically have traditional cane chairs rather than these metal foldable ones. Yet they looked familiar to me. I read a bit more about the sculpture on the Paris city site, which said that this chair had been adopted internationally, and suddenly it was clear to me. They are all over Times Square in New York City.

On this Friday evening, just another fourth of July in France, there were no fireworks or barbecue or patriotic songs, but Mexican dip and cheese and friends and two Eiffel Towers.