Sunday, August 30, 2009

Livin' the Dream

As we were taxiing to the gate yesterday afternoon, the 20 something guy in front of me turned around and said something to the effect of, "You guys are just livin' the dream right now." Unfortunately, he was NOT saying that because he had just heard we had spent a month in Europe. No, he was saying that because he has just witnessed the WORST FLIGHT I have ever been on in my entire life. Now, it wasn't the worst flight for everyone on the plane. No - just us.

And technically, it was the worst hour and half on the plane of my life as the first 6 hours or so were fine. The boys watched Monsters v. Aliens and played some Nintendo DS. However, they hadn't had much to eat over the course of the day (can you see where this is going already?). With a little over an hour left on the flight (or so we thought), Berkley starts mumbling about being hungry, then all of a sudden, he says he feels sick. Doug (who is sitting in a middle seat) manages to wheel him around so he's facing the aisle, all while frantically waving towards me (sitting in the aisle opposite with Quin) to get him to the restroom. But it's too little, too late. Berkley blows all over himself, me and the aisle (with a little on the woman behind us, who thankfully was a mother and so really understanding about it). SWEET. But what are you going to do? We clean everything up, strip Berkley down (he wore a sweatshirt and his underwear for the rest of the flight) and thank God we don't have much time on the flight left (can you see where THIS is going?).

Now, I don't know if all international flights do this, but American displays a map (when no movies or shows are being shown) of the progress of the flight. We're all sitting there watching the plane chug towards Boston when all of a sudden, the plane makes a u-turn and starts heading back towards London. The only thought going through my mind at that moment - NOOOOO. Some of you may have heard about the little funeral we had in Boston yesterday. Well - we timed our flight PERFECTLY such that the airspace between Hanscom Airforce Base and Martha's Vineyard had to be kept clear for the President and that was pretty much were we needed to fly. So we all watched as our plane did little circles over the Atlantic Ocean as we waiedt for the Obamas to resume their vacation (I am certain that Obama lost a few votes in '12 in that 40 minutes).

We FINALLY get clearence to land and are making our approach to the airport when Quin looks at me and says (can you SEE where this is going?) - I don't feel so good. I manage to get the barf bag out this time, but there is SOO much coming out, that it's completely useless. And we can't get up as we are making our approach (or so I thought at the point). As I try to fruitlessly mop up the "mess" that now covers Quin, me and our little area, the pilot comes on. Apparently we got "a little too close to another plane" on our approach (I didn't notice as my son looked like Linda Blair in the Exorcist, but Doug said we banked so hard, HE almost got sick), so we have to circle back and get back in line to land - I KID YOU NOT. So, I now have to spend the next 20 minutes sitting while we make a second approach. This makes a full extra hour of sitting in vomit fun on the plane for me (at this point you might also note, that while I have been barfed on not once, but twice, Doug has managed to avoid all bodily contact).

It was when we finally landed that the guy in front of me made that "livin' the dream" comment. Now, he actually was really nice - almost got barfed on by Berkley, was scrounging around for blankets for me to clean up with Quin - and was trying to make me laugh. But at that point, all I really wanted was a good cry and a BIG glass of wine. I'm not really sure what happened as both boys were not sick beforehand and were fine almost immediately after (empty stomach + hot + too much screen time maybe?) - not sure we'll ever know.

And of course, in hindsight, we landed safely and are finally home, so the flight could have been A LOT worse (for example, I had real fears of quarantine as we were going through customs). But at the moment when the pilot said we had to get back in line, that was pretty much the lowest of the low for the whole trip. Suffice it to say, we are really happy to be back - we'll post some final thoughts in the next few days.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Our Holiday in the Country

After the first two minutes, driving went well.

We headed out of London for the ruins at Avebury. These were far less crowded than Stonehenge, and much more accessible. It was possible to walk right up to these giant stones, placed thousands of years ago in a huge concentric circle.

But, of course, Stonehenge is a must-see, so we did-see. It looks about how you would expect, after having seen pictures and video of it hundreds of times. This would have been the perfect occasion for the hand-held audio tours that are now standard at museums and attractions, but the kids haven’t developed the patience for this kind of sightseeing pace.

I did come across an interesting theory, though: Stonehenge was created primarily as a showcase site, meant to be an impressive display of human ability. This purpose stands in contrast to the older henges, like those at Avebury, that seem to have had a more purely religious or spiritual purpose. This theory helps to explain something I learned in a Stonhenge documentary I viewed before the trip. Apparently, one of the top stones has a mistake on it. On top, there is a hole dug out that was meant to be the hole underneath that the vertical lintels fit into. Since the hole was not dug properly, the masons simply turned the stone over and left the mistake facing skyward, where no one would notice. If the henge is meant to be a spiritual symbol, then such a mistake would probably have been discarded. But as a showcase, who cares what you can’t see?

In any event, we made it into Salisbury for the night, and enjoyed our stay there. The cathedral there was notable for a couple reasons. First, it contains one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta. Second, the 404 foot spire, the highest in England, is so heavy that the marble support columns inside are visibly bent and the whole structure has listed a couple feet. Overall, it was a remarkable building—we all agreed just as interesting and impressive as Notre Dame in Paris.

Before heading back to London, we stopped in Bath and Oxford. Both towns were nice enough, but the weather was poor and it all started to blend together after awhile: historic downtowns, with cobbled pedestrian malls and a recurring set of retail stores. We managed to avoid the Gap and Starbucks, but we have gone into every Next store west of London looking for a particular Star Wars shirt Quin has his heart set on.

So, that was our holiday. All went well. Except for those first two minutes. Half a mile from the rental agency I whacked the left side mirror against a parked car’s mirror and cracked it. I never had problems going onto the wrong side of the road. Instead, I kept finding myself floating left in the lane, as if I wanted to put my body in the “proper” position in the lane. Shannon was made quite nervous on many occasions. Luckily, she wasn’t in the car when I actually hit something.

Virtues of the Manbag

Before this trip I made a decision to get a manbag. Good decision. There are two things I really like about having the bag for tourist-days-out. First, it provides great protection against theft. I wear it over my shoulder and around my neck, like a messenger bag. I put my really valuable stuff, like wallet and keys, in the inner zipped compartment and then zip the top. So, to get at that stuff, a pick-pocket would have to lift the flap and open two zippers. To steal the bag, they’d have to lift it over my head and under my arm. Of course, it is possible for someone to cut the strap, grab it and run, but perfect security is impossible. The real threat is leaving it somewhere, which I’ve only done once, in a cafĂ© at the British Museum today (luckily the bus boy and I both realized it 10 seconds after I left the table).

The other thing I like is being able to carry stuff (duh). Besides valuables, I’ve carried all the navigation materials. It’s nice not having to ask Shannon all the time for the mapbook from her purse. And, I’ve been the designated Nintendo DS carrier. These have made for many very peaceful meals at restaurants.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Berkley's Favorite Things: 8/25

This is a picture of me at Avebury. It was an ancient rock formation. It is my favorite picture because it was like the rock was my house and I was looking out the window of my house.

Quinlan's Favorite Things: 8/25

This is a picture of me at Stonhenge. It was my favorite picture because Stonehenge was really big, and it was one of the things on my list of things I was looking forward to.

I wanted to have a picture of the reflection because I was going to draw it in my journal like a Picasso picture. Going to the river was fun; we saw swans and ducks.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Berkley's Favorite Things: 8/24

This is my favorite picture because it's like the birds are the leaves on the branches. We were at the Natural History Museum.

Quinlan's Favorite Things: 8/24

This is my favorite picture because it has me in front of the blue whale and the whale is smiling at us.

All's Well that Ends Well

Today's itinerary was my responsibility, as I think Shannon has tired of engaging in much planning (and, after 3 weeks, that's perfectly reasonable). So, I proposed a boat ride down the canal at 11:00, followed by a picnic lunch, then Buckingham Palace. Shannon suggested tacking the Natural History Museum on to the end--at Quin's urging--and so I did (she couldn't resist planning at least a little).

Sounded great in theory, but in practice we were running late. Again. Got out of the house at about 10:40, and needed to haul almost a mile down to the canal. We had kind of given up on making it, but meandered our way through Camden Lock Market when we came upon our boat--still on the dock at 11:05! We hopped on and the boat pulled away.

Now, you may say we were irresponsibly late. We believe we were just being efficient. Why wait around on the boat?

The rest of the itinerary went more smoothly. We even ducked into the V&A Museum, which Berkley loved ("Art Design" was his favorite--chairs and furniture and stuff done with an artistic purpose).

The only hitch of the day was the dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum. First, there was a long line just to get in. Second, it was brutally hot. Third, people kept cutting in front of us--I thought the British were sticklers for manners. Fourth, once we got in, the queue continued, as we shuffled slowly--painfully slowly--through fossils that were exciting to the boys two years ago but not so much these days. And people still kept cutting! Those of you who have ever waited in a line with Shannon can imagine her disposition at this point.

All in all, as I type here at the Lord Stanley pub, with a pint of Hooky Bitter, it was a good day.

Tomorrow, we're off to Stonehenge, Avebury and then the night in Salisbury. Next day, Bath. Speaking of baths, tomorrow I dip into the waters of British driving. Wish me luck.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bust then boom

Why is it that expectations seem to be negatively related to what actually happens? Yesterday, we headed out the door with high hopes for a fun day - disaster. Today - thought it would be a train wreck, but turned out great. Who knew?

Yesterday, the big disaster was mainly due to poor timing and the Portobello Market. We wanted to go to a market for lunch (we were thinking of the great time we had last weekend at Camden), but also wanted to change it up. However, due to the fact that Doug and I both took fairly long workouts (50 minutes +) and that Doug took the boys for a good bike (exploring the hood), we didn't get out the door until late. By the time we made it to Portobello, it was after 1:00, and the place was packed. So we had to fight crowds for a good long way until we got to some food. By that time, we were all famished and unfortunately, the food wasn't nearly as good as Camden. We clearly recognized that we needed to cut our losses, so we bailed and headed for a nearby playground - the Princess Diana Memorial playground. Well - apparently, this place has a "capacity" - whatever it was, capacity had been reached, so we had to wait in line for the playground. Not fun.

Once we got in, the boys had a great time, but we were wiped at that point. We did manage to squeeze some shopping in - mostly for the boys - at Primark. My father has often told me how he was scarred (mentally) by shopping with his mother in the first Filene's Basement (too crazy). In my mind, that must have been what Primark was like. This was mainly due to the fact that good deals were to be had - we got cool shirts for the boys for £1-£3. Even with the exchange rate, that's still a good deal. But the rest of the store was just too much for us to handle with tired boys so home we went. Not the worst day, but nowhere near what we had hoped for.

Today, on the other hand, looked like a disaster. Quin fell and hit his head, and Berkley's leg was bothering him (only when he wasn't being entertained). They both complained endlessly about it on the way to lunch at Camden Market. Once we got there, they were fine of course, until we had to walk a bit again (Berkley, by the way, has been charming folks in London left and right. Today, he charmed the workers at the Mexican food stand, who gave him free chips and cheese - FREE in the big touristy market!). After much complaining, we made it to the Imperial War Mueseum, and let me tell you - it was just as I remembered. Boy heaven. Full scale planes, tanks and missles everywhere. To top it off - most museums, including this one, are free here, so it didn't cost us anything! Hit a nice playground afterwards and then took a smooth ride on the tube home. No idea what we're going to do tomorrow, but whatever it is, I'm going to tell myself that it's going to suck.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Little Rock at Lockstock

With thanks to the grandparents for watching the boys, Shannon and I went out on the town last night. We had sushi in the Camden Lock Market area, then we were planning to head back to our neighborhood for a pint at the local pub. Before we did so, we decided to stroll the Market a bit, and came across Lockstock, an all-day music festival.

(Apparently, the two major impacts of American culture on the world are that 1) anything “-stock” is a music festival and 2) anything “-gate” is a scandal. On the latter, see the recent flap on “Bloodgate,” in which a rugby team faked injuries to substitute players.)

We caught a couple of bands, and it was good to be out and hearing live music. The first act was Sean Redmond, who performed uptempo folk rock. He was actually pretty good. The second band (I forget their name) was pretty scrappy. They were a lot like the Dropkick Murphys, only they referenced Spanish and Italian music rather than Irish. This band brought out the punkers, though. A guy in front of us had an awesome, classic Mohawk. Good to see someone’s still doing it. It made us feel young hanging out with the local scenesters, catching a show in the cool area of town. I’m ready to break out the combat boots and the hairspray.

Otherwise, we’re still feeling less compulsion to see-everything-there-is-to-see. Today, we went down to the Cavalrymen Museum for a bit, then walked by Downing Street, Parliament and Westminster Abbey. We honestly channeled Clark Griswold—“Look kids, Big Ben! Parliament!”

Also, I should note, after my indignation for needing to dish out a few Euros to get to the top of the Sacre Couer basilica in Paris, that Westminster Abbey costs £15! Just to see the church! Needless to say, this became another attraction we merely perused. (Can a place of religious worship be classified as a tourist trap?)

Berkley's Favorite Things: 8/17 to 8/21

[We've gotten behind on the boys' blogging, so in an effort to catch up we're posting a picture diary from the prior five days. These are the boys' favorites from each day. Captions are by the adults, not the kids.]

The knighting of Sir Berkley and Sir Quin of the Americas.

Playground just behind our house.

A Berknest at the zoo.

Hamley's had five floors of toys. We spent 95% of our time in the Lego's department.

Cavalrymen Museum.

Quin's Favorite Things: 8/17 to 8/21

At the Tower of London.

Piranhas at the zoo.
AKA "No Fouling."

Legos. Star Wars. 'Nuff Said.

At the Cavalrymen Museum.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Kids' Play

While Paris had so many Attractions that we felt compelled to visit one or two each day, in London we feel less of this pressure. I'm not sure it's because there are fewer Attractions here--in fact, I think there are just as many--but rather because we were a little Attractioned out and also because London just seems a better city to just let kids be kids. So, having a "normal" day with the kids is easy to do.

So, today we let our kids be kids.

In the morning, we took their bikes over to the local playground. They actually made a couple friends. Then, after lunch we hit a spot that can only be described as "brilliant!" It's a free splashing pool/playground in a huge urban woodland/park called Hamstead Heath. Kids swim a bit, then play a bit, then swim a bit, then play a bit. Since it reached into the 80s today, it was a perfect day for it--though, also very busy, but this really just it made it more fun for the boys.

So, the boys had a great day. This isn't to say the grownups had no fun. Because we enjoyed the best English Attraction: the pub. Pubs (formally/formerly Public Houses) here are very interesting places. They're neighborhood meeting spots for a really diverse set of people. Old, young, formal, casual--they'll all come for a pint or two. On top of that, the new gastro-pub concept adds some high quality food to the mix. So, on a couple occasions since we've been in London, we've taken the boys to one of the local pubs in the early evening (before the hooligans come out!), and we have a pint while the boys play Nintendo DS. The kids get their fix; the adults get their fix: perfect!

Tonight we hit the Lion and Unicorn. Two things were interesting about this place. First, there was a theatre above it, and there was a play taking place tonight. Second, the pub had a puppy-in-residence named Guinness.

London Zoo

It's odd sometimes how you can not remember a place, but you can remember a photo of a place. That's how it was for me yesterday. Not much of the London Zoo looked familiar (except for the Reptile House where they filmed the Harry Potter scene), but when we got to the giraffes, I had a distinct memory of me with two of my ND London friends there. Strange.

Once again, we had some initial sticker shock upon entering (I was totally stingy and declined the voluntary contribution for wildlife preservation associated with each ticket - £53 is quite enough thank you very much and I give to lefty environmental and animal causes at home). But of course again, it turned out our sticker price gave us a full day of entertainment, so all in all, it wasn't that bad of a deal. There were lots of animals (how often do you get to see two month old lion cubs with their mother?) and a couple of really nice play areas for the kids. That seems to be a recurring theme around here - the playgrounds rock. There's one just around the corner that not only has a playground, but some exercise equipment. All low-tech of course, but what a great idea - you can get some physical fitness in while your children do the same! Not sure how long our good weather streak will hold out over the next few days, but we'll definitely be exploring more playgrounds if weather permits. If not, we'll probably be checking out the 7 story toy store - great rainy day fun!

Monday, August 17, 2009

That's Sir Quinlan and Sir Berkley to you

Today we went to the Tower of London. We were a bit taken aback at the £47 fee for a family, but as it turns out, there's a lot more to do there than I remembered. Even better - there are a lot of things there that kids enjoy too, so we enjoyed a really full day there. For example, we noticed on the daily schedule that there would be a presentation about armor and a foot jousting demonstration at 11:30. Perfect. We had our lunch on a bench and then turned around and watched the presentation. Turns out the first part had the squires jousting with the knights to joust a half hour later (each set was about a half hour long). We turned to leave, but the boys really wanted to stay and watch the knights put their armor on - fine.

Well, most people left at that point, so the "queen" came up to us to chat. She was really good and talked to the boys for quite a bit. She then asked them if they wanted to be knights for a day and of course they did. So she told them all the things they would have had to do in preparation to become a knight back in the day (including shaving their heads - luckily for the boys, they were granted a reprieve on that one along with the praying requirement) and then "knighted" them. They LOVED it.

We then stayed to watch the knights joust. The queen chose one of the knights to wear her ribbon (the whole story line was that it was a fix for her brother who was one of the knights), and then offered the other knight the ribbon of some other lady. I KNEW right at that moment she was going to pick me - given all the time she spent with Berk and Quin - and to my embarrassment, she sure did. Given that the whole thing was rigged (both in that it was acting and in the story line), my knight lost, but the boys had a load of fun. We ended up spending alomst an hour and a half just on that.

We then toured around the Tower for a bit, but by then, it was WAY crowded, so Doug missed out on the Crown Jewels (his choice) although we did check out the instruments of torture (looking for some tips when the boys get out of line!). Took the bus home - saw a lot, but it took longer than we expected. We grabbed a bite for dinner (Quin devoured his curry!) then headed out to the local pub with DS for the boys in hand. I just love pub culture - there was a great mix of people hanging out, having a pint on a Monday night. Turns out the local pub also had Wifi, so Doug has promised that he will be uploading more pictures soon given that he plans to be a regular post bedtime! All in all, another good day.

Quin's Favorite Things: 8/16

This is a picture of me on the spinny thing on the playground with Berkley. My dad was spinning us; he was trying to make us vomit, but he could not do it. It is my favorite because I liked the playgrounds.

Berkley's Favorite Things: 8/16

This is a picture of me at the log climbing playground. It is my favorite picture because it has me and the log playground was really cool.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Can't Keep a Stiff Upper Lip

When in London, one should do as Londoners do (to paraphrase), but I just can't seem to do that. No stiff upper lip here. Mostly because I'm smiling too much. For those who don't know, I spent a semester here in college (a LONG time ago), and it's really good to be back. That coupled with the fact that the food choices in our neighborhood are OUTSTANDING has made for some happy campers so far. To start, there is an actual full size super market right down the street. There is also a nice convenience store a few doors down and a Whole Foods in walking distance. So, cooking options are great.

Even better is the variety of ethnic food at our disposal. Today, we went to Camden Market and had some Indian, Thai and Middle Eastern at some of the food stalls. There were all sorts of other enticing food stalls that we didn't get to try too; we plan to go back next weekend to sample some more. Down the road a bit are numerous ethnic restaurants too. Top that off with the fact that we can actually read the menu and see if something has meat in it, well - those smiles just keep coming. Surprisingly, we haven't found food to be too expensive - at the supermarket or restaurants. Of course, we're not looking for high end dining here. A good curry will keep most of us happy (Berkley excluded), and those can be had for well under 5£.

Another reason we're so happy is the parks. Now, at the parks in Paris, you mostly weren't allowed to go on the grass and all of the paths were this sandy, stone mixture and the playgrounds were - well - lame. Today, we checked out Regent's Park and immediately upon entering, we saw two great playgrounds and large expanses of grass with people out soaking up the sun. One of the playgrounds was brilliant. It looked like big logs stacked together with nets under it. The boys climbed for close to an hour and were just so happy.

Finally, I just think British culture is a bit closer to where we are. In Paris, everything felt so highbrow - partly due to the high rent neighborhood we were in. Here, it's much more indie and offbeat - again due to the neighborhood, so it fits with our personal ethos more. Now, don't get me wrong. I wouldn't trade our time in Paris for anything, but for now, we're happy to be in London. Tomorrow, we tackle public transportation to head down to the Tower of London, so I may be singing a different tune tomorrow night!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

We Made It!

As the title of the post suggests, we've made it to London. We cut it pretty close though. After storing the luggage, Doug was on his way to his seat when the train took off. Only a minute or two to spare! Quite an easy ride on the train although getting to the train was interesting to say the least. Locating a cab, printing out tickets, getting through customs - all a bit stressful. The boys were blissfully unaware of the ride as they played their Nintendos the whole time, but frankly, there wasn't much to see.

We had a bit of a slog to the new place, but when we got here, it was well worth it. The place has a little outdoor space (with a swing and some other toys), and there are bikes for both of the boys (and us too!). We took the boys' bikes out for a spin at a park a few minutes away and of course, Berkley had a bad wipe out (due in part to the fact that the bike has hand brakes instead of pedal brakes). Nonetheless, it will be good to be able to take them out to let off some steam pretty easily.

Dinner tonight was at the local gastro pub - quite delicious. And then a stop at the local market - where we could actually buy a whole gallon of milk - joy! Tomorrow we're going to check out the hood - which includes Camden market and Regents park - and just generally settle in. The boys were beat tonight, so they'll post their favorite things tomorrow morning, but picture posting will probably be a bit lighter this portion of the trip as there is no WiFi (I know - how does one live without it?) - just a desktop.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Pay As You Go

My consternation over the need to pay for my kids to go on a playground in Paris is surpassed only by the need to pay for the use of a toilet.

I know France is not alone in this practice, but it's still the world's biggest rip-off. And it's pretty common here. I bristle every time I must do it.

I must acknowledge that most of the toilets on the streets in Paris are free (gratuit). Occasionally one has to pay to pee. It really makes sense to make them free. What are you worried about--someone might come in and do something bad, like, say, defecate in them? But, outside of the city, I've found one generally must pay as you go.

We went to the castle at Chambord. Now, this is a huge attraction, with thousands of tourists churning through here each day. In the gardens there is a little village area with restaurants, kiosks, shops, etc. And a public toilet.

I left the family and walked the 100 meters to the toilet, only to be told by the woman working the toilet post (yes, they pay someone to do this) that it cost 0.40 Euros. So, now I have to walk the 100 meters back to my family, get some change from Shannon (I had none), and then hike back. Let me tell you, the bushes along the way looked awfully inviting. If only it weren't so crowded, I would have peed on Francois I's roses.

This practice strikes me as just plain mean and stupid. First, if a person has to go, for the love of God let him go! Why frustrate this elemental human need by a search for change? Just tack on .40 to everyone's ticket and make it free! Thousands of tourists--you can be sure most of them will use the bathroom. Why make it a separate, inconvenient fee? And, on top of that, all of the revenue probably goes to pay the bathroom attendant. Just eliminate her position and you break even.

But, even worse than the toilet at Chambord was my debacle in Amboise. This is a nice town with a castle right in the center of it, and lots of retail and restaurants in the downtown. I was out for a long run, about 8 miles, around 7:00am the day we stayed there. Now, as you runners will attest, a morning run can have the effect of, shall I say, bringing to the fore one's regular morning routine.

So, about 4 miles in I realized I really needed a bathroom. And this being, as they say in Paris, a deux, the bushes were not an option. I worried not, however, because my review of the local resort map revealed numerous public toilets in the downtown area.

Unfortunately, they all required .30 Euros. I did not have .30 Euros. Swearing didn't help. Swearing in French didn't help. So, I went for that all-American solution: brute force. These were pay toilets on the street, where you dropped in the coins and the door opened. Well, I started pushing on the door harder and harder, really just to vent frustration, but lo and behold, the door opened.

So I went in, closed the door, and realized that .30 Euros doesn't even buy you a seat. Just a porcelain ring. So, squatting it was to be. Now, let me tell you that the last thing you wan to do in the middle of a long run is squat for any extended period of time. I was not a happy camper. Added to my misery was my anxiety about the possibility someone could come by and actually pay to use the toilet, in which case it would open and revel an embarrassed bathroom bandit.

I suppose it could have been worse. I might have been stuck with this toilet we discovered in Montrichard. Quin's demonstrating proper form.

At least this one was free, though.

We're baack

Okay - it's been quite a while since we posted. On Tuesday, Doug and I actually got the chance to go out to dinner together and then we all did an overnight trip to the Loire valley where we had no access to the internet. So, here's a brief update:
  • Went to the Musee d'Orsay on Tuesday. It's a beautiful museum (their collection of Impressionist paintings is very extensive and quite impressive), but it was not a good idea to go on Tuesday as that's the day the Louvre is closed. I don't know if it's the proximity to the Louvre (everyone walks over from there once they figure out it's closed) or people plan to go to the Orsay because of that, but it was CROWDED. The boys were pretty good actually - but that's mostly because we promised them more carnival rides if they were.
  • Doug and I had a nice dinner at an out-of-the-way restaurant called Les Elles. It was a mix of Asian and French cooking and was very good. We got to walk over which allowed us to see some of Less Halles and Le Marais.
  • On Wednesday, we headed out of town for a day trip to the Loire. We stopped in Orleans and walked around - only okay. This was mostly due to the fact that it was really empty. I guess it's not much of a tourist town, so very little in the downtown area was open. Our lack of enthusiasm probably also has something to do with the fact that Quin whined NON-STOP for ice cream the WHOLE time we walked around.
  • We then stopped at Chambord, which is one of the largest chateaus in the area. Built as a hunting lodge by Francois I in the 1500s, it's still the largest game preserve in Europe. The boys enjoyed walking on the double helix staircase (probably designed by da Vinci) and out on the ramparts.
  • The hotel we stayed in was very family friendly. There was a pool and a kids' play area with the boys' favorite blocks. The pullout sofa actually pulled out into two twin beds, rather than one full, which is brilliant. It also had lovely views of the town of Amboise, its castle and the Loire valley - right from our room's window. After a brief swim and dinner at the hotel restaurant (we opened the place at 7:00), everyone thankfully hit the hay.
  • Of course, when we woke up Thursday morning (when we planned to swim), it was grey and overcast. The boys still went swimming, but it wasn't as much fun as we had planned. The sun came out immediately after we checked out. We drove down to Amboise and had lunch in the shadow of the castle.
  • At this point, the boys were a bit castled out (you can see them all over the place as you drive), so we planned to go to Chennenceaux. After arriving, we decided it was not worth 20 Euros just to get onto the grounds to see the place.
  • So, we headed to Montrichard to visit a winery in the caves that were dug out when they quarried the stone for the valley's chateaux. As we rolled into town, we saw a little beach area on the Cher River. Perfect! The boys swam and rolled around in the sand (well, dirt, really).
  • Then, we hit the winery. Tasted some champagne (amazing what just a touch of alchohol does for your orientation toward your children!), bought a few botles of wine, and headed back to Paris.
Well, that about sums it up. We're feeling like we've done what we've wanted to do in Paris, and we're ready to move on to London--perfect timing, since we leave for England tomorrow.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Value of a Euro

Our calendar has become organized by the Destinations we plan to visit, or have visited, each day. I suppose that's what you do when you're a tourist.

Today was Sacre Coeur and the Jardin de Luxembourg.

Sacre Coeur is a basilica up on what is really the only hill in the Paris area. It's free to go into the church, of course, but it's 5 Euros to go up to the top of the basilica, where the view is supposed to be great. We thought the view was pretty good from the ground floor, which is already well above the city, so we opted out of paying money to climb a bunch of stairs. (By the way, this parish must rake in the dough. Besides the pricey entry to the tower, one needs to pay 2 Euros for a small votive candle and 10 Euros (!) for a large one. Pretty sure that's not at cost.)

After lunch, we headed south to the very nice Jardin de Luxembourg. Two things were notable, here.

First, the boys were able to rent small wooden sailboats (an hour costs less than the climb up Sacre Couer!) and sail them in the pond in front of the Palais. It was very cool--they absolutely loved it. The boats actually do get lift in the sails and get moving. Although you can't steer, you push it off from the shore and it more or less stays on tack and goes across, where you collect it and send it off again.

The second notable thing in the Jardin was the playground. Now, we've been lamenting the lack of quality playgrounds in Paris since we got here. There aren't many, it seems, and those we've found have been very lame. But, here, in the Jardin, we came across a playgroundopolis, a monstrosity with dozens and dozens of kids and a dazzling variety of play structures.

Oh, but how to get in; where's the gate? Oh, there it is...but, wait...2.60 Euros to get in?! Are you kidding me? A pay-to-playground? And 1 Euro for an accompanying grownup?!

There's just so much wrong with this. For starters, they provide an incentive for parents not to go in with their children and instead let them run rampant. Second, they want to make it more difficult for kids to get exercise? And third, it's a playground, for goodness sake!

As Shannon pointed out, it's probably a private enterprise that leases the space from the city (I hope the city isn't charging its children to play). And, as we've seen how lame the socialist playgrounds are around here, the capitalist option may be the better one.

In any event, it was probably the best 5.20 we've spent so far! I think only the 4 Euros we spent on the sailboats was a better value.

With an afternoon of children-centric activity, the boys were in great spirits tonight. Euros well spent!

Berkley's Favorite Things: 8/10

This is a picture of me and my boat at the Jardin de Luxembourg. My boat was 50. This was my favorite picture because it has me and it's a really good action shot of me pushing my boat.

Quinlan's Favorite Things: 8/10

This is a picture of me turning my boat around at the Jardin de Luxembourg. My boat number was 62. It is my favorite because that was the first time I sailed a mini-sailboat.

Bosoms Part Duex

After Doug's post about bosoms, I felt compelled to upload this image from the Pompidou.

Guns, Swords and Cannons - Oh My!

After meeting up with Nanny and Papa yesterday morning, we headed over to the Musee de L'Army. We'd been there before (it's at the Hotel des Invalides), but it was closed then. Let's just say it was boy heaven - for boys of all ages. There were swords, lances, guns, shields, daggers, and so on and so forth. Lots of them. Lots and lots of them. I can't imagine that there are many old weapons and armor left in the world; it seemed that most of them must have been at this Museum.

We also took in the WWI and WWII exhibits. The boys loved that the WWII exhibits had lots of films to watch, but some were a bit gory - we were worried that they might have nightmares, but they seemed fine about it. We did skip the room about the concentration camps just to be on the safe side - we'll save that for when they're a bit older. The boys were genuinely interested in hearing stories about the war and linking those stories with the pictures, maps and artifacts. From my perspective, it was interesting to read about the war from the perspective of the French; even though we fought on the same side, our interpretation of the war is a bit different than that of the French.

We did a quick run into Napoleon's tomb (yep - that's it!), and then headed over to the Rodin Museum. It was the best bargain so far (two adults were free because we had kids with us, and it only cost 1e for each for the other two adults - so 2e total!) and was also quite enjoyable. We saw a few of Rodin's sculptures, while the kids could run around free.

Not sure what we're going to do today - seems many of the touristy places are closed on Monday - but given how much there is to do here, we'll figure something out.

Quinlan's Favorite Things: 8/9

This is a picture of me and Berkley near a knight with a lance. And it's fighting another knight but you can't see it. We're at the war museum in Paris. We saw pistols, swords and armor. And the most surprising of all: we saw kids' armor.

Berkley's Favorite Things: 8/9

This is me in front of some cool looking knight armor. It's my favorite picture because it's at the war museum. The place was really cool because it had really cool stuff like lances, swords, shields, and cannons.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bosom and Phallus in Paris

If there's one thing you can say about the French, they're no prudes. Sex may seem to infuse American culture, but walking around Paris makes the US seem like bible school.

First, there are the monuments, most of which use some huge phallic symbol to represent the, uh, stature of the thing being memorialized.

Place de la Vendome

Place de la Concorde

OK, it's kind of subtle--not exactly a wardrobe malfunction--but they've been doing this for a long time. And sometimes it's less subtle, one thinks.

Pont Alexandre III (notice the "batons" in the ladies' hands)

Then, there are the breasts. They're everywhere. I've experienced them in three contexts. (I am sure there are more contexts, but I haven't gone into those stores, which, by the way, go by the very francophone title "Sex Shop.")

The first context is the classic art. The number of breasts in the Louvre is surpassed only by the number of crucifixions. The breasts seemed to have been portrayed so prominently by these artists because, well, they're just really nice to look at.

Venus de Milo

Gabrielle d'Estrees, lover of Henri IV, sharing a bath with her sister

The second context is the modern art. Here the breast is symbolic, representing power relationships, subjugation, liberation, etc. One is not really meant to enjoy the breasts, but rather to think something about them.

(Note: the hula hoop on the woman in the background is made of barbed wire.)

Finally, one sees lots of breasts in the mass media. Magazines have topless women on the covers, ads include them. We've not watched any TV, but I'm guessing they're on there, too.

Interestingly, these images seem to be there because, well, they're just really nice to look at. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose (The more things change, the more they remain the same).

Of course, it doesn't hurt that they probably help sell a lot of products! Then again, it may have improved the marketability of classic art as well.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Most of you (okay - probably ALL of you) are getting way more information about us than you need from this blog, but I have uploaded some pictures to Shutterfly - which let me create my own custom webpage! I'm mostly doing this so that I can create a photo album when we get home (and with NO English TV, I have nothing better to do at night!), but if you are interested, there are some pictures here from our first five days in Paris:

I will be adding more as time permits!

Berkley's Favorite Things: 8/8

This is a picture of me in front of my favorite sculpture at the Pompidou. It is my favorite because it lit up and it glows. It was cooler than the Louvre because there were escalators on the outside and because there were Picassos there.

Quinlan's Favorite Things: 8/8

This is a picture of me duplicating what is in the Picasso picture. It is my favorite because it has me in it and a painting by my favorite artist, Pablo Picasso. He is my favorite artist because he does cubism.

Centre Pompidou

The consensus in the family today was that we all prefer modern art. We also all agreed that some modern art does not make sense to us (Berkley broke out the LAME designation for some of the video installations), but the hands down win in the Pompidou v. Louvre question was the Pompidou.

Quin and Berkley were far more engaged in the art at the Pompidou than they were at the Lourve, for several reasons probably. First, there was A LOT of nudity. And not just generic old statue nudity like you see in the Louvre. No, this was full-on modern nudity. For example, the boys were FASCINATED with a video of a naked woman hula-hooping on a beach. When we pointed out that her "hula-hoop" was made out of barbed wire, they really wanted to know why. Doug tried to explain, but I think any explanation would have been over their heads. Second, some of the art was much more playful. Berkley saw the piece below and said - now this is modern art!

Finally, the boys have been introduced to some artists at school/art camp and so recognized their names - particularly Quin. We saw some Chagall, Matisse, Picasso, etc. Their Picasso collection was quite extensive which was very satisfying for Quin who had been dying to see some Picassos. All in all, a thumbs up for the Pompidou. In fact, Doug and I both agreed that if we were to come back to Paris sans enfants, we would definitely go back to the Pompidou to have more time to take everything in.

Of course, an afternoon trip to the museum was made possible by a visit to the largest toy store in Paris in the morning. There was some momentary panic when we got there as we couldn't find any Legos. What we didn't realize was that the toy store took up an entire Passage (rather than just one store front), and each store front in the passage was full of toys that were organized thematically. Once we finally found la Maison Lego (its own store), we all breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The bubble thankfully breaks tomorrow when Nanny and Papa join us for a few days. They've always wanted to see Normandy, so they're going to spend some time with us and do an overnight trip there. It will be good to finally have someone other than the immediate family to talk to. And, given that yesterday was our 10 year wedding anniversary (happy anniversary Doug!), maybe we'll even get to spend some alone time in the most romantic city in the world.