A Love Letter to Paris

Our first trip after I retired two years ago, was to Paris, a city I’d wanted to visit my entire life, and where, I informed my husband at about the 15 year mark, we would celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. And so, we celebrated my retirement and our silver wedding anniversary with a 2-1/2 week, magical, unforgettable, Parisian holiday.  Following the abject evil that has visited Paris this week,  I am reposting this blog I wrote soon after our trip as a tribute to this beautiful city and my tender memories of our French hosts.  “Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité”

After spending over 2 weeks in Paris recently, I’ve been repeatedly asked what I enjoyed most about the trip.  Rather than show the 30-minute slide show (with music!) that I’ve been subjecting my friends to, I’ll do a quick run-down. Note that my opinions are completely based on this, my one and only, trip to Paris, but here goes:

A typical view on our night-time walk back to our apartment

A typical view on our night-time walks back to our apartment

The nights – The city is at its absolute magical and romantic best at night.  With the lights illuminating the buildings, monuments and the Seine, Paris by night is spectacularly beautiful.  My husband and I would find a restaurant each night, where we would enjoy a magnificent. 3-hour dinner with a bottle of wine (we never had a bad meal) and then walk back to our apartment hand-in-hand, completely mesmerized with the city and each other.  It was as if we were under Paris’s spell.

Me and my "vela" across from Notre DameBike riding – We went on two bike tours in Paris.  One was a day tour with Bike About Tours and the other a night tour with Fat Tire Bike Tours.  Both cater to English-speaking tourists and provide young spunky guides to steer their charges through the perils of Paris boulevards and provide some commentary along the way.  We were at first skeptical of the wisdom of taking on Paris by bike, but the tours came highly recommended so we decided to chance it…and loved it!    We found biking an easier and faster way to cover more ground than walking. For our day tour, we rode all over the city with a lovely young Swedish guide named Angelica.  She gave us historical commentary as well as her personal perspective as a young student immigrant to Paris.   For our night tour, we had a young burly German-American guide named Nick who was in Paris working on a master’s degree in information technology.  His main goal was to keep us all alive.  I have never been more terrified (and more euphoric) than on our ride down Boulevard St Germaine at night in heavy traffic.  Nick’s often-repeated survival strategy was for us to all stay together in a block and when faced with oncoming traffic use “The Power of the Palm” (i.e., holding the hand in a bold gesture toward the oncoming vehicle.)  My gratitude at outliving that stretch turned to wonderment when we crossed the Seine and biked into the courtyard of the Louvre.  I was overcome with emotion at the beauty of the scene.  I remember thinking to myself “I can’t friggin’ believe that I am actually here at the Louvre… at night…on a bike!”  It was beyond cool.

Seine River cruise – I signed us up for the evening of the first full day we were in Paris, thinking it would be a nice introduction to the city.  But we couldn’t find the boat launch and it was one frustrating experience walking around the docks dressed up trying to find the right spot and not able to ask for directions (see my previous post about my issues with French).  Later in the week, after I read the instructions more carefully and realized we actually walked right by the launch twice, we did the cruise on what proved to be a much better, clearer night.   We saw a dramatic sunset onboard during dinner, and then the lights of the city. The waiter was kind enough to move us to a window seat.  And by this time, having spent a little time walking around the city, it was enjoyable to see familiar sights from the water.

Musee D’Orsay – This was by far my favorite museum.  It is housed in a former train station, which itself is stunning.  The D’Orsay holds mainly French art dating from 1848 to 1915, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, and photography. It houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world, by painters including Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh.  It was also where the seemingly meek museum security guard suddenly shouted “Madame!” at me from across the lobby when I took an unauthorized photo (I couldn’t help myself).  My second favorite museum was the Musee de l’Orangerie, which contains the famous water lilies paintings by Monet.  This was a quick 20-minute stop but one of the most unforgettable.

Luxembourg Gardens – I’ve been to several famous parks and gardens in the U.S., including New York’s Central Park, but I have never seen anything like Luxembourg Gardens.  The flowers!  The lake!  The fountains!  We strolled through during the middle of a weekday afternoon and it was bustling with Parisians soaking up sun, children on the playground, tennis matches and bocce ball games in progress.  It was an explosion of color and beauty and activity.  I later read that the French equivalent CIA has it headquarters under the park, which only added to its appeal.

Waiting at the "Midnight in Paris" stairs for the Magic Cab to pick me up!

Waiting at the “Midnight in Paris” stairs for the Magic Cab to pick me up!

Walking  – We loved exploring the neighborhoods of Paris.  One day on a whim we did a “Midnight in Paris” treasure hunt.  We re-watched the Woody Allen movie before we left home and decided to find the scene locations.  We found a self-tour someone had posted on-line and set off on our quest. We found two of Hemingway’s apartments, Gertrude Stein’s salon, homes of Cole Porter and Ezra Pound, and the famous “stairs,” where the character played by Owen Wilson stops and rests after getting lost in Paris one evening.  Around the corner comes a vintage 1920s cab, which picks him up and transports him back in time, where he meets Hemingway, Porter, Stein and others.  The actual stairs used in the movie are at the Church of St Etienne du Mont near the Pantheon. We also did a self-tour of the Montmartre area, and found an eclectic mix of sites including Picasso’s studio, Renoir’s apartment, Van Gogh’s house, the café from the French film Amelie and the last remaining vineyard in Paris.

The Jupiter Fountain Water Show

The Jupiter Fountain Water Show

The Gardens of Versailles – I didn’t care much for the Chateau (palace) of the Louis’ (XIV – XVI).  It was definitely worth seeing — beautiful in an ostentatious, over-the-top sort of way.  But the crowds were horrific and I was happy to be spilled out the back door to what I found most spectacular and memorable about the visit – the gardens.  It was a stunningly gorgeous day and we were fortunate to visit on a day when the water fountains were flowing.  The last thing we saw before leaving was a 15-minute water display at the “Jupiter Fountain” made up of at least 40 individual fountains.  It was not high-tech, with lights or lasers or gadgetry,  but rather a lovely and graceful water display on a beautiful day with period music playing in the background.  At the conclusion, I noticed a young worker who carried what proved to be an enormous ancient metal sprinkler key (not unlike a gigantic version of ours before we installed automatic timers) open a cap in the pavement, turn a valve with the key, and off went the water!  Just as they’ve been doing since the 1790s no doubt.

Normandy and Giverny – We took two side-trips, one to Normandy to tour the D-day Beaches and Mont St Michel, and the other to Giverny to see Monet’s house and garden.  Both were highlights of the trip and warrant posts of their own to describe.

My first night-time viewof the Eiffel Tower, doing its sparkle show!

My first night-time view of the Eiffel Tower, doing its sparkle show!

Eiffel Tower – Even though I’d seen a zillion pictures my entire life, the Eiffel Tower in person is still hands down the most spectacular sight in Paris.  I’d already been to Epcot Center and Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casinso (with its scale model of the Tower) so I thought I’d already pretty much seen it.  But the sight of the real thing in person at night takes your breath away. The night of our ill-fated dinner cruise (when we couldn’t find the launch spot) we instead went to dinner at a restaurant nearby.  As we rounded a corner, I caught my first sight of the Eiffel Tower all lit up.  Not only that…every hour on the hour for five minutes there is a sparkly light display on the Tower……and that was my first view.   I immediately burst into tears at the sight.   I realized that, even though we missed our dinner cruise and I was initially terribly disappointed, in this city there are countless other splendors just waiting around the corner.

A Veterans Day Remembrance

Today is Veterans Day.  Ten years ago today, my father, a USNA graduate and U.S. Navy veteran, passed away.  I’m again sharing this post I wrote two years ago after we visited Normandy, as I remember my Dad and “The Greatest Generation.”

Normandy: Paying Our Respects

I wish every American could visit the D-Day Beaches in Normandy and pay tribute to the servicemen who risked or sacrificed their lives there.  We were privileged to do so on our recent trip to France and it was one of the most unforgettable parts of our journey.

Prior to leaving Paris for Normandy, my husband and I watched “Saving Private Ryan” on DVD.  I previously eschewed this movie; afraid I would be unable to stomach the gristly D-Day battle scenes.  However, in preparation for our D-Day tour, I felt it important to watch to gain a small measure of appreciation for what the troops braved.

We took a 2-hour train from Paris on Friday evening and spent the weekend at the Hotel Churchill (reputed to have been Eisenhower’s favorite hotel during the war) in Bayeux, which was the closest village to the D-Day beaches that was left untouched during the conflict.  On Saturday, we toured the American D-Day beaches.

Our guide was Dominique, a French woman whose family resided in the area for generations.  She was extremely knowledgeable, spoke excellent English due to a stint in Santa Barbara, CA, and gave us a local perspective on historical events.  She peppered her commentary with personal stories of relatives who participated in the French Resistance and their involvement with the occupation and liberation, which was fascinating.

What I learned, from a historical perspective, was that the D-Day beaches were code-named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah, for purposes of the Allied invasion on June 6, 1944. The Americans were responsible for Omaha and Utah and these were the beaches we visited.   Young soldiers (many of them 18 – 20 years old with no previous combat experience) carrying 70 libs of battle gear apiece were transported in flat bottom boats in rough waters to the shore (many becoming seasick) and dropped into the cold water, several drowning under the weight of their gear even before reaching shore.

The first units, taking advantage of surprise, made their way quickly to farmland at Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches.  Americans at Omaha were not that lucky.  There, in the center of the battlefront, soldiers walked into a wall of German gunfire.  Earlier bombing raids had been largely ineffective in taking out the heavy German armaments.  Attempting to scale a bluff well covered by German defenders, more than 2,000 GIs were killed or wounded.   After penetrating corpse-laden beaches, the soldiers ran into a maze of hedgerows in which the Germans had stationed machine gunners, invisible to the Allies until they were virtually on top of them. But by nightfall, they had secured the bluff and later proceeded to join troops enroute to liberating France.

No one is certain of the exact numbers, but there were probably around 4,500 American and Allied casualties the first day, horrific yet considerably less than the 75,000 some planners had feared. That more troops were not killed is testimony to the planning, training and weaponry of the Allies.

My husband wading into the waters at Omaha Beach

My husband wading into the waters at Omaha Beach

Watching “Saving Private Ryan” beforehand helped to personalized the story of Omaha Beach.  The movie conveys the terror, anxiety, sadness and horror felt by the young men who participated in D-Day.  During our tour, even though the weather was blustery and cold (but warmer than the actual D-Day), my husband (himself a military veteran) wore shorts and sandals, and he walked down the beach and into the water so he could feel what the troops felt and, looking back at the shore, see what they saw.  We observed the immense width of the beaches (which were not as low tide as on the actual D-Day) GIs were required to traverse in the face of withering enemy fire, remnants of the heavily fortified German bunkers and weaponry, the craters still visible from Allied bombing, the lethal hedgerows; all combined to leave us overcome with a profound sense of sadness for the loss of so many and a deep gratitude for their courage. We were heartened to witness the gratitude still felt and exhibited by the French in Normandy toward Americans.

The American Cemetery in Normandy

The American Cemetery in Normandy

The next stop after Omaha Beach was the American Cemetery, overlooking Omaha, where 9,300 U.S. service men and women are buried, representing only a third of the total U.S. casualties in Normandy (the remaining two-thirds were returned home at their families’ request).   Half of those killed in Normandy had no previous combat experience.  This I found the most emotional part of the visit.   Rows and rows of marble crosses and Stars of David stretched as far as the eye could see.  As I walked through these sacred grounds, with tears streaming down my face, I read the names and ages and hometowns of those resting there.  Age 19, age 20, age 18—– it was heartbreaking and I considered my anguish if one of these were my own 20-year-old son.   I said quiet prayers of gratitude for them and prayers of comfort for their families.

The British Cemetery in Bayeux

The British Cemetery in Bayeux

The next day, after we returned to Bayeux, we visited the British Cemetery, where 4,650 are buried (including some Germans).  It was a lovely cemetery with rows of stone markers decorated with colorful flowers.   I again felt overcome with emotion, particularly as I read the personal messages on the gravestones.  One in particular caught my eye and tugged at my heartstrings:



"He was so young to give so much"

“He was so young to give so much”

We should always remember the sacrifices made by these young men and remember that they were just that – young men.  Each had a story and a future and a family and hopes and dreams.  No matter how terrified, they said “yes” to the call, and the result was the preservation of life and freedom for others.  I am grateful that I was able to travel to this awful, beautiful, and blessed place to personally say thank you to these valiant heroes of the “Greatest Generation”.

In Defence of Halloween

I have a confession to make. Actually two. At 57 years old, I still love Halloween. Boom. Second, I had every intention of writing a more serious topic post this week, but I really just wanted to write about Halloween. Boom. As a compromise, and to add gravitas to my topic, I used the English spelling title.

One of my friends half-jokingly said, this Halloween, that she and her husband were the “Scrooges of all saints eve” and were planning to turn off the lights and block their porch with their SUV, partly to protect trick-or-treaters and other vulnerable human beings from eating all that “sugar crap”.  Other friends vehemently object to celebrating a holiday of dark pagan origins.

To the naysayers, I reply, “Fine! I don’t care!” I love Halloween. I’ve always loved Halloween. And for me, it has nothing to do with candy or reverence for otherworldly spirits. For goodness sake, I grew up in a sensible Presbyterian family with a Navy dentist father who inspected our Halloween candy and tossed the items most likely to cause dental problems.

No, for me, Halloween is magical, and communal. I have nothing but wonderful Halloween memories. As a little girl, dressed in my favorite little fairy princess costume, waiting eagerly for darkness to fall, grabbing my father’s hand as I skipped through our neighborhood, transformed (in my eyes) to an enchanted pixie world. As a teenager in San Diego, braving the annual Young Life haunted house in Mission Valley with my friends (and getting the holy $#%&$ scared out of me) while knowing nothing truly horrible would happen.   The Halloween party my first year of law school, when I somewhat nervously wore my hand-made costume (I went as a bag of groceries) and where my classmates and I first really relaxed with each other, the beginning point of great lifelong friendships.

Although I have a Halloween-neutral spouse, I was blessed with a son who loves Halloween just as much, if not more, than I do. He could barely contain himself each year as the season approached. I was a total enabler, putting on elaborate Halloween kids’ parties each year for him and his little friends, usually planning it months in advance and taking an entire day off work to decorate. One year, I assembled a complicated string maze game in which every kid would have his or her own string to unravel to a prize waiting at the end. It took hours to set up, and about 10 minutes to finish, resulting in a room full of kids wound up like cocoons. The parents would also come to these parties, and we would all play games, eat pizza and then go trick-or-treating together. And for my son, like me, it was not about the candy, but the pursuit. Every year, his pillowcase full of candy would be largely untouched, and finally disposed of before Christmas. We just didn’t eat many sweets in our house and he never acquired the taste.

As my son got older, we collaborated on his costumes. My all-time favorite was the Baked Potato. He wore black sweats, I swaddled him in Reynolds Wrap, and he sported a yellow beanie (butter, get it?) on his head. By the time he flew around the first corner that Halloween night, the foil was already unwrapping and soaring behind him like a gleaming jet airplane. Another year, we shopped the crazy vintage shops on Sunset Blvd. and assembled a killer Jimi Hendrix costume and wig.

After my son left for college, the first couple Halloweens weren’t nearly as much fun. I enjoyed greeting the trick-or-treaters, but it just wasn’t the same. The past two years, we visited our son in Annapolis and attended the phenomenal and magical annual Halloween Concert in the USNA Chapel.

But now our son has graduated and he’s truly on his own. (BTW, he texted me a photo of him and his girlfriend at a Halloween Party in spot-on costumes as Forrest Gump and Jenny. Bravo!!). My Halloween-disinterested hubby’s big plans this year were to watch the World Series on TV and let me answer the door.

So, I decided to take matters into my own hands and reclaim the former Halloween magic! I pulled all the old Halloween decorations out of the garage and created a haunted mansion theme on our house front. I carved our pumpkin. I placed my new Bose wireless speaker in the open front window and set up my iPhone to play the Halloween stations on Pandora. I pulled an old witches outfit and wig out of the closet (always good to have a spare costume on hand for these emergency situations) and prepared for the arrival of children.

Jack-o-Lantern and hay bales on our front porch

Jack-o-Lantern and hay bales on our front porch

We had a rather large volume of trick-or-treaters. Over the course of the evening, I worked on enhancing their experience at our house. I experimented with the volume and type of music (family friendly Halloween classics, spooky sound effects, sweeping but slightly creepy movie scores), adjusted the lighting, and played around with how I presented myself. When they rang the doorbell, I would creep to the door, quietly listen to their conversation (“Oh, look at the great pumpkin!” “I love the music!”) And then when the timing was right, I would jerk the door open and, in my best Morticia Addams voice, exclaim “Hello, children!” I adjusted the fright level to make it age-appropriate, but I loved watching the kids’ eyes open wide and detecting a slight flinch when they saw me. I particularly enjoyed yanking the door open and startling the teenage boys.

I had a ball and I think the kids who came to our house did, too. A few of the parents even thanked me for my efforts. Dressing up allowed me to join in the magic with the kids. But more than that, I enjoyed sharing the evening with my neighborhood. Our next-door-neighbor came by with her two young kids (the most adorable Minnie Mouse and Captain America), Our former neighbors (who moved to a different street) brought their daughter and we briefly caught up. Our friend came by with her two grandkids. Plenty of kids I didn’t know came by, and some stopped to chat.

As a Christian woman, I certainly understand some of the criticisms with Halloween – the sugar, the commercialism, the dark Druid origins. But, to me, Halloween will always evoke the feelings and memories of magic, creativity, family and community.