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Thursday, September 27, 2012


The first real experience Annie and I had with Scottish people came in of all places, the Canary Islands.  In 1997, to celebrate Annie getting her MBA at Xavier, we took a trip to the islands that belong to Spain but are closer to Morocco.  (Good deal for me I must admit, she studies her butt off for 18 months, I get a nice trip!  I'm boss that way.)  We were there in May, and the Memorial Golf Tournament outside Columbus was going on at that time.  I was hoping to catch some of the action and a Scottish pub ran an ad in a local paper saying they had Sky Sports-PGA golf.

We made our way to the pub and inquired about the golf coverage and the woman working there had no idea what I was talking about.  Annie and I were the only people in the place in the early evening hours, so she patiently tried to find the PGA golf coverage on TV, but came up empty.  Slowly, but steadily the pace began to fill with Scots and before long, we were playing card games and singing songs, including for some reason, the theme to the Monkees.  When the time came for us to leave, the Scots said farewell to "Bill and Annie, our American friends!"  Some of them had even scribbled their home addresses on pieces of paper and offered to put us up in their places if we ever made it to Scotland.  It was a stunning displaying of friendliness and one we remembered for a long, long time.

Those memories stayed with us as we planned our visit to Scotland after our month-long stay in Garches, just outside Paris.  It was good to get back into our on-the-move-groove again after being settled in the townhouse in Garches for 30 days.  That was exactly double the longest time we had stayed anywhere previously on the trip.  Our first stop in Scotland was Edinburgh.

The friendliness that we remembered from our time with the Scots in the Canary Islands continued seamlessly when we arrived in Edinburgh and checked into the apartment we had booked.  The owner of the flat we booked, Alan, could not have been nicer.  He gave us some suggestions for places to eat and spots to get the most out of the Fringe Fest.

In another instance of right place/right time timing on our trip, Fringe Fest happened to be going on when we arrived in Edinburgh.  It's a major event that lasts for almost the entire month of August, and features performers of all types, some doing free shows on the street, while others perform for anywhere from 7 to 20 pounds typically at a wide variety of venues around Edinburgh.

With the weather being good our first day there, we decided to check out some of the street performers.  The first one was a woman dressed in a gaudy red outfit who had enlisted the assistance of a "volunteer" from the audience, (he didn't seem to be very enthusiastic about his duties) to help her get on a ladder and juggle some flaming torches.

As we learned over the next few days, this was a pretty common theme among the performers at this particular spot in Edinburgh.  The street performers would attempt to get upright on a ladder or step stool or in one case a unicycle, engage the audience by enlisting some of its members as assistants and then try to juggle torches or knives or even a chain saw.
We were very entertained and impressed by all of the performers we watched.  They were very funny and great at getting the crowd involved, even if it took stripping down to their underwear.
The streets were filled with people everywhere you looked, with a great vibe buzzing in each and every block.
Our most enjoyable time at Fringe Fest came when we finally took the plunge and bought tickets for an indoor performance.  Lights, Camera, Improvise! is a troupe made up of a half-dozen performers and they focus on movies.  The director comes out, chats up the crowd and with input from the audience, comes up with the premise for a movie.

The performers were hilarious, and Marley and Ben enjoyed it as much as we did, if not more.  We were very glad we checked them out.

Checking out Fringe Fest was one of the many suggestions we got from people who had been to Edinburgh when we put out the call on Facebook about what to do in this great Scottish city.  Another frequent recommendation was to go to the Military Tattoo.

I had never heard of such a thing, but it turns out the displays of military marching bands are held in cities all around the world.  Arguably the most famous is the one held in Edinburgh.  It dates back to 1950 and is staged at a stadium built next to the Castle.

We bought our tickets online while we were staying in Paris and hoped the unpredictable and ever-changing Scottish weather would be good the night we went.

The weather had been a bit dodgy from time to time during our stay in Edinburgh, in other words a typical Scottish summer.  Fortunately, despite some ominous looking clouds earlier in the day, the rain stayed away as we were wowed by the performance.

Marching bands from all across the globe, including the United States,  performed during the concert.  The best part was when the floor of the stadium was filled with bagpipers, who filled the air with a dramatic and emotional sound.

After a few days in Edinburgh, we were ready to hit the road and head north to explore the Highlands.  Our destination was Dornoch, a village on the northeastern coast of Scotland that is home to Royal Dornoch Golf Club, which was the main reason we were heading there.  More on that in a bit.

Renting a car in Scotland meant driving on the left side of the road, something I had done in New Zealand and Australia so I was fairly familiar with the process.   As I maneuvered the car from the rental car parking garage out onto the streets of Edinburgh, I realized I was familiar with driving on the left side of the road but I was not familiar with shifting with my left hand.  It's not the position of the car on the road that makes driving a stick-shift challenging, it's having to change gears with your left hand. 

To get out of Edinburgh heading to the north, we had to drive right through the heart of town.  Due in part to my unfamiliarity with using a stick-shift with my left hand, I managed to stall out our Skoda sedan on Waverly Street, which is in the heart of the tourist district, right by the train station.  After a few menacing honks from the horn of the taxi on my rear bumper, I managed to get the car fired back up again and safely guided us out of town.

We were not heading straight to Dornoch, which was about 5 hours to the north.  Instead, we took a slight detour to the north and west to stop at the William Wallace Monument.  It's in the village of Stirling, and focuses on the famous exploits of William Wallace.
This stop was another one that qualified as personal for Annie. She's a descendant of Wallace, who was a Scottish knight and landowner who led the fight in the wars of Scottish independence against the British.  The movie Braveheart was loosely based on his life. 

The William Wallace Monument looks out over the town of Stirling, one of the main focal points of a key battle against the Brits.  The monument has several displays about the life and times of William Wallace, including (spoiler alert!) his execution.  Executions were pretty popular back in the day.  One of the main squares in Edinburgh was a popular spot for executions, which drew big crowds.  Good thing the internet came along and gave people things to do so we stopped killing each other.  Good job humanity!  Oh, and Al Gore, too!

Dornoch was about three hours away, so we got back in our Skoda and enjoyed the ride through the Scottish countryside to the quaint seaside town.  Just north of Dornoch is the Dunrobin Castle.  It was the not so modest home for the Sutherland clan, dating back to the 1300s.
It towers impressively over large gardens that sprawl out to the sea.

Most afternoons, including the one we choose to visit Dunrobin, a falconry display is put on.  The falcon handler was great, running several birds through a variety of flights, typically flying the birds right over the heads of the crowd that had gathered to watch.

Toward the end of the performance, the falconer designated Ben as his young volunteer for the day.  He had an owl land on Ben's head, bringing a huge smile to Ben's face.
He also gave Ben a chance to feed the owl, wearing the proper protective glove of course.

It was great to have Ben be the co-star of the show, and a bonus not to have his face clawed off.

Our main reason for visiting Dornoch was the golf course there.  It's over 100 years old and was laid out by Old Tom Morris, the first great golf champion.  It's better known for being the training ground for Donald Ross.  He's a native of Scotland who served his apprenticeship as a golf-course architect at Royal Dornoch before moving to the United States in 1899.   Ross became the head pro at Pinehurst and wound up designing several courses there, including the famed Pinehurst #2.

I became familiar with his work when I lived in the Carolinas and loved his natural use of the land he was working with.  This came at a time in the late 80s when people like Jack Nicklaus designed courses that had huge contrived mounds and required a lot of forced-carry shots.  Ross designs are about subtlety which I really grew to appreciate and as I learned more about him, I dreamed of someday going to Dornoch to see where his inspiration came from.  Sometimes dreams come true.

Tee times online for Royal Dornoch were hard to come by, but we managed to get one at three o'clock on a Sunday afternoon.  The weather during our time thus far in Scotland had been a bit dicey, but we started our round under brilliant blue skies and got paired up with a guy from just north of London and his friend from Sydney, Australia. 

We also enjoyed the services of the first caddy that Annie has ever had, other than me of course.  Harry showed up when we were half-way through the first hole, and was an instant help.  He told us over the course of our round that he had played the course for 50 years and had been a member there for 20 some years, and a caddy for about ten.  On a course such as Royal Dornoch, you need all the local knowledge you can get, and he was our own Google machine.

At first he focused on just helping Annie, but as the holes went by, he would give us all advice.  He was a HUGE help as we tried to navigate the mysteries of Royal Dornoch.

The golf course itself was the kind I just love.  It looks like it just oozed out of the sand dunes and took shape over the centuries.  It's the most natural-looking course I've ever played, and it's certainly the most beautiful.

It's also a unique course among links courses in that it has elevation changes.  Most links courses are very flat, but Dornoch is situated on a ridge that overlooks the ocean that has several holes running along it.  The setting provides gorgeous views of the ocean and the holes that run along it.

Royal Dornoch certainly lived up to very high expectations.  I was in heaven strolling the fairways and admiring the bunkering and picturing Donald Ross courses that I had played and seeing the influence that RD had on him.  It was truly magical, even if I wasn't playing that well.

From the very start of the trip, I had been carrying with me a personalized Titleist golf ball.  Starting in Fiji, then in New Zealand and Australia and again in Singapore and then in Spain, I had managed to keep the ball with BANGERT printed in blue letters from finding a watery grave or getting lost in dense undergrowth.  The original plan was for me to try to take the ball all the way around the world and bring it back home with me.  But as we got close to the end of the round, I told Annie I had a change of plans.  I wanted to leave a piece of me there at Royal Dornoch.

So, as we walked off the 18th green in the fading daylight, (the round took over 5 hours!), I noticed some deep rough and decided that looked like a place where a golf ball could remain untouched for quite some time.  I turned and gave the ball my best Jay Bruce throw and watched it sail into the tall grass.  Someday, someone will find it and wonder what BANGERT is or signifies.

We exchanged pleasantries with our playing partners, knowing (thankfully) that we would never see them again. (The guy from Australia was an annoyingly slow player who wasn't good enough to take as much time lining up his shots as he did.)  Our parting with Harry included some genuine heartfelt feelings, we really enjoyed having him as a caddy.  He made a wonderful golf experience even better for Annie and me.

Dornoch is perfectly situated for exploration of the Scottish Highlands.  And that's what we did after our time there.

Our goal was to get to the northwestern coast of Scotland, and have lunch in the town of Lochinver.  The drive there was fascinating.  The landscape was much hillier than I imagined and was very barren.  It was a reminder of just how far north we were.
Lochinver was the farthest north any of us had ever been.  The roads getting there were basically one-and-a half lane roads that would have frequent spots to pull off to the side to let cars coming the other way pass by.  That set-up led to the occasional situation where two cars would be heading into a one-lane stretch with no passing bays between them.  One of the cars would stop, put it in reverse and back up to the nearest passing bay, hoping no one was coming up quickly behind them.  Surprisingly enough, the system worked well.

Lochinver proved to be worth the effort it took to get there.  It's a quaint little village on the banks of Loch Inver with a few restaurants along the waterfront.

There was also a playground that the kids enjoyed checking out, it's always great to see them get off their devices (laptops, iPads) and just be children for a while.  The drive out of Lochinver continued to expose us to some beautiful landscape as well as the occasional rainbow.

The frequency with which we saw rainbows triggered a family concept based on the Discovery Channel show, Storm Chasers.  That's where teams of meteorologists chase down tornadoes each spring in a show that's very interesting.  We decided that we were Rainbow Chasers, and I was the head-strong emotionally driven leader of the team named Beau Hunter.  It was fun to drive along, pretending to be the Rainbow Chasers.

Marley recorded some videos of our team in action and we had a great time as a family chasing rainbows.  It was a pursuit that would continue into our time in Ireland.

Our final stop in Scotland was just outside of Glasgow.  The best part of our stay there was that the apartment we found, which had three bedrooms so the kids didn't have to share a room, was that it was a short walk to the train station at Bishopton.  One of my favorite parts of the trip has been traveling by train whether it's an overnight train from Hanoi to Sa Pa in Vietnam, or traveling through Italy or Spain on the rails or just taking the local tram system like we did in Melbourne Australia.

The train into Glasgow was one of our favorites of the trip, in part because the main train station in town was beautiful.

It was clean and busy and filled with people going to a wide variety of destinations and really everything we were looking for when we decided to take this trip.

Glasgow is, like many European cities, very walkable.  There is a pedestrian walkway through the heart of the central city area, with shops and restaurants and cafes.

It's also the home to Charles Mackintosh, an influential designer in the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century. We really like his style and it was great to see elements of his influence in several parts of town.
After ten days in Scotland, we were happy to find that our initial experience with Scottish people 15 years earlier was a true indication of what we would encounter in 2012.  They were definitely the most friendly people we met during our nearly 9 months on the road.  Now it was time to compare the Scots and their land with the people and places in our next destination:  Ireland.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Paris , part deux! (MBDPSW edition)

When one thinks of getting around in Paris, driving a massive, Mercedes-Benz diesel-powered station wagon (MBDPSW) probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind.  The Metro system in Paris is one of the best in the world.  The lines run everywhere you need to go, you rarely have to wait more than three minutes for a train, and they are for the most part, clean, safe and affordable.  Plus there are taxi stands everywhere and the cab fare isn't that bad.

The house where we were staying in Garches, outside Paris, gave us access to a MBDPSW, and we took advantage of said access to make a day trip to the American Cemetary at Belleau Wood.  Belleau Wood is the site of a major battle in World War I.  The Germans were advancing on Paris, and the French were in trouble.  US troops were called in, many of them Marines.  Retreating French forces urged the Americans to do the same, when a Marine commander said "Retreat?  Hell, we just got here."  The Marines helped beat back the Germans and it became a seminal moment in U.S. Marine history.

Annie has a fascination with cemeteries and we have stopped at random cemeteries in various countries over the past eight months or so, but this trip was personal.  Her great uncle, James Wallace Costigan, died at the age of 19 in the battle of Belleau Wood.  The American Legion Post in Newport Kentucky is named for him, and Annie actually stopped in there once.  She has some relatives who have made the trek to the memorial which is about an hour and a half northeast of Paris.  So we piled the kids and the yellow lab we were watching, Lucy, into the MBDPSW and dove into Paris traffic on a sunny Tuesday, July 31.
Traffic on the freeway that runs just south of Paris was busier than we expected and the Garmin we had was a little slow in keeping up-something that would be a major factor in a later foray into Paris.  Once we got on the A4 heading out of town, it was a smooth ride through the pleasant French countryside.  It was difficult to imagine a bloody battle playing out in such beautiful surroundings.

The Belleau Wood Monument is part of the American Battle Monuments Commission, and is quite impressive.  The ABMC is a government agency, funded by US taxpayer money.  After what we saw during our brief stop at the Belleau Wood Monument we all felt it's money well spent, which you can't always say when it comes to government spending.  From the moment you drive in, it's apparent that the people taking care of the grounds take their responsibility very seriously.

The visitor's center includes background information on the battle and also has a notebook where you can look up the gravesite of individual soldiers.  It didn't take us long to find the listing for James Wallace Costigan.

There was also a page that listed when each soldier died.

The young Costigan soldier from Kentucky died on July 31, 1918.  It took us a moment, but Annie and I quickly realized that we were there, purely by coincidence, on July 31, 2012.  That added even more meaning to an already emotional visit. 

We left the visitor center, searching for Row 3, grave 46, which was situated in the series of graves to the left of a central grassy area with a flag pole flying the Stars and Stripes.  

As we walked down the third row, we read the names of the other soldiers who had died in this battle.  They were from all across the U.S. and most died in June or July of 1918.  Some had special notices of bravery or heroism, while most just silently listed their name, rank, home state and date of their death.

Finally, we found what we were looking for.  The white cross with the name James Wallace Costigan, a private with the 6th regiment of the U.S.M.C., 2nd Division, who was from Kentucky.

Annie and I both teared up, thinking of what it must have been like, (but really having no idea) being so far from home seeing your fellow soldiers wounded and dying by your side every single day.  It was a good history lesson for us and for the kids and for them, personalized what was at one time called the Great War.  Talk about an oxymoron.
We took our time strolling around the grounds, reading some of the other names etched into the crosses, wondering what it was like for the families back home to get the bad news about their loved one who wouldn't be coming home.

Annie had been carrying around some of the ashes of her step-dad Tom, whose death in 2010 helped trigger us taking this trip.  She found a spot up on a hill overlooking the graves, and left some of Tom behind, knowing he would appreciate the history of the spot.
The following weekend, Annie and Marley hopped on the Eurostar train and took a trip to London.  We have friends of friends from back home in Cincinnati who live about an hour north of London in Northampton and they offered to put the girls up for three nights.  It would be the first time on the trip that all four of us would not be together, so that would be interesting to see how we felt about that.

Ben and I accompanied the girls to the train station to make sure they got there okay, (they are delicate flowers you know!) and then we made plans to find super cars for Ben to see.  Our first attempt at that didn't turn out so well.

On the day after the girls left for London, Ben and I got up, grabbed the SCNF train in Garches to the La Defense station which was only three stops away, about a 15-minute ride.  La Defense is where we could get the Metro into Paris and the area of town where Ben had discovered several dealerships selling supercars, including Lamborghini and McLarens.  The problem came when we arrived and discovered that like much of Paris, the car dealers took two-hour lunch breaks.  The sign on the dealership door said that they would be open the following day, Saturday, until 12:30, so we made plans to get an earlier start the next day and get there in time to see if we would see the cars.

We still had much of Friday afternoon ahead of us, so we walked a few blocks to another Metro stop which would connect us with a line that would take us to the Franklin Roosevelt station.  That's within walking distance to the Palais De la Decouverte, or Palace of Discovery.  Ben is into science and astronomy and cosmology and I thought it would be something fun and educational for us to do.  It was either that or an afternoon show at the Moulin Rouge, and I'm not sure Ben is ready for that at the tender age of 12.

The only thing that we really discovered at the Palace of Discovery was that it was a mistake to buy a ticket for a planetarium show that you think is going to last a half an hour when actually it's 45 minutes.  We also discovered that my mastery of the French language was much more limited than I thought and that the lunch at the cafe at the Palace was barely edible.  The cafe did have wi-fi, but all that did was allow us to see all the Facebook postings that Annie was making about what a great time the girls were having in London.  Made us feel kind of like losers.

Ben and I drowned our sorrows in our disappointing day with some really good homemade cheeseburgers that I whipped up at the house back in Garches.  He liked so much he requested them again the next night.  And that would help finish off what would turn out to be a great day for the guys.

Our day on Saturday started out a bit earlier than what we did on Friday, making sure we got to the part of Paris where we hoped to be able to see Lamborghinis and McLarens.  We had the routine down pretty well when it came to the timing of the train from Garches to La Defense.   That familiarity got us to Boulevard St. Cyr about 45 minutes before the 12:30 closing time for the day.

As we walked down the street, we passed the showrooms displaying a couple of Lamborghinis, but there was no sign of any salesmen or women around.  In the next showroom, there they were:  McLarens.  They looked gorgeous and fast even standing still.  The door closest to where the cars were was closed, but we could see through the window that there was an opening that led into a larger showroom.  As we walked down the sidewalk in that showroom's direction, we found that there were about three Rolls Royce cars on display.

The doors to the showroom were locked, but we could see some salesmen inside.  I wasn't sure what sort of reaction we would get, but I went ahead and pressed a silver button by the side of the door.  One of the salesman looked in our direction and we heard a click and the world of luxury cars was ours.

I approached a salesman, explaining that my son just wanted to see the McLarens and he motioned toward the cars and told us to go right ahead and take a look.  They were stunning.
We carefully circled the cars, showing them the proper respect under the watchful eye of a very friendly salesman.  Ben and I discussed the cars with him, and I think he was impressed with Ben's knowledge of the super car world.  That may have been why he invited Ben to sit inside one of the cars.  Ben did that with a smile as big as the car's price tag, which was about 238,000 Euros.
We made sure not to overstay our welcome and walked back out onto the streets of Paris, happy to accomplish one of the major goals of the trip for Ben.

He doesn't say much very often about how he's feeling about things, but as we made our way through the Metropolitan toward the Rue Cler area for lunch, he said "I'm happy."  For him, that's like jumping up and down and shaking me by the shoulders in glee.  That made my day to have him say that, and our good moods continued after a nice lunch on what was becoming our favorite area of Paris.
Rue Cler is in the 7th arrondissement, not too far from the Eiffel Tower, and the street becomes a pedestrian walkway on Saturdays, with a market that gets going early in the morning.  Most of the market activity had wrapped up by the time we got there for lunch, but it still had a great vibe on a beautiful day in Paris.  I had gotten tipped off to the area by a former co-worker who had traveled pretty extensively in Europe and he is an "off the beaten path" kind of guy.

After lunch, Ben and I strolled through the streets toward the Eiffel Tower, passing by markets and shops and cafes.  As we got ready to cross the Avenue Bosquet on Rue Grenelle, Ben spotted a man sitting in a window seat of a cafe drinking a Dr. Pepper.  Ben LOVES Dr. Pepper and it was a fairly rare occurrence to find it in the course of our trip.  So we walked over to the cafe and went inside. 

The McCoy Cafe was filled with drinks and snacks and food items that we hadn't seen since we left the States almost eight months earlier.  We happily bought Ben a Dr. Pepper and continued our walk toward the Eiffel Tower.

The approach to the tower from the south and east as we were going is great because the buildings on the surrounding streets are about six stories tall and there are a lot of trees in the neighborhood, so you don't really see the tower until you get to the wide park that spreads south like an inviting green blanket.

It was the kind of summer afternoon in Paris that keeps postcard companies in business and we really enjoyed strolling through the park, seeing locals having lunch with baguettes and cheese and wine, while tourists bustled about, getting on and off buses to capture the moment digitally.

While we had seen the Tower from afar in the couple of weeks we had been staying in Paris, we hadn't gotten up close and personal with it.  It's an amazingly graceful and delicate structure for its size.  The supports seem to sprout from the ground like a tree, and rise elegantly into the sky.

The lines of people waiting to go up inside the Tower were very long, probably meaning a wait of an hour or more at least, so we kept walking toward the Seine on the north side of the Tower. 

We were just soaking it all in, taking in the vibe when Ben heard a super car.  He has a great ear for them, and when we turned toward Quai Branly, sure enough, there was a McLaren.  We had never seen one in action on the street and fortunately for us, it had to stop at a traffic light.  I told Ben to go stand by the car on the sidewalk as we sprinted through the tourists to get a photo.

The color of the car even matched the Dr. Pepper can Ben had in his hand!  What a day we were having!

By this time, it was only about 2:15 and I wasn't ready to head back to the house in Garches, so I decided to have us do some reconnaissance.  Annie's mom was coming to stay with us for a week or so in a little over a week, and we had purchased tickets to see Vivaldi's Four Seasons performed at Sainte Chapelle while she was there.  I wanted to see what it would be like to have her navigate the Metro with us because I really had no desire to drive the MBDPSW into the heart of Paris.  Plus I love the Metro system and this gave me an excuse to try out a couple of different lines we hadn't been on.  The metro stops are all different and in some of the busier stations where there are frequent transfers, musicians will gather and play music that echoes through the long hallways.
Sainte Chapelle is located on Il de Cite, the same island in the Seine that is home to Notre Dame.  Ben and I determined that Annie's mom should be able to make it there on  the night of the concert without too much trouble.  She's 81 and gets around pretty well for someone of that age, but we didn't want her to have to walk too far and the Metro stop by Sainte Chapelle was short walk away, plus there was an elevator to exit the depths of the subway system.  We felt pretty good about her being able to do that without too much effort.

Annie's mom, Janet or Mimi as we all call her, arrived in Paris early one Monday morning, about half-way through our month-long stay in Garches.  We drove the MBDPSW all the way out to Charles De Gaulle airport, about a 40-minute drive.  Fortunately, a family that lives three houses down from us in Madeira was on the same flight and we asked them to look for Mimi and help make sure she got to the right place, which they did.  It was great to see her for the first time in about 8 months.

She enjoyed spending time with us at the house in Garches, and we passed a lot of time watching the Olympics from London.  We laid low the first couple of nights, then came time for our big trip into Paris to see the concert at Sainte Chapelle.

Annie wasn't completely comfortable with the idea of having her mom try to navigate the train and Metro combination to get into Paris, so we decided to drive the MBDPSW to the train station in Garches and catch a taxi.  I figured the main challenge would be getting a taxi big enough for five people, but Garches is a fairly major stop and we had seen taxis there in our frequent trips into Paris.

The concert started at 7 and the website where we bought the tickets advised us to get there around 6:15, so we figured if we got a taxi around 5:30 we would have plenty of time to get to Saint Chapelle.  However, when we got to the train station, it was sans taxi.  Not a cab anywhere in sight.  The train really wasn't an option as one had just left the station and another one wasn't due for a half an hour, which would most likely get us into Paris around 6:45 or so and that's not taking into account taking longer to go at Mimi's pace through the Metro.

We waited around for a few minutes, trying to decide what to do and hoping a taxi would magically appear.  Annie finally said was I was afraid she would say:  "We could always drive in."  Meaning I would be driving the MBDPSW into the depths of Paris on a Thursday evening at rush hour.  It was the second-to-last thing I wanted to to, the last being missing the concert.  I really wanted to hear that beautiful music in that gorgeous setting knowing it would be something we would all remember the rest of our lives.

It was with a minimum of grumbling that I got back behind the wheel of the MBDPSW and we punched the address of Sainte Chapelle into the Garmin and started toward Paris.  The ETA on the Garmin was about 6:17 so I figured with a missed turn or two which seemed inevitable, we would probably get there around 6:30 or so.  Not ideal, but not bad and we would still see the concert.

Traffic wasn't bad and the ETA didn't changed much as we cruised along the main highway that takes traffic south of the central part of Paris, and I knew we would be making a left at some point.  The highway had exits on top of exits and the Garmin was having trouble keeping up and sure enough, we missed our turn.  Recalculating.  Okay, all we have to do is make a turn where the Garmin says, oh wait we just drove by that!  The Garmin continued to have trouble keeping pace with the MBDPSW, and the next thing we knew, we were heading on the highway towards the Orly Airport, which is well south of Paris and in the opposite direction of Sainte Chapelle.  Super!

The ETA on the Garmin was now saying 6:47 and that included the effort of turning around at some point.  Unfortunately, there is only one exit between where we got on that highway and the airport and it lead through a gas station which didn't look like an exit to me as I sped by.  After about six or seven miles we made it to Orly, and considered abandoning the car and flying somewhere just because we were at Orly.  We let those thoughts pass and made it through the arrival and departure zones and got back on the highway, heading for Paris and Sainte Chapelle.  We hoped. 

Once we got back into Paris and got off the highway onto the surface streets, traffic slowed to a crawl.  The Garmin ETA continued to inch it's way toward 7, (what is it with us and 7pm deadlines in Paris?) and there was some discussion of doing the French thing and giving up.  I had visions of anytime I heard Vivaldi's Four Seasons for the rest of my life collapsing in a pool of tears, so I was determined to forge ahead at least until we were still not at Sainte Chapelle and it was after 7.

Fortunately traffic cleared up some just in time and we managed to get to Sainte Chapelle at 6:55 without breaking many traffic laws or social customs of Paris.  Let's just say no pedestrians were seriously wounded in arriving at our destination.  Annie and Marley and Mimi got out of the car while Ben and I went and parked it in the garage right across the street.  It's a healthy walk from where you enter the complex where Sainte Chapelle is located to the chapel itself.  For whatever reason, the French Supreme Court is located there, so there are gates to go through and stairs to climb, but we made the walk and the climb and saw a woman urgently directing people down one final hallway.  Right at 7pm. 

I figured we would make it just in time when the girls decided they just had to go to the bathroom.  Really?  After nearly leaving the country and making it here just in time, it's time to powder your noses?? Following what seemed like an eternity, the ladies emerged from the restroom and we got to the lobby just outside the chapel just in time to hear the familiar opening strains of the first movement of the Four Seasons.

A staff member patiently ushered us inside and motioned for us to stay standing for a bit.  We had purchased tickets in the medium price range, fairly close to the front and after the first movement was over, we made it up the aisle and to our seats.  That's when I finally exhaled and tried to put the tension of the ride into Paris and the prospect of missing the concert behind me and just soak in the sights and sounds. 

Sainte Chapelle is world-renowned for its spectacular stained-glass windows that are currently undergoing a restoration project.  It was still light out, so the brilliant colors of the glass lit the cathedral with a warming, soothing glow.

The music being played was up to the challenge of matching the beauty of the setting.  Six musicians were led by a violinist who had a very charismatic way of playing.  He would make facial expressions implying that he was not in control of the music, that it was just coming from his instrument of it's own volition and he was simply along for the ride.  The musicianship was stellar and the other players were fun to watch as they reacted to the flamboyant style of their leader.

I had forgotten how much of the Four Seasons I was familiar with and how much I loved it.  The quality of the music and the fantastic setting made it the highlight of our time in Paris with Annie's mom and one of the highlights of our entire time in France.
After the concert we had a decent dinner at a restaurant right across the street from Sainte Chapelle.  Normally we try to get a bit more off the beaten path, but convenience won out and we accomplished our goal of getting done with dinner before it got dark for the drive home.  Driving in Paris was enough of a challenge in the daylight, I didn't want to add darkness to the equation, which is pretty much a 365/24/7 policy for me.
The Garmin in the MBDPSW had a "home" feature which conveniently calculated the route back to Garches and we punched those directions in as we emerged from the parking garage in the twilight.  As we followed the guidance of the GPS, I realized it was taking us toward possibly the most famous street in the world.  

It was thrilling to make the right hand turn and start up the Champs Elysees, which by that time of the day was lit up by lights strung on the trees and lamp posts on both sides of the road.  At the top of the Champs Elysees, there is a tunnel that takes you under the roundabout circling the Arc De Triomph, but after having made it to the concert barely on time and being rewarded with one of the best musical experiences of my life, I wasn't about to cheat myself and my family of the thrill of driving around the Arc.  
I had noticed on two previous visits to the Arc, that when there is open space, drivers hit the gas hard, trying to beat the traffic feeding in from the other spokes funneling traffic into the roundabout.  When the traffic light on the Champs Elysees at the Arc turned green, I had some open space and I gunned it.  I made it past about five feeder spokes with no interference, but as I spotted the street that would take us back toward Garches, a line of traffic started to enter the circle from the right.

It was right about then a line from Ferris Bueller's Day Off popped into my head.  It's from the scene when Ferris, Cameron and Sloane are leaving the fancy restaurant after lunch and they run into Ferris' dad, who somehow doesn't realize who he has almost literally bumped into.  Cameron says, "we're pinched for sure!" to which Ferris replies, "Only the meek get pinched, the bold survive!"  With that cinematic inspiration in my head, I boldly hit the gas and raced past the oncoming traffic, and sped down Avenue Victor Hugo toward the safety and serenity of the suburbs.

In the days following the departure of Annie's mom from our home away from home in Garches, we made a few more trips into Paris.  Our final one was on the day before our departure to Scotland.  We re-traced the trip Ben and I made on our boy's day, having lunch on Rue Cler, meeting a former co-worker's of Annie's who lives just outside Paris.

After that, we took a final stroll through the picturesque streets and spent some time enjoying the ambiance of the Eiffel Tower.  We were graced with a spectacular summer Saturday in Paris, drawing a picture-perfect conclusion to our time in a magical place.

We're certainly not the first people to fall under the spell of Paris and we won't be the last.  Plenty has been written about the city, much of it by far more talented writers than me.  With that in mind, I thank you for your patience in reading this long entry and close with the words of Harlan Coben from Long Lost.

But more than that, Paris makes you feel alive.
Makes you want to feel alive.
You want to do and be and savor when you are here
You want to feel, simply feel, and it doesn’t matter what.
All sensation is heightened
Paris makes you want to cry and laugh and fall in love and write a poem and make love and compose a symphony

We left Paris with a symphony of memories in our hearts, dreaming of the next time we would be fortunate enough to experience it's many delights.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Paris, part un! (Ricky Bobby edition)

The timing of our stops in various places along the way has thrust us into some interesting scenarios, and most of the time unexpectedly.  We spent New Year's Eve in Auckland, New Zealand, one of the first major cities to mark the changing of the calendar every year. Seeing as it happens every year, we knew we would have that experience while in the land of the Kiwis.

Our first surprise was being in Australia during the celebration of Australia Day.  At first, we thought all the decorations and banners on display and festivities being held were to welcome us on our trip.  We had heard Australians like people from the States and we are a pretty big deal.  But no, it turns out the Australians like any excuse to have a party and they threw one, which we enjoyed being part of in Melbourne.  That's also where we got to enjoy the vibe of the Australian Open tennis tournament.  We didn't go to any matches, but soaked in the excitement on the streets as well as cafes and restaurants.

When we were in Sydney, we happened to book a place in Manly Beach just north of the city , having no idea that the Australian Open of Surfing was going on right there.  We loved checking out the surfing action and being part of that excitement.  Then, when we got to Paris in late July, we arrived just in time for the end of one of the best-known sporting events in the world.

The timing of our trip to Paris was based entirely on the availability of a house-sitting gig through a friend of a friend.  The homeowners needed someone starting July 20th, which just happened to be two days ahead of the final stage of the Tour De France, which concludes with the competitors doing a few laps on the Champs Elysees.

I've paid little if any attention to the Tour De France over the years, even when Lance Armstrong was winning 56 in a row.  Wait, that was Joe DiMaggio, wasn't it?  Or not.  Anyway, my apathy about the TDF was worn away by the constant coverage on TV while we were in the south of France and on a few of the drives we took around there, we saw road signs with dates and times of the TDF, apparently when the bikers would be coming through where we saw the signs.  The closest town of any significance to our puppypalooza in the Pyrenees was Foix, and the TDF was coming through there two days after we left there, and preparations were being made as we headed out of that area.

When the bikers hit Foix, we were in Biarittz and watched some of the TV coverage of that stage, enjoying recognizing some of the places shown.  So as we headed toward Paris, we thought maybe we would try to check out the final stage on Sunday afternoon, in part because the weather forecast looked great. 

Kristin, who we would be house-sitting for, said that the racers would be hitting Paris around 4:30 Sunday afternoon and suggested going into town a couple of hours before that, getting a bite to eat while drinking in the atmosphere.  So, as per her recommendation, we made plans to check out the action on Sunday.

We arrived in Garches, just outside Paris on a Thursday evening.  Our travel that day began around 10am as we left the new love of our life San Sebastian, Spain.  The rental car office where I was going to drop the car off was open until 7, and when I had researched the drive online, it said it would take about 8 and a half hours give or take, and I figured with stops, traffic etc. the more likely scenario was that we would drive to the house in Garches that evening and I would take the car to the office the next day.

When we got in the car and punched in the destination in the GPS in the car, it said the drive would only take about 7 and a half hours, putting us in the Paris area around 6pm.  Hmmmm, maybe we could take the car back that night and not have to mess with it the following day. Sounded like a good plan.

The GPS estimate of our arrival in Garches was hovering around 6:15pm for the first two or three hours of the trip.  It was a smooth ride on a well-maintained major highway for most of the way.  The road had tolls, which put a little bit of a hitch in our giddy-up at one point.

I had noticed in the first two or three trips through a toll plaza, or peage as they are called in French, one or two lanes had the image of a card with a strip on it and the word Cartes above it.  I figured instead of having to dig out the right amount of money, the next time I hit a peage, I would use a card.

It didn't take long to reach another peage and I confidently pulled into a lane with the sign of what looked to be a credit card and again the word Cartes.  When I got to where you pay, there were two stickers of what I think was thought was the European version of a MasterCard and the other was a some other symbol I didn't recognize, and both had a red X marked through them.  I thought maybe my Capital One MasterCard would work, but it got denied.  I fumbled for another card that I never use on the trip because it has international transaction fees, and it also got denied.

By this time, two cars had pulled up behind me and I also happened to drop the ticket that you insert to find out how much you have to pay.  I was in the process of pondering the possibility of changing my name to Clark Griswold as I grabbed the ticket off the ground before it could be blown across the French countryside, which was very scenic by the way.

I clearly had no choice at this point but to do something very French:  admit defeat and turn around.  So I held up my ticket, gestured toward the car reading machine and shook my head and motioned to the drivers to back up.  I expected to be greeted with a hail of croissants and foie gras and shaking fists, but instead, both drivers calmly backed up, almost like it was something in their DNA.

I did get an angry glare from a man in an adjacent lane that took cash who had let a little bit of room get between his car and the car in front of him as he got his money together.  I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, so I somewhat aggressively took advantage of that opening and happily gave my cash to the attendant and sped north toward Paris.  We had a quick family meeting in the car and decided from that point forward, any encounter with a peage would be a cash-only affair.

That episode pushed the estimated time of our arrival back to about 6:30pm which I still figured would give us enough time to stop for gas when we got close to fill the tank up and get to the rental car office by 7pm.

Being the largest city in Europe, Paris has it's share of traffic and we ran into some of that as we got closer to the city.  It slowed down enough that the ETA on the GPS was getting closer and closer to 7pm.  It wouldn't have been the worst thing to happen on the trip if we got to the rental car office and it was closed, but we had invested enough energy and we were so close to making it that we really wanted to beat the deadline.

The address we had for the rental car office was near a major roundabout southwest of the city and the GPS was going to at least get us to the roundabout.  Which it did.  At about 6:55 after fighting through the traffic in Paris.  We put the kids on alert for the yellow Hertz sign as we eased around the roundabout, and before we had made one complete circuit, Marley spotted the sign we were looking for. At about 6:57.

Of course, there was no big yellow arrow saying "return cars here" and the only drive I could find had an arrow pointing out.  As I pulled in, the kids said, "dad, that's an exit" to which I replied I was making it an entrance for now.   Just a temporary thing, you know.  I jumped out of the car, (at 6:59) and saw a woman behind the counter inside the office.  She saw where I had parked the car and said I couldn't do that, and I said I need to return the car and wanted to know where I could do that.  She said it was behind us, just in front of the entrance to the gas station that was right before the Hertz office.

Fortunately in the course of our trip driving a car in New Zealand, Australia and Greece, I've become skilled at making illegal u-turns.  That experience translated well on to the streets of Paris, as I turned the car around, and got to where the Hertz clerk described going into a driveway and down a ramp where I could return the car. Mind you, no where was there ANY signage of this being the place to return a rental car.  And that trend continued once we got inside the garage.  At 7:00pm.

I stopped the car and asked a man who seemed to be doing some repair work on a car, and he pointed me back in the direction we came in.  That's where there was an office, not for Hertz but for something else and a man there, pointed me in the direction of the very end of the garage and then made a swirling motion in a downward direction.  Kind of like a flushing toilet, which is how I was starting to feel about this entire escapade.

I finally noticed the small Hertz sign with an arrow pointing to the left, that led to another pointing to a down ramp.  At 7:03.  We get to where there are some Hertz signs hanging over filled parking spaces and I see that there seems to be some sort of drop-off box, where you can leave your rental agreement at the keys to the car.  At 7:05, or two in the morning it doesn't matter.  You get a ticket from the parking garage automated machine when you enter, and that has a time stamp on it and you leave that with the keys and the paperwork, so they know when you returned the car.

At that point, it was pretty much like the scene from Stripes, when Bill Murray and Harold Ramis are going to the Army recruitment center ("we're not homosexuals, but we are willing to learn!) and they park their car in a no-parking zone.  Someone says, "you can't park that car there!", to which Murray replies, "We're not parking it, we're abandoning it."  I just wanted done with that car and that garage.  And at about 7:15pm, I was.

On our first Saturday night in Paris, a former co-worker of Annie's contacted her on Facebook and said she was doing a stop over in Paris.  Jennifer had never been there, so we offered up our limited experience in the City of Lights to show her around.  We met her at the Pompidou Center, and briefly talked about going inside and checking it out.  But I thought if you're doing a layover in a great city like Paris and haven't seen the sights, spending time inside on a beautiful evening would be a waste. What better place to start than the Eiffel Tower?

One of the most impressive ways to see the Eiffel Tower, especially for the first time ever is to view it from across the Seine just to the north.  We got out of the Metro at Trocadero, and walked toward the Tower which was not yet in view due to the height of the surrounding buildings.  As we got close to the area of the Palais de Chaillot, I told Annie to have Jennifer close her eyes before we turned the corner to see the Tower.  I got that from a tour guide we had at the Taj Mahal who took Ben and Marley separately to view the Taj and the did the same thing with Annie and I.

We got Jennifer in position and when she looked up, she literally gasped.  I was standing between her and the Tower so I hope she gasped at seeing the Tower and not me.  I have that effect on women, you know.  The smile that broke out on her face was one of pure joy and wonderment and gave me chills.

Jennifer kept saying how much she loved the city and she had only been there a few hours.  After getting the appropriate number of pictures with arguably the most recognizable man made structure in the world in the background, Jennifer was ready to see the Arc de Triomphe.

One of the many great things about Paris is that the Eiffel Tower and the Arc De Triomph are fairly close to one another.  From the viewing point of the Palais do Chaillot north of the Seine, it's only about a 15-minute walk to the Arc.

The roundabout that swirls around the Arc is amazing to watch.  There are no painted lanes and the Arc is the hub of traffic from ten spokes coming in from all directions.  I'd never had the chance to drive it, but I'm afraid I would put on a Clark Griswold-like performance.  Little did I know that due to a wide variety of random circumstances, I would get the chance to test my driving skills in that very roundabout before we left Paris.

Among the hundreds of cars we saw spinning through the roundabout was a white Lamborghini Gallardo.  That made Ben's night and set the stage for what we would do on our "boy's days" when the girls took their weekend trip to London the following weekend.

After checking out the Eiffel Tower and the Arc, we found a cozy sidewalk cafe and enjoyed a prototypical Parisian dinner.  It was great to be with Jennifer and see her excitement over being in one of the greatest cities in the world.  She, like us and millions of others, was smitten.

The following day was Sunday, the final day of the Tour De France and the weather was perfect as we headed into Paris to be there around two hours before the cyclists arrived on the Champs Elysees.  Emerging from the Metro, we were met with bright sunshine, blue skies and the sidewalks alive with people. 

We certainly weren't the only non-Parisians taking in the action.  People from many different countries were sporting their native colors in support of cyclists from their homeland.  Norway had an especially noticeable contingent on hand as we grabbed a tasty lunch as we waited for the herd of bikes to fly down the Champs Elysees.
Some of the support teams were making their tours of the Champs Elysees, with their cars and vans adorned with the logos of whatever their team sponsor was.  Many of them had people on top of their vehicles, clapping and dancing to the music they had blaring from loudspeaker systems.

Before too much longer, we joined in the crush of people up against the barricades as the cyclists drew near.  We could see the overhead TV cameras moving into position and finally, they were here!  A stunning splash of color sped by as the cyclists hit the home stretch and the crowds welcomed them with enthusiastic cheers.
We couldn't tell who was winning and honestly didn't care.  It was just a blast to be part of the experience and the excitement.

The urge to buy a Tour De France souvenir was quickly squelched when I strolled to a nearby van that was selling all kinds of things related to the TDF.  It was the color scheme that sealed the deal for my decision to not buy anything.
Everything--every single item, every t-shirt, hat, wrist band, key chain, booklet, even the set of playing cards had the awful combination of black and yellow.  Ugh.  Steelers colors.  I could never ever wear anything with that horrible duo.  I once bought a golf bag for 20 dollars from a friend that was yellow with black highlights.  I played two rounds with it before ditching it and giving it away.  I've thought recently that if I get to the point (hopefully much later in life) where I know the end is near, I want to be wearing a Steelers jersey, listening to country music and eating Lima beans so I will welcome the arrival of the Grim Reaper.

So anyway, we left the Tour De France with no paraphernalia, but great memories, which is all you really need anyway, isn't it?

The house where we were staying in Garches, just outside Paris, featured a Mercedes-Benz station wagon.  I had never driven a Mercedes before and I was honestly a bit relieved when Kristin, the homeowner, showed me the healthy scratch that was over the rear wheel well on the passenger side.  This car had patina, it was broken in and not in pristine condition.  I was not a big fan of driving a large vehicle through Paris and didn't really plan to, considering the ease of getting into town by way of train.

We did take a couple of trips outside of Paris using the diesel-powered MB.   The Palace of Versailles is only about 20 minutes southwest of Garches by way of some backroads.  The palace is beyond spectacular, with a thick coating of gold on almost every surface.

After walking down hallway after hallway into room after room, filled with sparkling glass and gold, you kind of get a nagging urge to revolt.  I'm not saying anyone necessarily needed to be beheaded, but it's just so over the top.

It just goes on and on and on.  The opulence is a bit nauseating after a while, and the only part I actually liked was the outside.  The gardens are beautiful and at least the area provides a home for wildlife.
The day we were at Versailles was close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, one of the hottest days of the summer in Paris and much to our chagrin, (that's a French word for parched throats), there was no water for sale on the grounds of the palace.  Turns out there was a selling bottles of water from a cooler outside the gates, much like at Reds and Bengals games, but we didn't see him before going inside and he was gone once we got done.  So we decided to try to make a quick stop on the way back to Garches for some water.

After about ten or fifteen minutes of driving in the big blue MB diesel-powered station wagon (maybe I'll shorten that to MBDPSW the rest of the way), we spotted what looked like a supermarket to the right of the road.  The parking lot was very small, only about twelve spots and not much room between the cars on both sides.  I drove to the end of the lot searching for a spot, and couldn't find any.  I noticed the white reverse lights come on on a car to our right, so I decided to put myself in position to grab that spot, but it was clear that the driver somehow didn't see the MBDPSW and was heading right for us!  I put the MBDPSW in reverse and hit the gas, which turned out to be a short trip as I backed right into a mini-van with a fairly loud collision. 

Sacre Bleu!  I've managed to crash a car that I don't own in a country where I don't speak the language.  Super!  I got out of the car and was confronted by the driver of the mini-van, a fairly large man with shoulder-length kinky hair and two or three poodles, (probably of the French variety since we were in France), who were barking their little kinky-haired heads off.  The driver started barking something at me in French, so we had quite the tableau unfolding:  Three or four kinky-haired animals barking things at me which I didn't understand. 

Fortunately the bumper of the MBDPSW and the bumper of the mini-van were at exactly the same height, so there was no damage to either vehicle.  I know the phrase for "I'm sorry" in French is something like "Je suis desolee" but all I could come up with in this time of crisis was a string of French gibberish, something like "parle vous Inglais, au revoir, merci, croissant, foie gras" which i repeated over and over as I quickly got back in the car and on the road back to Garches.  A major international incident narrowly avoided.  That would be just the first of a few adventures in and around Paris in the MBDPSW.