Sunday, February 24, 2008

Coming home: Day 9

I'm home! My hubby and pets showed me extra love and it's good to be back. It sure feels longer, but I've been up for 19 hours and am ready to hit the hay.

Unfortunately, my experience of navigating my way to the Charles de Gauile Airport was nearly the nightmare I had dreaded it would be. But, my luck changed and for the most part, all ended well.

I was all set to leave my hotel room 3.5 hours before my departure (I guessed that it would take an hour door-to-door to get from my hotel to the airport), when I started feeling unwell. In my quest to hydrate myself as much as possible before my flight, earlier I had downed a bottle of water, an apple, a glass of fizzy Airborne and a cup of strong green tea. I had planned to check out and then buy a bite at the café to take to go for my airport journey. I had forgotten that green tea sometimes doesn't sit well with empty stomachs, and I started feeling like I had to hurl. And hurl, my friends, I did. So, a small setback with my departure time.

I recovered, checked out and bought a croissant and my trademark chocolate milk from the café and headed to the station down the street. Bought the ticket I needed and was on my way. Once I made my transfer and got on the RER, I ate my breakfast. I was pleasantly surprised that my croissant had traces of chocolate folded into the layers of dough. Yum! At this point, I felt 100% better.

In addition, I was smarter this time and wore a short-sleeved shirt and pulled my hair back so I didn't sweat my ass off while dragging my luggage up and down flights of steps at the metro stations. Things were looking up.

The ride on the RER train to the airport was about 40 minutes, and I was a few stops shy of CDG when I noticed that there were two stops on the train allocated to the airport. I asked a couple seated near me in French, albeit clumsily, about whether they knew how I could figure out what stop I needed and was told that there should be a terminal number on my boarding pass. Uhh no such number. Then a woman and her mother got on the train (they were Portuguese but going to Orlando), made the same observation I did and asked me if I spoke English. They were looking for the terminal for American Airlines while I was wondering about Continental.

Since I wasn't able to be of help, we decided to get off at the first stop and ask. But, an info desk was nowhere to be found. I spotted a layout map of the airport and noticed an area called New York something (can't remember the rest of the name), so I guessed that we probably needed the second stop for Terminal 2. We got back on the train and got off at the next stop.

We parted ways with well wishes, and I found an info desk upstairs where I learned I needed to go to Terminal 2A. Mind you...this airport is huge. Ridiculous even. And, particularly daunting when you don't speak the native language. My flight was at noon (would start boarding at 11:15 a.m.) and it was nearly 11 a.m. by this time. I started panicking when I saw that the walkways were jammed with people and started hauling ass with my suitcase to the correct terminal.

By the time I got to 2A, my legs were numb from my speed walking. (P.S. speed walking for me usually isn't a big deal because I'm normally incapable of walking's my curse of impatience...but this was the equivalent of a speed-walking marathon.) Found the Continental desk and sought out an employee to say that I had my boarding pass, but needed to check my bag and was worried about making the deadline (it was 11:15 a.m. at this time). He had no sympathy and sent me to the end of the line. I found a security person checking bags and told him I was on the noon Newark flight. He shepherded me to the front of a line and let me check my bag (whew!). But, I still had to go through customs and security.

I asked where I needed to go to get my receipts stamped for a VAT refund by customs for my London purchases(and if I still had time) and was told by the Continental agent to show the passport officer my receipts in the line in front of security. Waited my turn and then the passport agent told me the line for approval of VAT refunds was back by the Continental desk, and I would need to show the agents my items, which were in my suitcase. Screw that. At this point, I thought I was going to seriously embarrass myself by bawling my eyes out in the middle of the airport because I was so frustrated. Sucked it up and then moved through security.

Thankfully, I was able to board, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I loved my trip, but this morning's experience particularly made me ache for home. At least I got to sit in the roomy exit rows on both flights. And, the flight from Paris to Newark served two meals, and the vegetarian option was Indian (best choice for airline fare). I'm not a vegetarian, but it looked a lot better than the carnivore selections.

On my train ride to the airport (the good part), I thought about the places I'd like to visit the next time I come to France. I'd like to wander around vineyards sampling wine, see a performance at the Opera House, visit the Bastille and go back to Notre-Dame to see the crypt. As for repeat visits, I'd like to get back to Monet's house at Giverny because the gardens and water lilies pond are so beautiful (and they have yummy gelato on-site!), and Musee d'Orangerie, Musee d'Orsay and the Louvre (I was told it would take an entire month to visit every gallery inside...I can't express how expansive the museum is. You definitely can appreciate the length of it from any high point in Paris.)

I'd also like to have a better handle on French before my next visit, and perhaps take some official lessons. We'll see.

As for London, I'd like to have Phil accompany me and share meals with some incorporation of waffles (especially waffle dogs) every day. And, I think I can go to the Tower of London a million times and still think it's cool. Oh, and I'd like to ride on the London Eye and eat at Borough Market.

I wouldn't stay at the same hotel in Paris because it was south of the center of the city and a bit out of the way. I'd definitely return to the hotel I stayed in off of Bond Street in London, though. The area was lively so I never worried about being out late at night, the station connected to lines I used frequently and there was a shopping center that included Starbucks, Marks & Spencer (a mini grocery and prepared foods store) and a drug store, among others. And, I won't lie, it's a great area for shopping.

I'd like to thank everyone for your kind words of encouragement and interest in my adventure over the past nine days. Caroline, thanks for all of your words of wisdom and advice, translations and help with procuring directions. Jeremy, thanks for permitting me to crash your party. Thanks to all the Parisians who told me to go gauche (left) or droit (right) when I asked. And, Phil, thanks for supporting me when I said I wanted to take some extra days holiday and go to London.

It's been a blast!

Au revoir!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Paris: Day 8

Today I took it easy (at least from my perspective). Slept in till 10:15 a.m. and then worked out in the hotel gym. It was nice to not have to pack up and walk somewhere like I had to in London. Took my time getting ready and then bought my usual breakfast --cranberry nut bar and chocolate milk -- from the café in the hotel.

First stop was the Opera House, which was built by Napoleon III over 15 years (1860-1875). I was really excited to see the Chagall ceiling. It's beautiful! There are different scenes of operas/ballets painted in the circle, and if you look closely, you can see Marc Chagall's signature and the names of each piece of work he painted on the ceiling (it's hard to see these in the photo I took, but the Swan Lake scene is sideways on the left-hand side). For example, I first noticed this when I picked up that one of the scenes is of Swan Lake. My neck started to hurt after a while from craning it to try and see the details. Oh, and the chandelier weighs eight tons!

I love Marc Chagall and have a couple prints of his paintings up in our bedrooms at home. He has an amazing stained glass piece, the America Windows, at the Art Institute in Chicago (also home to my favorite Monet water lilies painting from 1906).

The grand staircase is gorgeous, as are the richly decorated foyers, which provide audiences with areas to stroll during intervals. Lots of mirrors, natural light, tapestries and gilded decorations that fit the style I've seen so far for Napoleon and Louis XIV.

I poked around on the lower floor and found a cool exhibit of famous costumes and photographs from performances that have been held there. The dress for Carmen was pretty distinguishable. Someday when I come back to Paris, I'd like to go see a show to fully appreciate the entire experience.

Next was the Musee Marmottan in Montmartre...or so I thought. Because the names are similar, I thought they were in the same place. Turns out that the museum I visited is on the west side of Paris (Montmartre is in the northern district).

In any event, my visit was great! Lots of water lilies paintings (an exhibit just started Thursday), great furniture and works also by Renoir, Berthe Morisot and others. I liked the areas that featured portraits by Renoir of other artists and their family, like Monet and his wife. There's something about the way Renoir made his subjects' skin luminous and pretty.

The upstairs featured a video that showed the installations of the ginormous water lilies paintings at Musee d'Orangerie, so I felt like this visit really tied all my museum wanderings together. There also were examples of artists I didn't recognize who painted in similar styles to Monet and Renoir. I jotted down their names because I liked their work and noticed that both painters were from Ohio! The Monet lookalike, Theodore Butler, grew up in Columbus and died in Giverny, Paris, (same town that Monet's gardens were in) in 1936. The Renoir lookalike, Karl Anderson (same kind of luminosity in his subjects' skin), was born in Oxford, Ohio, in 1874. Pretty cool!

When I was poking around in the gift shop at the end of my visit, I noticed a poster from an exhibition last year that featured Japanese art that Monet collected and had on display in his home in Giverny. When I visited Giverny in 2001, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Monet had prints from Japanese artists that I liked too. Because, you know, we're best buds and all. OK, I promise, I'm done talking about Monet.

Oh wait! One more thing. So, the gift shop had everything Monet you could possibly want: earrings, umbrellas, tote bags, magnets, hair get the idea. That stuff has always driven me crazy...but I'm a hypocrite. You see, a few years ago when I was renewing my Discover credit card over the phone, the customer service rep asked me if I'd like one of their designed cards for my replacement. She mentioned there was a water lilies design, and I hesitated and then said yes. I couldn't believe it! When I got it in the mail, I remember feeling like the biggest sell-out ever and seriously debated whether I could use it. But, it...was...pretty. Really pretty. It made me smile every time I used it, and clerks routinely complimented the design (yeah, like a need another reason to spend money). Sorry, just had to put that out there. However, I hardly use the card in now in protest to very poor customer service from Discover when someone made a fraudulent purchase with my card several months ago. Now I usually use Phil's and my joint credit card with delight because I only have to pay half of the bill (just kidding, honey).

OK, by this time I was STARVING, but there were lots of green parks and no cafes/restaurants near Musee Marmottan. So, I took the metro to the real Montmartre, which was a long haul (about 30-40 minutes). The station I got off at was a couple stops north of Gare du Nord, the station I arrived at from the Eurostar.

I had been looking forward to visiting Montmartre because of its importance in the Impressionism movement. A lot of those artists, like Van Gogh and Renoir, lived and painted there. But, when I got off the train, the area seemed seedy and dirty to me, and I noticed police in the area. It turned out to be quite the disappointment.

Montmartre is situated on a huge hill. I took a photo of the Sacre Coeur, a white Catholic church at the top of the hill, from the top of one of the Notre-Dame towers. You can see how raised up it is in comparison to the rest of Paris.

I had heard that the walk up to the church is ridiculous because it's so steep, so I stopped in a patisserie and chatted with an older woman behind the counter as best I could while she grilled my mozzarella and ham baguette...mmmm. She wished me well, and I tackled both my panini and my steep trek. Turns out it's a bit hard to chew, swallow and breathe heavily, so that wasn't the best plan. I included a photo of the crazy climb (but not of me stuffing my face).

I went inside the church, which of course was beautiful, admired the view below of Paris, and then navigated through the crowds to Place du Tertre, which is the square where many of the aforementioned artists gathered to paint. It was ridiculously commercialized and congested...big disappointment. However, I made the best of it and chomped on a nutella crepe...gooey, delightful chocolate filling. Delish!

Headed back to the church and the crazy steps for my descent back to the metro and then encountered some of the aggressive French men my French friend Caroline warned me about (on several grabbing my arm tightly and making me promise not to smile :)). Thank goodness she taught me how to say I'm married. My stern utterances of "Non merci. Je suis mariee." (No, thanks. I'm married.) were met with, "Let me pick you up, woman!" I couldn't help but start laughing and then quickly weaved my way through the crowds to get away.

By the way, so you don't think I'm naive and crazy for wandering around by myself, I'm always packing heat... tear gas/pepper spray in my pocket (and a can of whoop ass, of course). I pity the fool who thinks I'm an easy target.

Back to Caroline's words of wisdom. She's been a great help with planning for my trip, and was sweet enough to give me some handy translations, including a post-it note that says in French, "Attention! I am allergic to...." It was very thoughtful and also is very embarrassing (our CEO suggested that I stick it to my forehead when ordering so servers don't miss it), but it's come in handy because I noticed those items (poppyseed, rye bread, kiwi) on menus I've been ordering from and was able to avoid them.

Took the metro to Galeries LaFayette for some shopping that I promised Caroline I'd do, but I was just too tired. I'm totally happy with the garb I snagged in London, but I walked a couple floors looking for something for Phil (OK, I checked out the shoes too) and struck out. I found stuff that I'd like for him, but most likely not his taste. That would be a sucky present like the bowling ball Homer Simpson gave to Marge with his name engraved on it. BTW, The Simpsons was playing on the TV in the store translated in French. Interesting.

So, took the metro to my hotel stop and then grabbed a sandwich before printing out my boarding pass and retiring to my room. I'm almost all packed and am ready for a good night's sleep. My flight's at noon tomorrow...long flight...and I land in Cleveland around 6 p.m. (will feel like midnight to me). Thank gawd Phil has offered to be my chauffeur. I've had a blast, but I'm ready for home.

Till tomorrow...Wish me luck getting to the airport (meaning, pray for few steps and a short customs line!).

Friday, February 22, 2008

Paris: Day 7

Sooo tired this morning (went to bed at 3 a.m.), but dragged myself out of bed and was out the door by 10 a.m. to go to Versailles. When I was in Paris in 2001, I had to choose between visiting Giverny (Monet's former home, studio and gardens) and Versailles because I didn't have enough time to do both. I picked Giverny because the weather was great and there was a chance Versailles would be closed because of a strike. (Btw, parts of Musee d'Orsay and Musee d'Orangerie were closed yesterday because of a strike.) So, I was really glad to be able to finally visit.

ailles was transformed by Louis XIV into a palace from his father's former hunting lodge. I was excited to see the Hall of Mirrors and wasn't disappointed. Throughout the palace, there are tons of ornate silver pieces and furniture...Louis knew how to spend his money, for sure. And, the gardens are really nice. I toured the palace and grounds for a couple hours and then during my walk back to the metro, I tried calling Phil again and my phone finally worked. It was great to talk with him, but again, it made me a little sad for home. I consoled myself with a cup of veggie soup and a baguette and then headed to Musee Rodin.

This was a special visit for me because seeing the original sculptures that my dad collected replicas of brought back memories. (And, I laughed about how my brother and I were always embarrassed by his "naked lady sculpture" that he displayed in the living room by the TV.) I didn't realize it until I was older (he died when I was 15), but I share some of his artistic preferences --Asian art and Rodin sculpture -- although not all, because his taste was more contemporary than mine. It's funny when you realize why you are the person you are based on your family and environment. For example, from my mom, I get my determination (or hard-headedness, in my case) and optimism.

The museum included sculpture indoors as well as throughout the garden, which I liked. There were lots of resting places outside to do as The Thinker did and ponder. Seeing the busts inside made me laugh because it brought back memories of when I was an art model in college (clothed!!!) and students in a sculpture class made huge busts of my head. Most of the final pieces were not too flattering, and I remember thinking, "Do I really look like that?" Still, it was a cool experience.

Next, I headed to Notre-Dame. I remember really enjoying my first visit, but I had forgotten how serene and peaceful the cathedral makes me feel once inside. I'm convinced that even the fiercest atheist can feel pious in this place (I'm not a religious soldier myself). I lighted a candle for my family and friends and then walked around inside, admiring the rosette stained glass windows (my favorite kind).

My museum pass included a tour of the towers and up to the very top of the cathedral, which I hadn't done before, so I got in line. For the second day in a row, I climbed up 400 steps and walked down 400 steps. Again, there was a lot of huffing and puffing from my fellow visitors, and I have to admit, my calves were shaking when I finally finished my descent. (FYI, I have weird depth perception when walking down steps, so I have to stare down at every step I take. I could never do a tap dancing routine on steps. Not that anyone's asking me to...I'm just saying.)

When I reached the first terrace, I started poking around and found a small door (about four feet high) and ducked through. Turns out it led to a rickety wooden staircase up to the cathedral's largest bell from the 17th century, Emmanuel (apparently, all Catholic church bells are baptized...didn't know that). Emmanuel is only rung on major Catholic feast days and four other bells in the north tower ring several times a day.

Oh, right in front of Notre-Dame on the ground is the seal of Paris, or the Place du Parvis, which is the point which the distances between Paris and other townsare measured. I remember thinking that was cool when I first saw it, so wanted to pass it on.

The tower tour took longer than I expected because you had to wait for the group before you to walk down before you could walk up and vice versa, so I didn't have time to go back to Musee d'Orsay. I'm OK with that because at least I was able to see the first floor and, I saw the Gates of Hell at Musee Rodin, so I didn't miss seeing it up close at Musee d'Orsay.

I kept my fingers crossed that I wasn't cursed a third time to miss out on Musee d'Orangerie, and happily, I was able to finally get inside. It was worth the eight years I've waited to go in...amazing! On the first floor, there are two oval rooms, each with four giant canvases of Monet's water lilies displayed in a 360-degree view and natural light streaming in from the ceiling (see my short video). I loved it! I'd estimate that each painting is about 36 feet long. Huge. They're slightly curved to fit the rounded walls.

The downstairs featured artwork of Monet's colleagues, and I discovered an artist I like, whom I haven't noticed before: Marie Laurencia. The selection of paintings included were of women with animals and were painted in pastels and grays. Her work reminds me of a present-day artist whom I'm enamored with, Carole Orr. I bought this painting in 2000 from her, and it hangs above our fireplace in our living room (I told you I spent all my money on art when I was in college). Thankfully, her prices were lower then.

I have two viewfinders at home of art from Musee d'Orsay and the Louvre, so I was happy to find ones at Musee Rodin and Musee d'Orangerie to add to my collection. They're inexpensive and make great mementos.

On my walk to the Louvre, I started to run out of gas. My entire lower body was sore and

I felt like an old lady walking...could have totally used a cane (or at least my redheaded dog buddy). I walked into the Louvre via the metro entrance (much faster than walking through Pei's pyramid because you avoid the line or "cue" as the Brits say) and sat down at a cafe to eat a sandwich and rehydrate. I refueled and then took my time visiting my favorites, like Cupid & Psyche by Canova (I have a replica at home) and The Winged Victory (see pics). Waved hi to Mona and then went to check out the remnants of the medieval moat downstairs from back in the day when the Louvre was a fortress for the French king who paved the streets and built the walls of Paris (1190 AD until the early 16th century). Super cool and it's on the way to the metro.

Took the train back home, and here I am reflecting on day 7 of 9. I got full use of my two-day museum pass: I visited seven museums/tours, if I remember correctly. So, one full day left and then a long-ass flight home with a sprinkling of jet lag (and a reunion with Phil!). Tomorrow: sleeping in, wandering Montmartre and scoring a nutella crepe...which reminds me, I need to work out, too.

Bonne nuit!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Paris: Day 6

OK, I'm getting even worse at my posting times since it's nearly 3 a.m. in Paris. Ended the night on a great note, but today definitely had its ups and downs.Left my hotel at 9:15 a.m. to catch my 10:28 a.m. Eurostar train to Paris. While I was in transit via Tube, I started wondering if I had allotted enough time because I wasn't sure how involved passport control and luggage screening would be, so I got a little nervous. I ended up with about 30 minutes to spare and the process was painless.

The Eurostar ride was fast (2:15), smooth and on time (only 20 minutes in the Chunnel). I didn't have a passenger next to me until the train made a stop in south London to pick up a few riders. My seatmate turned out to be French but has been working in NYC for the past 1.5 years at a global financial services company. We chatted for a bit about my visit to London and other topics, and eventually Jeremy asked me if I was visiting anyone in Paris. When I said no, he invited me to join him and his friends for a party he organized at a restaurant/bar (turns out that he set it up as an event on Facebook) tonight. He said they'd be there around eight and I should come by to have a drink and talk with people. Sounded good to me! (Honestly, I think he felt bad about my dinner track record after I explained about my London disasters.)

He made sure I was on the right train (so nice!) to get to my hotel, and I was on my way. Turns out the Parisians are not too fond of escalators (probably why my French friend Caroline at work always takes the stairs :)). I sweated my ass off hauling my suitcase up and down flights of stairs when I had to change trains. Whew! Still worth it vs. an expensive cab, though.

I checked in, unpacked and headed out around 4 p.m. My original plan was to go to Musee Rodin, Musee d'Orsay, Musee d'Orangerie and maybe the Arc de Triomph. I was starting out too late to get to Musee Rodin (closed at 4:45 p.m.), so I headed straight to Musee d'Orsay. Bought a two-day museum pass (quite the steal) and got to bypass the lines. Poked around on the first floor (some pre-Impressionism paintings and awesome sculpture) and noticed that the upper floors were closed. Turns out there was some private event (!). Weird that no one mentioned it. I could see Rodin's Gates of Hell from a distance and I actually considered going vigilante and busting up the stairs so I could see my favorite stuff (Degas ballerina sculpture and paintings, etc.). Held back and decided to come back tomorrow.

I've been waiting eight years to see the Musee d'Orangerie since when I came in 2001, it was closed for refurbishment. I can still picture the moment when I saw the "ferme" sign. I was devastated. So, I was really, really excited to finally make it there. Well, they also were closed. There were "ferme" signed taped on the doors, but staff was still inside. I'm doomed! I have to figure out what's going on, and I hope it will be open tomorrow. But, at least I saw the Egyptian obelisk (I've also seen the ones in London and Rome)...see pic.

So, again rerouted and decide to walk to the Louvre even though I knew it was closing. I figured I could take the Metro to the Arc de Triomphe from there. I walked through the beautiful gardens (weather is awesome...close to 60 degrees) and found a friend, a little redheaded dog who walked with me most of the way. No idea where he came from and no idea where he went, but I was glad for the company.

I had never figured out how people got to the Arc de Triomphe up close because it's like its own little island surrounded by bustling French traffic (btw, the cars don't always stop when you have the right of way to walk). It took me a couple tries, but I finally found the multiple sets of underground passages to get there. My museum pass covered going inside and all the way to the top, which was pretty cool. Except, the walk up was via an insanely tight circular stairway. I have never heard so much huffing and puffing in my life from other visitors walking up. Every couple stories, more people would drop out and catch their breath in a doorway. Mid-way up, there was a cool exhibit where you could move a tiny replica Arc and zero in on a piece of detail work on a 3D model in front of you. Then the detail was projected onto a screen and explained (see photo). The view at the top was great, and the city looked cool at night.

Took the Metro to the Tour Eiffel and thought I was crazy because the train skipped the stop. Got off at the next one, went in the reverse direction and it was skipped that way too. Turns out it was closed. Got off and realized that the Eiffel Tower was on the other side of the Seine River...bad news, or so I thought. I ended up walking over the bridge (didn't realize it was pedestrian-friendly), and it was a great experience. The river was beautiful and there were great views. I tried to call Phil at work, but my phone hasn't been working since I arrived in Paris. Then, at 8 p.m., the Tower started sparkling with moving white lights and the crowd starting oohing and aahing. I have to say, it didn't feel like I was in Paris until I spotted it on my walk to the Louvre, and then it really sunk in that I'm here. Very pretty.

Next headed to Chez Justine, which was a good 30-40 minute train ride because I was going from one end of the city to the other. Found the place pretty easily and when I asked the bartender where to find Jeremy's party, he directed me upstairs.

First thing I noticed was that it was a million degrees once I hit the top of the steps. Next thing I noticed was that there were a ton of people up there. Spotted Jeremy at his table with about 15-18 friends. He was really nice and introduced me to most of his friends. Everyone kept switching seats throughout the night, so I was able to talk with quite a few people. Jeremy was the common link to everyone and as he explained, there was a "patchwork" of friends in attendance...childhood friends, college classmates and work colleagues (several had worked in NYC but were back in Paris). It was funny when someone would ask me how long I've known Jeremy and I had to say, "Seven hours, and we met on the train this afternoon." Hilarious!

It was so nice to be included. Most of the time everyone spoke French, but we had plenty of English conversations too. Jeremy's friends have all kinds of backgrounds: French (of course), Czech, German, Italian...and then there was me: the English-speaking American stumbling over the pathetic amount of French I know from my library language CDs I've been using over the past five weeks. Only one guy gave me a hard time about forcing the table to converse in English every now and again to accommodate me. He said I should try to only speak French, so I started counting and labeling anything I could remember on the table. Worse, when I tried to say I'm hot (as in it's very warm in this room), they started laughing and told me I was saying I'm horny. Oh my. No one gave me a hard time about not speaking French fluently after that.

We talked about French and U.S. politics (of course), our family names, relationships and other random topics. I think I recruited a couple people to visit Cleveland too. One friend, David, said I should be in tourism because I made him want to see my city. Yay! A bunch of people said they're on Facebook, so I passed out some cards and hopefully we'll stay in touch. Jeremy said to let him know when I'm in NYC next and we can meet up so I can meet his wife.

Oh, and my meal was delish. About the only thing I recognized on the menu were the salads, and a salad de chevre (goat cheese) sounded really good to me. It was fantastic! Imagine a perfectly toasted mini grilled cheese sandwich on top of a salad, except the crust is the cheese (no bread). That's what it looked like and it was pure heaven.

Time totally got away from me (Parisians stay out late on work nights!), and I left Chez Justine at 12:30 a.m. I was really nervous about missing the trains because I had two connections to make to get to my hotel and was told trains stop running around 1 a.m. Made it to the next closest station to my hotel and walked a couple minutes home. I'm exhausted. Tomorrow: more adventures!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

London: Day 5

So, I'm not doing any better with getting to bed before's actually a bit before 1 a.m. here. But, it is my last night in London, and I shall take full advantage, even if by way of packing well into the night.

Most important news of the day: finally made it to Pretty Ballerinas on my way back to my hotel from a meeting. Of course I bought a pair of lovely ballet kitten heels (can't believe I covered up the heel in my photo). Very comfy with a flex sole, which is pretty much mandatory for me. The shop is about 6 ft. x 6 ft...tiny. There were two employees and myself inside, and we were stepping all over each other. Still, it was adorable.

One of the shop keepers said she's Lithuanian and we got to talking about family meal traditions. I told her Phil and I switch off every year from my family's Catholic Italian Christmas Eve dinner (seven fish...including spaghetti with squid sauce) and Phil's Catholic Polish Valea celebration (pirogi and dumplings)...really, we can't go wrong here with our food choices. However, Phil's grandmother makes borsch, a traditional (and disgusting) Polish soup with vinegar and sour cream and mushrooms. It makes the whole house smell. When I mentioned it, the Lithuanian girl instantly knew what I was talking about and wrinkled her nose. She also said pink is my color when she took my picture with my new shoes (I knew I liked her).

Other important news of the day: I actually had dinner with a live (and fun!), human being and was not stood up. More on that in a bit...

So, woke up bright and early and headed to my first meeting at 9 a.m. with a legal publication for my law firm client. The office building is located on Carter Lane, and the editor told me it used to be the main road in London. It's actually closed to traffic now and can't be more than eight feet across. (See photo.)

Had another meeting at 10 a.m. with a different legal pub and ended up walking in front of St. Paul's to get there, so now I have a better photo...even a double decker in the background! The reporter I met with was very sweet and we had a good time chatting. She's the first person I've met who's ambiguous about the U.S. election. She said her boyfriend is consumed with politics, so she tends to tune it out. To each her own.

Walked back to my hotel (stopped at Pretty Ballerinas as I mentioned) to do some work and later on was able to catch Phil before he left for work. It was nice to talk with him, but it made me really miss him, and it sunk in that it will be four more days before I come home. I'm sure Paris will do her best to distract me, and I will oblige.

Grabbed a smoothie and a snack at the Bond Street station (a couple minutes walk from my my location), and headed to the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square for a lunch break. I visited in 2001 and had fond memories, so I was glad I was able to get back.

I'm infatuated with Impressionist paintings, and they have a nice collection here. I know Monet has been ridiculously commercialized, but I saw the real deal when I went to his former home in Giverny, France, seven years ago and it further locked me in as a lifetime fan. I love the pastel colors and the hazy brush strokes. The paintings feel optimistic and dreamlike to me. Also, I think it's fascinating to be in the presence of the original subject that was painted, as with his water lilies garden and Japanese bridge at Giverny. I had forgotten that his London landscapes of Parliament were at the National Gallery, and it had the same effect.

Also, I love it when a collection has art represented over the artist's lifetime. For example, I'm getting better at being able to tell when Monet's and Picasso's paintings were completed based on the brush strokes and abstractness of the paintings (although I definitely have an amateur appreciation). It's fun to review the transgression of an artist's work and consider his influences.

One of my favorite paintings (because it brings back fond memories of my art history classes) is The Arnolfini Portrait by Van Eyck. I seriously bought a convex mirror for my living room because I loved it so much (there's one in the painting). It also was cool to see Caravaggio's The Supper at Emmaus, which I was taught is an incredible depiction of an artist's ability to contrast light and darkness with depth. Perhaps you don't care. Too bad. Knowledge is power, baby.

By the way, if there is a such thing as having a former life, I'm convinced that I previously was some kind of artisan who moonlighted as a ballerina. I also probably was Asian, as I'm infatuated with that culture (one of my favorite domestic museums is the Freer Gallery in D.C., which has an awesome Asian art collection). Somehow all of this talent got lost in translation because as much as I'd like to be, I am neither an accomplished dancer or artist. Actually, I suck a little at both. I think if I could do anything besides PR, I would be a stained glass artisan. I'm sure this sounds crazy, but give me some room. My brain is feeling fried from all of the over-stimulation (and free radicals from waffle dogs).

When I was in college, I started acquiring art prints and small pieces of art as I could afford them (my mom can attest to this because I stored all of this in my bedroom at her condo while I was in school). Some kids spent their money on beer, and I was the girl who got broke buying art. Yes, this screams NERD. If you must know, I also had the most kitchen appliances under my dorm room bed (bread machine, George Foreman grill, steamer). See, a whole new side of me most of you didn't know (or probably want to. Like I said, it's late and what the hell).

Did a bit of work from the comfort of one of the cozy leather chaises in one of the galleries. Some people like to work from Starbucks, I'll take a gallery. Then headed to BBC headquarters, which was a really cool experience. BBC has 25,000 employees around the world, 2,000 journalists and 250 bureaus. Crazy. And, it also has seven radio stations and four 24-hour news networks. The news rooms were huge, and it was fun to get a tour. I didn't even ask about taking a photo since I about got frisked by security while getting cleared to go in. Oh, heard today that the reason there are no trash cans in public areas is because the government views them as easy targets for terrorists to detonate bombs. Good reason, albeit inconvenient.

From BBC, headed to King's Road for a little shopping and dinner with Becky, a friend of a girlfriend at work, Kellie. Becky and Kellie went to school together, and Becky just moved from Chicago to London with her husband for his job. They've been in the U.K. for one month as of today.

Found a super huge Zara (per Becky) and couldn't resist going in (I'm addicted!). I bought a white shirt with ruched cap sleeves. I seriously have a weakness for ruched clothing (read on). Nice for work. Then, spotted Jigsaw, a retailer my friend Kim said she likes when she heads overseas. Bought a china blue long-sleeved ruched top (told you). I've been so happy that china blue has been a hot color the past few seasons. I love it!

Walked further down King's Road and saw some awesome gray ruched boots (did I not say this is a problem?) They were marked down 50 percent, but still expensive, so thank goodness they didn't fit because they were the last pair. So cute though! And, a flex sole with a fun heel. (I think Phil called them in advance to make sure they hid my size.)

Becky had sent me very detailed directions to our restaurant, Chutney Mary, which serves delish Indian (another favorite of mine). After walking for 15 minutes, I started to panic that I had been cursed to eat dinner alone every night in London because I thought I was lost. Then saw the street I was looking for (whew!). I was so glad to meet Becky since we had been e-mailing back and forth and I was starving. We started with wonderful breaded rock shrimp with a lime good and perfectly spiced with a great trace of lime. Then we shared a couple entrees -- buttered chicken and chicken tikka marsala -- with basmati rice and chili cheese naan. Yum!

I had a great time with Becky. We talked quite a bit of politics (she's a MSNBC news junkie and has a Slingshot that lets her watch it on her computer). She was sweet enough to walk me to the nearest Tube station, and I headed home. Organized all my acquired paraphernalia from the journalists I met with and boxed it up for FedEx (my colleagues make fun of me for shipping magazines and paperwork to myself from myself, but added up, that stack gets way I'm lugging it all to Paris). Packed up most of my stuff, checked e-mail and here I am.

I'm beat and headed to bed. Tomorrow: Paris via the Eurostar Chunnel train! Wish me luck. I'm having visions of feeling completely bewildered at Gare du Nord.

Bonne nuit!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

London: Day of the Waffle Dog

Today was the day of walking in the wrong direction repeatedly...and the waffle dog! BREAKING NEWS (I'd scroll this along the bottom if I could): my curling iron is dead. I blew it up (no one was hurt). Damn European outlets and wussy USA adapters. And, I was stood up again by the same reporter for dinner (his pick this time). I also was on my feet for 10 hours and had four meetings. That's a lot for one day.

Anyhoo, I hauled my arse out of bed early this morning to hit the gym. Ran 2.5 miles and was lucky enough to score a treadmill that calculated miles (yes!). A guy near the bench press told me the bar weighed 10 kg (20+ lbs), so thank goodness I double-checked with the front desk because it really weighed 20 kg (40+ lbs), which is a ginormous difference.

Schlepped back to my hotel and worked till 12:30 p.m. A story I've been waiting on from an Associated Press reporter (I met with her Jan. 11) finally hit the wire this morning. I figured it would run while I'm out of the country -- it's like going to the bathroom and then your meal appears...sort of. As of this morning, 123 outlets picked up the story, including outlets like the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Newsday,, etc. Check it out here. This was a double whammy because two clients were mentioned. Yippee!

Next -- the waffle dog. Mind you, the photo is not as pretty as the portrait I initially saw, but it sure was delish!

After scarfing down my dog, I walked five minutes to the Wallace Collection, a private museum in a mansion setting in Manchester Square. This place was the coolest, and it was my first visit. I flew through it since I only had a half hour before I needed to get on the move for my 2 p.m. appointment. There was incredible artwork mixed in with super cool French and Dutch furniture from the 16th century and the best armory I've seen that was really viewable up close. Turns out I'm developing quite a liking for horse armor, and they had some really detailed examples here.

I liked the display of ornate gunpowder flasks (I'm not a gun person, but these were way cool) and amazing armor for Indian and Persian warriors. Even saw a fantastic sword that belonged to a sultan in the 1700s. Oh, and there were a kick ass mace and shield that I really liked.

The rooms were covered in rich, velvet wall coverings and tapestries and featured tremendously high ceilings. There also was a Gone with the Wind-esque staircase. I also enjoyed the angelic portraits of young girls squeezing birds, cats, dogs and lambs. But, my favorite was a hilarious (maybe just to me) marble sculpture on a table in the dining hall of Venus spanking Cupid. The bottom floor featured a display that walked you through the process of gilding furniture...very interesting.

Side note: Before I forget, police cruisers here are BMWs. Nice.

So, got off the tube at St. Paul's station for my meeting at CNBC Europe and ended up with backward walking directions from the Tube to the building from a receptionist. At least I got to walk past St. Paul's Cathedral (designed by Christopher Wren...I remember my art history!). I included a pic I snapped while hurriedly backtracking to get to my meeting. I visited there in 2001. Cool crypt.

As I was trying to confirm my location with passers-by, I mistakenly referred to Holborn Viaduct as Hogan Viaduct. Guess I had the Hulk on my mind, which made me laugh out loud.

I ended up walking an extra 30 minutes (which probably accounts for the huge blister I have), but called the producer in advance to let her know what happened. She was great about it. Finally made it and she showed me around and introduced me to her colleagues. They just got a new set, so I asked her if I could snap a quick no-flash photo to show my colleagues and she suggested instead that I hop up in the anchor seat and she snap a photo of me (fun!). She also was the second person I met to suggest I eat at Borough Market near London Bridge (only open on the weekend), so I was sorry I wasn't able to make it there in time on Saturday (only open till 4 p.m.).

From CNBC, I headed to the Financial Times, where once again, my navigation skills failed me. Mind you, I was walking through tiny alleys and, I actually walked by the Borough Market (slap in the face!). The reporter I met with made me feel better when he said he sometimes gets lost in the area, although I think he was fibbing. Had a great meeting (one hour). Chatted about the usual biz and then of course got on a tangent about our election. He actually wrote a column about it a couple weeks ago that further propelled me into the "undecided" category for the Democratic race. Can't wait for the debate in Cleveland on Tuesday to sway me.

He walked me to the Tube (I must have appeared to be a navigating disaster), and then I headed to meet with a contact at a PR firm in London (we have a mutual client, so I wanted to make introductions). Said hello and chatted for a bit and then walked to the USA Today office (no troubles). I waited for the reporter to finish negotiating with his editor about a story on Cuba that he was refusing to write (they wanted him to start it and it was 7 p.m.). He took me to a nearby pub to take a load off and we talked for 30 minutes and then he walked me to the Tube, which I took to the Piccadilly area for try #2 with my no-show from last night.

Backstory: the reporter e-mailed me this morning to apologize, saying he thought our dinner at Nobu was tonight, not last night. So, he suggested a new joint, Le Meridien, a French restaurant off of Piccadilly Circle (which reminded me of Times Square when I got off the Tube, btw).

When I got dropped off at the Tube, I was running 15 minutes behind, so I e-mailed the reporter to let him know I was on my way. Got there and there was no sign of him. Then got an e-mail back from him that said he had been there but was told there was no reservation under my name, so he went back to his hotel. I e-mailed him that I was at a table and he said he was coming back and would be there in 10 minutes. I waited another hour (ughhh...thank goodness for Blackberries) without word, so I ordered (I had already eaten every ounce of bread on the table). Got scallops with chorizo (presented flattened like pepperoni) and risotto, and the band-aid worked, although I felt really tired. I got there at 7:45 p.m. and left at 10 p.m. Makes for a long day when you figure that I left my hotel 10 hours before.

Got a note on the way back that we were at different locations. He sent a note this morning with a recommendation and then sent another note about the place I mentioned. Here, he meant the original place was near the restaurant I actually went to. Very confusing. It's just not in the cards I guess.

Came back here and did some work and now am about ready to snooze off. Haven't been able to get to bed earlier than 12:30 p.m. since I've been here. Maybe last night in London.