It Was Bound to Happen

It was bound to happen. You can’t go this many days without it. A mini-meltdown. No, not the kids. Me. I had a mini-meltdown in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.  I have my reasons, but as I recount them they don’t seem to fully justify my behavior. First of all….it’s hot in Paris. I mean really hot. This is the hottest, driest spring they’ve had since 1901, or so I’m told. Paris is crammed to the brim with people. I know it’s the front end of the high season, and it’s the finals of the French Open. To the French, that’s more important than our Super Bowl and World Series in one. And they’ve come from all over just to be close to it. Throw in thousands of Germans, Italians, Brits, Brazilians, Aussies, Chinese, etc, etc etc. you get the idea.

Our Chunnel trip from London went off without a hitch. In fact, it was too short. Very comfortable, good seats and good service on and off the train. We arrived at Gare du Nord, changed Pounds Sterling into Euros and found a taxi line of six hundred people with four taxis standing by. I looked across the street and saw a row of mini vans (Mercedes, of course) with signs saying Libre. Let me assure you, they may have been free, but they weren’t cheap. Ninety five Euros for a ten minute ride to the Westin Hotel. A small rip off, but it portended things to come. We settled in and planned our itinerary for the next day.

The plan was to get up early and be at the door when the Musee d”Orsay opened. Well, S. didn’t get Georgia out of bed at the appointed time, a long shower, and the hotel buffet for petit dejeuner got us to the door of the d’Orsay at 10:00…..well, not actually at the door, it was about two thousand people from the door. We waited in line fifteen minutes and moved twelve feet. I called it quits and moved on to the next item on our agenda…..the Bataux Mouche.  Another line, not long, but as you are aware the French do not understand queuing. In less than five minutes, I was in a barely contained argument with a nasty French lady for jumping the queue. All around me people were cheering me on to no avail. I got my tickets finally and headed for the boarding area. No line here, just a mass of people milling around. I cased the situation and picked where I thought boarding would occur. It did not. I used my sharp elbows though and got us to some decent seats. The boat’s maximum is nine hundred. There were at least twelve hundred on board, none of whom had seen the inside of a shower stall for some time. I had picked choice aisle seats on the top level so we would have the best views. Immediately upon casting off, a hoard of Chinese lined up on the rail to take photos and completely blocked our view. You can imagine how I reacted. Needless to say, the rail space next to our seats was the only clear rail space on the boat. We got great views of Notre Dame and a swarm of plastic bottles in the Seine.

Our next stop was the Ile de Cite starting at Place St. Michelle and ending after lunch and a short stroll to Notre Dame. We found a cafe with great al fresco seats across from the Ministry of Justice on Rue St. Michelle. A very nice young waiter brought me a large beer that I didn’t order, but drank greedily in spite of knowing it would accelerate my never ending hunt for les toilettes. I had a wonderful platter of cheese, sauccisons, dried ham, and a green salad. S., Georgia and Hud all ordered Croque Monsieur.  Hud turned his sandwich inside out and ate it all as well as the large order of chips (fries). S. dove right in and finished it off without hesitation. Georgia took one look, took the ham out and admitted that she hated ham.  She took a bite of the remaining melted cheese and put it aside as well, but she did eat all the chips and drank the coke. As we strolled towards Notre Dame, I tried to give a short description of the church, it’s architecture, and it’s history, which no one cared about or listened to. Georgia and Hudson were discussing the finer points of some digital game, and S. was calling for me to slow down. We arrived at the plaza in front of the cathedral and were greeted by roughly a million people in a serpentine line several miles long. That’s when it happened. The mini-meltdown that is. I broke out in a cold sweat. My eyes narrowed into slits. I snarled at a young couple with a stroller blocking my way. I couldn’t stand it.  I had to get out of there. I headed for the taxi queue nearby, only to see the last taxi drive away while I was urging S. and Hudson to cross the street. She was delayed while explaining flying buttresses to Hudson. I sprinted thirty yards to grab another taxi and demanded that S., Hudson and Georgia get in immediately or I was out of there…. alone.  We drove silently back to the Westin where I learned that there is a surcharge for the 4th passenger in a small taxi, but not in a large taxi. Let’s see…pay another 2.95 Euros to be have my knees jammed into my chin in a front seat coated with bits and pieces of the drivers last lunch.

We made it to our rooms without further incident, and I announced that I was taking a nap and expected no interruptions. To add emphasis, I threw a map and Paris guide book on the bed and told Hud and G. to figure out what they wanted to do next.  I was done with taking them to places that had huge lines and that they had no interest in. There.  I showed them. You can’t take Pops for granted.  I watched a show on French Canal 5 about a group if guys building a tree house in Costa Rica. It was translated from Spanish, to English to French. I enjoyed it immensely until I fell asleep (after about ninety seconds).  I woke refreshed with the mini-meltdown well behind me. S., Hud, and Georgia were congregated in the other room. I approached them sheepishly. They handed me a list (in priority order) of what they wanted to see. We gathered our stuff and set out to see the Arc de Triomphe. Another great day traveling with grandkids in Europe.

What is it about the French?

I’ve been to France thirty, forty, maybe fifty times over the last forty years.  S. and I even rented a house in the south of France one summer long ago.  I’ve studied the language off and on ever since I made a weak C in French 101 my freshman year in college.  I’ve bought French companies, and I’ve sold French companies.  I’ve had 100’s, if not 1000’s, of French employees over the years.  I know my French history pretty well and collected more than a few pieces of French art.  Hell, I even gave a speech in French at the opening of one our our facilities in the environs of Paris.  I’ve admired French wine, ogled French women, stuffed myself with French food, and generally admired things French.  I’m about as close as one could get to being a francophile without actually being one.  But there are some things that I’ll never understand about the French.  Lemme give you a couple of examples.

Bathrooms, WC’s, toilettes….whatever you want to call them.  What’s the deal with them.  First of all the French have this idea that men and women should do their business pretty much cheek to jowl.  Second, the gender proximity wouldn’t be so bad except that the average French biffy occupies about 1.5 square meters (that’s about fifteen square feet for all of you non-euros).  And that wouldn’t be so bad except that there’s always at least three people in the space….you, the lady waiting for the stall to be free, and the large French matron collecting the small fee for…well, I don’t know what she’s collecting it for.  Third, the johns are always upstairs.  I have a little problem climbing any stairs, and the French always use tiny circular stairways.   The good news is that there’s not enough room to fall.  Most of their toilettes aren’t actually dirty, not Chinese toilet dirty, but they’re not exactly clean either, so I always turn on the faucet with my elbow and dry my hands on my pants.  For all their attention on architecture, they seem to have pretty much ignored this most necessary of facilities.  I’ll bet they would get giddy in a standard Seven Eleven bathroom.  They probably would want to sleep in there.

Taxis.  This one’s a little difficult to get overly wrought up about because of the language thing.  You know….we’ve all had the time when we explained slowly and loudly in our best imitation of an American speaking French.  Prennez-moi aux Tour Eiffel and you wind up at the Gare du Nord.  I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about size, fare calculation, and well, I guess I’m also talking about the language thing.  Your average Parisian taxi is no more than six feet long and five feet wide. You can get an idea from the photo above.  It’s works ok if there are only two of you trying to go somewhere and both are under five feet four and weigh less than 120 pounds.  After that it becomes difficult nigh on to impossible.  To make it worse, every driver uses the front passenger seat for his personal office file/luggage rack/dust bin/dinning space.  In the old days, no taxi in Paris would allow more than three passengers.  I don’t know if it was a rule or they just wouldn’t do it.  Now after hailing a taxi, one must announce that there will be four passengers.  The driver may give a snort and a Gallic shrug and drive off, or maybe he will give a Gallic shrug and begin clearing the front passenger seat.  Depending on the amount of debris, he may have to get out and store some items in the boot.  You can imagine that this does not put him in a positive frame of mind.  With my knees under my chin I might say, “je voudrais aller a la hotel Westin, sil vous plait”.  He most likely will say, “eh?”  I repeat it several times louder and slower until at last he says, “ah, voila, la hotel West-een.”  Upon arrival at the destination begins the kabuki theatre of the fare calculation. “Comment ca coute?”, I say.  He says something completely unintelligible in return.  I give him a twenty euro note and hope for something back.

Eating.  This is really a big deal in France.  But what’s the deal with all the tiny tables outside.  The weather matters not one whit.  The French will be reading their Figaro, eating a funky cheese sandwich, and washing it down with a double espresso.  We, of course, will be trying to imitate the French.  I’ve not yet quite figured out the difference between a bistro and brasserie…well, that’s not quite true.  I know that prices in a bistro are high and in a brasserie they are higher.    When I say higher, I mean nose bleed high.  I’m almost inured to the eight dollar cokes, and I don’t now blanch at nine dollar scoop of ice cream, but I’m drawing the line at at twenty six dollar gin and tonic, particularly when they charge you another seven dollars for the tonic.  It’s absolutely un-American.  Ok, enough with the prices.  They’re over the top, but what are you going to do.

Let’s talk about the food.  There’s a lot to talk about here, and I’m not going to bore you with a lot of details, but it’s important for you to know that the French eat everything.  By everything, I mean every part of every animal.  When I say every, I mean every.  Did you know that there’s a restaurant law that requires every French restaurant to have snails on the menu.  Now, I like snails (escargot) and even ordered them once on this trip, but on every menu?  The only other explanation I can think of is that there is a plague of snails somewhere in France, and they’re trying to get rid of them by foisting them off on tourists who think that you’re supposed to eat them when in France.

S.and I celebrated our 47th wedding anniversary on our last day in Paris, and I thought to celebrate by deviating from our grandkid imposed diet of steak frites and pizza by going to an upmarket brasserie for a “coup de champagne” and a good, traditional French meal.  I did my research and decided to avoid the old standards like Brasserie Lipp and Hippopotamus.  I wanted authentic.  I ignored the advice of the concierge (who hadn’t done very good so far) and relied on the modern traveler’s new friend TripAdvisor.com.  The problem with internet user reviews is that even if it rates overall a 4.5 out of 5.0 there will always be one or two outliers that will go something like this.  “My frogleg starter needed seasoning, and the duck confit was slightly overdone, but when the owner’s dog crapped under our table…..”, or “the food was ok, but these French waiters are arrogant a**holes.  I  asked for a chicken fried steak and a root beer, and they completely ignored me.”  Le Vaudville was a well regarded brasserie/bistro/restaurant within walking distance of our hotel with generally good reviews which suggested we would find traditional fare and a mix of local and tourist clients.  Things started well with the celebratory champagne.  It was a strong plus that our waiter spoke (and presumably understood) English very well.  We got the steak frites for the grandkids thing out of the way, and I asked for their specialities.  He said, “monsieur, we are well known for our Cow’s Head”.  I thought….your cow’s head what.  Cow’s Head, cow’s head…surely not.  I couldn’t think of anything to say, and I was hoping that S. had not heard him at all.  I suggested the foie gras and moules to S. and I ordered, you guessed it, duck confit and cabbage.  So, I had picked a restaurant to celebrate our 47th anniversary only to find that their speciality was Cow’s Head.  Only in France.  Remember they eat more goose liver than the whole rest of the world.

Actually it wasn’t that bad.

Just kidding, of course.

You gotta love the French.

Why 12?

This is another posting on the delights and trepidations of travel with grandchildren upon  attainment of their twelfth year.  This year we have two coming of age (so to speak), and decided with some concern, to do a twofer.  When I’ve explained this to others, I’m generally met with raised eyebrows and an implied, “are you nuts”, and in a way, we are.  S. and I in the fall of our years, cherishing privacy, an afternoon nap, a cocktail or two before dinner, and a schedule dictated only by our whims taking on the task of traveling with and entertaining a young boy and girl teetering between childhood and adolescence.  At this age they know nothing and they know everything.  They are impatient with our frailties but attentive to our needs.  Desirous of everything they see, but conscious of a desire to make us happy.  I don’t think we picked the age twelve with much conscious forethought, but we couldn’t have made a better choice.

This morning at breakfast, well it was their breakfast as I’d had mine three hours earlier, we made a list of all the things we hadn’t yet done or experienced in London.  It was a list of items that could not possibly be crammed in the two days we had remaining in the London segment of our trip.  They ranged from a girls shopping excursion (very important) to viewing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (desirable but not essential).  I put my foot down on Madame Tassaud’s Wax Museum to no avail.  S. was luke warm on a Thames river cruise in a speedboat.  Hudson had always had the Imperial War Museum high on his list.  The Tate Gallery was on the list but had but tepid support.  S. lobbied for retracing old steps in Hampstead and St. John’s Wood.  She put in a special pitch for Panzer’s Deli.

I stepped into the breach and announced we were going to do the Big Red Bus tour.  You’ve probably seen them in photos of London.  Double decker buses with the top cut off teeming with fat Germans and inscrutable Japanese wearing funny hats.  I know, you’re thinking, “what got into your head?”  I figured any thing you can do for two hours sitting down has got to be a good thing.  Every one seemed excited about the prospect.  First, I made them all promise that they would take no photos of me on the tour bus.  I could deal with the abstraction of me being on the bus, but I would tolerate no actual evidence.  You see in the lead in photo that Hud, Georgia and S. were actually on the bus, but you’ll see no evidence of me there.

It was not a cheap thrill.  We got the family pass for sixty-six pounds sterling, which, by the way, included a Thames river cruise if you were of a mind.  It was a hop on and off type deal, which came in handy when I needed to visit the public WC at Trafalgar Square.  Hud nailed it when he opined to all, “sixty pounds isn’t a bad deal at all considering that you get to see London from seven feet up”.  How can a twelve year old do irony?

By the time we reached the area of Embankment Station, the thrill was gone and the urge to shop was overpowering Georgia and S.  Hudson and I were anxious to make it on to the War Museum so we all spent several minutes studying The Underground map.  I would have bet a pocketful of farthings that the moment we left, S. would have walked through the station and hailed a black cab, but she did not.  Hud and I headed for Lambert North (which is on the south side of the river) and a walk of unknown distance to the museum.  By the time we arrived, it was closing in on 1:30, well past my lunch time.  A lunch trolley beckoned nearby and we went for it.  I had my third, and worst, order of fish and chips and Hud had fish sticks.  We both regretted our order.

I had visited the Museum twice before and thought I knew what to expect….a lot of old WWI and II materiel well displayed, but I was surprised to learn that they had installed a very good permanent exhibition of the Holocaust.  I was somewhat leery given the warnings that the exhibit was inappropriate for those under fourteen.  Hud persuaded me by noting that he had already studied the subject in school.  As we walked through the exhibit, he studied it with the same intensity he studies everything.  He didn’t say much, and as there were a lot of people around, I didn’t press him with questions.  Once we left the museum, and in the first quiet moment, I anxiously asked what the thought about what he had seen.  He hesitated a moment and replied, “it was really depressing”.  Hard to disagree with that, I thought.  He went on to ask, “why do people do things like that?”  I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory explanation.

S.and Georgia completed their shopping tour of Harrods and Harvey Nichols, even leaving a few odds and ends for others to buy.

What a great day!

PS.  Quote for the day:  Being grandparents sufficiently removes us from the responsibilities (of parenting) so that we can be friends (with our grandchildren).

The London I Never Knew

I lived in London with my family for three years, and I’ve traveled here frequently over the last forty years.  In fact, I’ve spent more time in London than any other cities in the world, with the obvious exceptions of Dallas and NY. I thought I knew a good bit about the place until S. and I came here with Hudson and Georgia for their twelve year old trip.

You may care to know that these twelve year old trips are rooted in a desire to share the lives of our grandchildren more deeply through shared travel, and for the most part, it works.  There is no explicable calculus by which the destinations are determined, but in the end we all have to be happy about the choice.   The first two trips turned out well; although, I near came a cropper on a zip line in the jungles of Costa Rica trying to emulate my eldest grandchild Logan.  Then Annabel insisted on deep water snorkeling with the sea lions off the coast of one of the Galapagos Islands.  I’m a poor swimmer, hate salt water, and did not like the idea of schmoozing with sea lions, but that’s what you do for your grandkids.  I thought this time I had it nailed.  London….I got it.  Paris….right up my alley.  Well, we shall see.

The trip started well with our flight from DFW to Heathrow in BA’s business class on a 747.  Hudson and Georgia sat together in the contorted seating configuration designed by BA to provide seating which could be comfortable for two traveling together or two strangers seated cheek to jowl.  There were the days when I flew extensively on BA internationally, and I thought they were the best.  Comfortable seats, professional flight attendants, good food, and free flowing booze.  Somewhere along the way in their struggle for profits, they’ve lost it.  The overly large business class section had all the charm and comfort of a cattle car.  The seats were designed to accommodate a technologically advanced, but emaciated,  very short person.  The food was mediocre minus, and worst of all, it took forty minutes to get a teeny, tiny gin and tonic.  Hudson and Georgia didn’t care, but I’ve now officially sworn to give customer service at BA a bit of what for. Yes, I know this has nothing to do with traveling with grandchildren, but I had to get if off my chest.  Actually, they delighted in the flight.  They carried on long, intense conversations with the flight attendants just far enough out of ear shot for me not to hear what was going on.   They pushed, pulled, and toggled every button on the seat/entertainment system and helped me to get my seat/bed into what passed for a sleeping position.

Our arrival at Heathrow was unremarkable, and we fast-tracked though immigration, luggage recovery and customs.  Brits do this very well…that is provide privilege to those born to it or with enough money to buy it.  You gotta love ‘em.  It was another of an unending stream of bank holidays in England so traffic was sparse and we coasted in to the The Berkeley in record time.

It’s the same idiosyncratic approach to language that causes Brits to pronounce Berkeley as Barklee (both the hotel and famous square off Piccadilly).   Worse yet, it’s extended to saying clark when one means to say clerk.  I dunno how they’ve done it, but they’ve really screwed up the language over here.  While I’m at it, let me take on the High Street thing.  No matter where you are in these British Isles, when asking directions of a local, one will inevitably here, “right past Snookems Corner, take the second turning to the left towards Swanset Close and proceed to the top of the High Street.  Let me deal with this definitively…there is no street named High Street in these parts.  And if there were, it would have neither a top nor a bottom.  It is merely the nativistic way of referring to the main street of the local village/area/neighborhood.  The top of High Street means that end of the street that is on the highest ground.  Makes sense doesn’t it.  Unfortunately, I spent my first years living in London looking for a literal High Street, and I just ignored the top or bottom modifier.

Oddly, what still seems strange to me after these forty years of visits to London, seems normal when seen through the eyes of twelve year olds.  Perhaps they have no context, or more likely they have a more holistic view of things around them and put everything in context.  I must admit, seeing a young person with purple, spiked hair, nose and lip rings, and facial tattoos still confuses me.  To them, it’s just part of the landscape.

We continued the tourist thing today.  It took us one hour by taxi and twenty one pounds sterling to get to the Tower of London for which we paid another fifty pounds in order to stand in a long line snaking around a dark room full of odiferous people to see the Crown Jewels.  If there’s anything in life that I care less about than the Crown Jewels of England, I can’t imagine what it would be.  Thankfully our time inside the nine hundred year old walls was blissfully short.  I calculate it to be about two dollars per minute.  There’s not many things you can do with your grandchildren for two bucks a minute and enjoy it.  I’m excluding airfare of course.

At the Tower Hill tube station, I bought a family day pass on the London Underground for another thirty pounds (don’t ask me why I didn’t do that at the outset of our trip to the tower), and navigated our way to Camden Town for a walk about an area of town that used to be charming and chock-a-block with quaint antique stores and art galleries which rimmed one of the larger (and more civilized) flea markets in London.  Two of the four of us fell asleep on the tube, but I won’t disclose who they were.  As we emerged from The Underground, we were confronted with a mix of Raggae, punk rock, more purple hair, tattoo and body piercing shops,  food stalls of all stripes, and an unending supply of t-shirt shops.  As we suffered periodic rain showers, we sat on mock motorcycles, ate bad fish and chips, Brit burgers, a small curry and a delightful, if tiring time, was had by all.

A small navigational error caused our trip homeward via Harrods’s to be substantially longer than absolutely required.  A very nice, but somewhat seedy looking gent next to me on the tube helped me save face with the family by tactfully suggesting an alternative route to recover from my error.  Did you know that Harrod’s covers an entire city block and that the men’s and ladies toilets are at the exact opposite corners of the building?  I stopped several times en route to the facilities to verify directions and having understood only about a third of what was said each time, finally was able to arrive at what was referred to as the men’s lounge in the nick of time.  A quick tour of the food halls allowed for the purchase of another thirty quid worth of snack items….you know the absolute essentials…Serrano ham, manchego and brie cheese, some Spanish olives, and a few Crispy Cremes.  A longer than anticipated walk back to the hotel for a much needed siesta.

Just another day in Europe with the grandkids.  Can it get any better than this?