Gratefulness Is a Habit. Kindness Too. And Love—Don’t Forget Love.

This is a great travel story—a great airport story. I’m one of those people who love the opening credits in the film Love, Actually. I, too, find airports to have a special energy, a festiveness you find nowhere else. The anticipatory excitement about the arrival—both the arrivors and those awaiting the arrivors—adds an undeniable frisson to the airport experience.

Not that I find air travel particularly fun, mind you. But even the we’re-all-in-this-slog-together atmosphere is a thing that unifies travelers, yes? That’s the nature of this lovely travel story from 2007, which was reprinted on the website of A Network for Grateful Living a couple years ago. As they noted then, it seemed decidedly relevant.

A woman, Naomi Shihab Nye, a writer (she is a year older than me), is in the Albuquerque airport (I’ve been there), having just learned that her flight has been delayed, and hears on the loudspeaker a plea for an Arabic speaker. There is an older Palestinian woman in distress, and she speaks no English. Nye speaks Arabic, though she is rusty; she learns the woman is simply worried, and is able to comfort her. By the time their flight arrives,

[the woman] had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar.

I have had those cookies myself, offered to me when I was visiting the local Middle Eastern grocery, baked by the shop proprietor’s wife. (I must stop back in to see him; I haven’t been in a while.)

This is a beautiful story. Nye is a poet, and it shows in these words.

Not everything is lost, y’all.

Those Long, Long Security Lines

Everybody in the travel industry’s talking about the long lines to get through airport security these days. It’s not really a new phenomenon, as far as I’m concerned—I flew across the Atlantic and back twice last year (June and September 2015), and it was a slog going and coming.

But apparently it’s gotten bad all over the United States … even for domestic flights. People are missing flights. Fingers are being pointed. Blame is being totted up.

This CNN article offers a concise list of reasons security lines are long:

  • There aren’t enough screeners
  • Passenger volume is up (15 percent from 2013)
  • People are filling up their carry-ons

That last one is a doozy. Since many of the carriers charge to check bags, lots of passengers load up on carry-on luggage … which all has to go through the security line. People with multiple pieces of carry-on—as many and as large as they think they can get away with—have long been a pet peeve of mine. It slows down boarding, it hogs more than their fair share in the overhead bins, and it slows down the security line.

So we can blame the TSA, we can blame Congress (which funds it), we can blame the airlines and travelers. But I also think travelers’ expectations are to blame.

Folks who travel a lot—business travelers, yes, but pleasure travelers too—get to the point of thinking they “know the drill.” I know Gerry and I did over those long twelve years of back-and-forth. It’s exactly 35.8 miles from our driveway to the loading/unloading zone at the Nashville International Airport, and I can tell you, based on what day of the week and what time of day it is, how long it’s going to take me to get there with pinpoint accuracy.

People who travel a lot also get to dread the airport, frankly. It’s noisy, it’s uncomfortable. So … they want to get it all timed and spend as little time in the airport before boarding as possible. They want to slide in at the last moment.

But you just can’t do that anymore. You can’t count on breezing through security at any time of the day or night, no matter how well you know the drill. You’ve simply got to set aside more time. Grin and bear it.

Or read this article from the New York Times: “How to Zip Through Airport Security,” which includes:

  • Sign up for TSA Precheck
  • Pick the less busy security area
  • By-pass the fumblers crowded around the beginning of the line
  • Depart in the middle of the day, rather than early or late
  • Pay the airlines for premium boarding procedures

The issue is not going to resolve itself fast, y’all. There is no “good” solution. Do what you can to not be a part of the problem, put on a happy face, and allow plenty of time.

Bon voyage!

Dealing With Jet-Lag

I originally had titled this collection of notes “How to avoid jet-lag” but I’m not sure it can be completely avoided, especially as we age. Couple that with the fact that airports and planes are crowded, flights are late or canceled, everyone’s rushed and stressed … the travel—the getting there—itself is not a pleasant experience.

And then you’re hopping across all those time zones. Heck, I have trouble with the change from standard to daylight savings and back, and that’s just an hour.

So let’s talk about what you can do to minimize the effects of the trip as well as the time change. These are just my personal experiences, nothing scientific.

  • Don’t wear yourself to a frazzle before the trip, getting ready for it. Start fresh and rested. If you live a long way from the airport, travel in to the city the day before and stay in an airport hotel so you don’t have to rush.
  • Drink plenty of water to avoid the effects of dehydration (headache, etc.). I also carry Body Shop hydrating spray, which I spray on face and arms and anything else. Drink water as soon as you hit the ground too—lots.
  • If you’re the sort who can, grab some shut-eye on the plane. Bring and use noise-canceling headphones and remember that blue-spectrum light—from your phone, laptop, iPad, the seat-back movie screen—keeps you awake. Make yourself a little cocoon of quiet, as much as possible. Sleep is usually iffy for me; I read until I get tired and then doze, maybe. Again, it’s that little cocoon of quiet.
  • Bring your own pillow; it helps on the plane and once you arrive too.
  • I stay away from pills; no melatonin, no OTC sleeping pills. I’ve tried both—melatonin didn’t have much effect and sleeping pills didn’t help enough. But that’s just me.
  • Alcohol on the plane is not your friend. Rule of thumb on booze is 1 in air = 2 or 3 on ground. So take a pass unless you want to add a hangover to your jet-lag.
  • Also, stay away from junk food and processed food as much as possible. Eat the good stuff. I know it’s more expensive, but you just don’t want all those preservatives and additives in your system, especially if, like me, you’ve made a concious effort to “eat clean” in your daily life. It’s like taking poison.
  • Wear compression socks if you have trouble with foot swelling on long flights, as I do. It will help. Don’t worry about looking good; stay focused on feeling good.
  • Don’t collapse as soon as you arrive. Stay up and as much as possible go to bed when the locals do. When I go from Middle Tennessee to Dublin, I arrive in the early morning and just stay up all day. Maybe go to bed a little early.
  • Do get some sunlight when you land—a walk outside is not just getting some fresh air, it’s resetting your body clock to local time.
  • Schedule a massage for the day you arrive (or the next day). It will make a world of difference to the way you feel. Do this, obviously, before you leave home.
  • Soak in a hot bathtub before you go to bed. At the very least, soak your feet in Epsom salts.
  • Give yourself time. Don’t jump into a vigorous schedule right away, and don’t expect to recover in one night. If you ease into things, you’ll feel better faster.

You can find all sorts of advice online, some of it contradictory, so use caution with unsolicited advice. The best thing is to use your head, be kind to yourself, and take it easy.

Did You Miss That Flight? Here’s What to Do About It.

These days it is not uncommon to miss a flight or a connection. Airports are bigger, flights routinely run late, and the minimum recommended connection time between flights seems to get shorter and shorter. Add travel in winter, and, well, it’s possible you could miss a flight. And gone are the days when the airlines will put you up in a hotel if you’re grounded for bad weather or because their own flight ran late.

If you miss your flight, do you know what to do?

Other than cry, that is. Or curse. 🙂

I recently happened upon this longish article from a travel blogger, read it (the whole thing), and decided to pass it on. Yes, this woman, Snigdha, flies out of Asia, and yes, this is based on her experience only. It still seems to be very thorough and wise.

Here’s just a little snippet:

>As far as possible try to book direct flights. If that is not possible, then keep at least a 2-hour difference between connecting flights. No matter what the airlines or travel agents say, never book a flight with less than a 2-hour lay-over. Also keep in mind that in some countries you may have to commute between different domestic and international terminals and airports (such as in India) so please be sure to consult someone before booking in that case.

>Add another 30–45 minutes if you are transiting through ultra-busy airports such as London Heathrow, JFK New York.

>In case you are traveling with a possibility of bad weather conditions, such as fog, snow, then do plan for a longer transit time (anywhere between 4–6 hours).

My husband likes to have the shortest possible connection time, but I can’t take the stress. I’m with Snigdha on this one. Give yourself some time.

And take some time to read and bookmark this article. You may need it.

A Long Day at the Airport

20 October 2015, Monday
We were up at 5:30 with no time to do anything but shower. No breakfast, because we had to leave before the dininng room opened. But the cab driver was great, right on time, loaded it all up and unloaded it at the airport—and he and Gerry had a great chat on the way.

We both know Gerry’s not leaving Ireland forever—that’s such a dramatic word!—we can come back any time we want, for heaven’s sake. But he won’t be living in Ireland anymore, and that’s pretty momentuous. A lot to process. And I don’t think Gerry would disagree that he was addled, kept forgetting where he’d put things and doublechecking and just generally was a wreck. At one point thought he’d left his phone in the cab but there it was in his breast pocket. 🙂 It wasn’t so much the leaving as it was nerves that somehow something would go wrong and he wouldn’t end up on the plane with me.

The first test was at check-in. There was a long line to check the luggage, and the woman operating the computer check-in for the airlines—the fast-moving line—said, “I can’t seat you together.” I said, “Well, that’s interesting, because we paid extra to sit in the bulkhead together and to board in group 1.” (In my opinion—and I know the airlines don’t care what I think—all this group number stuff is bullsh*t; they should just load the plane from the back forward and be done with it. Yes, that means the first class folks would board last. But I for one hate having to sidle past people trying desperately not to bump them even though they’re hanging their arms out into the aisle like it’s their godgiven right to hang their arms into the aisle. Boarding would go a lot faster if we loaded from back to front, IMHO.)

The clerk’s response was, “You’ll have to get the guy at the counter to fix it for you.” OK, that’s fine, we had time, but Gerry was grumbling. He paid for those tickets, dagnabbit!

And I get that. But usually the airlines can sort these things out if you keep pushing … with a smile. I said, “Put on a happy face, honey, because if there’s any problem, the clerk is more likely to want to fix it for us if we’re nice. In particular, we have heavy bags; we’d like him to see those borderline bags as underweight rather than overweight.”

This makes sense, of course; it’s the whole you-catch-more-flies-with-honey-than-you-do-with-vinegar thing, but in the heat of the moment—we paid good money for special tickets, after all—it’s easy to get distracted from the end goal. So we were at the window for quite a while—we were checking four bags, plus the clerk had to fix the ticket problem—but we used our happy faces and there was never a problem, never a doubt that we’d be sitting together. In fact, we chatted and chuckled. At one point I made some remark and the guy laughed, and I said, “Thank you for laughing” and he said, “No, thank you for laughing.” So this is my theory about the airlines: you can be an asshole and let a moderately stressful situation escalate—and think about it, there are probably all sorts of ways an airline clerk can make things difficult for you and you’d never know—or you can be not-an-asshole and keep your travel experience in the moderately stressful zone. Air travel isn’t fun unless you can afford to fly first class. (And I’m not sure it is even then … but I wouldn’t know.)

It’s also exhausting. Our flying/changing planes/flying time alone was twelve hours, and we were at the airport three-plus hours before flying, and up an hour before that—so sixteen hours. At least we left the line happy, right?

So here’s what it was like to leave Dublin on this day, the culmination of a year’s worth of correspondence with the Department of Homeland Security:

1. Check bags, obtain boarding pass; show passport the first time (but not the last).

1a. Put on a happy face for the clerk who will weigh your bags (let them be underweight, ohplease ohpleaseohplease) and also help you find that expensive bulkhead seat the first clerk couldn’t find (it’s there, just couldn’t be accessed through the automated system); the happy face assures this happy outcome. Clerk even laughs. Mission accomplished.

2. Go through security, show passport again, take off shoes, and etc ad nauseam.

3. Go to US Preclearance; to get there, go through a second, more thorough security (remove shoes, show passport for third time).

4. Wait in line to see the customs agent; Americans to the right, “all others” to the left. Americans may go to the left with their spouses if desired (say yes; it’s a shorter line, though in this case I had no intention of missing the Gerry Hampson Emigration Show).

5. Talk to the customs agent; show passport for fourth time, identify your luggage online.

5a. Americans traveling alone (i.e., me, usually) have passport stamped, identify their bags, and are told, “Welcome to the United States of America” (or, alternately, “Welcome home”).

5b. Irish folk traveling alone (i.e., Gerry, usually) must place four fingers and then the thumb, both left and right, on the electronic fingerprint reader and identify their bags; occasionally they have to answer questions, which, if answered correctly, means their passport is stamped and they are passed through.

At this point in the past you entered the concourse and gates; it is not a retail / culinary paradise (at the Dublin airport you need to do that before you go through security, so allow extra time if you want to shop). However, if you are emigrating

6. You get out your sealed papers from the US embassy; you might (or might not) have already noticed that they doctored your well-used passport, creating and pasting in a whole new photo page with your new address and new passport photo and new temporary permanent residency visa number to replace your old Irish passport number.

7. The customs agent escorts you to the office—the Admissibility Review Area—where you wait (see photo) for the next available agent (there’s only one). Your passport and sealed papers are put in the waiting area (see also photo) for the next available agent.

IMG_1589

8. When your name is called, you and your spouse hustle up to the window; you haven’t had breakfast yet (breakfast room wasn’t due to open for another 30 minutes when you left the hotel fully 3.5 hours before your scheduled flight for the 5-minute cab ride to the airport) and you would really, really like to get something to eat before they start boarding the plane. Flight time is about an hour from now.

8a. The agent reviews the papers, sees that all is in order, has a pleasant chat with you, stamps your passport, and says, “Welcome home, Mr. Hampson.”

At that point we had thirty minutes before they would begin boarding, so we ran and got sandwiches. In the Nashville and Chicago airports, it’s like a fast- and not-so-fast-food heaven on the other side of security, full of restaurants, but once you enter the US preclearance in Dublin, there is precious little food. We wolfed our sandwiches and then went to wait, and lo and behold, Richie showed up to wish us a safe journey.

And then we got on the plane.

Hark, now, hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic

We only had an hour in between flights in Chicago, which would have been difficult for me, stressful, but it’s a lot easier traveling with two. And that flight from Chicago is a short one, so you have the anticipation of being almost home.

When we got to Nashville, we had a welcoming committee, with homemade signs and ringing little tinkly bells when they saw us! We are so blessed!

Debo (friend), Teresa (sister-in-law), Jon (brother), Gerry, Gwen( friend), Amy (friend).

Debo (friend), Teresa (sister-in-law), Jon (brother), Gerry, Gwen( friend), Amy (friend).

Our friends helped us carry luggage out to the pick-up zone, where more friends, the Byrums, were waiting to take us home.

 Jon, Teresa, Amy, Gerry, Jenny, Kerry.

Jon, Teresa, Amy, Gerry, Jenny, Kerry.

Home!

It had been a year since Bean had seen Gerry, but she just couldn’t get enough of him.

It had been a year since Bean had seen Gerry, but she just couldn’t get enough of him.

Winding Down, At Last

19 October 2015 Monday

We had a final breakfast at the Celbridge Manor, then loaded up the car and went to Gerry’s house to grab things (gifts, dress clothes) we’d left there. Visited with Bridie for a couple hours. Then we took all that stuff to the airport hotel—the former Bewley’s Hotel, now the Clayton Hotel Dublin Airport.

One of Gerry’s best ideas ever is staying in an airport hotel the night before we fly home. At that point we’re tired and we want as little hassle—and rushing—as possible. I’ve done that thing of dropping the car off and then rushing back to the airport, and I swear, it’s hazardous to my health! So the day before we fly, we check in, unload the luggage, then take the rental car back, shuttle back to the hotel, have an early night, and shuttle or cab to the airport in the morning. It’s just so much easier to wind down this way than rush rush rush.

For this trip, we splurged on a suite—only €20 more!—so we could sort out all our luggage with plenty of room. It was a brilliant idea, this splurge. For one thing, it was just a few steps from the elevator. But it was also a huge room—and we could well remember the size of the regular rooms here.

I’m standing behind a couch and in front of a desk. There was plenty of room to spread out four suitcases.

I’m standing behind a couch and in front of a desk. There was plenty of room to spread out four suitcases.

Nice touch. :)

Nice touch. 🙂

We were delighted with the room.

It was a deluxe bathroom too—this is only one feature of it.

It was a deluxe bathroom too—this is only one feature of it.

They’ve done a lot of work on this hotel and the airport area in the last couple years. The access to the airport is vastly improved, and the construction is finally finished, so a tourist like myself can drive to and from with minimal confusion. At least one more gas station has been added to the mix, which is handy for those of us turning in rentals—and the best part is it’s right across the street from the hotel!

This photo, taken from the elevator tower, shows the new gas station. I have a photo—can’t find it now—taken from this same spot and the field has several horses grazing in it. I’m sorry they’re not still there.

This photo, taken from the elevator tower, shows the new gas station. I have a photo—can’t find it now—taken from this same spot and the field has several horses grazing in it. I’m sorry they’re not still there.

So we gassed up, returned the car … and then spent at least an hour, probably more, working out the packing, getting it so each suitcase weighed less than 50 pounds—or less than 23.0 kilos, which is just slightly more than 50 pounds. (And as it turns out, when we got to the window the next day, the heaviest bag was 22.0. Yay! Of course, we put everything heavy that wasn’t liquid into the rolling carryon bag we’d bought at Samsonite.)

We ate in the bar of the hotel, then grabbed two apple tarts (pie) to take up to the room with us to enjoy with a cup of tea; I shut down the computer and we were just going to relax in our jammies when Gerry’s brother Richie called. Then Gerry’s nephew Eoin called. Both were dropping by to see us—no plan, just each had decded to do that. So we got dressed, and they arrived within seconds of each other. What a great visit to see us off!

Richie, Gerry, me, Eoin.

Richie, Gerry, me, Eoin.

That was nice. Gerry also called his older brother, William, before we went to bed—and he called his preferred cab company to arrange an early pick-up. With so much luggage—he also requested a van—we don’t want to hassle with the hotel’s shuttle bus, which will drop us a block or more away from the terminal. The cab company will put us out right in front.

We’ll be home tomorrow! It’s interesting how the time zones make this westward trip seem so much shorter. Seem being the operative term. 🙂

Pinch Me, Please, I’m Going to Paris

Tuesday, February 14, Aer Lingus Dublin-to-Paris

WHO KNEW that Brad and Angelina would be in Paris (as the copy of People magazine I picked up in the airport informed us) on February 14th (and, in fact, for most of February)? But then as the world’s most famous lovers, why WOULDN’T they be in Paris on the International Day of Love and Expensive Meals, eh?

After some discussion with Anne Rogers last night (she and her husband, Kevin, owners of Blaithin House, were departing for Barcelona that day about forty-five minutes after we were due to take off for Paris), they decided not to ride to the airport with us. I can’t blame them—Anne offered to leave breakfast out for me, but I really couldn’t imagine giving up any sleeping time to eat, so why would they want to give up the extra sleep either? (I would come to regret declining that breakfast, though!)

Travel Tip: Eat your breakfast. You never know when travel circumstances may interrupt or delay your regularly scheduled feeding … forcing you to resort to, say, copious amounts of French chocolate until a real meal can be had. (Contrary to popular belief, chocolate—French or otherwise—is not one of the major food groups.)

Gerry likes to be early—or, I should say, he likes to have enough time to allow for mishaps, which, as we discussed in an earlier rant, are the herbs and spices in the recipe of international travel, in my humble opinion—so we arrived at the airport a bit after five a.m. Obviously there was no one to receive the rental car out at the lot, and by five-thirty, when we’d checked our bags, there was no one at the Europcar counter inside, either, so we just left the keys and went on.

We wandered through duty-free just to see what was there (forward planning for my departure in ten days)—and let me tell you, it was weird to see that much retail happening before six o’clock in the morning! Dublin has an excellent duty-free mall, by the way.

We’d heard earlier from Pat that this week is spring break for all Irish schools (the first time ever, it seems, that the event had been coordinated), and suddenly it made sense why there were all those teens roving around like packs of wild dogs—our plane to Paris was packed with teenagers on the loose, as well as families with small children on their way to EuroDisney, which is just outside Paris, apparently. Considering that Gerry’s house (and my B&B) is just a fifteen minute drive from the airport, and I still had to rise at four a.m. for this seven a.m. flight, I could only imagine how long some of those Irish folk had been up, and how cranky some of those kids must be, although we were, of course, soon to learn.

Another Travel Tip: Europe is awash in discount airlines; Ryan Air, originating in Ireland, is one, but there are several, all competing to fly folks between the major European destinations. Can you say “Price War”? If you’ve got your heart set on Rome, but the cheapest flight from the States is to London, jump on it. You can get there from … well … there. Anne and Kevin flew from Dublin to Barcelona for €25 each. Hel-lo—you read that correctly: twenty-five euro (roughly thirty bucks). Think about it, and plan accordingly.

Our flight was, as I’ve said, full, but it was uneventful (and in the case of air travel, that’s a good thing)—but that was the only easy thing about the morning. The French—with apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald—are different from you and me. Especially as it regards, um, signage.

Yep, Charles de Gaulle airport is just a bit confusing, and I’d done my homework, I knew where we wanted to go! I could even see it—the RER (in other words, the underground train into/through Paris)—on the signs. I just couldn’t find it.

Here’s the thing in a nutshell: we landed at Terminal 1, and the RER only departs from Terminal 3 (oh, did I mention that CDG is spread out into several different terminals?). My guidebook failed to tell me that important piece of information, because it’s intended for the American market, and if you fly into Paris from the U.S., you’ll land at Terminal 3, and that will be that. But I entered Paris from another country in the European Union! Suddenly, it was a whole new ballgame.

Yet Another Travel Tip: I love the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. I’ve bought more than one brand of guidebook in my time, but I keep coming back to DK (I love the detailed street maps of the more important towns, for one thing). And now they make these “Top 10” books—Top 10 Dublin, Top 10 Paris—for people who have a limited amount of time. They give you the top ten don’t-miss spots, and then they break down each venue (the Eiffel Tower, for example) into the ten things you should see while there. They’re small (fit in a small purse like mine) and reasonably lightweight.

French signage is like a scavenger hunt: they only give you one clue at a time. So, we collected the luggage, said to ourselves, “OK, let’s get to the RER,” and then found a sign that looked something like this: RER —>

Hey! We don’t need to speak French to follow arrows, right?

We walked in the direction the arrow pointed, and ended up at an elevator. When we got to the elevator, the sign regarding RER only told us to go down one floor. When we got down one floor, the arrows pointed us outside, where shuttle buses were pulling up, and we overheard someone say that we could catch the train at Terminal 3 (someone who knew more than us). So that’s how we got to the train station, along with a load of puzzled Irish folk. But what should have taken us about ten minutes actually took about forty-five; there were some moments wandering around the airport when I felt pretty hopeless. I stopped and asked airport workers twice, and that interaction left us a bit frustrated too (oh, let’s be honest: they weren’t helpful, and it felt … as if they were unhelpful on purpose).

A note on foreshadowing: this isn’t foreshadowing. Normally I like to just let the story unfold. But right now you may be thinking that I had a bad French experience, which, in fact, couldn’t be further from the truth. So I just want to tell you now that this all has a happy ending, I had a lovely time in Paris, France, and want to go back as soon as I can manage it. Frankly, Paris is one of those places that you have to go back to, because you do spend a certain amount of time fumbling around in the dark, so to speak. But then you figure everything out—what works and what you like, and where things are, and how much time to allow—and the vacation becomes everything you’d hoped it would be, only two days shorter. 🙂

But back to those frigging signs. It just seems like it could have been easier. For example, a sign that said RER, TERMINAL 3 would have made a lot of sense to me, and would have set us on the right path. After all, all we had to do was take the luggage fifty feet from the carousel to the elevator, go down one floor, catch a shuttle bus to the next-plus-one terminal where the train station and ticketsellers were, buy two tickets, and get on. We’re both reasonably intelligent people; this should have been doable. (Later our landlord agreed that Terminal 1 is, in his words, “a nightmare.”)

And don’t get me started on the kiosk-computer that was supposed to sell us a ticket; even with the help of an American woman who spoke (and read) “a little” French (in case I was doing something wrong, which I wasn’t), we never could make it sell us a ticket. We gave up, and she tried to buy a ticket and had the same problem as us (later I had the identical problem trying to buy tickets from a machine at the Louvre, which led me to conclude that my credit card—and possibly many American credit cards?—had some fundamental incompatibility with the French automated system; the machine would just spit it out after a certain point. Makes me wonder about their ATMs. It worked just fine, thankyouverymuch, at French stores though! Ooo la-la!)

Bottom line: I’ve only traveled to English-speaking countries thus far. Stepping outside that particular comfort zone (although, let’s face it, sometimes in Ireland I’m not completely certain I’m speaking the same language) takes international travel to a whole new level. I read up about this trip, I tried to prepare, and I actually thought I could handle it (and I did, most of the time). Having said all that, though, most places that tourists might go in Paris had (ahem) English subtitles. Restaurant menus had English translations. Most shopkeepers spoke more than enough English to sell us what we wanted. Paris is the number-one tourist destination in the world, for heaven’s sake, and, trust me, most of those tourists do not speak French. Parisians have definitely gone the extra mile to make us welcome.

So … putting all that behind us, we bought tickets from a human, not a machine, and finally dragged our luggage on to the train—the RER B-line, which goes straight through the middle of Paris. We exited at the St Michel-Notre Dame exit, which is pretty much dead center. Gerry was cursing as he dragged my suitcase up those last stairs—but there we were … Paris!

As we’d been instructed via e-mail (in English), we crossed the street, and met our landlord, Giancarlo Buccafusca. He is an emergency room physician at the Hôtel-Dieu (apparently that means hospital in French), and we just walked in and asked for him. Giancarlo came out to give us the keys and the security entry code, told us he’d drop by later to settle up on the rent, and gave us directions to the apartment.

Something Interesting: I didn’t know this until recently, but in major tourism cities like San Francisco, say, or Paris, there’s quite a bit of business done in short-term apartment rental. This gets you out of the hotel district and into a neighborhood, and in the case of Paris, integrates you into the life pretty quickly. (Of course, you take your chances: sometimes you end up in the Village of the Damned. But sometimes … you end up at 23 rue le Regrattier.) My friend Jenny had had a good experience with this type of accommodation in Paris, and had suggested several Web sites; I’d chosen one that you worked directly with the owner of the apartment (thus no brokerage fees). I’d decided what part of Paris to stay in, looked at several apartments, e-mailed Giancarlo, negotiated a price (because it was the off-season), set a date—and that was that! I cannot emphasize enough how much we loved this apartment, loved the location, loved having more than just a room in a hotel—for a lot less than we’d have paid for “just a room” in a hotel.

So we walked the seven or eight minutes to the apartment on the Île St-Louis, dragging our luggage behind us. Île de la Cité is pretty touristy, even in mid-February; there are dozens of shops selling little plastic Eiffel Towers (and other plastic Paris memorabilia) lining the streets. We walked right past Notre-Dame, and I was literally agog with the wonder that only a girl from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, could feel. Notre-Dame, y’all! Flying buttresses, gargoyles, tourists in the courtyard, yeah.

This is the backside. We walked up this street, along the side of Notre-Dame, many, many times. And it’s magnificent.

This is the backside. We walked up this street, along the side of Notre-Dame, many, many times. And it’s magnificent.

The temperature was in the 40s, just as weather.com said it would be. But when you’re on the move, it doesn’t feel all that cold.

Île de la Cité is where Paris was born: the first inhabitants of this area were a Celtic tribe, the Parisii, who settled on the island in the third century BC. Romans later destroyed the Parisii city and founded their own on the Left Bank (calling it Paris, after the Celts); and in 476 the Franks captured the city, converted it to Christianity, and made Paris the capital of their new kingdom, France. French kings even made their residence on the island until 1358.

Kilometer Zero stone, in front of Notre-Dame de Paris. Photograph taken by Michael Reeve, 30 January 2004.

Kilometer Zero stone, in front of Notre-Dame de Paris. Photograph taken by Michael Reeve, 30 January 2004.

Nowadays, all distances in France are measured from Point Zero, which is in the courtyard just outside Notre-Dame Cathedral—so you see, this island is pretty meaningful in French history. Its little sister, connected by a small bridge that ends up at Notre Dame’s backyard gate (so to speak), is Île St-Louis, where we were headed.

For a long time, Île St-Louis was nothing but a cow pasture, but in the seventeenth century, lords and financiers and other important folk began building their homes there, and that is pretty much the situation now. It is considered to be the most exclusive address in Paris. It feels like a small village, and when you leave Cité and walk into St-Louis, you can even sense the noise level dropping … it was quiet in among those old, old buildings. The island is fortified by a stone wall; you can take the stairs down to the river level and walk all the way around the island, which, I’m told, takes about ninety minutes all in. (Because I was still ill, this was one of the things that just slid off the to-do list.)

Islands …

Islands …

The street that runs down the middle of the island (rue St-Louis en L’ile) has plenty of shops (although the grocery store was pricey, so we shopped off the island for grocery items, once we learned where), and not a touristy shop among them! We did get in the habit of running out in the morning for fresh bread, right around the corner from the apartment. Oh, those French pastries. Oh, oh, oh.

Looking down rue St-Louis en L’ile.

Looking down rue St-Louis en L’ile.

And what a gorgeous apartment! Just a block away from Notre-Dame, we turned left on rue le Regrattier …

Turned left on rue le Regrattier …

Turned left on rue le Regrattier …

… went to the third doorway (past an antique shop and an entrance to another apartment building) …

The third doorway!

The third doorway!

… inserted the funny plastic key and waited for the lock to release. Once inside there’s a covered anteroom where the mailboxes are, which ended in another door. This required entering a security code; past that door the tiny, tiny courtyard held garbage bins and more doors. Ours was the first.

This building is very old (built in 1642, we’ve read); since our apartment was mostly below street level, Gerry speculated that we were probably in a piece of what used to be the servants’ quarters. From the front door stairs you can go down into the living quarters or up into the loft bathroom and sleeping area. (Note: these photos were taken on my old [film] Canon F-1, with no flash. They’re not great.)

In the righthand corner of this photo is the entry door (covered by curtains). From there you can go up to the loft or walk down into the living area.

In the righthand corner of this photo is the entry door (covered by curtains). From there you can go up to the loft or walk down into the living area.

Standing on the stairs looking down into the living area. The living room is out of the frame; this little central wall/closet separates it from the kitchen (left) and dining room (right). The refrigerator and a small closet are hidden inside this wall.

Standing on the stairs looking down into the living area. The living room is out of the frame; this little central wall/closet separates it from the kitchen (left) and dining room (right). The refrigerator and a small closet are hidden inside this wall.

The efficient little kitchen.

The efficient little kitchen.

The high ceiling has two magnificent—and obviously ancient—wooden beams running the length of it; again, these probably supported the floor of what was once a mansion above, though now it’s just other apartments. There is nary a straight line on any wall in the place, such is the age of the building.

Standing on the stairs, looking at the high ceiling with the very old beams. On the left, the loft bedroom, made private by this canvas curtain. When you look out this window, you see people’s feet and ankles. :)

Standing on the stairs, looking at the high ceiling with the very old beams. On the left, the loft bedroom, made private by this canvas curtain. When you look out this window, you see people’s feet and ankles. 🙂

The apartment is small; if you’ve looked at the Web site [now defunct] you’ll have seen it’s just 560 square feet—but let me tell you, it’s 560 well-used square feet, and, of course, modern and nice and comfortable. (Unlike the Village of the Damned, the heat had been turned on in anticipation of our arrival.) The kitchen was fully stocked with plenty of dishes, pots and pans—and, amazingly, olive oil, spices, condiments in the fridge, even cookies and cereal in the cabinets! (We made sure to leave some treats behind too.) The bathroom is quite large, with a built-in washer and dryer, and plenty of extra towels. And a bidet (a first for me). And there was even a box of Kleenex in the kitchen, which I would make ample use of as I continued to recover from my cold.

“Hey! Come see this!” Gerry called from upstairs. “Steve McQueen is on the telly, and he’s speaking French!” During our stay in Paris we also managed to see Starsky and Hutch speaking French, and Billy “City Slickers” Crystal speaking French; who knew these guys were bilingual, eh? (While this phenomenon of familiar American movies dubbed into French was amusing at first, let me assure you it lost its charm pretty quickly—especially when there was, um, Paris to explore.)

So we were out the door. We found the baker (la boulangerie), and yes, we walked around with a pair of loose loaves of bread stuck under our arms. Found the greengrocr (la marchand de legumes), the cheese shop (la fromagerie), and ooooh yes, the patisserie (need you ask?). A deli (la charcuterie) for cold cuts. Found a small grocery store and bought a few supplies for breakfast. Since we didn’t speak—or read—the language, we shopped by looking at the pictures on the packaging, although I was amazed at how much of my high school French started coming back to me. We carried all this culinary loot back to the apartment (it’s so cool, this neighborhood shopping!) and then set off again.

Now we crossed back over to Île de la Cité, walked past Notre-Dame—it was much larger than I expected—straight up the island to Saint-Chapelle (translated literally, this means “holy chapel”). This is what the official guidebook says: “The Sainte-Chapelle was built by St. Louis, king Louis IX, in the middle of the thirteenth century, at the heart of the palais de la Cité, the sovereign’s residence and the seat of his administration.”

It is a spectacular little jewelbox of a building, originally built by the very devout Louis to house holy relics: Christ’s crown of thorns, a fragment of the cross, and other items. (Remember, of course, that this was in 1239—in other words, more than a thousand years after the Passion. Everything Louis kept in Sainte-Chapelle is gone now, so we’ll never know if they were … uh … real, but I for one have serious doubts.) Be that as it may, the chapel was built (consecrated in 1248), and attached to the enormous royal residence. At that time it was taller than everything around it, sitting in the center of the palace’s courtyard. Now it is almost invisible, having been swallowed up by larger buildings built all around it, most notably the Palais de Justice.

[My photographs aren’t great, so I poked around the Web trying to find some. Back in 2006, there wasn’t a lot but these days, Saint-Chapelle has a Facebook page. 🙂 The photos here are magnificent, and I recommend you stop and take a look.]

Admittedly, it doesn’t look like much from the outside, until you’ve been inside: gothic in style, the building is in remarkable shape (think of every World War II movie you’ve ever seen and then remind yourself that the Nazis entered Paris in mid-1940 and stayed a really long time—it’s a miracle it survived). It reminds me of a doll’s house, with every perfect little detail.

A website I investigated gave these directions—“To visit, go to the Palais de Justice, and follow the signs”—which made me laugh out loud.

You see, we did that. And once again we fell victim to the whimsy that is French signage: we saw the sign that said Sainte-Chapelle, and we followed the arrow, which led, as best we could tell, right into the Palais de Justice, which houses the city’s Judicial Court.

One view of the Palais de Justice, 2006.

One view of the Palais de Justice, 2006.

We got in line, went through security, removing belts and shoes and coats—and then realized we were actually on our way into a court of law, not into a tourist destination. (Later, retracing our steps, wondering what happened, we realized that we should have seen the next sign and arrow, just past the doorway we entered; sort of the bread-crumbs-in-the-forest method of directional signage.) Anyway, I almost caused an international incident when I dashed out the next exit: an agitated cop followed us, shouting the French version of “Stop or I’ll shoot,” but when he saw me and realized that all he really had on his hands was a chubby discombobulated Yank, he just threw up his arms, rolled his eyes, and let us go.

I’d been told that late afternoon was the perfect time to see it, so our timing was excellent. The building is very tall, and very narrow. You enter, at street level, the lower chamber, where services were held for the palace staff during the time of the French monarchy. The colors are rich: reds, golds, and blues, with the French fleur de lys appearing everywhere. It’s impressive enough (until you get upstairs); I kept repeating to myself: “Built in 1248, built in 1248, oh, my.”

Just to show you the magnificent color. The lower chapel, 2006.

Just to show you the magnificent color. The lower chapel, 2006.

Although in Louis’s day there was an outdoor ramp-like staircase that led into Sainte-Chapelle, today we climb an interior spiral staircase to reach the nave above, which is 34 feet wide, 108 feet long, and 67 feet tall. There are practically no walls—it’s almost all glass (but remember, it didn’t look like that from the outside!); what walls there are are cleverly disguised.

“Doesn’t look like much” from the outside.

“Doesn’t look like much” from the outside.

But those same windows on the inside … oh my.

But those same windows on the inside … oh my.

And besides, who would notice a wall beside those dazzling 51-foot-tall stained-glass windows! More than two-thirds of the original thirteenth-century windows survive; the rose window at the front of the building was damaged and repaired in 1485. There was a major restoration of the building in 1840, to repair damage sustained during the Revolution. It is, in a word, stunning. Nothing I can write can do it justice—you’ll just have to go there and see for yourself. : )

We walked around the outside of the building, then headed further along toward the tip of the island. We ended up at a little triangular park, the Place Dauphin. My guidebook says it is a charming place, but in winter the grass is dead, apparently, and, even though it is clearly posted to scoop your pooch’s poop, the first thing I saw in the Place Dauphin was dog crap. Everywhere.

The Place Dauphin, Paris, February 2006. Click twice to zoom in—you can probably see all the poop.

The Place Dauphin, Paris, February 2006. Click twice to zoom in—you can probably see all the poop.

Walking to the north edge of Île de la Cité near the Place Dauphin, looking at the buildings on the other side of the river. On the far left is La Samaritaine, a department store. The other buildings are also shopping emporiums, I believe.

Walking to the north edge of Île de la Cité near the Place Dauphin, looking at the buildings on the other side of the river. On the far left is La Samaritaine, a department store. The other buildings are also shopping emporiums, I believe.

At this point—having been up since four a.m.—we were tired, and, frankly, my feet hurt. On the way back to the apartment, we stopped at Marche aux Fleurs to buy fresh flowers; hey, it was Valentine’s Day! Marche aux Fleurs is sort of like the floral section of the Nashville Farmer’s Market: held in the center of a plaza-like area, it’s a combination of vendors in semipermanent stalls, selling potted plants and cut flowers. It’s the oldest market of this kind in the city, dating from the early 1800s. I picked out red tulips to match the apartment’s decor. The shopkeeper wrapped them in cellophane and tied them with a burgundy satin ribbon, which she affixed with a pretty sticker. This was my first experience in Paris with such elaborate packaging, but that is the way they do it: everything carefully wrapped, often beribboned. Presentation is important.

Presentation is important.

Presentation is important.

Just over the bridge from Cité to St-Louis there is a little brasserie with brick-red awnings hanging over plenty of outdoor seating (though it was too cold for that), and a prix fixe menu posted. It looked reasonable, so we went in, where the seating winds itself around a central bar. It’s all very close and cozy. No one spoke English, but everyone was friendly, and we managed to get a good hot meal, although it was a bit pricier than we’d expected, as the prix wasn’t REALLY fixe (The French fries were extra! Who knew!).

Just over the bridge there is a little brasserie … Can you see the awnings?

Just over the bridge there is a little brasserie … Can you see the awnings?

The Cassoulet Maison on Île St-Louis, February 2006.

The Cassoulet Maison on Île St-Louis, February 2006.

After this nice rest, we strolled down the main shopping street to get some Berthillion ice cream (it’s considered the premium ice cream in Paris, and, I can assure you, it is very, very good)—and it’s not busy in February!—then walked back to the apartment to relax and wait for Giancarlo to come and settle up.

Tulips in the dining room make the place cheery.

Tulips in the dining room make the place cheery.

He was a lovely guy; interestingly, exactly what I expected in terms of age—looked to be early forties. He speaks excellent English, and is very chatty and friendly … and this at the end of a long day in the emergency room! He spent an hour with us, giving us tips and suggestions (“Don’t buy groceries on the island, it’s very expensive!”), showing us on the map where we could find wifi (that would be wee-fee in French!), giving us directions to the closest supermarket (about a five-minute walk away), showing us features of the apartment, asking us if we needed anything. We had a laugh about trying to get out of the terminal, and about dragging our luggage up out of the subway—and we got our first real insider’s tip: although the guidebooks may recommend it, don’t take the train from the airport—take the bus. Buses depart from all the terminals (not just Terminal 3), and you don’t have to schlep luggage up a flight of stairs once you’ve arrived. In the end, Giancarlo even said he would come pick us up on Saturday and drive us to the nearest bus terminal; he wrote it in his Daytimer (and he showed up too). But that’s a story for another day. 🙂