Wanderlust in Flames: Alaska Railroad

I had lunch with a friend of mine a few weeks ago. We don’t see each other that often—busy, right?—but we keep up on Facebook and in that lunch discovered our friendship is alive and well. The things that drew us together still do.

Including travel adventures.

panoramas

I’d seen some photos of a railroad trip to Alaska she’d made with her husband and her son, and I grilled her about it. It’s country I’d like to see, and most people I know who’ve seen it have done so from a cruise ship. Nothing wrong with that, but I have a little vertigo problem.

(Vertigo is caused—trust me, I’ve had all the tests—by sensitivity in eyes, ears, or legs, and while I have all three, it’s the leg sensitivity that knocks me over: standing in an old wooden building on the floor directly above the physical plant, for example, when the heating unit kicks on; or on an upper floor of any metal building, say the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville; or elevators, oh boy, elevators are troublesome for me. I’m highly sensitive to vibration that most of you can’t feel at all. So I’ve concluded that an ocean-going vessel is probably not a good fit for me.)

Thus the idea of a train was very appealing.

A couple weeks later, a large envelope arrived. Inside there was a large, four-color magazine from the Alaska Railroad, and a Post-It Note message: “Jamie, I hope you can go to AK some time.”

Needless to say, she’s inflamed my wanderlust again. Just look at this website! Yes, I want to see Alaska! Bears and eagles and Denali National Park, yes!

alaska-copy-2

Summer? Or winter? We’ll see!

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So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 3): DIY Vacation

Now that you’re getting in the mood to visit Ireland, let me make one thing clear before we go further. What follows next are suggests for a vacation you plan and execute yourself. That is, a do-it-yourself vacation.

There are plenty of guided, packaged tours available, of course. You could do that. I have friends who’ve taken tours and enjoyed them. Some folks like having all the details taken care of.

I am not that person. I don’t want to ride around on a tour bus, going from one “big” thing to the next big thing, being shown what someone else thinks I should see and told what someone else thinks I should know, and how long I have to stand in awe or take pictures. And I certainly don’t want to be told how long I have to shop! On a tour, you miss all the little adventures on the side—the getting lost (and finding something interesting), the unexpected chat with a local who steers you to a fabulous restaurant, the pulling over by the side of the road just because you can, the tender peace of having a sacred place all to yourself. Or, you know, the stealth sheep.

Long story short: in County Donegal, I took a wrong turn, and in getting back to the main road we came upon a sign: “Beltany Stone Circle, 2km,” and that was all the encouragement we needed. The road ended at a farm, the farmer directed us up a tree-shaded lane, and off we went. Ten minutes later the lane ended at a farm-gate, and next to it, on the outside, stood a large sheep, bleating its frustration at finding itself on the wrong side of the fence. We went through the kissing gate to see the stones (and a large herd of sheep), and when we came back, the solitary sheep was gone. We’d walked nearly halfway back to our car, chatting away, when we heard an indignant BAAA! right behind us. We were being followed by a stealth sheep. After we recovered from the near-heart attack, we laughed until we we were hysterical.

Beware the Stealth Sheep!

Beware the Stealth Sheep! (Note kissing gate.)

No doubt you had to be there to appreciate the magic in this moment. But my point is it would have never happened if there’d been thirty other people with us.

So, a reminder: the suggestions you’re about to read regarding what you might do on a vacation in Ireland are, as noted, predicated on your planning your vacation yourself and then … doing it yourself. In my personal case, that means renting a car and getting myself from one place to another, driving, yes, on the left side of the road instead of the right. (It’s not as hard as you think, honest.)

You don’t have to do that, though. You can stay in one place—probably a city—and use buses or cabs to get around (when you’re not walking). You can take trains or buses to other locations. There will be fewer wrong turns that way. 🙂

And now that we’re clear, stay tuned for my thoughts on what to do.

The introduction for this series is here. Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here.

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. 🙂

Free Day!

20 December 2000, Wednesday

Anna came down with a stomach bug and, unbeknownst to the Americans sleeping in her guest room, was up all night. And Eoin, after seeing to his wife’s needs, really had to go to work—which left Jess and I on our own for the day.

After easing into the morning, then, Anna drove us the five or so minutes to the station in Wokingham, where we caught the train into Reading (pronounced REDDing) to do some shopping and wandering. The journey by train took less than ten minutes, even with stops in between. It felt like we were on a people mover at Disneyland. 🙂

Reading is in the Thames Valley about halfway between London and Oxford. The city grew near the meeting place of the Rivers Thames and Kennet, which were the main transport routes through the anciecnt woodland that covered most of southern England. The mainstay of employment in Reading is now the computer industry, with Microsoft, Digital, Hewlett-Packard, and Oracle all having large offices in or near the town; currently (in late 2000) there are jobs available in Reading and not enough people to fill them. Once famous for “beer, biscuits, and bacon,” as well as seed production, Reading has seen these industries close down or move away. However, there is still a large brewery on the edge of town. The old brewery—in the center of town—has now been redeveloped into a major shopping center, called the Oracle.

It was to this mall—the first and only mall we visited in England—that we directed our footsteps … but first we wandered in and out of small shops in the central shopping district that lay between the train station and the Oracle. We preferred the streets, where there were happy Christmas shoppers, street musicians, tea shops, and just generally a lot going on.

I learned more about Reading after I returned home. This was before smartphones, and we didn’t have a map or any way to research. Reading might have been an interesting place to sightsee; there are some old churches and the ruins of an abbey, for example. A university too. The town dates from the eighth century, so there’s definitely some history. I wish I’d prepared a little more thoroughly for an unexpected day in a strange town, but I guess you just can’t. And I was new to this traveling business.

So … we shopped. 🙂 We found ourselves in a small shop, a men’s clothiers called Butler’s, where we were treated like royalty, although we spent less than ten pounds. (Later we learned that this small shop, into which we’d wandered by accident, was Eoin’s preferred vendor for suits, dress shirts, and the other accoutrements of the natty English businessman.) It was so nice to be made to feel welcome!

We ate a quick dinner in the train station and didn’t return to Wokingham until long after dark, when we’d just about walked our feet off. Anna had gone off to visit her parents that evening, and we had a nice chat with Eoin before bed.