Random Musings on Dogs, Photography, and the Vagaries of Life

Thursday, September 18, 2014

French Idyll: One Visit, Three Voices

Traveling is, by its nature, an intensely individual and personal experience. Whether one travels solo on a self-planned journey or as part of an organized group tour, the resulting experiences will be different for each traveler, based on interests, knowledge, and temperament. While multiple people may agree that a particular trip was wonderful, the memories they take home with them may be slightly—or even vastly—different.

To illustrate my point, I asked my sister and my 15-year-old niece to share their impressions of a 10-day trip the three of us took to Paris and the Loire Valley. None of us compared notes or shared copy. So while there are similarities and overlaps in our thoughts and impressions, our individual "takes" on the trip are indelibly our own. Together, they form a balanced yet personal composite that I call French Idyll: One Visit, Three Voices.

Pam’s voice:

I knew this trip would be something special from the moment I was invited. My sister, Allison (who spent a year in France while in college), and her daughter, Olivia (who is studying French in high school), began talking about taking a “girls’ trip” back last fall. According to my sister, Olivia suggested that “Aunt Pam” might enjoy it too. Would I ever!

Although I consider myself a committed Anglophile, I’ve made a conscious decision to broaden my travel horizons in recent years, visiting such wonderful destinations as Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Finland, Estonia, and France. And a visit to Paris with my sister and my niece offered the added promise of quality inter-generational family time…a chance to enjoy a special experience together. For me, of course, being able to benefit from my traveling companions’ ability to speak French was a welcome added benefit.

I happen to love planning trips, perusing travel guides, websites, and blogs about possible destinations long before I actually go somewhere. But this time, I happily relinquished control to my sister. With input from my niece and me, she crafted an excellent itinerary that incorporated our individual “must sees” while being flexible enough to allow for unexpected deviations…and for strolling, people watching, and just sipping the occasional cappuccino or glass of wine in a sidewalk cafe

And let’s face it, when it comes to France, food is definitely part of the experience. Not surprisingly, we found ourselves tempted on a daily—sometimes even hourly—basis by the gastronomic delights all around us. From the enormous, colorful meringues calling to us from a bakery window near our hotel to the light-as-air cheese soufflé we savored our last night, we bid adieu to calorie counting and celebrated both food and drink with abandon. Even such “comfort food” basics as macaroni and cheese were something to write home about. And thanks to Trip Advisor reviews and advanced planning on my sister’s part, we did it without breaking the bank, opting for small out-of-the-way neighborhood eateries rather than large, well-known restaurants catering to tourists. We did get lost trying to find a couple of them, but with the help of kind Parisians, we eventually found our way. We were also treated to some home cooked meals in the homes of family members with whom Allison had lived during her junior year in college, a memorable experience I would have missed if not traveling with her.

Day and night, Paris is a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach, a visual celebration for photographers like me. So much as I enjoyed the individual places we visited, my greatest pleasure was the simple act of strolling through the city.  From the quaint streets of Île Saint-Louis to the bustling alleyways of the Latin Quarter, I spent hours soaking it all in and seeking to capture the essence of the city, its people—and its canine residents—through my lens. (Those who know me well are aware that I can’t go anywhere without taking photographs of dogs.) This focus on canines caused me to take special notice of the number of beggars who had canine (and occasionally feline) companions with them. Whether for true companionship, warmth in winter, or as a calculated strategy for encouraging donations, I can’t say. But none of the animals I saw looked sick or skinny.

After the intoxicating vibrancy of Paris, the Loire Valley provided the blissful and beautiful tranquility I craved. It’s a vineyard-covered region steeped in history, the stage on which the lives of such luminaries as Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, and Joan of Arc played out. And from the formerly feral feline resident Bube and amazing array of homemade jams and preserves at the charming Hotel Diderot to the peace and quiet of the Abbaye de Fontevraud and the cheerful and unexpected charm of the nearby Tea Shoppe (see 8/22/14 blog post), we found the Loire captivating.

In my ignorance, I had assumed that the chateaux that dot the region's countryside were all glittering, over-the-top mansions…like Versailles on a smaller scale. I discovered, however, that while many are indeed opulent country homes on an extraordinary scale, others, like Chinon, are veritable fortresses. Sadly, we only had time to visit three (each of them spectacular): Chinon, Breze, and Azay le Rideau.

But never mind; I’ll go back.

Allison's voice:

There are many places in the world on my bucket list to visit, but I always come back to France. I have a love affair with the country: the food, the language, the literature, the history, the fashion, and the people. While I had been to France once before, to do a homestay in high school, I believe this love affair with all things French actually began when I spent my junior year of college in Paris, living with a delightful, warm, and welcoming family in the 7th arrondissement, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

I've been back a number of times, and as my daughter, Olivia, is now learning French, the summer of 2013 seemed like a good time for our family of four to travel to France to visit my French "family," with whom I've stayed in touch, and explore various parts of the country: the Alps, Paris, Normandy. Even after nearly three weeks there, my France itch was not satisfactorily scratched, but my husband and son had had their fill of crowds, lines, monuments, and museums. And shopping? Out of the question for them.

So my sister, Pam, Olivia, and I hatched a plan to return on a multi-generational, "girls' trip" that we hoped would include my mother. While my mom was not able to join us, the three of us decided to proceed with our plan for a 10-day trip to Paris, with a three-day side trip to the Loire Valley. It turned out that we made great traveling companions, as my sister's approach to travel is compatible with mine and we had similar goals for the trip (relax, enjoy, and shop!), and we thoroughly enjoyed our overseas adventure.

As all three of us had been to Paris before, we had the luxury this time of simply experiencing the city and its magic, rather than running from one monument or museum to the next, checking off items on a self-imposed “to do” list and seeing things only superficially as a result. While I haven't traveled as extensively or frequently as some, I've done enough to begin to recognize that, while seeing those sights and monuments is enjoyable, sometimes the real pleasure in a trip is in allowing it simply to happen. The idea for this trip was to wander, not run; to savor, not just see.

One benefit of this approach meant we could more fully appreciate all the small things that make a visit to Paris special. On our first day, we found "our" cafe, opposite Notre Dame, to which we returned a number of times for meals or coffee throughout our stay. The cafe culture in Paris is one of the joys of this city, and it deserves to be relished (difficult to do on a strict sightseeing timeline). Without real worries about lines and schedules, we could really take time to appreciate it,and enjoy it as the French do. Taking our time meant we could notice the strange little anachronistic "aliens" that appear throughout parts of the city, high on the sides of buildings, and we didn't miss the gigantic, colorful meringues the size of grapefruits in a boulangerie window.

Of course, we did do some of the more traditional tourist things, such as the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, and Notre Dame, but we also just enjoyed wandering...through the crowded and narrow streets of the Latin Quarter and the Ile St. Louis, past the stalls that border the Seine, and through the noisy
and busy (and quintessentially Parisian) Sunday bird and flower market. In addition to wandering, we whiled away a few peaceful moments just sitting: eating gelato in the beautiful Place des Vosges, drinking coffee and hot chocolate in a charming cafe on the Ile St. Louis, and having a casual lunch or a glass of wine overlooking Notre Dame. As we wandered the city and sat in cafes, I was again struck by the way the past and present co-exist comfortably in Paris (and indeed, throughout all of France). The city is filled with the remnants of a distant past—Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, the Conciergerie, the Louvre, the Roman thermal baths at the Musee de Cluny, to name a few—but modern life has sprung up and thrives all around them.

All these experiences and observations certainly added to the richness of this trip, but it was perhaps the personal interactions we had—with strangers, friends, and each other—that made the most lasting impressions for me. I speak French, and never like to lose an opportunity to use it, but it was a delight for me to see Olivia attempting to communicate in French, too, and to see the appreciative looks on the faces of those to whom she was speaking, whether it was the hostess taking our order at the charming souffle restaurant, the waiter in "our" cafe, the cashier at the kiosk where she was buying postcards, the proprietors at our lovely hotel in Chinon, or our French friends.

We were fortunate to have been invited to have dinner at the home of the parents in my French family, as well as at the home of their daughter, Laurence, her husband Rodolphe, and their children, and it was such a pleasure for me to share that part of my life with my sister, who had never met them. While in Laurence and Rodolphe's welcoming and pleasantly noisy home (where we spent part of the evening singing "The Sound of Music" at the top of our lungs), I was struck by the sense of things coming full circle, how my experience during my junior year abroad had endured and now expanded to include others.

But perhaps most special of all, however, was sharing this whole experience with Pam and Olivia, and seeing them get to know each other better. Our lives are busy at home, and we don't often have time to spend together, so it was such a treat to have this adventure together. We so enjoyed our new camaraderie that discussion is under way for our next "girls' trip." I can't wait to see where it takes us!

Olivia's voice:

My mom and I had been discussing going back to France—more specifically, Paris—ever since our family vacation the summer before. We had spent a week in a charming little village in the Alps, a week in Paris, and a week in a seaside town in Normandy, but out of the three vastly different French experiences, my favorite was Paris. 

I'm not a city person by nature; I don’t like noise and smells and lots of people crammed together in close proximity, but Paris was unlike any city I’d ever been to before. Energy vibrated through the cement sidewalks and pulsed in the air, as if the very city itself was alive. It was a mixing bowl of different cultures and people: there were artists, authors, and musicians; lovers making romantic memories; tourists from the United States, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Italy, Korea, and all over the world; and locals who wanted nothing to do with them.

Paris was an interesting clash of historical and modern, as illustrated by the elaborate Gothic cathedrals situated next to high-rise apartment and office buildings plastered in ads and covered in graffiti. There were things to see and do around every corner. I loved the electric atmosphere, the delicious food, the amazing sights, and the myriad of chic shops lining the Champs-Élysées. I simply couldn’t get enough.

One short week in the City of Lights was simply not enough for my mom, a French major and a complete and utter Francophile, and me. We had to come back. And despite the fact that not even a year had passed since we had last been to France, we began planning our trip to Paris. My brother and my dad, who couldn’t care less about shopping or pastries or museums, began planning their own more manly vacation: a trip to Zion National Park for some hiking. Meanwhile, my mom and I convinced my Aunt Pam to come along—although it didn’t really take much convincing, as she agreed enthusiastically upon first mention of the trip.

During our time there, we ate more than we ever could have gotten away with at home, explored art museums and historical buildings, poked around in countless eccentric little shops (the kind that sells useless little knickknacks, my favorite kind of store), and walked by the Eiffel Tower at least five times. (For me, that sight simply never gets old.) While certainly not a relaxing vacation, it was very exciting and enlightening.

Why enlightening, you ask? Because going to France, or really any foreign country, always reminds me of something very important. Across the street from our little hotel was a primary school. Every morning I would clamber out of bed and to the window and push the curtain aside and watch the little children walking to school. They wore tiny colorful backpacks and skipped up the sidewalk to the school building, holding their mother or father’s hand, and then their parents bid them good-bye and they scurried off into the building. I was fascinated, watching them each morning. I was fascinated because they looked just like little children back home in the United States, walking to school with their moms and dads.

Everywhere we went, people were warm and friendly and all too willing to lend a hand, contrary to what people believe about the French. We discovered a great little café a couple of blocks from our hotel and returned several times, and the same waiter served us at least twice. The second time, he caught sight of us and smiled and said jokingly, “Back again?” One night we had a dinner reservation at a bistro fairly close to our hotel, and we decided to walk there, but became hopelessly lost. One lady walking by us on the sidewalk saw us standing there, confused and clearly lost, and offered to help us find the restaurant we were looking for.

I was not expecting this warmth and graciousness from the French to three complete strangers…and American strangers, at that. But it just goes to show that people are full of surprises!

I was expecting French people to seem different somehow, just because they were French. I don’t know what I expected: maybe a distinctive aura around them or some sort of distinguishing mark on their foreheads. But I was surprised—and delighted—to realize that the French are regular people, just like us...people who go to school and like to laugh and help lost strangers find their way.

This fact, while perhaps obvious, was an important realization for me, and it helped me to feel a greater kinship with humanity. Though the vast Atlantic Ocean lies between us, we are all people, and while there are subtle differences in our ways of life, we are really much the same in the ways that count.

Lasting Impressions

Favorite place

Pam: Museum of Decorative Arts with its spectacular and jewelry and clothing exhibits
Allison: Chateau de Breze outside of Chinon and the subterranean caves underneath it
Olivia: Anywhere I have a view of the Eiffel Tower

Most memorable experience

Pam: listening to a classical concert featuring Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" at Sainte-Chapelle
Allison: dinner with the French family I lived with and their daughter's family 
Olivia: ordering in French at a restaurant and realizing that the skills I’ve been learning in French class really are applicable to real life

Favorite meal or individual food item

Pam: an extraordinary flour-less chocolate cake with real whipped cream at
Bistro L'Estrapade
Allison: the dinner we had our first night at Bistro L'Estrapade
Olivia: Berthillon ice cream (Pastries are obvious, but who knew the French did ice cream so well?)

Favorite exchange/interaction

Pam: when the proprietor of Hotel Diderot told us about her cat's name, Bube (pronounced booby), and how embarrassed she was when someone told her what "booby" meant in English
Allison: when the lovely woman stopped on the street to ask us if we needed help as we were consulting a map and clearly looking a bit lost trying to find the Bistro L'Estrapade
Olivia: singing along to "The Sound of Music "with Agathe and dancing around her living room

Most frustrating experience/moment

Pam: when we couldn't find the rental car place--even with the help of GPS--and missed our train from Tours to Paris
Allison: having to retrieve our luggage late at night from the deserted Montparnasse station and then standing outside on the sidewalk and not being able to find a taxi to our hotel at the airport
Olivia: going to friends’ house for dinner and being served foods I didn’t like for every portion of the meal...and eating it all

Something I didn't see or do that I'd ike to

Pam: touring vineyards, going to a wine tasting, and visiting more chateaux in the Loire
Allison: seeing a live performance of jazz manouche (gypsy jazz, inspired by the Hot Jazz of the '30s and the likes of jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli and Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt) at someplace like the Taverne de Cluny
Olivia: staying in a seaside town in the south of France and swimming in the warm, crystal clear waters



Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fabricated Beauty: A Fashion Yin & Yang

It's time for my latest photo-inspired post. (And, yes, I realize it's been more than a week since the previous one.)

This photo--actually, two versions of one photo--is a close-up of the collar of an outfit on display in a fashion exhibit at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Paris. Housed in a building adjoining the Louvre, this museum, with its ceramics, glass, jewelry, and other decorative arts, is something really special. And I was fortunate enough to visit at a time when an extraordinary fashion exhibit was there. From Chanel and Christian Dior to Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent, the clothes represented a "who's who" of designers and were gems that shined, both individually and collectively. A fashion-lover's definition of eye candy!

Back to the photo. The first version is a more literal representation of the garment, with its mesmerizing ripples and folds of black and gold. I couldn't take my eyes off it.

The second is my personal rainbow-colored interpretation. I like to think of it as the yin to reality's yang.

And for those of who want an additional taste of this extraordinary exhibit, here are a few more cell phone images. Enjoy!