With A Little Help From My Friends

One of the best ways to enhance your travels is to season it with friends.  Either you can enjoy your present company, meet up with friends who are serendipitously passing through the town you’re in, or make new ones.  I’ve been fortunate enough this summer to do all three.

So this blog is a photo shout-out to them.  Many thanks to everyone who took time out of your schedules to have a coffee, a gelato, a crêpe, some dinner, afternoon snacks, a picnic by the river, some wine, a stroll through the city, or a combination of the above.  It’s always a pleasure to be with you and to enjoy each other’s company in a new setting.  Continued and prosperous travels to you all!

Click on the thumbnails to enlarge.

I’ve Been Pickpocketed!

I had the zipper open just enough for me to easily access my camera and for a pickpocket to nab my wallet.

I know there’s no need to over-react.  I wasn’t attacked, I’m not injured, and everything that needed to get taken care of got taken care of.  In fact, the instant that I realized my wallet was no longer in my bag, there was nothing for me to do but smile.  Smile at my own carelessness and the lesson that I had to learn the hard way.

After finishing up six weeks of memorable travel on three tours (two in France and one that took me to Italy, Austria, Germany, Lichtenstein, Switzerland and back to France), I was pretty pumped to get in one day of book research in Le Havre and spend two days helping Rick and his stellar production crew with filming in Paris.  Both tasks were demanding but so rewarding.  After the work in Paris, the crew headed to London and I had two days to kill in Paris until Rick and I would fly back home to Seattle.

There was the last-minute souvenir shopping to do, attempts to exercise off six weeks of eating like someone on vacation, meeting up with friends, and one-last look at favorite places in the city.  On my second-to-last night in Paris, I hit up the ATM for some cash to tide me over till my departure.  Then I headed off to a sushi restaurant in the Marais because sometimes a girl just needs some Asian food. The food was plentiful and tasty, and I got to meet a darling Italian couple enjoying their honeymoon in Paris.  After bidding them buona notte, I headed out with my leftover sushi and veggie tempura, feeling completely overstuffed and surprised that to-go boxes are becoming less of a taboo in Paris.  Knowing that I’d never finish my leftovers, I planned on giving them to a homeless person who I knew would be along my walking route.

Since I needed to walk off dinner, I figured I’d take a circuitous route from the Marais to the Louvre, cross over the Pont des Arts, along the river to Pont Alexandre III, and back over the river to catch the metro at Concorde for a straight shot back to my hotel.  It was also a great chance to do a nighttime urban photo safari. For nearly two hours, I was so engrossed in the nightlife and night urbanscapes that typify Parisian summer nights.

As I criss-crossed my way through Paris, I felt so happy about all the experiences I’d had over the summer and so proud of myself for making the most out of my last moments in the city: engaging in conversation with strangers, getting in exercise by walking off my dinner, giving my leftovers to a man who was grateful for the food, getting some winning shots on my camera.  Oh, what a night!  With a smile on my face, I headed down the steps of the metro, reached in my purse for my wallet to grab my metro ticket, and suddenly my heart sank.  It was then that I realized my wallet was not in my purse.  I unzipped it completely and looked feverishly for it.  Nope, not there.  And that’s when all I could do was smile, realizing that somewhere between sushi and Concorde, someone had pickpocketed me.

It was my own fault.  I thought back to how my purse zipper was open just enough for a deft hand to slip in, how the purse was swung behind my back every time I had to lean over to get a good shot, how completely unaware of my environment I was because I was focused on something else.

So, without my recently withdrawn cash, my debit card and my credit card, I walked the longest walk of shame I’ve ever had to walk all the way back to my hotel.  Forty minutes later, I Skype-called Bank of America around 12:30 a.m.  It took two hours, four phone calls and six different agents for them to cancel my debit card and to authorize Visa to wire me some emergency cash.  So irritating.  But the thing is, I can’t get upset about that.  Had I been more careful or worn a money belt, this wouldn’t have happened.  And I know better.  For years this is what I preached to my students when we traveled to Europe, and we emphasize it on our tours.  In thirteen years of traveling to Europe, I had never before been pickpocketed, but this time, my over-confidence in thinking I was such a savvy traveler was my downfall.

Imagine the shame I felt when I told Rick what happened.  Thankfully, he reassured me and reminded me that it could happen to anyone.  Sometimes our number comes up, and mine did.  I just needed to put it behind me and learn from it.

Of course, he’s right.  When I had to explain to the front desk staff at my hotel what happened, all three of them told me about their own pickpocketing experience.  In fact, the assistant manager comforted me by telling me that even the former French Presidential candidate Ségolène Royal had her wallet stolen just one month earlier in the neighborhood where I was staying.   Well, at least I’m in good company.

So, what lessons have I learned about how to avoid being pickpocketed and what to do if you are?  Here’s the list:

  1. Before you leave for your trip, print out the phone numbers of your bank and CC companies (along with other emergency info) and email them to yourself.  When you’re in a frazzled state of mind, you’ll be thankful you’re not having to waste time looking up these numbers online.
  2. Don’t carry all your debit/credit cards in one place.  If it’s feasible, keep extra cash hidden elsewhere, too (hotel room safe, hidden pockets in your luggage). All my stuff was in my wallet and I had no backup. Thankfully, I wasn’t carrying my passport.
  3. Use a money belt.  It works. Period.
  4. Be aware of your surroundings.  It’s easy to get distracted when you’re looking at cool sights, taking photos, or even enjoying lunch at a café.  Pickpockets know what to look for – distracted people with easily accessible bags or pockets.  You don’t need to be paranoid, just be alert.
  5. If you do get pickpocketed, call your bank and credit card companies right away.  Even if it’s well past your bedtime, prevent further theft by cancelling your cards so no one else has access to them.
  6. If the agent isn’t giving you the answers or help you need, ask to speak with a supervisor right away.  He/she may know of and can authorize better options for you.
  7. Some hotels still charge you for any phone calls, even if you’re calling a toll-free international number to your bank.  Skype does not allow calls to international toll-free numbers (or at least it doesn’t recognize how to call them without a country code).  So, you need to have the standard 1-800 number (1 is the US country code) to call your bank via Skype.
  8. Money will generally be wired to you via Western Union, often located in post offices in Europe. Find out the nearest Western Union location before you call your bank or CC company. Your hotelier can help you with this.
  9. Don’t panic.  While getting pickpocketed is frustrating and a major inconvenience, remember that it is not a violent crime and that you can get financial help through your bank or CC company.

The next morning, I got €200 without any glitches via Western Union at the post office just one block from my hotel. I made it through the last day of my trip without any more inconvenient incidents. And now, three days later, I’m back in the USA, with my new cards were on their way. So, the thief got €120 and two worthless debit/credit cards, and I learned a valuable lesson.  They won’t get me again.

By the way, here are some awesome photos I took while getting pick-pocketed (click on thumbnails to enlarge and launch slideshow).

A Place That’s All Your Own

One of the most annoying things about travel/tourism is that if you’re going to someplace that’s popular, everyone else is too.  That means crowds, lines that seem to have no end, pushing and shoving, and odors that you didn’t think were humanly possible.  With all of that mass of humanity, patience and a good sense of humor seem to melt away quicker than ice under a scorching sun.

Although most people would prefer to travel in low or shoulder season to avoid crowds (and elevated prices), for many, that’s simply not possible. One way to get around that scene is to not be in it.  Find a better way to enjoy your travels by being in a place when there are few people and make it a place that’s all your own – even at the busiest time of the travel season.

This summer, because I’ve been working as an assistant guide, I have been, by necessity, out and about when everyone else is.  While being on a tour has its privileges (such as guided tours with incredibly talented and smart local guides or entrances to sites/activities without waiting in line), it’s still next to impossible to avoid the fact that everyone and their mother is at the same place you are everywhere you go.

To have a more peaceful and intimate experience, I made a conscious effort to enjoy the places we visited either really early in the morning or really late at night.  Now obviously I wasn’t getting into museums with an Early Admission Ticket like at Disneyland (Whoa, there’s a idea!  Museums, get on that!), and I certainly didn’t do this every day.  But, I did get to see places in ways that most travelers – or even locals for that matter – don’t.   It takes effort and sometimes a little bit of planning (going to bed early so you can be up at 6 a.m., resting in the afternoon so you can be up until 1 a.m.), but it’s so worth it to watch the sunrise over a glassy lake, to be one of twelve people standing on the Mont Saint Michel causeway at midnight listening to the waves kiss the shores of the sandy bay, to dance like no one is watching in front of the Eiffel Tower, to smell the fresh cut hay just two miles away from the nearest castle, or to be the first person of the day to stroll through the main street of a town that is just on the verge of waking up.  Even if you do it just to get a pristine photo without others blocking your view, you can have a really magical moment if you can find a way to enjoy a place all on your own.

Here are just some of the places where I took advantage of being out and about when the the crowds were getting their beauty sleep. (Click on any of the thumbnails to launch the slideshow.)

Natural Beauty: Worth the Bite

I detest insects.  I can’t help it.  I like spiders, snakes, dogs, cats, cows, chickens, monkeys, and sheep, but not insects.  They tend to bite me…a lot.  So, I generally do my best to avoid them.  My windows are kept closed if there’s no screen, and I wear Off! or a citronella wristband (so fashionable) to dissuade those little monsters from coming near me.  I try not to invade their space or harm them and wish dearly that they would offer me the same courtesy.

That being said, some things are worth the bite.  Being in nature obviously requires a different perspective.  And traveling through Europe provides so many opportunities to  admire and engage in natural visual masterpieces.  Whether enjoying a precisely manicured French garden or an overflowing English one, hiking through Alpine trails or boating on a river, watching horses while they’re feeding or snow melting into a stream, the beauty of nature is all around you.  And the bonus: it’s often free, it’s accessible, and it’s practically impossible to improve on it.  While painting, sculptures, and photos can be awe-inspiring, you don’t need a museum to see the greatest works of art.  Just step outside and look at the natural world around you.

Now, take a look at these photos and imagine you’re there.  Take a deep breath, smell the alpine trees, the fresh cut grass, and the floral sweetness.  Feel the wind in your hair and the sun on your face.  It’s you in the absolute serenity and beauty of God’s creation.  There is no greater perfection.

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Making the Best out of Being Where You Are (part 2 The How-To)

In my previous blog post, I wrote:

Whether you’re away on vacation or just living like a local on “staycation”, whether it’s your virgin visit or you know the place like a pro, find alternate ways to enjoy the place you’re visiting.  You have the opportunity and the choice to do something beyond the ordinary, so make the best out of being where you are.  Get rid of your checklist, discover and enjoy the abundance of things that that place has to offer – not only to its visitors but especially to its locals, and create your own memorable experiences.

Here are some photos and videos of how my friends and I found ways to do exactly that this summer in Europe (Click on the thumbnails to view full-size photos and launch the slideshow).

Don’t be afraid to interact with the locals.  You just may find that you have something in common or that you have something you can learn from each other.

Try a different way of experiencing a place.  At the le Chateau de Chambord , most people do the standard visit of the castle.  Having done that a few times already, Arnaud and I chose to bike part of the domaine de Chambord –its forests which encompass the same amount of square kilometers as Paris.

Not only did we get in a great workout, but we also got a chance to connect with nature, pretend we were nobility on horses hunting for boar, see the grounds and and new (for us) views of the castle.

Despite mistakenly saying once on the video that I’m on a tobaggan, I actually was on a luge track in Germany.  Why go luging ?  Why not!

Parasailing in Switzerland?  Yup, did that, too!

In Bayeaux, I met three Irish kids playing in the street while their dads chatted on the terrace of a pub.  The kids looked like they were having fun, so I asked if I could join along and try out their toy.  I look like a nut in this video, but I really had a great time just being a kid again and meeting some wee Irish lads and lassies.

It’s your vacation.  It’s your time.  It’s your money.  It’s your travel moment.  Find ways to make it a unique experience worth remembering.

Making the Best out of Being Where You Are (part 1 — The Paris Staycation)

The tourists crowds amass around "The Mona Lisa"Summertime in Paris can sometimes be a real grind for American tourists.  It’s the pinnacle of high season when the majority of families coordinate their kids’ vacation with time off from work.  If going with the flow isn’t your strong suit, the energy can be unbearably crushing.  Most museums can be inundated with tourists from everywhere.  The metro can be packed like a can of smelly sardines with vacationers and locals alike.  It becomes even more complicated because so many Parisians are also en vacances.  Typically, the French have 5 weeks of paid vacation.  While some may break up that time, many take a big chunk all at once.  There are juilletistes, who take off the month of July, but most are aoûtiens, who choose August for their holidays.

Did you want a croissant or a tarte aux pommes today?  Well, the neighborhood boulanger may have disappeared for a couple of weeks or an entire month, so you’ll need to find a different baker.  Do you need to find a papeterie?  Sorry, no pens or paper for you.  Hungry for dinner?  Sadly, your favorite restaurant is a temporary non-option, as are the four other restaurants on that street.   What’s a visitor to do?

Don’t fret.  You’re in a capital city, and life continues to thrive, even when half the city is on vacation.  There are twenty arrondissements or districts to explore that will always have a wealth of activities, restaurants, and markets available to you if you’re willing to explore.  While time off is a sacred rite in France, there are nonetheless, businesses that, because of the decreased competition, benefit from choosing to stay open during the summer vacations.  If you keep your cool and take advantage of the numerous opportunities to enjoy the city in an atypical-for-tourists kind of way, you’ll find that you’ll have a more rewarding visit in Paris by doing as the locals do.  And especially for those who have been to Paris before and have already done the standard must-see/must-do things, it behooves you to ditch the pre-requisite itinerary.  Don’t just be a tourist in Paris.  Get into living a Parisian lifestyle.

In fact, in the last few years, because so many French have had to be more conscious of their national and personal economic situations, they don’t necessarily go away on vacation.  Many Parisians choose to (read: have to) stay in town and do what we now call a “staycation”.  The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë– a forward-thinking politician – has implemented creative ideas for his fellow citizens to enjoy their vacances without ever having to leave the city.

A not-too-crowded day at Paris-Plages

The most notable of these visionary ideas is ParisPlages or Paris Beaches.  Every summer since 2002, the city trucks in 2,000 tons of sand, loads it up along 800 meters of the Right Bank of the River Seine, and dots it with sun umbrellas, lounge chairs, palm trees, showers, volleyball and pétanque courts, food vendors, and outdoor cafés. There are daily city-organized concerts as well as impromptu mini-concerts from nomadic musicians hoping you’ll spare them a euro or two. Some temporary swimming pools sites are also set up near city center.  Due, in part, to the ever-increasing popularity of Paris-Plages with locals and visitors alike, development plans are in the works for Les Berges de Seine or the Banks of the Seine, which will expand and create new permanent spaces along the riverbanks and will provide pedestrian only esplanades, dining, leisure, and entertainment venues to be enjoyed throughout the year.

Local and visiting spectators enjoying the Olympic Kayaking event at Hôtel de Ville.

In conjunction with the beach scene, the square at L’hôtel de Ville or town hall is another vibrant location for Parisians looking for summertime distractions.  Typically, a large stage is set up for free concerts.  Various bands play throughout the day and night, and music lovers of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and socio-economic levels mingle together, swaying their hips, snapping their fingers, bobbing their heads, or whoot-wooing to the music.  This year, to coincide with the Olympics, people can gather in front of a massive screen showing the day’s competitions.  It’s exhilarating to get caught up in “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” with your multi-lingual spectators yelling things you can easily imagine would be criminal if it came out of the mouths of their children.

One of my favorite summertime activities in Paris is to watch movies under the stars.  At le Parc de la Villette, outdoor movies are hosted Wednesday night through Sunday night on an expansive lawn in front of a screen that’s nearly as expansive as the lawn.  Thousands of people show up with their bottles of wine, baguettes, cheese, pastries and other picnic nom-nominess to share with their friends – and even with strangers – as they lounge on picnic blankets and delight to the sights and sounds of the film flickering in front of them.   While it’s mostly locals enjoying this activity (most films are in French, but English-language films are popular, too), it is open to anyone and everyone daring enough to break out of their physical and mental comfort zones to head out to the 19th arrondissement.

People show up early to stake their picnic space claim at le Parc de la Villette.
Ciné en Plein Air (Movies Outdoors) — a great way to enjoy part of your vacation/staycation in Paris.

Cool activities like this aren’t limited to the summertime.  Mayor Delanoë is also well known for implementing Nuit Blanche or White Night – one evening in October when all public and private museums, art galleries, and cultural institutions are open all night long until dawn.  Inaugurated ten years ago, this event allows Parisians to reclaim their city by inviting everyone to enjoy their civic and cultural patrimony – for free!  Even Paris itself comes to life as a living art space where artists and performers share their talents throughout the city.

Vélib is so popular, it can be challenging to find any available bikes.

Paris, with the support of Mayor Delanoë, progressive businesses, and an enthusiastic community, has also benefited from changes in the daily life of the city by allowing people to walk on and picnic on many grassy spaces (formerly a prohibited act throughout the city); promoting a cleaner city with more clear, plastic, conveniently located trash bags (clear bags dissuade anyone from hiding an explosive device in them); providing daily trash pick up and nightly street/sidewalk cleaning (even of the dog poop); increasing the amount of bus lanes and bike paths; creating grass-lined tram routes; implementing Vélib’ and, new for this year, Autolib’ – rental programs in which people can pick up a bike or electric car throughout numerous points in the city for quick and limited use.  Geared more for locals, it nonetheless benefits visitors by alleviating traffic congestion and overcrowding on other forms of public transportation.  If you’re keen on trying Vélib’ or Autolib’ yourself, you might get discouraged by the payment system because it’s not meant for non-locals.   Still, there are always loopholes to be found.  So you can find a way to try it out because, as the French say, “When you don’t have the right, take the left.”

Autolib’ cars stand at the ready, docked at charging stations throughout Paris.

And that’s a smart thing to keep in mind as a traveler, no matter where you go.  Inevitably, glitches come up every now and again when you’re on vacation.  Turn them into advantages.  Find a way to make it happen. If you can’t find a place for lunch, head to the farmers’ market to pick up some goodies for a picnic.  If museums A, B, C, and D on your list are too crowded, go instead where the lines are virtually non-existent at museum Z and have a more intimate and, perhaps, better experience.  Remember that your time and your money are commodities, and neither should be wasted on things that will only frustrate you.

Whether you’re away on vacation or just living like a local on “staycation”, whether it’s your virgin visit or you know the place like a pro, find alternate ways to enjoy the place you’re visiting.  You have the opportunity and the choice to do something beyond the ordinary, so make the best out of being where you are.  Get rid of your checklist, discover and enjoy the abundance of things that that place has to offer – not only to its visitors but especially to its locals, and create your own memorable experiences.

The French DON’T Hate Americans

I’ve wrapped up a Rick Steves’ Paris and the Heart of France tour as an assistant guide, and I feel blessed to have been on tour with Julie.  As an American ex-pat raising her children in the Burgundy region of France, she has so much insight into the French psyche, customs and history.  And having grown up in the States, she uses her understanding of the American psyche to bridge the two cultures for our tour members. I find that, with rare exception, most people who travel are open to learning something new and that those who refuse to have their own beliefs challenged are often content to never cross the comfort of their own cultural and national borders.

What can be frustrating as a teacher or tour guide is when people manage to pack, along with their too-full suitcase, their negative assumptions about another culture.  I know I’ve been guilty of it in my youth, but traveling has helped me shatter those preconceived notions.  It’s refreshing is to encounter someone who actively seeks ways to learn the truth and to question why they have been clinging to those preconceptions, and it’s a wonderful challenge to help navigate a path to finding the real answers.

Such is the case with a woman I met on tour.  Early in the trip, she explained that she had traveled to France years ago and had had a supremely positive experience.  But, she explained, over the last ten years or so, she often heard from people she knew, certain politicians and from some media that the French hate Americans.  She asked in earnest, “What went wrong?”

The quick answer is, “Nothing. The French don’t hate Americans.”

Now this woman is a thinking, successful and independent-minded person.  Yet somehow, she had been convinced that an entire country hated (and hate is a strong word) her country.  Why?  We explored lots of reasons in our discussion but we had to clarify the misconception first.  No, the French do not hate Americans.  There are many individuals who disagree strongly with American foreign policy — and its (sometimes) negative effects on so many other countries — or those who perhaps resent the domination of U.S.-based multinational companies who have “invaded” France, but they do not hate America or Americans.

Standing proud together — the French and U.S. flags
France and America have a long history together that dates back to our colonial era and continues to the present-day with political, social and economic links.  It hasn’t always been chummy, but we remain intertwined because we respect and depend on each other.  Some of our Founding Fathers spent quality time in France.  The French Revolution and les Droits de l’Homme or the Rights of Man share common influences with the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.  France bestowed a grand gift to the U.S. that has become one of our national icons – The Statue of Liberty.  Both countries were allies in WWII, and to this day, the French people are deeply grateful for the U.S. effort in liberating France from the Nazis.  Yet people ignorantly mistake France’s choice to not support certain recent international political and military actions by the U.S. as being against the U.S.  Just because they don’t agree with some of our policies does not suddenly make them an enemy.

In fact, if you speak with most visitors to France, you’ll find that they have had wonderful and memorable one-on-one experiences with the French people.  Despite all their cultural formalities, the French are a charming people with a fascination for (almost) all things American. On occasion you may encounter a French person whom you may consider rude, but does that mean all of them are?  Of course not.  If you met a Californian who treated you poorly, would you think all Californians hate you?  No, because that’s just ridiculous.  It’s important to keep in mind that anyone can have a bad day.  Sometimes we’re the recipients of it.  Sometimes we inflict it on others.  But at heart, most people are good people.  It’s when people start believing the negative and misinformed talk from closed-minded individuals or biased media outlets that wrong impressions spread.  Don’t believe the hype.  Better yet, find out the truth for yourself and go experience the real thing.

Our tour group had the chance to have real experiences with locals in every town we visited.  They learned about the depth of gratitude and respect that the French have for America.  On one of our last days, a British guide named Dale (a specialist in WWII history and the D-day Beaches) led us through Normandy.  He is a vibrant and knowledgeable storyteller and had us wrapped around his finger from the get-go.  He explained to us how villages throughout France, and in Normandy in particular, commonly have a memorial erected in gratitude to the U.S. troops who helped liberate them.  They don’t merely exist.  They’re lovingly cared for day after day by the descendants of the people who perished in that war and of the people who managed to survive because of our help.  It’s those villagers who keep those memories alive, who cherish the precious liberty they enjoy (due in part to the help of the Allied Forces), who raise the funds to create and sustain those memorials, and who pass on their respect and gratitude for the U.S. onto their children.

Dale took us to meet the mayor of village in Normandy, who showed us the village church that was used as an infirmary by two brave American soldiers to tend to their gravely wounded fellow soldiers, villagers, and (despite the order to “take no prisoners” – meaning, shoot to kill), injured German soldiers.  Stained glass windows were specially made to commemorate their selfless efforts.  When Dale explained how young these two soldiers were, how little medical training they had had, how they managed to save all but one of the 80 or so wounded, and their bravery and compassion – even for the enemy – all of us had to wipe away our tears.

With Julie as translator, the mayor explains how his village church was used as a make-shift infirmary during WWII.

A stained glass window commemorates the U.S. efforts during the D-Day invasions.

Dale teaches us about the D-Day invasions and U.S. strategies.
Throughout the day we learned about the tactical strategies surrounding D-day, the numerous ways that things did not go according to plan, and the determination of all the Allied Troops to find a way to succeed despite the setbacks.  We visited the beaches and countryside where our ancestors fought to ensure and protect the freedoms of others.  And we paid our respects at the American Cemetery to the fallen American soldiers who succumbed to the onslaught of the German forces.  The father of one of our tour members was a soldier during the D-Day invasions.  In his honor, we were able to have the tour member participate in the flag lowering ceremony.  Having taken the time to learn about the sacrifices made by so many – American, British, Canadian and French alike, to have learned about how grateful the French were and continue to be to this day, and to have a link to a very real past through our own tour member was enough to bring us all, once again, to tears.

Memories of the D-Day invasions remain strong in Normandy.

Part of a memorial at Pointe du Hoc

The flag ceremony at the American Cemetery in Normandy
It’s hard for most of us (with the exception of the 1% of our population whose families are involved in the military) to understand the power, destruction, devastation, loss, and suffering of real war. The people of France know it well.  In WWI (1914-1918), more than 1.5 million of their countrymen died and more than 4.5 million were wounded. In WWII (1939-1945), upwards of 560,000 died.   Compare that with the number of U.S. deaths and injured in recent wars – Gulf War (1990-91): 1,231; Iraq (2003-2011): 36,395; Afghanistan (2001-present): ~13,000.  France is criticized for not wanting to engage in U.S.-led wars and all that goes along with it, but we have to remember that it’s not because they are against freedom or democracy or American interests.  It’s because they know, better than most, what the effects of war really are.

Our tour has gone to different areas around France, tasting regional wine and food specialties, seeing cultural, historic, religious and artistic sites and icons, and admiring the natural wonders that this country has to offer.  This country, that is roughly the size of Texas, is diverse and varied in so many ways because of influences from centuries of war, allegiances, and commerce with the Romans, the Vikings, the British, the Spanish, the Austrians, the Germans, the Italians, and its former colonies.  The French are proud of their history and cherish what they have become because of it.  We started in Paris, which combines the very best of France’s history and traditions with its modern aspirations for the future.  We traveled to central France, the Loire Valley, Brittany, and Normandy – not just physically, but also through time, seeing Roman, Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance, Classical, Neo-classical and Belle Époque structures.  We discovered links we never realized from Clovis I to Napoleon III.  And we experienced real interactions with the people of France that help both sides come to a better appreciation for one another.  More than any trinket or photo, this will be our best souvenir. The 27 members of this tour are going back home with a better understanding of the French, and hopefully, they’ll share what they’ve learned with others to help dispel false impressions.

By the way, the woman I mentioned earlier – she’s now planning her next visit to France and wants to start taking classes to learn to speak French so she can connect even better with the people she meets here.  And that is the power of travel.

Travel — Moving Your Body and So Much More

Guedélon Castle: a 13th century work in progress in the 21st century.

The last few days have moved me in unanticipated ways – physically, intellectually and emotionally.  From Paris, we headed south and stopped by Guedélon, a 13th century-style castle being currently constructed, using tools, techniques and materials of that time period.  It is one of the coolest places I’ve ever been.  I’m a visual learner.  At Guedélon, you can see right before your eyes.  We saw iron being forged, building materials being hoisted up 60 feet by a winch powered by a gigantic human hamster wheel, wood and stone being carved and chiseled by artisans, and even a woman demonstrating how to prepare traditional Medieval meals.  Observing all this, I could finally imagine the hardships, the environment, the smells and tastes of 13th century life.

Initially, people thought the idea of building a Medieval castle was crazy and that the man who concocted the idea was fou, too.  Now, the idea has resonated, and people flock here by the hundreds of thousands each year.  They still have another ten years or so until the castle is completed (their funds from various government and cultural agencies have dried up, so they rely solely on private donations and visitor revenue), and they’re making great use of their time to educate visitors – the young and the not so young – and to function as a resource for, historians, researchers, architects, artisans and scientists who want to know more about the life and times of people from 13th c. France.

The Cathedral at Bourges

In Bourges, we saw one of the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals anywhere.  Notre Dame de Paris may be a perennial favorite , but the cathedral at Bourges puts it to shame.  The facades are intricately designed and tiny remnants of the original pigments still cling to the facesand robes of saints, angels, sinners and devils. The interior and the close-to-eye-level stained glass are stunning.  And the best part: you don’t have the crowds of Paris.  The place is all yours if you choose to make it so.

With its many half-timbered buildings dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries, its narrow and cobbled streets, and its historical and religious attractions, Bourges is charming in its aspirations to be a grander tourist destination.  But what’s even more charming are the people of the town.  While it’s not difficult to do so in metropolitan or high tourism areas, for me, it’s generally easier to make personal connections with people in smaller towns.  They’re in less of a rush, they’re down to earth, and they seem to be more curious, open and appreciative of the interaction.

For instance, while wandering through the town with Julie and a local guide named Barbara, we happened upon two young men who had laid out a 6’x 8’checkerboard piece of linoleum and a boom box in the corner of a small church square.  They weren’t doing this for tourists.  They simply wanted to practice their breakdancing (B-boy) skills.  We watched them for a bit, and then I asked them if I could join them.  They smiled grandly and excitedly motioned for me to take the floor. So, I busted out with my moves from the 6th grade (way back when breakdancing was first in style), finishing with a backspin and a pose.  Thunderous applause! Then I asked them to show me how to do a stall – a type of gravity defying, contortionist, athletic pose.  One of the guys explained to me in French, movement by movement, exactly what I should do.  It took several tries and several falls, but eventually, I nailed it.  Think of it: a dance craze from the 80s, started in New York, exported around the world and rejuvenated three decades later in a small town in France, functioning as a cultural link between three people who live 6000 miles apart.  Cool!

Learning to do a stall.
My new homies from Bourges

Just a bit later at an elegantly appointed wine bar/restaurant, the jolly and robust owner kindly invited us to tour his wine cave after dinner.  He only spoke French and proudly explained the history of the building and wine cave.  The original tunneling dates back to the 14th century.  It was used as an underground court and jail during the French Revolution and as a passageway and party place for a recent bishop.  Oh, if only the walls could talk.  We didn’t get this personal tour because we were special. We were simply open to the invitation and went with the moment.  This man wanted to share something he was proud of, and we were the beneficiaries of his graciousness.  It’s just one more example of the beauties of breaking away from the tourist mainstream.

At the end of the night, we joined up with the locals at an outdoor jazz festival featuring a French banjo trio called BanjoManiacs.  Now I’m not normally into Bluegrass, but this was one truly enjoyable event.  Some of the songs I recognized.  Most I didn’t.  They were all catchy and the musicians were quite talented.  Everyone got into the spirit of it, and even in the drizzly rain – with umbrellas sprouting like mushrooms across the courtyard of the cathedral – you could feel the camaraderie of the crowd.  We danced with locals and shared in the magic of the night.  I went to bed feeling grateful for this memorable day in Bourges.

In transit to our next town, we stopped to tour a Renaissance castle that is being restored by the same man behind Guedélon and got to partake in a wine and cheese tasting there.  Now if there’s one thing (or two things) that brings together people who don’t know each other well on a tour, it’s wine and cheese.  This was the breakthrough day when our tour members finally let their hair down and really started to get to know one another.  Younger and older intermingled, and everyone succumbed to the beauty of the moment.

A jumping picture at Chambord that never quite got off the ground

At Chambord, King François I’s hunting lodge and the largest castle in the Loire Valley, I visited rooms I had somehow managed to miss on a few previous trips with my students.  I don’t know if it’s just because we had been so limited on time at the castle on my last visits (trying to cram in three or four castles in a day is nutty), but I simply don’t remember having seen François I’s bedroom, the Regent’s room (King Louis XIV’s mother), the antique carriages, the grand clock or intricate sculptures on the ground floor.  I even got to give my best wishes to a couple to who just got married at the church (which I had never noticed) next to the castle. The brilliant thing about traveling to any place you’ve already visited is that with time and an open mind, there’s always something new to discover.

Chenonceau

Blois was our home base for two nights.  From this base we visited the from-the-pages-of-a-fairytale castle: Chenonceaule chateau des dames or the Ladies’ castle – dubbed that way because of all the women who, over four centuries, have influenced the style of and have maintained the use of this storybook dwelling.

Julie and I with Bruno Bertin, the author/illustrator of Vick et Vicky

After that, we ambled in Amboise.  As we were buying tickets for Clos Lucé (Leonardo da Vinci’s final residence), Julie and I met the author and illustrator of  Vick et Vicky, a  popular children’s French comic book.  We had been looking for one to share with the kids on our tour.  The man was so gracious in answering our numerous questions. He was unassuming, unpretentious, and humble; we didn’t even realize he was the author until fifteen minutes into the conversation.  He’s designed his books to educate French children about sites and events that are important in French history.  He craftily teaches them about their cultural heritage while entertaining them.  Genius!

Speaking of genius, at Clos Lucé we were able to see scale models of the original designs by da Vinci for such things at a whirly-bird (helicopter), a war-machine (tank), a bicycle, a paddleboat, a lifesaver, a military bridge, an Archimedes water device, and more.  But what was even better was the park behind the residence, which had life-size replicas that you could actually play with! If you really want to get your kids (or yourself) really engaged in history, engineering, art, physics, and creativity, you must go here!

Back in Blois, it was laundry night.  I took several tour members (three generations were represented) into town, and while we waited for our laundry to finish, we enjoyed some tasty beverages on a terrace on the square.  The conversations were even more refreshing than the drinks.  Even though we found that we were like-minded on virtually every topic we covered (history, religion, politics and current events), we really relished debating each other, too.  It reminded me that while there is much to be learned from those who counter your opinions, there are also opportunities to learn from those whose point of view is facing the same direction as yours.  We recalled the events of the last few days and shared our reactions, impressions and emotions.  By the time our clothes had been cleaned, we all felt like we knew each other better and that from the youngest to the least young of us, we had all learned something worthwhile.

Travel is more than moving from place to place.  It’s going back in time.  It’s giving a Leonardo helicopter a whirl.  It’s listening to a banjo in another hemisphere.  And it’s letting a conversation with new friends enjoy the spin cycle. Actually, that’s not just travel… that’s good travel.

Light Bulb Moments in the City of Light

As an assistant tour guide, my job is to first and foremost help the tour members however I can, answering questions when I can, offering recommendations when needed, making sure there are no stragglers and that no one gets left behind, passing our tickets/brochures/what have you, finding out who wants what for dinner, setting up/cleaning up meetings and picnics – the basic logistics.  I also try to get the pulse of the group and individuals to see if their needs and expectations (if reasonable and appropriate) are being met, helping to find a solution when necessary, and letting the lead guide know if there are any major concerns.  In addition to those things, my job is to learn, learn, learn.  How cool is that?!

I can already tell that Julie, my lead guide on this particular tour, is going to be a great teacher.  Upon our initial meeting prior to the start of the tour, she reassured me that it was okay for me to ask a lot of questions and that she would help me understand any decision-making/procedural/practical concerns she deals with as a guide.

Tomorrow is the fourth day of our tour (which starts in Paris, works it way to the dead center of France, over to Loire Valley, up to Brittany, across to Normandy and back to Paris in 10 days), and already, we’ve done so much.  We’ve done an historic walk of Paris through the Île de la Cité and le Quartier Latin, visited la Sainte Chapelle, and explored both le Musée d’Orsay and le Musée du Louvre.  While I’ve gotten to know these places rather well over the years, there are still (and always) new things that I learn.  With the benefit of an experienced guide – like Julie, our lead, and local guides like Elizabeth Van Hest who educated us through the Louvre – you always get a personalized perspective based on their specific expertise woven with the facts, histories, and stories traditionally associated with that site.  They help us to help us understand our past so we can connect it with our present.  No matter how often I visit a place, I learn something new, get reminded about things I’ve forgotten, and get the chance to reinforce what I may already know.  In Paris in particular, I frequently have these light bulb moments.

King Louis IX built Sainte Chapelle to house the Crown of Thorns.

Here are just some of the “new” bits of information that I learned (or remembered): the 13-knot cord can be (and was used for Medieval/Gothic structures) to create virtually any geometrical shape in order to design and do relative measurements and math in construction; because taxes on buildings in Medieval times were based on square footage of the ground floor only, the upper floors stick out farther than the bottom floor, making them look a bit topsy-turvy and not particularly good for keeping conversations private from the across-the-narrow-street neighbors; Sainte Chapelle, whose construction was funded by the wealthy King Louis IX (Saint Louis), took only 6 years to build, while Notre Dame de Paris (funded only by the Church) took roughly 200 years; and xxx Le Brun, the once portraitist of Marie Antoinette, is the only female artist whose work is displayed in the Louvre.

Tonight we had free time apart from the group.  I met up with my new friends Antonio and Alex for dinner at their place.  Home-cooked meals are always a welcome blessing when you’re traveling, so I jumped at that chance.  It was fun to check in on them and see how they’ve been getting by in Paris over the last few days.  Antonio found the artists’ association on Rue de Rivoli and is interested in renting some space there to do some work while in town.  Alex has been functioning as the de facto translator and is most often practicing his skills with the pretty teenage girls he sees at their neighborhood boulangerie or bakery.  I’m sure it’s not just his need for bread that’s motivating him to communicate.

Our conversations veered back and forth from the banal to the informative, from the political to the spiritual, and from the quaint to the artistic. Antonio is a modern artist based in Philly.  His work reflects his approach to life.  I saw some of his work, and they seem to emanate a harmonious calmness with the way the layers of color and texture interplay.  The palette is earthy and cosmic at the same time, and his intent is to depict the universality of the human condition.  His view on life translates well to his approach to travel.  As an artist, Antonio is able to travel quite a bit, and he is choosing to share that experience with Alex.  They are seizing an opportunity to live in Paris for one month, diving right into the culture, learning about the history, and engaging in the nitty-gritty everyday experience of their Parisian neighborhood.  It’s a chance for Antonio to empower his son to connect with another culture and to broaden his world perspective.

New friends in Paris

Alex marvels me with his inquisitiveness and openness.  His curiosity about language and customs, along with his willingness to try new things, is just refreshing.  A simple example of this is when we were eating salad made from fresh ingredients from the farmers’ market. Alex was discretely avoiding the tomatoes.  I asked him about this, and he said that he simply does not like tomatoes – never has.  I asked if he had ever tried a tomato in Europe, saying that somehow, tomatoes here are more flavorful, more real than back home.  His father concurred, and Alex said he was willing to give it a try.

That struck me.  It may have been a small gesture for Alex to agree to try something he knew he didn’t like it, but how often do we ourselves refuse to try something because we know we don’t like it or think that it’s wrong or bad or stupid?  I’ve lost count of the times that, in my arrogance, I’ve dug my heels in the ground and convinced myself that something was one way only to find out it was completely different than what I thought.

Now to be honest, Alex didn’t end up liking the tomatoes. But, he tried. Her really tried.  And that simple act inspires me.  I am making a promise to myself to try things, even if I initially think I won’t like it.  I’m going to make a concerted effort to refrain from snap judgment and insisting on my own sense of being right.  I’m not a difficult person, but anyone who truly knows me knows that I can be too self-assured for my own good.  The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus is said to have written, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”  I have so much to learn and so much to unlearn.  This will be a summer filled with chances to do so.

Even though I was rather tired, after dinner I went for a walk along the river Seine, heading west along the Right Bank – partly to walk off my dinner, but mostly because it’s one of my rituals when I’m in town.  Paris is so pretty at night and also relatively safe.  I’ve never felt insecure about strolling by myself, even after midnight.  The crime rate is much lower in the city proper than it is in the banlieues or suburbs (that topic could be a whole other blog entry).  Lots of people were still out and about, despite the atypical chilly weather in July.  I found myself lost in thought about my conversations with Antonio and Alex and with things I had to prepare for the next day of the tour, so, unlike my usual evening strolls in Paris, I wasn’t really paying much attention to my surroundings.  I had wandered for quite awhile when I realized that it must have been pretty late.  But just in the instant I was about to turn around to go back to my hotel, something twinkly caught my eye.  After a day full of enlightening moments, the City of Lights gave me one last one: the dance of the sparkling lights on the Eiffel Tower, shimmering under a midnight sky.

Making my own The Eiffel Tower at Night Light Show (just after she finished her own sparkling lights show)

My First Day on the Job

Do you remember your first day of work?  I’ve had several jobs since I was sixteen:  Tall Flag instructor, retail clothes salesperson/cashier, restaurant hostess, Pocahontas (true story), high school Spanish teacher, and now assistant tour guide.  I have vivid memories of my first day at Disneyland and my first day at Carlsbad High School, and I know that today – my first day as an assistant tour guide in Europe – will be just as memorable.

My first duty: greet our tour members and provide them with a welcome refreshment.  I tried to memorize their names as I met them, but by the time I got to the ninth person, all their names were like Scrabble pieces tumbling in my brain.   Thankfully, I had a roster where I could take notes as they introduced themselves to the entire group: interests, reason for taking this particular tour, where they’re from, or what languages they know.  But even with that, it’ll take me at least 48 hours before I have everyone’s name committed to memory.

Julie guides us on an orientation walk through our Parisian neighborhood.

After our introductory meeting, Julie (the lead guide) took us on a walking tour of the neighborhood, pointing out the local pharmaciebanque/boulangerie/fruitier/laverie and giving us historical and cultural lessons about the neighborhood church, the pedestrian-only market street – my preferred one in Paris and immortalized by Claude Monet– Rue Montorgueil  and the Châtelet metro station.  Despite being very familiar with this area of Paris (having lived here last summer just a few blocks away from our current hotel) I learned some new things from the wealth of knowledge that Julie shared with us.  There’s a lot that an assistant needs to pay attention to – not just the information the lead is sharing, but also the tenor of the group, making sure no one dawdles or gets lost, the physical surroundings, and the questions that come flying your way about what we’re doing, where we’re going or when we need to be somewhere.  I’m so grateful that I got to start in a city that I know well.

Watch your head at L’Auberge Café.

At the end of the walking tour, we headed to dinner at L’Auberge Café.  It’s housed in a half-timbered building that dates back to around the time of King Henri IV (late 16th/early 17th century for those who prefer a time reference).  Because of the size of our group (28) and the size of the restaurant (not big), we ate on the top floor where the ceiling was only about five inches higher than the top of my head.  For me – being only 5’1” – that’s not really a problem.  Now imagine everyone else in my group, many are at least 5’9” and the tallest being 6’4”, having to duck down in order to enter and shoehorn themselves into this room.  Fortunately they were forewarned so we didn’t end up with anyone with goose-egged head.  The owner claimed that that the height of the ceilings doesn’t matter because once we sit down, we’re all the same height.

Restored (the word restaurant comes from the verb restaurer) by our first meal together of traditional French food – I had foie gras, saumon au beurre et pommes purées, and a trio of mini desserts – many of us retired to the terrace for our after dinner coffee and conversation.  While the breaking of the ice is a bit slow going at the start of a tour, I did get to know several of the teachers on the tour (surprisingly there are five tour members in the education field).  Jeanne, a former high school teacher and reading specialist mentor-turned-administrator, was especially friendly and easy to talk to.  We talked about our backgrounds in education, how our roles have evolved and the twists and turns that life sometimes throws at you.

Pour l’entrée (starter), je prends du foie gras, s’il vous plait.

For thirteen years I taught high school Spanish and Dance in Southern California.  Two years ago, I took a Leave of Absence to move to Seattle in order to study French, earn a second Bachelor’s Degree and supplemental credential to teach French, and, most importantly for me, to be with my partner.  It became clear to me that I would not be returning to California and that I would need to resign my teaching position, which I did in April.  In June I graduated and accepted the opportunity to become an assistant guide.  It felt so light and easy to share this with Jeanne even though lately, right or wrong, I’ve been feeling like I’ve had to justify to others my choice to close that chapter of my life as a teacher in California.  Smiling and with pure sincerity, she said to me, “You’re still a teacher.  Your classroom has just changed –it’s expanded.”

Two sentences from a veritable stranger relieved me of this guilt that’s been weighing down my heart for so long and helped me to embrace with pride this path that I’ve chosen for myself.  Perhaps that’s part of the wonder and power of travel.  When you allow yourself to be open and let serendipity lead you to new experiences and new interactions, something (or someone) can move you and even change the way you look at things.  Today, my first day of work, I learned more about Paris, but most importantly, I learned more about myself.

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