Go Big or Go Home

So…it’s official!

And Jason pulled it off in classic Jason style: go big or go home!  We’d talked about marriage and getting engaged often enough that I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it to happen at SOME point, but with a long, romantic weekend away in Rome coming up, I was sure if it was going to happen it would probably happen there.  I mean, who wouldn’t, right?  That coupled with Jason’s general dislike for very public celebrations (e.g. being sung to for his birthday in a restaurant), I actually figured it’d happen in a pretty private setting.  Needless to say, I was completely oblivious right up until the last minute when in the heart of London near the Eros fountain in Piccadilly Circus, surrounded by many of our local friends (and those who couldn’t make it were there in spirit!), I came out of a souvenir shop with my friend Katharine to a row of people holding signs with individual letters spelling, “Will You Marry Me”.

I wish someone could have been secretly filming the lead up to this, because it was just hilariously and amazingly orchestrated.  But…let me back up and start with the early details.  I discovered at lunch that there were huge sales going on in all of my favorite stores in downtown London.  After getting back to the office, I let my friend, colleague, and shopping buddy know about the sales, who, excited, asked if I’d like to go with her after work.  Jason had texted me to see if I would meet him at a nearby pub where Katharine’s boyfriend is manager for dinner around 7:30 so we had quite a bit of time to kill, and holes to burn in our wallets, before we met up with the boys.

As shopping with Katharine tends to snowball, we were running quite late by the time we got back to the office to pick up all of our stuff.  Evidently behind the scenes Jason was pacing like mad and his boss, Tom, who played lookout was saying things like, “Where are they?  We said 7:30 right?  Did I miss them; I mean I know they’re small?!”  So, Katharine phoned Phil to let him know we were on our way (still I wasn’t suspecting anything), and we headed out.

After crossing the street, we bumped into a couple that we work with who Jason and I are friends with (Rajko and Dimitra).  This wasn’t really that out of the ordinary, and we stopped and chatted really quickly.  I was conscious of how late we were though so I was keeping the conversation rather short and apologizing that we couldn’t chat longer.  They were on their way to dinner for Rajko’s birthday in any case, so we parted in short order.

Almost immediately following meeting them, Kelvin, one of Jason’s basketball teammates, and his girlfriend who had recently moved to London from Hong Kong, came out of the tube station we were next to.  I was shocked to see him so randomly (or so I thought!) and gave them both a hug, introduced Katharine, chatted hurriedly, and headed off again.

On the move again, we crossed the street toward the Eros fountain heading in the direction of Waxy’s when we were brought up short by Phil walking with Jason Roberts, a friend and colleague of ours.  I didn’t really think this was odd, since Katharine had mentioned earlier that Phil and she were planning to meet up with some friends and go to Waxy’s too so we would all just have dinner together.  I assumed Phil and Jason R. were on their way to pick up said friends.  We chatted briefly, and they promised to meet us at the restaurant…and off we went (again!).

Still at this point I’m not really thinking anything much about it.  It was evening, right after work, and most of the people we’d run into so far were people we worked with…until we then “bumped” into a friend couple of Jason and mine.  Will and Nicolette were dressed quite sharply, so I assumed they were out on a date.  After exclamations of “What a coincidence!” and hugs all around, they told us they were heading to see Jersey Boys (a play that is on in the area).  Katharine chimed in, “Oh I’ve seen it! You’ll love it!”  And with promises of meeting up for dinner soon, we parted ways while I commented to Katharine, “So weird, everyone I know seems to be in Piccadilly tonight!”  And proceeded to blithely explain the relationship between Will and Nicolette and Jason and I.

As I chattered along, Katharine pulled me into a large souvenir shop as we passed.  She to be quick (since we were still running late) but said that she wanted to look at a Guinness jersey for Phil that he’d been eyeing.  We wandered around the shop a bit, but ultimately weren’t in there more than 5 minutes or so when we hustled out…

My first thought was, “We just saw them!” as my eyes hit Will and Nicolette first.  Then rather slowly my brain clicked and I realized a bunch of people I knew were standing lined up in front of the shop.  One by one they raised their signs with a large letter printed on it…about half way through I realized finally what was going on and started looking for Jason.  Hehe.  Well I suppose the video can tell the rest.

Jason  Proposes and the Crowd Goes Wild!

Though I had initially thought Jason would propose more privately, I couldn’t imagine a better way for him to have done it.  There was absolutely nothing better than being surrounded by our friends as we celebrated.  The only thing that could have made it better I think would be if everyone we loved and knew could have been there.

As it turns out, Jason had planned this initially for last Friday.  Because I was sick and the weather was, as it usually is in London, awful, he postponed.  Then apparently yesterday morning sent round an e-mail to everyone and said “It’s today!”  A lot of people who were going to be there on Friday, couldn’t make it the new day unfortunately, but it’s the thought that counts and really I think they were all there in spirit.

After lots of hugs and happy words with everyone, a few people peeled off to head on to other engagements (haha!) but a group stayed and came to celebrate with us over drinks and appetizer platters at Waxy O’Conner’s.

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Culinary Treats from Chez Ronni: Shrimp Fra Diavolo

After eating little more than leftover baked gammon (see: ham) in one variation or another since Easter, I decided to cook something new for dinner last night.  In an effort to “change things up” a bit, I steered clear of chicken and salmon since those meats end up being our staples, going instead for a good shrimp recipe.  This one turned out to be fantastically delicious with the added perks of being exceptionally easy to make, extremely healthy, and also quite versatile.

Credit for this recipe goes to Food Network’s Giada De Laurentiis (who, by the way, I’ve yet to make a recipe from I didn’t like).  Shrimp Fra Diavolo, though, seems to be a pretty basic dish as the recipes for it didn’t vary greatly from one place to another.  I served this with wild rice and steamed broccoli, but it would be perfect over pasta and likely also pretty good with roasted or mashed potatoes.

Also, because of the nature of the recipe it would be very easy to substitute different meats in.  Chicken or some sort of Italian sausage would be wonderful in this recipe (or a combination of several types such as shrimp and sausage).  Likewise the sauce would probably do well baked over tilapia or another mild fish.  Jason was still raving about this recipe this morning and suggested that I cook up the sauce in advance to freeze for an even quicker dinner.

(Supposedly this also makes fantastic leftovers as the sauce and meat continue to flavour through.  When we eat the leftovers, I’ll let you know for sure.)

Shrimp Fra Diavolo

  • 1 pound large shrimp, peeled, deveined
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus additional as needed
  • 1 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, plus 1 to 2 tablespoons
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 1 (14 1/2-ounce) can diced tomatoes (can use seasoned, fire roasted, etc.)
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
  • 3 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves (or 3tsp dried)
  • 3 tablespoon chopped fresh basil leaves (or 3tsp dried)
  1. Toss the shrimp in a medium bowl with 1 teaspoon of salt and red pepper flakes.
  2. Heat the 3 tablespoons oil in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp and sauté for about a minute, toss, and continue cooking until just cooked through, about 1 to 2 minutes.
  3. Transfer the shrimp to a large plate; set aside.* Add the onion to the same skillet, adding 1 to 2 teaspoons of olive oil to the pan, if necessary, and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the tomatoes with their juices, wine, garlic, and oregano. Simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, about 10 minutes.
  5. Return the shrimp and any accumulated juices to the tomato mixture; toss to coat, and cook for a few minutes so the flavours meld together.
  6. Stir in the parsley and basil.
  7. Season with more salt, to taste, and serve.

*As a point of interest, the shrimp was really tasty just plain like this.  Jason kept snitching pieces from the plate while I was cooking up the sauce.

  • I used seasoned canned tomatoes (in London they don’t have fire roasted tomatoes readily available, so I used tomatoes with pepper and chillies instead).  Incidentally this probably was unnecessary as I didn’t notice it added significantly to the flavour except perhaps to put a little extra heat in it.  If you like spicy, feel free to do this, but regular tomatoes should be fine.
  • I added a little bit of tomato paste to the sauce to thicken it up a bit, and also cooked it slightly longer than called for to allow it to flavour through well.
  • I used dried herbs, so rather than just stirring them in and immediately serving, I let the mixture simmer for a few minutes after adding the basil and parsley.
  • I didn’t need any extra salt for the sauce.  All I used was the teaspoon I tossed the shrimp with.
  • In London, they have two heat options for crushed red pepper (mild and hot).  I don’t know if this is the case in the States, but I happen to have the hot variety in my herb box.  This might make a difference as to how spicy the dish ultimately ends up.  Feel free to add or subtract the spice to your preference.  Jason commented (and complimented) that it was spicy in a flavourful way without just being blatantly hot, so it’s safe to use the hot variety.
  • I didn’t have a regular onion so I used several small shallots, and as Jason isn’t a huge fan of large pieces of onion I chopped mine up a bit more finely.  It didn’t seem to detract from the dish at all

I definitely recommend everyone trying this one out.  It literally took 15-20 minutes to cook (with a bit of extra time for chopping the garlic and onions), and is a nice change up from the average spaghetti or pasta meal.  Let me know what you think!!


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While the cat’s away…

And boy did the mice play!

When first Jason mentioned he’d be going Stateside for a full week, I was admittedly at a loss as to what I was possibly going to do with so much time alone.  With visions of long, luxurious bubble baths complete with wine, candles, and a smutty romance novel dancing playfully about in my head, I figured I could probably manage well enough.  In truth, I actually had rather ambitious plans to transform our little flat (which had been accumulating a rather alarming amount of muck) into a sparkling palace through a weekend of deep cleaning and minor renovations of both decorative and functional varieties.

Needless to say, most of that didn’t actually happen (though to my credit I did manage to vacuum, clean our bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen, and also do a bunch of laundry over the course of the week).   Instead I found myself “out and about” almost every day, gallivanting around London, an expedition complete with several nights of drinking, feeding the rodents of St. James’ Park…twice, shopping, visiting a horseback riding school, and having my hair dramatically dyed and cut (a decision made while completely sober, if slightly hungover).

I can’t in good faith claim full credit for my weekend deviance, though, as I had considerable help and encouragement from Katharine whose boyfriend, incidentally, was also away for a week.  Honestly, I had a great time if there was any question.  Everyday I’m becoming more and more intimately acquainted with London and feeling more and more settled.  Katharine is lovely company, and given our numerous similarities we certainly don’t lack for mutually enjoyable trouble to get into.

Having left mid-week, most of our shenanigans were relegated to the weekend, though Katharine and I did go to St. James’ Park to feed the critters nuts and bread and then out for dinner and drinks at a fantastic Irish pub called Waxy O’Connor’s Wednesday night.  Thursday remained uneventful, and Friday saw a reprise of St. James’ Park before I headed home to handle a bit of industrious cleaning.

Saturday began early with an appointment, after which I met Katharine at Borough Market for what seems to be a growing tradition of “Saturday Morning Coffee” and lunch before heading out on our mission for the day: assessing a riding school in Dulwich (pronounced: Duhl itch for anyone who cares).  Travelling to this little area in southeast London would ordinarily have been a relatively simple affair if it weren’t for all the engineering works being done on various rail lines throughout the city in preparation of the impending Olympics.  Inconveniently, both train lines we needed to take to get to the school were closed for the weekend so we had to do a bit of creative travelling by bus and foot to get there.  On the upside, this route turned out to be rather scenic, and Dulwich is a gorgeous area.

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived, though still quite light out.  The Dulwich Riding School (creative name not withstanding) was clean and quaint, greeting us at the gate with a pleasant and enthusiastically hand-painted sign on a slate of wood that said:

It’s hard to tell whether this is an offer to any runner passing by who might be in need or a call to emancipation!  In any case, I wasn’t in the market, but you never know when the need for horse dung will randomly pop up.

Having ridden at a few different schools in the States, all in the rural areas of South Carolina on great stretches of open land, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect of a riding school in the middle of the city with little or no conceivable “countryside” to make use of, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise to notice that the school in terms of land space was quite small.  Set literally on the roadside, it appears to have carved a small acre (I’d be surprised if it was much more than that) out of the edge of Dulwich Park.  The school has presumably been there for 50 years, so it’s possible that the park was built around it rather than the other way around.  In any case, it boasts of a small stretch of stables housing perhaps 20 horses and ponies, an outdoor ring, an indoor training facility, and a small paddock all clumped together in a charmingly old-fashioned sort of way.

While there were a few cars parked in the lot, the stable area was largely deserted save for a handful of curious horses poking their heads over their stall doors and the most adorable little Rottweiler puppy sitting with its little puppy tail wagging  frantically and pink tongue lolling underneath a “Beware of Dog” sign.  Katharine and I couldn’t resist petting and playing with him/her (we didn’t check) for a few minutes while we waited for someone who looked reasonably official to come back into the front area of the school.

Eventually we wrangled a young woman out of a stall where she looked to be busily weighing and tying up bundles of hay to speak to us for a few minutes.   Lessons at this school are surprisingly inexpensive – only £22 for classes (up to 8 riders) and £27.50 for semi-private (2 to 3 people).  On top of the excellent price, the school is also rather conveniently located near to Clapham.  Katharine and I immediately scheduled a lesson for the next possible opening (April 14th at 11:30am) and can now hardly wait for it to get here!

By the time we made it back to the more central area of London, it was growing late.  Though we rushed to try to run a couple of quick errands, most of the shops were closing, and sure enough the store Katharine needed to go to was closed by the time we reached it.  Abandoning any remaining effort to be productive, we hopped on a train and headed west to the Baron’s Court area to meet up with a friend of Katharine’s, also from Trinidad.  A couple bottles of champagne and wine and several hours later the two of us were stumbling home in a cheerful haze.

Sunday started off slowly, and painfully – wine hangovers are the worst – but ended with the highlights of getting pampered at a hair salon followed by a Caribbean dinner and a gourmet French bakery for post meal coffee and dessert (amusingly the food and coffee here

were better than anywhere I ate at in Paris, and the wait staff was infinitely friendlier).  I had something called “Russian Honey Cake” with a honey and ginger latte.  It was really delicious.  The cake tasted like graham crackers and custard.  Katharine had Bailey’s cheesecake with a hazelnut and ginger latte.  We split both.

Work largely kept me out of trouble for the last two days before Jason got home, though I did manage to completely devastate my kitchen making homemade Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes for supper Monday night.  The meatballs were actually quite delicious despite my forgetting to add one ingredient (2 egg yolks) and putting a bit too much nutmeg in the mixture, but the mess I made in the kitchen looked more like my refrigerator had exploded across the counters rather than a simple dinner for one.  I’ll say this though, cooking in a tiny, one-countered galley-style kitchen requires a special kind of talent (and patience) that I’ve evidently yet to master.  I honestly would have taken a picture if I hadn’t been either up to my elbows in raw meat or trying to mash potatoes and whisk gravy simultaneously.  God knows how I’m going to manage to cook a respectable Easter dinner for 8 or 10 people this weekend.

Interesting Tidbits:
  • Squirrels are adorable close up.  They’re also surprisingly polite when taking nuts out of your hands.  Very gentle.  Birds on the other hand are flat out obnoxious.
  • I’m in dire need of a puppy fix.  Rottweiler puppies are ridiculously cute.
  • Bank/Monument Station is quite possibly the most convoluted place I’ve ever had the misfortune to be in when in a hurry.  Allow at least 20 minutes to find your way out of the rat maze that is Bank station.  (It has three or four lines, 11 exits, and naturally, just as with airports, the line you arrive on is the furthest away from the exits when you’re in a hurry and requires you to travel through three other line platforms to just find your way into a common area.)
  • The Piccadilly Line is by far the best tube line.


P.S. Most of the images in this post don’t belong to me, as I have once again failed at photo logging my experiences.  One day before I die, I will adopt this habit.

P.P.S Check out the newest video uploaded to the “For Laughs” page here.

Categories: London | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

If the shoe fits…buy it in every color!

“Well apparell’d April on the heel of limping winter treads…” – William Shakespeare

“You better come home with something cute!!”

These are magical words, and when coupled with a cheerfully surrender piece of plastic, a joyous song to the ever devoted shopper.  With an unrepentant enthusiasm for fashion and a weakness for shoes, I can hardly claim to be anything but patently female.  So who am I to argue (or disappoint) when my boyfriend hands over his credit card and shoos me out the door for a day of shopping with a new friend in downtown London, his only stipulation being that I must come home with something?

With the promise of pleasant weather, a colleague from work and I arranged to meet up Saturday for a day of self-indulgent shopping.  Katharine may well be the first significant “friend” I’ve made in London thus far.  A four feet something Trinidadian native, she moved to London some four years ago with her Irish, rugby-playing boyfriend when he moved back from Trinidad, and while she definitely enjoys it here she sympathizes with me about missing certain things from home (like tumble dryers) and the ups and downs of adjusting to a new place and culture away from family and friends.   Though 9 years separate us in age, Katharine and I discovered by the end of Saturday that we nonetheless share a surprising amount in common by way of personality, interests, and personal tastes ( both in terms of shopping and men apparently).

I met up with Katharine at Borough Market near London Bridge around 2:00pm.  We didn’t spend a great deal of time here since she had already been at the market for several hours with some friends of her uncle’s visiting from Trinidad, but we did wander around a bit after she showed me a vendor that makes fabulous mochas.  Borough Market deserves a full day of exploration, as well as a full blog post about it, so I won’t expound on the details until later.  Suffice to say it’s an amazing and fascinating place stuffed cheek to jowl with people by midday on the weekend.

After escaping the shuffling stream of people wending its zigzag path through the aisles and alleys of the market, we caught a train up to Westminster where Katharine lives and from there cut through St. James Park (which is lovely by the way) to start our shopping trip by fanning our fashion frenzy with a stroll down the infamous Bond Street where we dutifully left plenty of nose prints on the windows of such shops as Cartier, Prada, Tiffany’s, Louis Vuitton, Miu Miu, Michael Kors, Alexander McQueen, etc.  Aside from lovingly fondling a few gorgeous handbags and pairs of shoes, however, we didn’t do much but window shop here, though Bond Street did, by happy coincidence, provide us with the highlight of our day in the form of a blown glass and kinetic sculpture exhibition at a small art gallery we happened to stumble upon.

I don’t recall who was responsible for the large sculptures like this one,

but the blown glass belonged to a small, round artist from Seattle with frizzy, fly-away hair and a black eye patch by the name of Dale Chihuly who has garnered quite the reputation for himself worldwide for his enormous and exquisite blown glass sculptures, chandeliers, and gardens.

Bond Street conveniently dumps out onto the high end of Oxford Circus, which by virtue of vicinity remained significantly out of our price range.  So, instead of spending any time there, we headed down toward stores more our speed.  By this point it was grown dark and the threat of early-closing shops meant that we had to sacrifice leisure browsing for efficiency since Katharine had a handful of stores she wanted me to see in particular.

Our current, mutual, favourites include:

Though strongly tempted to take this jacket home with me…

…I resisted and instead ended up with both of these tops as my souvenirs for the day:

Interesting Tidbits:

  • London doesn’t exactly have a “style”.  Unlike cities in the States where certain things become a trend and spread en masse, style is a personal choice in London…and everything goes.  Literally.
  • Pastels seem to be the choice colors for spring – pale blue/greens, blush pinks, mauvey lavenders, and creamy yellows are everywhere.
  • Though at first skeptical, I have discovered that there is actually affordable shopping in London.
  • Shops in London close at the weirdest times.  On Saturday night Warehouse closed at 6:00pm while Zara and Mango were open until 10:00 at least.
  • I vaguely suspect that women born and raised in London actually have no feeling at all in their feet.  There is no other possible explanation for how they can walk about all day in heels of any kind.

Don’t forget, you can keep up with all the places we go here!


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Paris Part 2: Moving Right Along…

Sunday, February 19, 2012

With our weekend trip coming to a close, we had largely by this point accomplished much of what we’d hoped to in the weekend’s time.  We had, at this juncture, just one more site we wanted to visit before heading back to the airport that afternoon.  Off we went once more to the Île de la Cité, home of “Our Lady of Paris” (Notre Dame), for a peek at the somewhat less touted (though spectacular in its own right) La Sainte-Chappelle

La Sainte-Chappelle

La Sainte-Chappelle (The Holy Chapel) is an incredible structure inconspicuously tucked away amidst the buildings of the Palais de Justice, built on the site of the former royal palace of Saint Louis.  Only a street or two away from Notre Dame, naturally this particular church rarely captures the typical traveller’s notice on the island, though is well worth both the wait and the fee to enter should you happen to make a visit to Paris.

The chapel is an exquisite piece of architecture, some 764 years old, and in my opinion, between Notre Dame and Sacré Cœur, wins the prize for possessing the most interesting history.  After waiting outside in a line for what might have easily been 30 minutes to an hour, Jason and I entered the chapel expecting it to look something like this:

Instead, the room we entered looked like this:

Dark and comparatively cramped, it was in no way less breathtaking, simply unexpected.  From floor to exquisitely and artfully crafted ceiling this smaller chamber was a riot of color and patterns with small bits of stained glass providing the majority of the light.  At the end of a short hall was a small altar area roped off that held a number of religious sculptures.  While impressed by its beauty, Jason and I were still somewhat baffled by the difference between the image we expected to greet us and the one that did.  It was not until we turned to leave that we noticed a tiny hole in the back wall.  Here a narrow, spiral staircase led upward to a second level more resembling our expectations.

There is no level of preparation by way of photo for what you see when you arrive in the main chapel.  The room is a vast cavern of color and light, stunning and opulently reverential as every single wall is dominated with soaring stained glass windows.  I am truely grateful we waited until our last day in Paris to visit La Sainte-Chappelle since it was our sunniest day and therefore showcased the glass as it would best be seen.  Benches line either side of the chapel for people to sit and admire the windows, reading them with the assistance of an informational sheet that explains each.

A little bit of history:

La Sainte-Chappelle was built in the mid 13th century to house King Louis IX’s (later sainted by the Catholic Church) relics of the Passion of Christ including the crown of thorns, one of the most significant relics of medieval Christendom, a piece of the original cross, the image of Edessa, and some thirty other items.

The soaring stained glass windows (currently undergoing heavy restoration) are amongst the most famous features of the chapel and are some of the finest samples in the world.  Fifteen enormous windows line the walls with a massive rose window dominating the western wall above what appears to be a giant door.

Each window features a specific tale from the bible.  The three in the eastern end of the chapel (behind the giant altar) feature the stories of Christ’s infancy (left), The Passion (center), and the Life of John the Evangelist (right).  The windows then cycle around the room starting at the western end of the north wall with the Book of Genesis and tales of the Old Testament, then move clockwise around the room covering scenes from Exodus, Joseph, Numbers/Leviticus, Joshua/Deuteronomy, Judges, Jeremiah/Tobias, Judith/Job, Esther, David and the Book of Kings, with the final windows on the western end of the south wall showing scenes of the rediscovery of Christ’s relics, the miracles they performed, and their relocation to Paris in the hands of King Louis.

The Rose window on the western wall, added in 1490, depicts St. John’s vision of the Apocalypse.

Notre Dame Part 2

Leaving La Sainte-Chappelle with some time and sunlight left to us, we returned a couple of blocks over to Notre Dame admiring more of the outer structure of the building which we missed on our first pass on Friday.  This included a lovely courtyard in the back and a view of the building from behind just as gorgeous and interesting as the front (Jason has these pictures because while it was sunny it was freaking cold this day).

We wandered around and took a number of pictures before fleeing into the cozy sanctum of a nearby cafe for a quick, warm lunch.

It was here that I was treated to what I would place as my best meal in Paris which included a large, delicious bowl of French Onion soup, a basket of warm baguette, and a goblet of hot, mulled wine.  I was so full and comfortable after this simple meal that all I wanted to do was nap and as loathing the idea of going back out into the blustery cold again.

Jason seemed to be of similar sentiments, and instead of lingering or wandering about Paris further we decided then to head back to the hotel, collect our things, and make our way (early) to the airport.  It was about 3:00pm at this time and our flight wasn’t until 9:45 or so, but we had a rather long journey and preferred to just get settled inside somewhere.

Homeward Bound…or not

After an hour train ride back to Charles de Gaulle airport, Jason began pulling out our papers and tickets for our return flight home.  One stop away he realized with dread that he had booked our return tickets for the wrong day so we were effectively 30 hours early for our flight back home.

After scrambling to try to find a flight (or train ride) home that night and coming up with not a single option cheaper than £500/person, we opted instead to stay a night in the luxury hotel attached to the airport.  Even though I ruined Jason’s hopes of a midnight run of the airport with visions of riding about on luggage carousels and racing the baggage carts around the empty halls by coming down with a sudden and aggressive Parisian ailment (a flu-like head cold mainly…I’m sure the rude waiter that morning must have spit in my “Chocolat”), we settled for a nice, leisurely dinner and then fell asleep to a movie in our posh hotel room.

And despite spending the next day curled up like a sniffly cat on an airport chair, all in all, I’d say it was actually a really lovely end to an utterly lovely weekend.



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Culinary Treats from Chez Ronni: Superhealthy Salmon Burgers

Only I could take a 3 day trip to Paris and turn it into a novella (those who know me well will be unsurprised by this).  To break up the monotony before finishing up my final Parisian post, I’ve decided to share with you secret recipes from Chez Ronni.

Not being a culinary master, I’m afraid I can’t claim credit for the invention of these recipes (yet), but if they’re good enough to make the cut, I wouldn’t want to deny others the pleasure of enjoying them too!

Since coming to London, I’ve resolved to begin experimenting with cooking in an effort to avoid Jason’s defaults of frozen dinners and dining out (a month of which has done untold quantities of damage to my figure!).  With the additional perks of expanding on my culinary horizons and developing my personal cooking skills, it proves to be a worthy endeavor, and the yummy noises coming from Jason when he’s wolfing it all down is definitely encouraging.

One of the many beauties of living in a huge, cosmopolitan city is the presence of a plethora of interesting and exotic ingredients with which to make delicious (and often healthy) food.   I’m hoping that most of the recipes I post won’t have such outlandish ingredients that you won’t be able to find them in your average local grocery store, but in some cases you may either need to go to an ethnic grocer (Indian, Asian, etc.) or make some gentle substitutions.

First up!

Superhealthy Salmon Burgers

(No, I didn’t make up this especially creative name.)

  • 4 boneless, skinless salmon fillets (550gm or 1lb 4oz total), cut into chunks
  • 2 tbsp Thai Red Curry Paste
  • Thumb-sized (2 inch) piece of fresh ginger root, grated
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • 1/2 bunch fresh coriander, chopped
  • 1 tsp vegetable oil (or olive oil)
  • Thai Sweet Chili Sauce
  1. Tip the salmon into a food processor with the curry paste, ginger, soy and chopped coriander.
  2. Pulse until roughly minced.
  3. Tip out the mix and shape into burgers (6 small or 4 larger).
  4. Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan, then fry the burgers for 4-5 mins on each side, turning until lightly crisp and cooked through.

Serve with sweet chilli sauce and whatever sides sound good.  I used steamed rice and soy sauce sautéed vegetables (fresh baby sweetcorn, sugar snap peas, and mushrooms) which complemented the whole dish nicely.

A warning note, don’t over process the meat.  I bought a new food processor/electric chopper especially to make this dish and got a bit button happy with it.  In a matter of about 2 seconds flat the meat was less minced and more mushed so the burgers didn’t hold together well in the pan.  Another heads up, the mixture (even with still salmon looking pieces) will be very wet from the ginger, soy sauce, and the oil in the curry paste.  It’s meant to be this way and supposedly if the meat is still pretty solid the burgers should hold together fairly well.

I halved the recipe to make it for just Jason and myself, and it was still a lot of food.  A nice perk to this dish is that you can mix up the meat and keep it in the fridge overnight or throughout the day until you’re ready to make the patties.

Let me know if you do anything interesting by way of sides or sauces. I’d love to try variations.

And in the event you care:

Nutrition Per Serving

292 calories, protein 29g, carbohydrate 7g, fat 17 g, saturated fat 4g, fibre 0g, sugar 6g, salt 0.83 g

Bon Appetit!





The second attempt at the burgers turned out much better.

I’m not sure how they got theirs to be so light…maybe they used a different kind of oil or something.  Still, mine tasted really yummy and didn’t fall apart!

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Paris Part 2: Tidings of Antiquity

“History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity.” – Cicero

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Like previous posts, pictures are coming as I’m stealing them from Jason this weekend (promise!!).

After all of the walking we did on Friday, it would have taken a miracle for me to drag myself out of bed early Saturday morning despite having fallen asleep at 7:30pm the night before.  With a headache and a body that felt what I imagine it feels like to be hit full on by a semi, I lounged in my warm bed while Jason went out for a run.  Even with the lounging, I was still up by 9:30 or 10:00am and by noon at the latest Jason and I were headed out on a new adventure that was evidently to start with prowling through a graveyard.

Cimetière de Montmartre (Montmartre Cemetery)

What is the perfect Valentine’s Day trip to Paris outing? A stroll through a necropolis of course!  A wet dream for Buffy fans everywhere, this place was easily the most incredible cemetery I’ve ever been in.  It had a similar feel to the cemeteries in New Orleans with lots of family crypts and mausoleums, but it had its fair share of in-ground tombs as well.  The Montmartre Cemetery is enormous.

Deeply quiet with huge black crows and stray cats all about it, I found it to be very peaceful and eerily beautiful.  It sits near the top of the list of my favourite places in Paris at this point.

A little bit of history:

Cemeteries were banned through the city center of Paris in 1786 due to them being a health hazard and so several new cemeteries replaced the Parisian ones outside the precincts of the capital in the 19th century.  Montmartre was the northern location.  It is built below ground level in the hollow of an old quarry and is the resting place of a number of famous artists, writers, and nobility who lived and worked in the Montmartre area.

Jason and I personally stumbled across the tombs of Edgar Degas (the painter famous for his paintings of ballet dancers) and Alexandre Dumas, famous writer of works like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.  We also found a lovely mausoleum belonging to a Countess/Princess.

Here’s a list of all the notable internments.


After spending several hours communing with the long-deceased souls of Paris, Jason and I wandered on toward the community proper of Montmartre.  Montmartre is a district of Paris and as such, I wasn’t aware we were even in Montmartre until we had already been there a while.  The area is primarily known for the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur, which crowns the summit of the hill on which it is located, and as a nightclub district and popular drinking area.

Since we visited during the day, I unfortunately didn’t get to see much of Montmartre come to life at night save for the stretch of road near the Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir, which also belong to this area.  Jason was disappointed I think that we didn’t get to see more of Montmartre at night as he loves this part of Paris.  Nonetheless I enjoyed it even in the day.

To my eyes it was a charming labyrinth of winding roads and old apartment buildings with eclectic, artsy shops and cafes at street level.  A carousel stood in one of the more open areas near a subway station entrance, and in general the sidewalks stayed bustling for much of the time we spent here.

A little bit of history:

Though known in modern times as a district of the starving artist and the profligate lush, Montmartre claims a number of interesting historical facts.  Its religious symbolism is thought to stretch back to prehistoric times as a likely druidic holy site given that it is the highest point in the area.  In the 18th and 19th centuries there were a number of gypsum mines here as well.  In one of these, a fossil tooth was found that was later indentified to belong to an extinct species of horse.  A drawing of the animal from 1825 matched the full skeleton found of it later.  The hill was used by both Henry IV of France and the Russians when laying siege to Paris.

Basilica of the Sacré Cœur

Impressive and expressly majestic, the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur can be seen from just about any reasonably high point in Paris because it sits at the summit of the hill on which Montmartre is located (the highest point in the city).  It is an incredible structure that, I was totally shocked to discover, is only about a century to a century and a half old.  Having seen Notre Dame the night before, I suppose I simply expected that the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur would also be an exceptionally old structure.

Given its youth it doesn’t seem that there is very much remarkable about its history beyond it being an architectural masterpiece.

A little bit of history:

Construction on the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur was begun in 1875 and fully finished in 1914.  As far as I understand it the church was built in an effort to lend a “spiritual renewal” to the city and “expiate the crimes of the Commune” in the wake of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent uprising of the Paris Commune of 1870-1871 (think “workers party”, Communists, Karl Marx, blah blah blah).  Basically all of that means that the while the history of the basilica itself is somewhat lacklustre, at least it’s a pretty building!

Place du Tertre

Only a few streets away from the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur, Place du Tertre is the heart of the Montmartre quarter and is best known for its street artists.  During the day the square is packed with various artists selling works or creating new.  Many artists were drawing or painting portraits for the tourists there while others were absorbed in painting the city sites.

Jason and I were accosted on our way by one after another artist trying to get us to let them draw a portrait of us with tactics that would put the mall kiosk guys to shame.  We found the best way to deal with them was to be absorbed in conversation with one another and avoid eye contact at all costs!

We bought some souvenirs from the local shops and got lunch from a street vendor. Jason ended up getting a sausage on a baguette that was absolutely divine (I wish I’d gotten one).  And I got a crepe stuffed with melted cheese and ham.  While we ate we wended our way toward Place du Tertre and spent some time roaming the easels and stands of paintings admiring the works.  It was so very quaint and “French” it was hard not to be charmed with the area.  I imagine it’s a madhouse in the summer from tourists though.  It was very busy while we were there as it was.

A little bit of history:

Place du Tertre is a reminder of a time when Montmartre was the mecca of modern art.  At the beginning of the 20th century, many penniless painters such as Piccasso and Utrillo lived and worked here.  There is also a museum devoted to the works of Salvatore Dali a few steps away from the square.

Musée du Louvre

As it was getting late in the day now, we hopped on the subway and trained over to The Louvre to try to get in with enough time to at least see the Mona Lisa.  Oddly, even on Saturday, the museum closes at 6:00pm.  Since we didn’t get in until 4:30pm, our visit was unfortunately cut a bit short.  Nonetheless, the Louvre was every bit as spectacular a museum as it’s made out to be.

Housed in what was once the Royal Palace of Paris, the building in and of itself (both inside and out) is an architectural and historical masterpiece.  Probably the most decadent and elaborate building we saw in all of Paris, it is preserved to such a degree that standing on the massive lawns outside the entrance to the museum surrounded by labyrinths of shrubbery (trust me, Monty Python jokes abounded in my head) and statue-bedecked fountains it isn’t a stretch to imagine bewigged lords and ladies strolling about in hoop skirts and waistcoats.

We spent a bit of time outside admiring the lawns, the architectural artistry of the building, and of course the Arc de Triomphe’s little brother, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which was built like its big brother in the early 19th century to celebrate Napoleon’s military victories.  Since it was outside and it was cold that day, I left picture taking of Napoleon’s “sorry about your penis” monument to Jason.

We entered the museum through the glass pyramid in the courtyard.  After passing through some security checks, you ride a few escalators down into a massive pit.  Each wing of the museum (including the one with all of the shops and restaurants) branches off from this central location, making you feel a bit like an ant or honeybee in a hive.

On a mission to see The Mona Lisa, we made a beeline to that wing stopping only briefly to take a few pictures on the way.  As with other places in Paris, none of the plaques for any of the pieces of art in the Louvre were multilingual.  Since we didn’t get headphones and translators to use through the museum, I wasn’t much able to determine specifics about the themes of the rooms beyond the art in each one.  The Mona Lisa was in a room with massive paintings I presume were also Italian in origin (images of religious or mythological themes seemed to dominate) probably from the same period as they were all painted in the deep, rich colors and minute detail of the renaissance period art.  She was hung inside of a floor to ceiling glass case that was then roped off so you could only get within about five feet of the painting.  Taking pictures was difficult from the glare of ceiling lights in the glass.  I thought also that the presence of the glass (which wasn’t around any of the other paintings) diminished the impressiveness of the painting. 

It has probably been said before, but I was shocked actually by how small The Mona Lisa was in person.  There were in many cases paintings so large in her room that you had to stand on the opposite side of the chamber in order to see them properly, such as this image in one of the adjacent rooms.  I took the image below standing on tippy toe with my arms held straight up over my head in order to try to get as “straight on” a picture as I could.  It was so big that even to these extremes my photo was still at a skewed angle (Jason’s was a little better but still not straight on).  The Mona Lisa in contrast was only 30X21in (which is pretty big in general but not huge by any means).

I can only describe the experience of seeing The Mona Lisa in person as reverential.  It is easier to see the details of it in images in books for sure, but standing there looking at what has been described as the most famous painting in the world, it was very easy to understand the enigmatic fascination it has drawn for hundreds of years.  Not wishing to deprive other people of the chance to move to the front of the large crowd around her, I didn’t stay there too long admiring it, but I am glad that we made the effort to ensure we saw it before leaving the Louvre.

After seeing The Mona Lisa we wandered through a few more of the rooms in the same wing. I spent much of the time with my head tilted back and mouth hanging open at the gorgeous artwork covering the ceilings in just about every room we went through.  At some point in our meandering through the halls we ended up transitioning away from paintings into sculptures.  These too were in exquisite detail and likely of Italian or Grecian origin.  Though I couldn’t off the top of my head guess their age I would say they were probably also from the renaissance periods.

Who knew the Louvre housed such a lovely collection of historical boudoir?! I found a few very beautiful sculptures toward the end of one of the long halls that were worth photographing.  Beyond their aesthetic appeal, I thought it interesting that these in particular had a subtle sexuality to them often missing from nude sculptures which usually appear completely oblivious to the fact that they are nude in the first place.  I snapped a few as homage to Pink Martini Photography.  I only wish my skills as a photographer were as good as theirs.

After a bit, Jason started to get playful, striking poses amidst the marble for me to randomly stumble across!

Right around the time he decided to mimic Apollo (at least that is my best guess who the bust is meant to be) we heard an announcement in French.  Thankfully we didn’t need to know French in order to surmise that what was said was something along the lines of, “You have 30 minutes to get out or we’ll kick you out.”  It was not lost on me that in the entirety of the hour and a half or so we had been in the museum, Jason and I had been through only a handful of rooms.  The Louvre is a massive building.  To see everything, or even a sufficient amount of things, you should easily dedicate half a day to a full day to the museum alone.  Given how much we’d accomplished on the tourist front this weekend, I suspect this might be on the agenda for a future visit to Paris in the summer.

By the time we left the museum it was starting to get dark.  Tired and with ambitious plans for a night of depravity at the Moulin Rouge, we decided to head straight back to the hotel to rest up a bit and get ready.

A little bit of history:

The Louvre Palace, in which the museum is held, began as a 12th century fortress, remnants of which can still be seen in the basement of the museum.  In the 17th century, Louis XIV chose the Palace of Versailles for his home and left the Louvre to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres (The Academy of Inscriptions and Attractive Letters…I think it’s an academy for writing?) and the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (The Academy of Painting and Sculpture).  The Académie remained in the Louvre for a hundred years until the French Revolution when it was decreed that it should become a museum to house France’s masterpieces.  The museum opened August 1793 and has been opened and steadily growing since save for a period between 1796 and 1801 when it was closed due to structural problems.  The Louvre today contains more than 380,000 objects and displays 35,000 works of art in eight curatorial departments.  It is the world’s most visited museum averaging 15,000 visitors every day.

Moulin Rouge or Bust

Since a night out doesn’t legitimately start until at least 10 o’clock, we didn’t leave the hotel much before this.  Decked out in finery we made our way to the entrance of the cabaret hopeful that we would be able to get tickets at the door after some difficulties with attempting to order them online.  Unsurprisingly it was sold out, so we revised our plans and decided to hunt down a “nice” restaurant for dinner (after all, we were already dressed up).

Unfortunately for us, the Moulin Rouge area of Montmartre boasts a plethora of bars, pubs, and a restaurant by the enigmatic name of “The Hippopotamus” but nothing that was particularly fancy.  With an idea to try the Eiffel Tower area for something a bit more upscale, we descended into the bowls of the city and hurtled across Paris hoping we wouldn’t be too late for dinner anywhere.

Like some subways in the States, the Parisian subway is partially underground and partially above.  As we neared our Eiffel Tower stop, our train was above ground passing over the Seine.  I was gazing out the right hand window when I noticed a reflection on it of scintillating lights.  Turning to find the source I caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower lit up and sparkling!  As it turns out, every hour after dark for the first ten minutes of the hour the lights on the Eiffel Tower twinkle.  It wasn’t a cabaret, but the sight was definitely a worthy substitute.

Jason and I hiked from the station to the base of the tower for pictures, but as rain was imminent and the temperature was dropping to a point where my flimsy dress was no longer cutting it, we hustled a few blocks away in search of food.  As it turned out, our “fancy” dinner ended up being a cheeseburger in an overpriced corner cafe, but I can’t honestly imagine things turning out more perfectly.  We lazed over dinner for an hour before rushing back to the Eiffel Tower for the next round of glitter then finally trained back to the hotel and fell into our warm bed face first.



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Paris Part 2…Part 2

I have been acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain – and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light… –Robert Frost

Friday, February 17, 2012

Like previous posts, pictures are coming as I’m stealing them from Jason this weekend (promise!!).  

We set out early into a blustery morning – steel gray and drizzling off and on.  Visiting Paris in the winter has its advantages if you’re properly attired for cold (wet) weather.  Primitive of these is the lack of droves of tourist.  We visited a number of the most iconic tourist attractions in Paris this day, and while we weren’t the only ones out there, we blessedly didn’t have to fight massive crowds.  It helped as well that we were out on a Friday while many people were probably still at work.

We started our morning with the intention to head out to the Arc de Triomphe and make a counter clockwise circuit around the city, hitting the Arc, the Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame while saving Montmartre/Sacre-Coeur and the Louvre for Saturday.  This was an ambitious plan because it entails a lot of walking.  On a pleasant, warm, sunny day this would have been a delightful plan.  On one that is cold and intermittently drizzly it was a bit less so.  Still, I have to say that people absolutely must see Paris on foot.  There is so much to see and admire that would be missed in a car or on a bus that it’s very much worth the walk – regardless of the weather.

Parc Monceau

We started off our stroll with a mind to grab some Frenchy breakfast, but made a quick detour into this park as we passed by it.  There are some gorgeous water features, sculptures, and walking paths here.  I would have loved to see it in spring or summer.  There’s a small carnival area with a Jules Verne inspired merry-go-round and a little shop where you can buy goodies (coffee, treats, bonbons and the like).  For a moment I forgot we were in a city; it was so quiet in the park.  We spent only a little time here, but admired some of the lovely scenery and watched a tenacious mallard waddle around on the ice covering a small pond.  My hands spent most of this day in my gloves so I got very few pictures myself.  Thankfully Jason was dutifully playing his role as master photographer as it would have been a shame not to have gotten pictures here.

A little bit of history:

Parc Monceau has all the makings to be a gorgeous park in spring/summer.  Even in the winter it was a cultivated, manicured haven of nature enclosed by a towering wrought iron gate decorated with gold in the magnificent style of 18th century Paris.  The park’s life began in 1769 but continued to be developed and expanded by one person after another for at least another hundred years.  It features an array of statues of French personages of varying significance, an old toll rotunda from the late 1780s (one of the last remaining in Paris), and some of the oldest trees in the city.

Arc de Triomphe

Leaving the refuge of Parc Monceau behind us we struck out again on our way to the Arc de Triomphe.  We stopped at a small patisserie for an “on the road” breakfast (I got a salted pretzel.  Jason ate some sort of chicken baguette sandwich).  When in Rome…we ate our breakfast as we walked.

I have to say, I was a bit skeptical about how impressive the Arc de Triomphe was going to be, but it was very much so.  From the standpoint of aesthetics, it is a beautiful monument.  It stands on an island in the center of the busy circle, Place Charles de Gaulle, and positively commands your attention as you approach it.  An underground walkway carries you safely to the monument’s site and houses all sorts of pamphlets and information boards giving the history and details of the monument…presumably.  They were in French only so I couldn’t say for sure that’s what they were about.

A little bit of history:

The Arc de Triomphe, arguably one of the most famous monuments in Paris, marks the western end of the Champs-Élysées.  It is a military monument honouring all those who fought and died for France during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.  Inscribed on both of its inner and outer surfaces amidst 4 massive sculptures (The Triumph of Napoleon and The Departure of the Volunteers of 1797 facing the Champs-Élysées and Resistance and Peace on the opposite two pillars) are the names of all French victories and generals.

Beneath the Arc is France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.  It is marked by an eternal flame at the center of the Arc’s entrance between The Triumph of Napoleon and The Departure of the Volunteers of 1797.


Leaving the Arc de Triomphe we headed down the famous Champs-Élysées…one of the most famous and most expensive streets in Paris.  It is lined with cafes, cinemas, luxury and specialty shops and even on a Friday was very busy.  Jason and I nipped into one of the small “malls” here so I could warm my feet up a bit and get some coffee (apparently keeping with the standards of the street itself, Starbucks was easily twice or three times as expensive as usual).  There are a number of a familiar shops, but largely the stores are high-end including names like Cartier, Gucci, Dolce and Gabana, Swarovski, etc.  Needless to say we didn’t do a great deal of shopping.  We were, however, treated to a bit of street performing:

Street Performers in Paris

A little bit of history:

The Champs-Élysées is known as “The most beautiful avenue in the world.”  (La plus belle avenue du monde in French.)  It was definitely pretty, but I wonder who gave it that humble title.

The Eiffel Tower

After a long trek down the Champs-Élysées you end up in the backyard of the Eiffel Tower.  Another monument that is far more impressive in person than you might initially think.  I was struck by two initial observations. 1.) It’s enormous (apparently the equivalent of an 81-story building).  2.)There is something very interesting/beautiful and terrifying about a structure that is nothing but lots of iron beams and no concrete.

It’s very cheap to go into the tower (and if you’re willing to climb the stairs the wait is significantly less daunting as well).  I can only imagine how heinously packed it must be in the summer.  Once again, I’m grateful for having gone in winter to avoid crowds and lines and three hour wait times.  Steeling myself with one big deep breath, we headed up.

With more than 300 steps to go from the ground to the lowest level, climbing up the tower is an achievement.  The stairs are well guarded with rails, but you can see out the entire way up.  Naturally, the higher you climb, the more frightening the climb gets…I imagine it’d be impossible for someone scared of heights.  Also, good god in heaven is it a work out.  An additional 300 steps lead up to the second tier. (If you climb back down on foot as Jason and I did, that’s 1200 steps total!)  Jason and I went up as far as the second level.  The third and highest level is only accessible by elevator; it happened to be closed the day we went.

The view from either floor is breathtaking.  You have unobstructed access to every cardinal direction of Paris and can see a number of famous monuments from the observation decks.  There’re bathrooms and a cafe on each of the bottom two levels for you to get refreshments, and a souvenir shop or two as well.  I looked desperately for a little Eiffel Tower toy that folded over or stood erect when you push a button (like in the movie French Kiss) but couldn’t find one.

A little bit of history:

Nicknamed La Dame de Fer (The Iron Lady), the Eiffel Tower is a puddle iron lattice tower built in 1889.  It is the tallest building in Paris standing 1,063ft high and was initially built to be the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair.

Notre Dame

By the time we had our feet gratefully on firm ground again it was getting dark, and cold–er.  With a potentially long ass walk ahead of us to get to Notre Dame, Jason and I decided to hop on a tour bus and ride the rest of the way to Notre Dame.

Up to this point in our trip, Notre Dame was my absolute favourite thing I had seen yet.  It is more stunning and awe-inspiring than you can imagine simply seeing it in photos.  Beautiful, biblical carvings cover the edifice from the three entrance doors all the way up to its spires and gargoyles.  We had the good fortune to arrive during Evensong (something I’d wanted to experience at Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s in London but haven’t had the opportunity to).  The Evensong makes the whole experience even more moving.  I tried to capture the sheer size and elaborateness of the building in the following video, but unfortunately the light in the hall was too low to get a good image.  I’m sorry for the shaky picture.  It was cold, and I was using my iPhone to film.

Evensong at Notre Dame Cathedral

Unfortunately most of the informational plaques here, like at the Arc de Triomphe, were in French so I wasn’t able to read much.  Touring the church is a quiet, reflective experience that I found to be quite emotionally and spiritually moving despite not being a very religious person.

A little bit of history:

Construction on Notre Dame began in the 12th century and did not finish until the 14th century.  The three portals on the western edifice (the front) from left to right are The Portal of the Virgin, The Portal of the Last Judgment, and The Portal of Saint Anne.  The Portal of the Virgin, according to Church tradition, depicts the death of Mary, her ascension into Heaven and her coronation as Queen of the Heavens.  In the center of the Portal of Saint Anne is a magnificent Virgin with Child in the Romanesque style.  The Portal of the Last Judgment was the last of the portals to be built.  It represents the Last Judgment as depicted in the Gospel of Saint Matthew.  The interior of the church is just as impressive with massive arched ceilings, stained glass, paintings and sculptures of saints and other important religious personages, an incredible organ, and numerous pews and confessionals for worship.

The Quest for the Holy Adaptor…

It was pretty much completely dark by the time Jason and I left Notre Dame.  We ducked into a cafe right across the street for a quick dinner.  Then began our epic quest to find an adaptor so that we could charge our phones and Jason’s iPad (continental Europe doesn’t use the same plugs as the UK).  We must have gone into 3 or 4 pharmacies, two grocery stores, and a couple of bags of snacks later we finally found one.  We stopped for one last try in a pharmacy near our hotel.  By some miracle they had an adaptor tucked away on shelf somewhere…apparently we went in just in the nick of time too because the moment we left the guy running the place turned off the lights and locked the door.  Either that or he just wanted to ensure no more silly tourists came into his shop.

We headed back to the hotel with great intentions to go out and enjoy some Parisian nightlife (we were loosely planning to go out for some drinks at one of the pubs near Moulin Rouge or try to catch a show).  We never did end up making it out, though.  Both of us lied down for a nap and didn’t wake up until the next morning…the result of a very busy day of sightseeing.  Ultimately, this was probably for the best; we needed to be all refreshed for round two.



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Paris Part 2: And We’re Off!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Like previous posts, pictures are coming as I’m stealing them from Jason this weekend (promise!!).  

After all of the build up, finally it was time for us to go.  Jason and I brought our suitcases for the weekend to work with us and ended up leaving early (around 3:30pm) to start on our journey.  There are two major ways to get to Paris from London.  You can either fly or take the Eurostar train.  On the surface, flying is probably vastly cheaper unless you book Eurostar tickets far enough in advance, but even then Jason and I figure at the end of the day the price difference probably isn’t really significant.  The extra 20-50£ you spend on the Eurostar saves you enormous amounts of time and headache.  So ultimately it just comes down to what you prefer.  By Eurostar, you can get into the center of Paris in approximately 2.5 to 3 hours.  I don’t remember what time Jason and I got in, but it was probably around 9 or 10 by the time we’d checked into our hotel.

Hotel de Batignolles

The hotel was really great.  It wasn’t especially fancy or anything, but it was clean and warm and functional.  The receptionists were all very pleasant and helpful, and it was conveniently located within easy walking distance to Moulin Rouge and Montemarte.  It also was really rather reasonably priced all in all.  Jason and I would definitely stay again.

Moulin Rouge

Not wanting to miss out on any dinner, Jason and I headed right out and wandered down to the Moulin Rouge, which was just around the corner from where we were staying.  The street on which the Moulin Rouge is located was, as you would expect, pretty busy.  Leading up to the Moulin Rouge from the hotel are a number of different restaurants, bars, pubs, and cafes.  The Moulin Rouge itself pretty much dominates the street and incidentally stands as an iconic harbinger to the longest continuous stretch of adult toy stores, movie theatres, and strip clubs I have ever seen.  I swear I would not be shocked if it went on for a good mile or two without interruption.

As might be expected, a large crowd is ever-present in the shadow of the giant red windmill crowning the entrance to the Moulin Rouge.

A little bit of history:

The Moulin Rouge (literally Red Mill in French for the red windmill marking its roof) is known as the “spiritual birthplace” of modern day can-can dancing.  It is now a cabaret where for the exorbitant price of 200€ per person you can enjoy dinner and a show (For 100€ per person you can see the show only).  Word to the wise, order tickets well in advance of your trip for it is unlikely tickets will be available at the door…at least on a weekend.

Cafe de Luna

Lacking pretty severely in the way of dinner options given how late it was getting, we stopped in at this little restaurant on the corner of Place de Clichy.  I think it was meant to be an Italian restaurant, but the food was generic enough (and sported enough “French” dishes) that it wasn’t terribly authentic.  The food was decent and the servers fairly nice and attentive (they also spoke a functional amount of English), despite Jason’s nearly killing one of the poor guys 2 or 3 times by accidentally tripping them!  I actually felt a bit bad for my ginger giant.  Most everywhere we went had little tiny tables, so often he’d have to sit sideways, using aisles for leg room.   Cafe de Luna could have been the beginning of a long weekend of flying French garçons but thankfully was the only significant instance where the unwary service personnel nearly found themselves flat on the floor.

It was here that Jason and I had our first, and only for this trip, foray into French delicacies by ordering an appetizer of cuisses de grenouilles, frog legs.  A couple of observations:

  • Frog leg meat is white and a similar consistency to some types of white fish.  It is somewhat flaky like tilapia though more moist and a bit more substantial than fish meat.
  • The taste of these in particular was underwhelming, though this could probably be the fault of poor chefs rather than the legs themselves.  They were doused in some kind of tomatoes sauce which was nice (it somewhat masked the very blatant “leg” appearance) and distracted a little from the dish as a whole, but the sauce was bland and uninspired.
  • There is a very hard part on the legs that I initially thought was the foot.  Further research suggests it’s actually the spine.  Also, there are bones in the legs (thin like in chicken wings).  That seems like is should go without saying, but I was actually kind of surprised by this.
  • All in all, I would be willing to try them again, but ultimately wasn’t overly impressed (or disgusted) by them.



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Paris Part 1 – The Fuzzy Stuff

“Coming [to Paris] has been a wonderful experience, surprising in many respects, one of them being to find how much of an American I am.” Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “I do not know what I thought Paris would be like, but it was not that way. It rained nearly every day.” This is a fairly accurate description of my own experience with the city.  For one part, it really did “rain” (Jason and I haven’t agreed yet on what the definition of “rain” is.  In this case I mean mostly just gray and drizzly.) for most of the time we were there, but more importantly, I didn’t realize until I got to Paris that I didn’t really know what to expect of the city before arriving.  I certainly had some preconceptions about it.  Who wouldn’t?  But these were ultimately just fragmented ideas of specific aspects and didn’t really combine to create a generic “whole picture”.

Looking back on it, my impressions and experiences in Paris were bifurcated.  On the one hand was awe and respect.  It is an absolutely stunning city.  Somewhat unbelievable, it looks exactly like every painting you’ve ever seen of it.  In the city heart, where we spent the vast majority of our time, everything looks as though it could have been built in the height of the 17th or 18th centuries.  The buildings, statues, monuments, parks, and thoroughfares seem all very carefully organized to preserve the impression that Paris is what Paris has always been – historical and beautiful.  Ironically, this sort of visual synergy is something I more expected of London than Paris. (Edinburgh would be, I think, the UK equivalent of Paris.)

When I first came to London last year, I was immediately surprised by how inconsistent-looking it was.    From one building to the next it was as if London stuck things wherever there was space (even if the size of the “space” was questionable) and paid no attention at all to maintaining or preserving any sort of homogeny with regard to the already present structures.  It is therefore entirely possible, and likely, you will see Victorian-style buildings, Tudor-style buildings, Edwardian-style buildings, and modern office buildings, apartments, hotels, and shopping strips all jumbled up together on the same block.  For whatever reason, I never really expected this of London; though, in retrospect, it should have been an obvious thought.

Two major things contributed significantly to the current inconsistency in London’s architectural “look and feel” I think.  One, the aggressive damage sustained during bombing raids in WWII left whole sections of the city levelled.  Whatever centuries-old buildings had once stood in those places, they certainly didn’t escape considerable damage if not total destruction.  Two, in light of all the damage, rebuilding efforts likely became a matter of efficiency by necessity rather than a measured attempt to recreate what had been lost.  Compounding this, as the city continued to develop it seems Londoners, if not the Brits as a whole, tended to appreciate the “modern” and thus avidly followed the newest trends rather than putting a great deal of effort into trying to preserve (or restore) the historical perspectives of the city.  For these reasons it is not out of the ordinary to have an ornate, centuries-old building right next to a more modern, austere structure.  (I use the term modern lightly, since “modern” in London terms could very well mean built sometime in the last century while “modern” in American terms usually means something was built in the last decade or so.)

Paris is, by contrast, exactly the opposite of London in this fashion.  Where in London you find historical gems tucked away in little nooks or even proudly dominating a street corner in the shadows of surrounding glass-faced office buildings, everything in Paris looks like it could have been built forever ago.  This is especially interesting to me because I feel certain that parts of Paris must have been damaged during the war as well, but perhaps they simply put more emphasis on restoration than expediency.

Another contrast to the two cities here is that London seems to bear a charming level of “wear and tear” – the buildings are somewhat dirty or cracked or seem “patched together”, the sidewalks are often uneven or pitted, etc.  Paris on the other hand looks like it could have been built yesterday…if yesterday was 1785 that is.  It has a very strange sort of newness to it.  The stone is still quite clean and well kept as though the French have taken care to ensure that even the oldest areas of the city be strictly maintained.  It is as though they are determined to keep Paris as picturesque as the thousands of paintings crafted of it.  I told Jason more than once, it must be absolutely breathtaking in the spring or summer for all the trees and gardens and parks lining the streets.

All that being said, Paris is still at its core a city, and there were certainly parts of it that were not as pleasant to look at (or visit).  The subway for example often made me nervous.  It seemed both old and remarkably dodgy compared to London’s tube.  I was also surprised by how much graffiti there was throughout the city.  In the heart area this wasn’t the case, but in the subway stations or down alleys or in the outer areas away from the major monuments and buildings wall after wall was covered in graffiti of the variety you might find under overpasses or on old train cars in the States.

“Street art” is a trend in London that’s rather fascinating.  It’s a type of graffiti, but it doesn’t carry the tone of aggressive irreverence that typical graffiti does.  Instead it really is “art”.  By night people come out and create these massive masterpieces that remain on a designated wall for a period before it is wiped and painted over by someone else.  Jason says even businesses now are hiring artists to paint temporary advertisements for them.  I’ll see if I can get some good pictures of these when we’re out and about around London.  I didn’t see anything like this in Paris.

Another thing I found surprising and a bit unsettling about Paris was just how many homeless people and beggars there were.  They were literally everywhere we went (probably because they stick to tourist areas for the sake of profitability).  Often, though, these people were horribly deformed or disfigured.  We arrived in Paris late at night just as the airport was shutting down, and it seems a lot of them come into the airport, perhaps for warmth, for the night.  My first sight in Paris, in fact, was a homeless man peeing on the airport wall/window as we walked by before going back to the pallet he’d made for himself a short distance away.

My experience with Paris was unique in another regard.  It is the first time I have legitimately travelled to a place that I did not have at least a functional grasp of the language.  This brought me to two very significant conclusions.  One: travelling without linguistic support (even in a country which by all rights has enough tourism to make it relatively easy to find someone who speaks English) is awful.  I plan to make every attempt to at least have a survival-level toolkit of phrases in my arsenal before travelling abroad again.  For one thing, I think the local citizens appreciate the effort (though in the case of the French that might not be true), but for another, I like to know when someone is deliberately being a jerk to me.  There is definitely a very helpless feeling that accompanies not being able to order food in a restaurant with some degree of dignity and confidence. (We often resorted to pointing at items that looked “safe” on the menus and vaguely mumbling to the servers.)

Two: Americans are in general spoiled when it comes to language.  We have the convenience of speaking a language that is (for now) the international standard.  English for most of us exists in some fashion just about everywhere…particularly in touristy areas.  It’s a security blanket we don’t realize we rely on or expect to be there until it isn’t – like when a menu has no English at all on it or all the road signs or plaques at tourist sites have no traces of English to explain what the thing you are looking at is or what its supposed significance might be.

I admit that I fully expected English to be readily available in Paris.  I would like to think that this wasn’t out of personal arrogance, but perhaps it is to a degree.  Paris is heavily visited by tourists from all over the world, but it is undeniable that there are copious numbers of Americans, English, and Scottish travelling there all of the time.  Even in Japan English was everywhere in major cities, so I sort of expected the same in France.  Certainly not in the outskirts, but in the heart of Paris it just seemed a natural assumption that it would be there.  I forgot, of course, the rather terse relationship France has with the UK (Americans have their own special feelings about the French I think in general, but it’s nothing like the relationship the Brits and French have.  The closest thing I can come to describing it is the US/Canada relationship…but even then we’re much friendlier with one another, sort of like siblings picking on each other.  There is definitely less of the open disdain and veiled hostility as exists between the French and English).  I think the stark absence of English in certain places might have at least something to do with this French/British dynamic.

All in all, despite the lack of English Jason and I managed to get by.  A few restaurants had small bits of English on their menus, and mostly we were lucky enough to find servers who knew English well enough that they could help us.  That combined with what little French I remembered from high school (mostly vocabulary words that I could recognize written but not when spoken to me) helped us fumble through our encounters with the language barrier with some relative degree of success.

It actually wasn’t until our last day in Paris that we had an issue when we went into a cafe for breakfast and our server, despite my clearly and emphatically ordering using French words and pointing specifically to what I wanted, refused to bring me “cafe au lait” and instead said “Ok. Chocolat (Hot Chocolate).”  Followed by completely ignoring Jason and refusing to let him order breakfast altogether.

I suppose most stereotypes are rooted to some degree in reality.  I have to say, I was neither surprised nor impressed with the French people in general, but I allow that my general assessment isn’t entirely fair given that Jason and I neither spoke French nor conversed at length with many French people.  The people who tended the reception desk at our hotel were by far the nicest people we spoke to throughout the entire weekend.  Otherwise, we talked only as much as necessary to “the locals” and went about our business without paying much attention to them at all.  James Baldwin said, “It is perfectly possible to be enamoured of Paris while remaining totally indifferent or even hostile to the French,” and I think my own short and limited experience trended toward this sentiment.  As far as first impressions go, they didn’t seem a terribly friendly people as a whole, but beyond the jerk at the cafe, they weren’t nasty toward us much either.

Also, as an aside, the French are definitely not nearly as composed or reserved as the British.  People in London (as far as I’ve seen) tend to keep to themselves and are largely pretty poised in their public behaviour.  Contrastingly, it wasn’t unusual for us to see groups of people in France shouting, laughing, or just generally carrying on loudly in public places.  They also seemed to use street and park benches as perfect places to pass the time drinking from bottles of wine and eating baguette sandwiches.  Given warmer (and drier) weather, it’s definitely something I could enjoy too I think.

Interesting Tidbits:

  • Crepe (“Creepy”) stands exist all over Paris in about as prolific a quantity as cafes.
  • Mulled Wine is delicious.
  • The French seem to love dogs.  We saw so many people walking their dogs around the city.
  • A basket or bowl of baguettes comes with just about every meal.  Carb-lovers’ Heaven.
  • Frog legs were not bad but not really that impressive either.  I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Escargots are next!
  • Paris is expensive. It seemed even more so than London in some ways.
  • Cadeaux: see “souvenirs”! J
  • The funny way Kevin Kline pronounces “Oui” in the movie French Kiss actually is correct. I heard lots of French people pronounce it this way.  It sounds like it could be the difference between saying “Yes” and saying “Yeah” in English.  That’s just a guess though.

Check back for pictures and the good stuff in Paris Part Deux!!

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