Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Yeah, you probably figured this out, but I'm home now.

We will now return to our usual programming at my other blog: the jolly porter.

Thanks for coming with me to London!


Saturday, June 17, 2006

la vie en rose

Good luck trying to write a blog in France! Nobody has the internet. They don't wear berets or walk around with wine and French bread in paper shopping sacks, either. And the biggest surprise of all? They aren't really that nice in France. I don't know what you've heard, and it came as a huge shock to me, but French people are really just not that nice! I know! Crazy. Pretty much they are big stinky rude savages with no internet (unless you want to pay 10 cents per minute and have everything all switched up on the keyboard.)

I did have a delightful five day visit to Paris, however, and I do want to tell you about it. So, for today only, I'm going to be one of those people who write huge long blogs and assume that people actually make it through them. I will also punctuate the blog with little French phrases, so you will know how surprisingly good I am at speaking French (more on that later.)

We took the Eurostar from London to Paris. It left at 6:30 a.m. from Waterloo, so we had to congregate - with all of our baggage - at Hyde Park at 5:00 am. This wasn't difficult for some, but a touch more difficult for others who may at this point have realized that they didn't need quite so many of those H&M awesome tops. We rolled down Gloucester Road to the Tube Stop like a caravan of gypsies, tramps, and thieves with a little case of morning eye. I feared that travel to Waterloo would be really frustrating and physically exhausting, but it wasn't. The only problem we had was that Stuart decided to tell everyone, right before we got on the train, that he has this cousin who apparently has these really portentous dreams. She dreams about all these family disasters and then they come true. And last week or something Stu's mom calls to say that his cousin had this dream where a really fast moving train goes into a tunnel underwater, and then terrorists set off a bomb and all the people drown. So, thanks for that, Stuart. I had quite a job calming troubled nerves, giving comforting messages and glad tidings, and you can be sure all the card playing and monkey business abated the second we hit the Chunnel. We did, however, make it through, and once we were safely in France the noise level on our particular carriage ratcheted to a previously unthinkable level of gossip and stories about ugly outfits.

The less said about our trip to the hotel the better, but it's worth noting two things:
1. Our hotel is fairly decent - located in a town just outside the Bois de Bologne called Suresnes.
2. The concierge looked suspiciously like the Grandma from The Triplets of Belleville.

Bob took everybody on a walking tour of Paris. It was pretty amazing, even in the searing sun. We ate lunch at St. Michel where some arty French photographer made fun of Missy's accent when she wasn't listening, so I made fun of his (eye for an eye, accent for an accent.) We visited Notre Dame (RIP Amandine Poulain!) and looked at all the hunchbacks. And gargoyles. And midgets. Why are there so many midgets in France? (Discuss.) The Seine was beautiful; emerald green and dappled in sunshine. Dirtier than the Thames, apparently, but in terms of color and aesthetics, far easier on the eyes. We put our feet in the pyramid fountain at the Louvre, and then walked through the Tuileries down the Champs Elysees to the Arc De Triumph. You really do catch yourself and think: I'm in France!

I know it's a really touristy thing to say, but The Eiffel Tower is more beautiful and more imposing that I ever would have thought. It really is. For one thing, it's huge. For another thing, it's lit up - and periodically twinkles. And finally, they have crepe stands everywhere within a half-mile radius so you can gorge yourself and take the whole thing in. And it's still almost impossible to take in. Remember how that Statue of Liberty was a little bit smaller than you thought it would be? Remember that? Not so with the Eiffel Tower. It's bigger and, honestly, breathtaking.

That night I had a little Gallic adventure! One of my students lost her way on the metro and didn't return to the hotel on time. When it got to be past midnight, I started pacing. There were attempts to calm my nerves but I could not be placated. I kept seeing this girl in my mind, running down murder path in the Bois de Bologne while wolves and French men in tight black jeans chased after her. So at 12:30 I went to the police. Now you should know that, up to this point, I had been fairly reserved in my French usage. But tough times call for trained tongues, and, as our police inspector knew no English, I said this to him (translated)

Me: I am a professor. Where is the girl? Where is she? I find her! Where is?

Police Man: (slowly grasping) How old?

Me: (counting on fingers) 79. No! 19.

Police Man: What does she look like?

Me: She has yellow this, and white that. Also very stupid. (I wanted to say 'innocent' or 'naive,' to get the point across that she didn't know where she was, but the only word I knew on that level was 'stupid.' In fairness, she's quite smart. My French is bad.)

Police Man: We will make a call.

Me: Maybe you make a call?

Police Man: I just said I would.

Me: Thanks, I would (something in Finnish, which frequently comes out when I speak French.)

Later, once the student was safely returned home, the police inspector told me that I have a perfect French accent. He thought I was French, or so he said. Wow! I thanked him. But then he let me know that I have very, very terrible grammar.

Tuesday was all about Versailles. Versailles was the country home of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. I'm sure you've been there, as I'm apparently the last person to visit France. Now all I have to do is finally watch Jurassic Park and Dumb and Dumber and bungee jump and then I'll be caught up with everybody else. Anyway. We thought it would be a terrific day for a little slice of Versailles pie, so off we went.

I'm making the whole 'off we went' thing sound easier than it was. I'd elaborate on the trials of getting to Versailles, but I'm assuming people don't want to hear more stories about hot, wayward trains, empty water bottles, and shattered dreams. I do want to tell you about an interchange I had with a really imperious French lady. You have to imagine at this point that I'm a little tired of the French. They want you to think they are really classy and mysterious, but really they are snivelling and, let's face it, boring. I don't want to be French anymore. I couldn't deal with all the moles, anyway. French people have moles everywhere! Ears, cheeks, upper arms..It's like a pandemic of moles and midgets over there. So I'm in line at the train ticket machine, and I have to buy - count 'em- twenty six tickets. I'm doing it as quickly as I can; buying them in chunks of 8 and 9, and then suddenly I hear this lady say in her best school-girl English: "Excuse me, but how long is this going to be!" Bear in mind that I had made her wait, oh, maybe two minutes. I replied "Well, I have to buy 26 of these tickets for all of these students." "But we are waiting," she retorted, as if waiting were on par with absolute torture. "I can see that," I said "and I waited, too. You'll have to wait a bit longer. I'm almost finished." "But, but!" "But WHAT, Lady?" This is where I sort of lost it. "The longer you talk to me the longer this will take. So if you want your tickets you are going to have to just RELAX!" I wish you could hear how loud I said the word relax. My students made fun of me for days. She probably had never been called 'Lady' before, and I'm betting she didn't know what the word 'relax' actually meant, especially when shouted at her. But I wasn't going to back down from a fracas with some impatient, snivelling coot with a 60's flip and a 'stache.

Versailles was pretty amazing. To call it a country house is laughable, which makes it all the more fun to call it one. We spent the majority of the day in the Gardens. Miles and miles of trees and fountains and paths. The further you walk, the more surprises you find. Suddenly you are in Marie Antoinette's little country village. She used to go there for respite from the court. She would dress up like a shepherdess and milk goats and everything. Can you blame her? She had to get away from the stresses of eating bon-bons and trying on pastel colored shoes. The little village was my favorite part of Versailles. My least favorite part? The sun. It was the hottest day of all time. After Versailles, I'm pretty much on board with Al Gore and his global warming slideshows. I drank about fourteen bottles of water and about twelve melted ice-cream cones. There was a lot of lazily sitting under oak trees today, and lounging at fountains, dangling legs into cool water. Around 5:00 pm a thunder storm rolled in, and if you haven't seen the sky turn grey green against the backdrop of Versailles, then you need to go back.

That evening a handful of us capped off our trip by going down to a movie theatre on the Champs Elysees and seeing Sofia Coppola's new film Marie Antoinette. It was shot in Versailles, so it was amazing to sit there in a cool, dark theatre and rewatch our day. The movie is wonderful. It has a couple of story problems, but I can't fathom why it was booed at Cannes. I loved it almost completely. Kirsten Dunst is surprisingly good, and Jason Shwartzman steals the show. It's funny, quick, touching, and terrifically shot. Lots of metallic grays, pinks, and blues. The soundtrack is as good, and maybe a bit better, than I had anticipated. I can't wait for it to come to the US this Fall.

Wednesday was all about the Louvre. I was mostly excited to go to the Louvre so I could see the remains of Mary Magdalene! I'm not sure what the deal was, but I missed that exhibition. Maybe it was closed for repair? You never know in these big museums. They always close things, especially if there's been a murder! C'est la vie.

I went to the Louvre today along with every foreigner in Paris. We were one big, happy bunch, clawing at each other to get a glimpse of the Mona Lisa. I love the Mona Lisa, because she and I have a history. When I was in the first grade our teacher had us enter this city contest where we drew a picture of the Mona Lisa and made an educated guess as to why she is mysteriously smiling. My guess was that she was happy because she had just had a baby named Christopher Columbus. My picture took forever, but it turned out pretty good. Lots of black crayon in the process. Well, would you know it? I won the contest! I was published in the San Ramon newspaper. It was an exciting time. So even though I had to physically thread my way through every asian Paris could muster, I finally got within ten feet of Mona Lisa, and inwardly thanked her for inspiring one of my earliest successes.

Also of note at the Louvre:

1. The Venus de Milo. Really beautiful.

2. Winged Victory of Samothrace. Which I almost didn't see. A funny story, but better live.

3. This famous painting, in which a naked lady stirs up the French revolution.

I loved the Louvre, but after a few hours I needed to get a little fresh air. Heat is one thing, folks, but deodorant is another. I love art, but I love long walks down the Seine as well, which is what I found myself doing. I took the Metro to Passy, walked across the Bridge, and sat under a bridge right beneath the Eiffel Tower. I found some steps that lead right to the water. Tour boats came and went, and the water lapped at my feet.

Later that night we congregated again at the Tower, this time underneath. We had eaten dinner at a little French place just off of the Champs Elysees, and then walked through town, past the Diana flame, and down the Pont D'Alma. The weather was unbelievable. Just as we hit the tower, it twinkled. It does this, apparently, on the hour. C'est magnifique!.

Our last real day in Paris, and probably the best. I should admit right now that I have a certain obsession with the French film Amelie. If you haven't seen it, you need to quit reading my blog and go rent it. If the rating bothers you, come borrow my edited copy. It's a sweet, funny, charming, visual feast. It's a love letter to Paris, really. So I took off for Montmartre, in search of Amelie spots. Mark, Shannon, Missy, Jan, and Jen came with me.

Unfortunately, the Lamarck station (Amelie with the blind man) was closed down, so we went further north and got off at Jules Joffrin. This turned out to be fortuitous anyway, since it set us virtually at the feet of the Sacre Coeur. Feeling particularly hike-ish, we ascended the back streets and climbed every stair in sight until we were at the Chapel, and overlooked the city. From the steps of Sacre Coeur, the entire city looked whitewashed. We played a few rounds of 'misinformed tourist.' For example, I stood up and told the group in a really bad southern accent: 'So...here we are at the Eiffel Tower. Isn't it pretty?' Meanwhile, French people shuddered and smoked.

We dropped down the steps to the base of the hill, and found the Carousel which you had better believe we rode. We were the only ones on it, and we were laughing like hyenas. Why was it so funny?

Monmartre is the most beautiful part of Paris. At least that I saw. Every corner is interesting. Every little street leads somewhere green, or to some striking vantage point. We walked past the Moulin Rouge, turned up the Rue Lepic, and found the Cafe du Deux Moulins, the same cafe where Amelie works (and occasionally melts.) We ate there for lunch. I had the club sandwich and the chocolate mousse. I also took a leak in the infamous toilettes, adding to the ubiquitous wall graffiti "Nino Q. was here" with a red Sharpie.

We followed Lepic a little further up, stopped by a little toy store where I bought Phoebe a music box, past two more windmills, and then turned down the Rue de Trois Freres, where I found Mr. Collingnon's fruit stand. Collignon, down the john! Collignon, dead and gone!I had a nectarine and took some pics. Everything is smaller than the movie. It is, however, just as magical. Monmartre was my favorite part of the whole week in Paris.

That afternoon we went to the Musee d'Orsay, where spent quality time with the following paintings:

Van Gogh - Eugene Boch

Monet - Parlement

Seurat - The Circus

I also wondered how this baby got so fat:

That night we gathered together the last time as a group at the Eiffel Tower. We lay on our backs underneath it, and watched it twinkle.


Sunday, June 11, 2006

getting around

You can call me whatever you want, as long as you don't call me late for dinner. Unless I am late for dinner, in which case I've probably been trying to get there by a bus.

You wouldn't believe my traveling ordeals today. I'll go ahead and list them for you in a second, but I should warn you now that they are fraught with tedium, frustration, and anger. (You know, like a math class.) I could have probably navigated the sinking Titanic better than I navigated the London transportation system today, and I would have been safer, too. Who knows?

I have been pretty good about getting around the past few weeks. I stick to the stops I know, and I don't try to cut any corners. If the tube goes there, I generally go there as well. If the #9 or #10 drives by, I may jump on for a bus ride. Ditto the #360. Never take taxis. For rich people and tourists. But lately I have prided myself on being a little Magellan, you know, Christopher Layton Columbus trying to explore various areas of the city using oddly numbered buses going down strange and 'exciting' avenues. Also, I have been doing this to cut corners, with disappointing results.

Today the Piccadilly Line was shut down for repair. Seriously, who shuts down Piccadilly on a Saturday? I'll tell you who: English People. Not having Piccadilly running is like telling your heart that it can't pump blood directly to your brain; it has to go everywhere else first. But we were determined to make the most of it. After all, errands had to be done. Lisa had requested that I bring home some Kit-Kat Tiramisu bars and I wasn't going to let a tube closing keep me from my task. Here is what I encountered:

1. Piccadilly Shut Down. On a Saturday.

2. I took a District Line to get to Earl's Court, but it only went as far as South Kensington. So I walked. It was a beautiful day, so I didn't mind. It took 45 minutes. Maybe kind of a long walk?

3. Can't get home from Earl's Court, have to go through Notting Hill. Why did I wear these flip-flops?

4. Took the Central Line from Notting Hill to Tottenham Court Road. Trying to find Leicester Square. A creepy old man was writing about me in a little book. I watched him do it. What was he writing?

5. Walking through a hot, dodgy neighborhood somewhere in Soho. Where can I turn for peace?

6. Back on Central Line to Notting Hill, and dropping down to South Kensington for Kit Kat Tiramisus. Mission accomplished! Back to Earl's Court for one more errand.

7. Hmmm...the tube is still not going there. How about a bus? A delightful bus ride might be just the thing! Unless the bus goes super far south, lets everybody off, and then pulls over to the side of the road to 'rest' for 30 minutes. GRAAAVY.

8. Maybe I need a rest. I stop into a pub for a Coke and to watch the England vs. Portugal match. I sure wish English people liked soccer more. How can we get them to care about something so monumentally important? Isn't there any way we can get them to drink a lot and wear flags on their heads? Is soccer really more than watching three hours of a ball going up and down a field and nothing ever happening? (You know, like women's basketball?)

9. Another bus to Earl's Court. Errands accomplished. Tube sort of running again. Back to High Street Kensington. Good old #9 gets me where I need to go.

Later that night, I meet an old pal in Covent Garden for dinner and hang out. Sound good? Yes, except:

1. Covent Garden isn't running. Take the tube to Embankment, switch north to Charing Cross, walk to Covent Garden. One bazillion other people have the same idea.

2. About 12:30 I realize I need to get home, and all of the tubes are closed. Bus? No problem. In fact, maybe I'll have a little Burger King. Walk to Piccadilly and then....hey - maybe I'll walk home! I'm buoyed by that Whopper.

3. I get to the Ritz, and my dogs are barking. I catch the Night #9. Lauren Marsh is on it, and she tells me that a big bunch of students have just left to take pictures of Big Ben. Feeling a little protective and maybe a little spontaneous, I decide to go find them. I jump off of the N9.

4. I take the N52 and am assured that it goes to Westminster. Which it probably does. But halfway through the trip I see Big Ben at the end of a street, so I ring the bell and jump off of the bus. And then I realize it's not Big Ben, it's just some other random clock that looks like Big Ben. So it's about 2:00 am now, and I'm rambling around Central London, through the business district, past Trafalgar, past Big Ben, over the Westminster Bridge, along the Thames, back over the Jubilee Bridge, up through Piccadilly again, and catch the #N9 home. Full moon tonight, keeping an eye on me.I never find my students. They may all be dead. Would I get fired for that?

I don't know why I tried to be so daring. I should have stayed indoors today, reading and watching Countdown. But the weather was so fantastic and I had real, earnest errands to do, and I won't apologize for it. Besides, guess who I saw walking around Chinatown? Rufus Wainwright! He was wearing super long jeans that he had turned up and cuffed, and the cuffs went almost to his knee. (You know, like a pirate!)

Saturday, June 10, 2006


So lately I've become kind of a Countdown addict. Countdown is this show on BBC 4 where every nerd in Great Britain shows off how fast they can make words out of random letters. You pick nine letters out of a pile, and then you have thirty seconds to make words out of them. At the end of the time period they play this perky music. If you can make a nine letter word then you are super smart. So far, I have managed a five letter word, and that's after watching the show a zillion times. There's also this segment with math, where you have five random numbers and an ultimate number, and you have to make the numbers equal the ultimate number in some magical mathematic way. I guarantee you right now that I'm not going to talk any more about the math part. It does my head in.

Anyway, I like to watch Countdown because it makes me feel happy that I'm trying to make words out of letters in the private comfort of my own flat rather than in front of 30 million people. I also remember that Hugh Grant's character loved to watch Countdown in About a Boy. Now I see why. It's frustrating and addictive! In addition to the frenetic spelling shenanigans, there is also the extremely sexy Countdown co-host Carol Vorderman, a woman who ages as gracefully as she plucks letters out of random piles. An English lady I know recently referred to Carol as 'an old cow,' but I don't think she is. Anyway, judge for yourself!

Countdown is also applicable since I'm counting down the days until I leave London. We leave on Monday morning; we're in Paris until Friday and then I'm back in the USA. It's kind of a good feeling; I'm sad to leave London but so excited to see my family that I don't feel that anxious, panicky feeling you often do when a vacation ends. I'm so ready to go home. I love it here, but I belong there. And it's time to roll the bags out and start moving.

Everybody scattered today. It was a free day, so everyone took advantage of that. A lot of them, despite my warnings not to procrastinate, spent the day doing final homework assignments. Bummer. So I treated myself to another London walk, not sure if I would get the chance again for a while. So here's what I did:

Wandered around Leicester Square until I finally found some Louis Theroux DVD's at the Picadilly Circus Virgin Megastore.

Ate lunch at a 50's diner called Ed's, right in the middle of Soho.

Took a double-decker to Westminster Abbey and sat in the top front seat. It feels like flying!

Walked through the London Aquarium. Sat at the shark tank, and listened to mellow music. Blueprint, by Bjork, comes to mind.

Walked along the Thames, all the way past the Winchester, the Globe, and the Clink to the Golden Hinde.

Walked over the Millenium Bridge to St. Paul's, and further in to Postman's Park, where I found Natalie Portman's plaque from Closer.

Took the tube back to Notting Hill Gate, and walked home via Hyde Park.

Went to hear the Imperial College perform Handel's Saul at St. Stephen's church on Gloucester Road.

Came home and watched a little Big Brother. Countdown wasn't on. It's only a mid-afternoon show. More's the pity.