Friday, June 21, 2013


We took an overnight train from Barcelona to Paris (Elipsos Train Hotel).

One of the greatest extravagances of our trip was booking the private compartment on the train. It was so worth it.  It is such a relief to travel to another country by train: airports are so very horrible and flights oppressive. With a private compartment, we didn’t have to worry about much of anything. We spread our luggage out and let the soothing motion of the train relax us. Our compartment had four chairs and four bunks. When night fell, the train attendant came to secure our beds with her magic make-a-bed tool. I woke up at dawn as a rainy and green French countryside chugged by us. I jiggled my way through at least ten cars to the snack bar to obtain coffee and croissants, packed up our luggage, and waited for arrival.

(One of the best ways to snag decent prices on train and plane tickets is to book two months in advance.  I spent a lot of time comparing prices on different websites. Also, it’s very important to let your credit card company know that you’re spending money overseas, or you might run into trouble trying to buy from non-US websites. Additionally, when you are out of the country, some businesses only take cash and others won’t let you use anything that looks like a check card. Others expect you to type in your PIN. Always have two cards and cash, and you’ll be safe.)

From the main station, we took the metro to the Abbesses stop (As the host of our AirBnB apartment said, “Take the elevator. The stairs are endless.”) Someone had etched Obama’s image on the wall of the elevator car. We walked out into the heart of Montmartreone of the most adorable neighborhoods I’ve experienced. It is sometimes now known as the Amelie neighborhood (after the movie). Although we didn’t eat at the café at which Amelie worked, Les Deux Moulins, we had no trouble feeding and caffeinating ourselves.

We chose some delicious savory and sweet pastries from a bakery and briefly picnicked in a small park where we watched fifth-grade girls capture boys in a very frenetic game. A screen siren was stenciled on the wall behind us. It was sunny. Montmartre has book stores and vintage shops where towers of men’s hats and racks of high-waisted floral minidresses live.

The Sacre Couer is a beautiful church set atop Montmatre. From the grounds, there is a very satisfying view of the city. Inside the church, there were very busy shushers. Their job is to patrol the church, look for prohibited photographers and say “shhhhhhhh” as they point fingers at people who talk. More interesting to me was the performance art outside the church. Street performer Iya Traore is as exciting as any Cirque de Soleil performer. He freestyles with a soccer ball, strips a little, and then climbs a lamppost while doing absurd balancing tricks.

The biggest disappointment for me was Place Pigalle, home to the Moulin Rouge. I’m not exactly sure how I put it together, but I had an image of a quaint little street with cobblestones that ended in the majestic burlesque hall. Instead, it is a very busy average city street with many lanes of traffic, cruder strip clubs, and lots of identical sex shops. (That  scene can be fun to explore in its own right, but that's not what I wanted to spend my precious hours in Paris doing.) In the middle of one of these busy street blocks, there is the red windmill, standing behind rows of traffic and a gaggle of tourists. It did not inspire me to pay over $250 for the two of us to see a show. Skipped it.

We spent a lovely day walking through drizzle and tombs at Cimetière du PèreLachaise It is the largest cemetery in Paris. There are possibly 300,000 bodies inside and underneath monuments with columns, eerie statues, broken stained glass windows, and a crematorium. Although I was happy to view it, Jim Morrison’s gravestone is not that remarkable.  The poor monument in front of it is covered in crude graffiti from fans. Oscar Wilde’s resting place is marked by a flying nude angel and is disappointingly encased in glass. People had been kissing his tomb for decades, and it had been covered in lipstick. So this was the fix. Lipstick sounds way cooler than the banal Morrison graffiti. Like Morrison's, Edith Piaf’s grave is unassuming. There are many other historical celebrities buried in Pere Lachaise (See the website. There's a map.), but we could only afford to be there for a few hours. Nearing the gate through which we left was a group of monuments for specific ethnic groups involved in WWII. Although it is a bit thrilling to be at the graves of  famous dead people, the graves of people unknown to me were just as captivating. I could spend days in that cemetery, exploring, photographing, contemplating.

Continuing the tour of Paris’s dead, the longest line I consented to wait in during our whole trip was for Les Catacombes de Paris , where 6 million skeletons are said to be stacked. The catacombs were created at the end of the 18th century.  Bones from old cemeteries were re-housed in a quarry, and they are spectacular to behold. We spent at least an hour and a half looking at bones and bones and bones in various configurations. The bones were not arranged as intricately as the ones in the catacombs I saw in Rome, but the scale of this display is hard to really conceptualize. It is one of, but not the largest, catacombs in the world.

I saw the Eiffel Tower at night, just as the observation decks were about to close, and there was still a line. I was content to view it from the attached park, where sketchy men were running around, interrupting conversations to sell light-up flimsy plastic towers. The twinkle lights make the actual tower very festive. I’d like to visit Paris in the winter sometime. Maybe, wrapped within a parka, the tourist experience would be more palatable.

Notre Dame also had a discouraging line. I think I spent more time looking at the adjacent bridge which was decorated in locks. This is a thing now, tourist spaces using walls or railings as canvasses for growing installations. People write their names on locks and connect them to symbolize the security of their relationships. We didn’t buy a lock, but we found some cool ones. My favorite was a red “Johnny & Kevin” with a winged heart.

North of Notre Dame is the Marais neighborhood. This is a great place to wander around, looking at both reasonable and more upscale shops and lots of great places to eat. Fancy men’s underwear ads consume the plate glass of a few store fronts. Vintage 80s, including lots of menswear, for sale all over. We had some truly delicious falafel and came back the next night to eat at a fancy vegan French restaurant. I never thought I’d be able to eat French onion soup in a Parisian  restaurant because of the beef broth, but we were in luck. LePotager du Marais  was able to provide us with such a thing. It’s not a cheap place, and it’s cramped and popular, but very worth it for vegetarians and vegans.

Other highlights of the yummy variety: giant bowls of coffee at Coquelicot and Italian food at Le Coryllis.

We ended our stay in Paris by wandering Montmartre on a dark and rainy night, buying souvenirs such as a Moulin Rouge music box that plays “Thriller,” and listening to a Jazz duo in a bar.

Above: The street on which we stayed: Rue Yvonne le Tac

About those snotty French people...We couldn't find them.

PS. I am angry at the html in this post. I'll do better next time.

Monday, June 17, 2013


This spring I took a trip that was long overdue. I was lucky enough and worked hard enough to arrange a two week trip to Europe with a one-two-three punch: Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam. I have compiled some highlights and recommendations for anyone planning to do the same.

With a few exceptions, I eschewed waiting in line for huge tourist attractions and instead opted to see the outside of said attractions and explore neighborhoods and parks.

One notable shared aspect of the cities is the dogs. So many wonderful dogs of all sizes! They made me feel even more comfortable in my surroundings.

Barcelona, 2013

Barcelona is a city I could see myself living in. The people are very warm and casual. Perhaps it is the influence of The Mediterranean Sea.

La Boqueria consists of aisles of vendors selling comestibles. The artfully organized displays of multiple fruits, nuts, cheeses, and chocolates (I’m ignoring the animal heads) made me excessively happy. I joined the hundreds of other tourists who were taking pictures. The fruit juices are squeal-inducing. I drank the juice of a fruit (actually, a cactus) new to me, the pitahaya   (known elsewhere as dragon fruit). It is so sweet and gloriously pink!

There are great parks to stroll through or kick back in. Parrots inhabit Barcelona, and there are plenty at all the parks. To my delight, off-leash dogs seem to be tolerated.

The 11-acre Parc de l'Espanya Industrial  houses trees and lakes and fountains and a giant metal dragon from which projects two fantastic metal slides.

The Parc de Montjuic  is on a hill overlooking the city. This is where most of the Barcelona Olympics (and Barcelona X Games) happened. Cary and I took a funicular up there from the metro station and then took a small cable car down to Barcenoleta, the main beach neighborhood.  On another day, we visited the lobby and steps of the National Museum, in front of which lies the Magic Fountain (unfortunately, I didn’t get to see it at night in all its glory) 

The Parc de Joan Miro features one of Miro’s huge statues, this of a bird and woman. It is across from the old bullfighting arena (now a mall!)

Of course, the grandest of the parks is Antoni Gaudi’s otherworldly Parc Guell.  Gaudi’s structures, for me and for many others, are the most important artworks in the city. And this park (created at the beginning of the 20th century) allows you to become one with his structure. (Side note: Gaudi died in 1926 after being hit by a tram. Not a majestic end for this incredible artist.) We spent a few hours in the park, walking, taking photos, having a picnic, and listening to a fun ska band (Microguagua) that was playing on one of the paths.  Majestic slanted columns support various structures throughout the park. Amazing gates twist and bend and claw intentionally. The main terrace is bordered with a sea serpent bench that curves, smooth and bright, in organic design. Everything, everything, everything, everything is tiled in mosaic. The surface of the tile is usually convex, concave, or undulating. The patterns of colors tell stories that would take hours to read.  From the terrace, you can see two structures that look like high-end gingerbread houses. You can also see most of the city and possibly the most famous of Gaudi’s creations, the church named Sagrada Familia. [Construction started in 1882 and is currently “expected” to be finished in 2026. I much prefer parks to churches, but when I go back, I will brave the swarms of tourists to get inside the building and one of the sand castle-like towers, if the wind permits.] Back to Parc Guell. Underneath the serpent terrace is a forest of grand pillars with mosaic pictures placed in the scoops of the ceiling. I wanted to touch all of it. And I could, if I had had the time and the legs of a giraffe. If I lived in Barcelona, I would enjoy the park as much as I could. It might become my place of worship.

The metro is great. Almost all the cars have status bars so you can see what the next stop is. Although efficient and fairly economical, it doesn’t run around the clock every day. Beware of that! We learned the hard way when we left Primavera Sound festival right before 4 am. The cab drivers were extorting people. And some flatly refused to take us to our hotel on the other side of the city. This evoked the rage in Louisa. I may have been screaming on a sidewalk in front of hundreds of people during a full moon in Barcelona. Beastly. We waited in line for a special events bus, the metro finally opened, and eventually we got back to our room.

Primavera Sound  is a great festival. The programming is similar to my favorite Austin festival, Fun Fun Fun, and it is expertly run.  The approximate attendance is 100,000 over three days. Despite that, entrance was quick and easy both nights we went. After making our way out of a packed metro filled with fellow concert-goers, we marched through dozens of men selling beer illegally on the street. On Saturday night, we saw them running from the cops, stuffing the evidence on top of car wheels, in dumpsters, under bushes… (So if you buy one of those beers, wipe off the top.) The festival is set on the edge of The Mediterranean in a park with many structural bonuses, including a huge covered pavilion with a ropes course (Not in use those nights, unfortunately. Some people made up for this by climbing steep retaining walls and sliding down them.) The food vendors were varied, interesting, and vegetarian-friendly. Something you won’t see at FFF, hundreds of young people with pony keg backpacks and blinking Heineken flags pushing their way through tens of thousands of people to sell plastic cups of beer until the concert’s end—near dawn. Oh, yeah, the festival STARTED about 8 pm and went until about 5 am every night. Café con leche, you are my friend.  

Some bands we saw at the festival: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (still and always my favorite performances ever), Shellac, Thee Oh Sees (oh, how big they are now!), Dead Can Dance, My Bloody Valentine, The Breeders (for a moment), Jesus and Mary Chain, and Swans. Swans built audible structures and stomped them apart. They were brilliant and played a very full set. It was quite cold at 2 am on the beach, but I am glad we stuck it out. We also rode a Ferris wheel as Neurosis played. The one low spot of the festival was having to bail only one song into The Knife’s set. It looked to be an awesome performance, but they were the only band playing at 3:30 am, and the entire park poured into one stage. Suddenly, the sea of people was impossible. And everyone was now 8 ft tall. Although I could somewhat make out the shapes on the Jumbotron, I felt like I was drowning and had to run head-first through the human waters to safety. That preceded the taxi-cab extortion fiasco.

A word about food: hurray! Many places offer a “menu,” a full meal deal, usually including wine or some other drink and dessert.

Some of our favorites (all vegetarian):

Bio  made me feel pure inside. I ate a huge salad and some incredible Japanese noodle dish.

Veggie Garden  serves hundreds of items at very low prices. Their juice and smoothie options are wonderful, and they have three types of veggie burgers. We sat outside both nights we ate there and watched the parade of people, dogs, and skateboards (could have done without the little brats throwing fireworks at strangers).

What I ate at Sesamo  was life-changing. It makes me emotional to think of the smoked watermelon gazpacho, mushroom croquets, and beet gnocchi!  This was a fantastic note on which to end our vacation.  This restaurant better be there when I come back.

Finally, Barcelona is a Mecca for skateboarding. Wherever there were paved roads, I heard the familiar gravelly voice of skateboard wheels. One of the most prominent spots for skating is the entrance to the MACBA (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona). This is right in the heart of one of the best areas for bars, restaurants, and shopping, but skaters somehow avoid plowing into the multitudes of tourists. 

Nevermind  is a new skateboard-themed bar that plays all 90s music and boasts a concrete bowl within. Shelves and wall coverings are made from boards, and monitors and a big screen play skate videos. There are cameras on the bowl so that all patrons can get a better view of the action.

I was sad to miss the burlesque show at El Molino. This is definitely on the agenda for when we go back.

To be continued...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Time Speeds Up

Here I am 18 days away from my wedding. 3 weeks away from Italy. Time is speeding up, and every moment that I am not actively planning or cleaning or doing something is a moment I feel guilty for.

I want milkshakes and midday movies. I want to bob on a lake on a raft (in the shade, of course). But the wedding and the honeymoon will be so much more than that!

Some people have told me that June 7, the day I marry Cary, will be a perfect day. I disagree. No day is perfect. I'm sure there will be minor disasters and disappointments. I am making myself ready for them. If my dress splits open and is held closed with safety pins; if a table collapses and we lose food; if the bartender can't make it, the day will go on. We will be married and many people will enjoy the party. That is all that is important.

I don't like people calling it my "special day." It sounds like I'm getting my period.

My friends and family are beyond amazing. And the man I am marrying is my Jake Ryan.