Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and A Good Year, too

I love it when the holidays converge--it's kind of like the universe is telling us to get it together cause, in the end, we're all in it together! Have a wonderful holiday season and may the year ahead be filled with good health, love, happiness and work you love!

Tomorrow I will be posting again with an update on my recent sojourn in the City of Lights. In the meantime, I'll leave you with my good wishes and this picture of holiday charm from the Palais Royale.

Bon Annee!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Hey, What are we doing in New Jersey!

The sight of civilization,coming on the heels of our sojourn down hell's little acre, was a sight I thought would be a welcome one--that is, until I saw LaHarve. A more dismal city is hard to imagine. Newark comes close. However, we needed gas - and we needed it fast. All that driving around in circles consumes a boatload of fuel, so before we found a berth for the night, I was determined to find a gas station. It was close to 9 pm and it wasn't easy, but after getting lost in downtown beautiful LeHarve, we found one - and, as luck would have it, it was next to the most uncharming commuter hotel you can imagine. But, hey, it was late, the place was obviously adequate if not romantic and since romance was as far off-shore as one of the tankers out in LeHarve's lovely harbor, it was just fine.
So we settled in for a long winter's nap in Le Harve's version of a Holiday Inn-only after swearing to one another that we'd be out of there by 7 the next morning. We held pretty close to it, too.
So, enough already. No Venice, No Mt. St. Michel, No Hon Fleur. It was Paris for us -and as fast as possible, thank you very much.

The weather cooperated as much as a western European winter will allow, and within a few hours we were sailing into the heart of Paris. I was driving and having never driven in Paris before, I will say that I was pretty proud of my ability to navigate the narrow streets and around all those little Parisian cars which tend to dart out from everywhere. (All those years of competitive driving in NYC served me well.) As usual, food was the first thing on our minds, but parking took precedence. After much searching, we found the tiniest space imaginable into which I, me, the parallel-parking queen, squeezed our station wagon.

Something happens to me when I enter la large city It's a weird combination of adrenaline and calm. At the end of the day, I'm an urban person, and cities make me feel "at home". One of my earliest memories is that of being in my stroller in an elevator in the apartment building that I grew up in so I guess that explains the feeling of "security" that washes over me when I go to town. And what a town, it is! Paris was getting ready for Christmas and it was just donning its finery.

Even the most mundane windows (check out this Parisian Gap) have more style -and humor:

And the Parks! Even those created in the 1700's have managed to combine the old with the new with a panache that no one can emulate.

With a good meal and a trip to the Marais under our belts we were ready to tackle the question of that night's sleeping quarters. We had rented an apt for the week, but since we were two days early and not able to reach the rental agent (it wa Saturday, don't you know) we were in need of a place to stay--and therein forms the base for my next installment:
How Small does your Room have to be before you're sleeping in the Hall?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The road to hell is paved with wrong directions....

Sorry for the delay in posting, but I've been mentally working on the next installment so it's not as if I haven't been "with" you.

So, where did I leave off? Oh, yes, after two days in Belgium - with real food, real warm beds and charming surroundings, I was dragged from medieval splendor and the comfort of chocolate with the promise of a romantic weekend in Normandy. Monte St. Michael - an ancient place of pilgrimage is settled on the Normandy coastline and is, apparently, a sight worth seeing. I, who was raised on the theatricality of the Roman mass, have never lost my taste for tradition --it's just the organizations behind the tradition that I have left far behind. So, despite my misgivings regarding my navigator's skills, I agreed. Bright and early on the 4th morning we set off - full of hope and in the belief that our luck had lifted.

Not even the fog lifted that morning. As we headed for the coastline it became increasingly clear that we were going nowhere fast in a blizzard. Fortified with strong espresso, I drove for about an hour before I declared that this was a fiasco in the making - and I was turning back in the face of the storm. Magellan agreed and quickly rerouted us to another "romantic" hotspot in a cold part of France - a charming seaside village - far enough from Le Harve to not be contaminated by its pollution and seamy side --but close enough to Paris so that we would have an easy drive on the next day. On the way we would stop in Rouen, the birthplace and launching pad for Joan of Arc - one of my all time favorite women. My middle name is Joan and I have always liked to entertain the fantasy of her as a kind of warrior-mentor. The fact that she wound up tied to a stake was something that also resonated with me --but, I do digress so back to Rouen.

We actually found our way there with no further mishap. We located the "best bistro" in Rouen accoring to the guide book and then spent the afternoon trying to get into a few Cathedrals to view the art work. Sadly, none were open. The doors were locked tight. Now that I look back on it, I should have seen that as a sign of the day to come, but at the time, I just accepted it as a minor disappointment and went looking for a spiritual semblance of my sweet St. Joan. Since it was not to be found in the windows of the Hermes store that dominated the main drag, we decided to leave Rouen and the warmth of civilization.

As we drove toward "Hon Fleur" - that be the charming seaside village - we noticed a lot of backed up traffic - and I mean a lot. Remember that storm that we had encountered earlier in the day? Well, it was really unexpected and the French don't do well with things that don't behave as they expect them to - so they were unprepared and as a result the roads were treacherous. Accidents and break-downs were occurring and the authorities found it necessary to close the bridge that would have taken us to seaside rapture. To add frustration to injury, we (Magellan and I) were expected to "know" the alternate route and they just directed us to drive on. After getting caught in one of those European super-highways, sandwiched in between tanker type trucks and people in BMW's going very fast, we staggered off the highway. We were determined to go in another direction and had to double-back. It was then that we discovered our own alternate route - a service road that ran parallel to the highway and, as it turned out,next to a fetid ditch with overlying branches. (Here my husband has asked me to point out that the decision to use the service road was a joint one -and, while he refuses to indulge in a rebuttal to my saga, he does insist on some semblance of fairness - so there, I said it.)

The service road quickly turned into a cow path that was not paved and that was strewn with broken tree bits that had to be cleared by hand. The road was pitted, and dark as pitch. On the left, I could see stagnant water. On the right - high up above us - and about 500 yards to the right, I could see the whizzing cars. The branches, heavy with snow and soot, brushed the car and obscured sight. All I could think of was the story about the man who died in the desert about 30 feet from a major highway. I navigated pot holes, branches and my fury and, as tends to happen when I get scared, I got a wee bit testy. After what seemed like 5 miles of complete uncertainty, I saw a light at the end of the road - or maybe, I thought, we're dead and that is the tunnel everyone is always talking about. No, it actually was light - and gradually the road underneath the tires turned to paving and we found ourselves exactly at the place where we had begun - We had traveled in a great big messy, scary circle - but we were on a road - and we were headed toward LeHarve - the Newark, NJ of France!!!!

(I'll be back soon with the story of our romantic night in LeHarve - at France's own little version of "Le Chez Holi-day". )

Thursday, December 08, 2005

If it's Wednesay, it must be Belgium

Day 3:
We arriived in Brussels at 10 am wednesday morning, picked up the car which I drove. If we were going to go in the wrong direction from now on, it was going to be me that took us there. I tend to admit I'm lost and try to correct far faster than you know who. Besides, I'm the only one in the family that drives standard transmission --which i just love, I might add. Two hours later we pulled into Bruge. Bruge was everything I expected --and love -- At half the price of Paris. To say the city has heritage is an understatement. It makes NY look like it was built last night. The charm is real, the people genuine, the food good and, if you are into chocolate, you are in heaven. I have never seen so many chocolate shops in one place - each trying to outdo the other in terms of creativity,reasonable prices and quality.

We lasted about 4 hours --and had a meal-- before we fell into our wonderful hotel which Richard, performing reparations via the internet, found for us. We got to the serious business of repairing jet lag with a nap that turned into about l5 hours of sleep. Next morning, I was ready to explore --the only reason I ever travel. Bruge is an explorer's heaven and is right next to Ghent. All I knew about Ghent was that there had been some big treaty signed there, but the name intrigued me and and it was home to one of the most wonderful pieces of art known to the religious world: The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. I'm a knitter - big time --so anything that has the word Lamb in it is for me - as long as it's not a recipe. If you are art-intrigued and religiously curious, this work of patronage is well worth the few hours spent studying it. At 2 Euros (including the audio tour) it sheds a lot of light on old beliefs and values.

After a day, in Belgium, Richard was ready to move on to France. Remember, we had lost one week in Venice, and the last time I looked, one day in Belgium was no real recompense so i said I preferred to stay put. The way I looked at it, I hadn't gone this far in the wrong direction only to turn my back on a jewel of a city so I prevailed and said I thought we should spend another night. In no mood (either of us) for further fuming, we did exactly that - not entirely with charm I might say. Nonetheless, I highly recommend an extended few days in this part of Europe. You'll never meet nicer people, see more beautiful buildings and connect with more chocolate than you will in this part of heaven. Bruge --and Ghent -- are simply divine. The people, by an large, are charming and kind and Flemish is an interesting language to hear spoken. There's also a wealth of good shopping at prices that later on seemed like unbelievable bargains.

The only drawback I can think of is that Bruge is a medieval city and laid out accordingly. If one is not careful, one can drive in a circle for about a week. However, the scenery along the way, with canals and ancient buildings is so intriguing and beautiful that it might take 3 days before you noticed or cared. You will always see something different and well worth studying --if you have the time. I, for one, am going back as soon as I can figure out how to do it intentionally and not as a back up plan because that didn't do it enough justice.

I'll be back tomorrow, with the story of the "Ride In Hell" - or "How I learned to Drive on a Cow path in backwoods France in a blizzard in the middle of the night."

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Wherein the saga continues...Part II

And off we go....
We returned home that pre-thanksgiving night - defeated. We took a cab - what the hell is another $65.00 when you're losses are alreadyn racking up faster than the national debt? I kept on telling myself that nothing was gained by flinging accusations of carelessness, so i reached down into my stony little coal of a heart and found a little ember, fanned it, and said, "You must feel terrible." Whereupon, my husband who has recently embraced (along with yoga) a zen like philosophy said, 'No, not really. It's been a large learning experience and a bit liberating." Dear reader I know this makes me sound hideously human but I realized right then and there my entire philosophy of forgiveness (as far as men are concerned, anyway) is that I can only proffer it sincerely if the offending party is gracious and grateful for my compassion. Nonetheless, I also realized that if the next two weeks were to go forth without legal action or bloodshed, it was important that I swallow my tongue along with my bile and do it immediately. I therefore shut up and down and said nothing.

Now to the redeeming part: He may have said he did not feel badly, but his actions demonstrated otherwise. We weren't back in the house for 2 mins, before he hit the computer and the phone and called Continental airlines. Remember all those frequent flyer miles? They come in handy right about now. Thanks to the compassionaate and intelligent help of Continental, and after countless consultations with his overly polite, and quite stony spouse (that be me!), he was able to book a new flight out the folloiwing night. We'd lose Venice, but gain Brussels - and that meant a trip to Bruges - a city I have long wanted to visit. Furthermore, Continental would fly us business class in order to soften the blow. It cost us some additional miles, but it was his way of reaching out, believe me. How do i love Continental and their compassionate staff? In inverse proportion to how much I detest Air France -and that's a big number, believe me.

Twenty four hours later, after triple checking the departure airport, we were bound for Newark and in the right direction. The fight over was flawless and Bruge was everything I expected....
Check back tonight for part 3 and the show and tell .....

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Where Have I been?

Well, there's a reason for my silence and the tale is long and sad, but i have decided to share it with you so that you, dear reader, know that I have not lost my affection for you and all things knitted. I have just made residence in a kind of traveler's purgatory and I'm only now beginning to be able to talk about it.

To cut to the chase:
Last spring, my husband, the chief planner and navigator in our travel oriented lives, planned a trip to Venice and Paris - my two favorite cities in the world. We would be there for his birthday and thanksgiving. It was a remarkable deal. Round trip airfare to both cities and back to the states for an unbelievably low price. We bit -and booked. I might add, here, that we're long time good travelers and explorers - he more than me, but he's brought me along nicely. So nicely, that I trust him implicitly with all aspects of travel. It's for that reason, that I NEVER question his planning or his itinerary. (I might amend that statement now to say that in the past I never questioned. The turn of events of the past few weeks have changed that quite nicely, as you are about to understand.

Our departure date was just before Thanksgiving and so we booked the ride to the airport well in advance. Since we were flying Air France, he told me that we'd be leaving from JFK and I duly packed and made sure that I was on time for departure - a full 3 hours before the flight, lest i be accused of being less than prompt- an accusation that sometimes finds its way into our very civil discussions about the differences between us.

Consider, if you will, my surprise when we arrived at the airport only to be told that no flight bearing our number was departing from JFK that night. Only then, did Magellan check his compass (so to speak) and discovered that he'd made an unthinkable error and brought us to the wrong airport. My instantaneous response? Thank god it was not me, quickly followed by a sincere wish for him that I will not share with you at the risk of offending those of you out there who may not know how vulgar I can be -- and those of you who do, know exactly what I wished him.

Adding insult to injury, we were told by Air France that unless we made it to the right airport (Newark) and got ourselves checked in an hour before departure, that our ticket was worth nothing - Remember that great big bargain? It had more restrictions on it than a Darien, Connecticut Country Club. It was pouring rain and we were in Long Island. What to do? Divorce takes time and I had none so I voted to make the attempt and we hailed a cab. $115.00 and 45 minutes later, we were standing at the ticket booth in Newark and being told by the imperious French former Follies Bergere ticket handler that it was too late to be checked in - 45 mins to go before the flight departed and those purveyors of all that is stylish refused to budge. - Forget the fact that we had enough miles to qualify as platinum members of the airline - we were plumb out of luck and they didn't give a damn. The ticket was worthless. The trip was out. As if it were some kind of consolation, Venice was cold, or so I was told, but trust me when I tell you that nothing was colder than my demeanor.....
(This tale is to be continued tomorrow night - pls. come back - i promise the next installment wherein I will tell you why I love Continental airlines and how my husband redeemed himself --for a few days, anyway.