things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #13

A boy, maybe age 8, was confused about what he needed. He said he needed "chapter books about the human body," which sounded to me like two things - books about the human body for a school project, and chapter books, meaning junior fiction that is not a picture book, not a series, and not a graphic novel. But he was convinced he needed "chapter books about the human body." He would not be helped, casting aside everything I found for him, and getting increasingly frustrated.

Following him around the library (it's a Sunday, so I'm working overtime, not at my own location), I ran into his parents and his older sister. Boy's Father said, "Is he giving you a hard time?" He said this nicely, not in a mean or menacing way.

I said, "Oh no, he's fine. I'm just trying to understand what he's looking for." I had books from two popular funny series in my hands.

Boy's Father took them from me and said, "No, this is garbage. We're not reading these."

I said, "Since he needs a chapter book, why don't we look for something better."

"What does that mean, 'chapter book'?" BF asked.

"Fiction--" I began.

"No. No fiction," BF said. "Let him read about science, or history, or let him practice his math."

I said gently, "He might need to read chapter books for his language skills. Reading fiction will improve his reading, which will help him in all subjects."

Things were getting generally messy, with Mom speaking in their first language, sister filling a cart with all the books she wanted, BF attempting to lecture boy, and boy tuning everyone out. I went back to the reference desk.

The family appeared a bit later. While the rest of the family was at check-out, BF came up to the desk. He clearly wanted to continue our conversation, which I've re-created here to the best of my ability. BF was unfailingly polite throughout, as was I. I made sure to listen closely to what he was saying, and to acknowledge that I heard him, to not rush in with my own answers too soon. I was pleased with myself for being patient, for not arguing, for not being confrontational, while still offering a different perspective. Damn, have I matured!

BF: You know, all that fiction, it's not good for them. It's a drug.

LK: Hmm, well, it could be. But compared to other drugs, it's a pretty positive thing.

BF: No, no, it's an addiction. I see it at home with my eldest. Once they start on those novels, that's all they want to do.

LK: You know, reading anything is good. We believe reading has inherent value.

BF: It's an addiction. It's like movies or video games. Once they start, where does it end.

LK: Do you know, kids who read a lot have greater reading comprehension, and that helps them in all their subjects - science, history, everything. Kids who read a lot do better in school, and that improves their life chances.

BF: Yes, I'll give you that. Reading comprehension is important. But why can't they get that from reading about history, about politics, about science, about the real world? Why do they have to read stupid novels? My eldest at home only wants to read something called Naruto.

I smiled. Manga. It is an addiction!

LK: Does he read anything else?

BF: She. A girl. Her grades are excellent. Very good grades.

LK: So maybe she wants to read Naruto for fun. Would that be OK?

BF: I am all for fun. I don't think children have to work every minute. Fun is good. But those stupid books, they are an addiction. It's what's wrong with our whole society.

LK: Hmm. If I were to pick what was wrong with our society, I don't think I'd say it was too much reading.

We both chuckle. Then:

BF: Do you have religion? Do you have a spiritual life?

Naturally this question took me by surprise. Mentally scrolling through possible answers, I discarded the obvious "That's not really relevant here," or the truthful "No, I don't," as possibly sidetracking an interesting conversation.

LK: Yes, I do. Not sure how that fits in, though.

BF: I'm surprised. I think if you have religion, you would know the answer to this. You would know that we are not helping our children by having them read this awful stuff. All through North America, we emphasize culture, and the arts, and reading, the movies, the plays, the books. Then when we need scientists we have to import them from other countries. Better to develop the science and the math, then bring the arts in later. Once you spoil your brain with arts and reading, you lose the ability to do the science.

LK: Hmm. I don't know about that. I'm a writer and a reader, but I love science.

BF: Perhaps you are exceptional. (Smiling)

LK: (Smiling back) Oh, I don't know... I'm a librarian. I think reading is beneficial for children. For everyone, but especially for children.

BF: At least he should read about the real world. Science, history.

LK: We have a lot of excellent nonfiction he could read, too. Great books on the environment, on animals, on the ancient world - whatever interests him.

BF: Yes? There is nonfiction like that for children?

LK: Absolutely.

BF: OK then, next time we're here I will ask you to help us find some.

LK: It's a deal.

BF: It's been very nice speaking with you. Thank you for your help and have a wonderful day.

dark times in canada, part 3: adding my voice to oppose andrea horwath's rightward shift

I'm quite sure that Canadians who read this blog already know about this, and for others, it's not relevant. But I want to add my small voice to the chorus of progressive Canadians who are angry, hurt, and disgusted at the Ontario New Democratic Party. Thousands of Ontarians who would normally vote NDP are either voting Liberal, not voting, spoiling their ballot, or considering one of those options in the upcoming provincial election.

If you are not Canadian and you are are interested in our once-progressive politics, you can read the email sent by 34 prominent NDP supporters to ONDP Leader Horwath. It's another tired re-run of a story we know too well.

Time and again, progressive parties believe that they must shift to the right in order to broaden their appeal. Time and again, this strategy proves disastrous. So-called centrist voters and right-wing voters will vote for the real thing. Progressive people, when they find their party has abandoned its principles, find an alternative. The right-wing gets elected. The alternative party is blamed for the success of the right wing, and the once-progressive party has become one in name only.

One thing that has distinguished Canadian politics from US politics has been the NDP. Our so-called "third party" is actually a viable party, with seats in Parliament, and power to influence legislation. But as the NDP tastes the possibility of power, as the prize of forming a government seems increasingly possible to them, what do they do? They abandon the principles that got them elected in the first place. If the NDP becomes just another party of corporate giveaways, privatization, and middle-class tax cuts, it is doomed, first to irrelevance, then to nonexistence. When I wrote about this a few months back, I was referring to both the federal and the provincial NDP, but in the race to the right, Horwath has leap-frogged ahead of Thomas Mulcair.

If voters want right-of-centre parties, they have abundant choices in Canada. Liberal voters will thrill to the man with the famous last name. Right-wingers know what to do. And the rest of us? Who will protect us from the regressive, anti-labour, anti-human politics of Tim Hudak's Conservatives?

Andrea Horwath, a long time ago, back when I had cable TV, I happened to catch you making a speech at Queen's Park. You were holding forth against the harmonized sales tax, arguing that it disproportionately hurt working-class people. You were eloquent and powerful in your defense of the working people of Ontario. I thought you were the real deal. Now I know otherwise. Now I know that you make a good speech, but in reality, you are no more concerned with progressive values than Tim Hudak is. Your only concern is getting elected.

But unless you have the support of progressive people in Ontario, that will not happen. And we can't support you.


memo to porter airlines passenger who needs lessons in new york city

Dear suburban GTA resident flying on Porter Airlines from Newark to Toronto:

Since you were not talking to me, I was unable to respond to your erroneous statements. But since you were speaking loud enough for the entire plane to hear, I was easily able to determine that you have no idea what you are talking about.

Here are some facts of which you clearly are not aware.

1. I'm glad you enjoyed your stay near the airport in Elizabeth, New Jersey. However, since you did not venture into New York City, you have no idea how the area near your hotel compares to any part of New York City. Elizabeth, NJ is Elizabeth, NJ. New York is New York. Proximity does not imply similarity.

2. Park Slope, where your friend lives, is not "a suburb of Manhattan". It is a neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Brooklyn and Manhattan have been part of the same city since 1898.

3. Park Slope is not a "typical suburb". It is not a suburb at all. It is an affluent urban neighbourhood, served by multiple subway lines.

4. Park Slope is not "a neighbourhood where nice families are beginning to move". Nice families have lived in Park Slope for hundreds of years. Wealthy white families thoroughly colonized Park Slope in the mid-1980s. In the 21st Century, "nice families" can buy a Park Slope brownstone only if two adults are each six-figure earners.

5. Your Park Slope friend does not live in a "townhome". She lives in a brownstone. Brownstones are historic, 19th Century structures characterized by artistic masonry, 20-foot ceilings, intricate wood mouldings, and other architectural details that make them some of the most desired dwellings in many US cities.

6. Your friend's brownstone is not "attached" housing. Your wealthy friend is not forced to live in a house "that is not even detached". I highly doubt that she shares your disgust for this shameful condition.

7. You were horrified, not so much as the high housing costs that your wealthy friend takes in stride, but that she pays so much money for an attached townhome. Your central question - "What do they get for it?" - is not asked or answered the way it is where you live, in suburban Markham. What do they get for it? They get to live in New York City, in a brownstone.

I hope this helps.


A former New Yorker, Park Slope nanny, and third-generation Brooklynite


today is the international day against homophobia and transphobia

May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, sometimes called IDAHO or IDAHOT.

This day is the perfect example of how I view all social progress: we have come a long way, and we still have a long way to go.

Come a long way: yesterday at the library, I put up a IDAHO display in the youth area. I found more gay- and lesbian-themed youth fiction than I could fit on the display. This filled me with such joy, knowing that gay and lesbian teens in my area can see their authentic selves reflected in the world around them, the way LGBT people in their parents' and grandparents' generations never could.

Still have a long way to go: where to begin? Most LGBT people do not live in a world that accepts and affirms their lives. And millions live in a world that criminalizes their basic humanity.

Please visit this page for 17 reasons we need May 17: #May17Because.


where to stay in giverny and rouen, where to eat in rouen, where not to eat in giverny

I've mentioned our wonderful accommodations in Giverny and outside Rouen, but each deserves a post of its own. I'll review them on TripAdvisor but for Googleability, I'd like to do more.

Giverny: Les Jardins d'Helene

In Giverny, for comfort, convenience, and an absolutely delightful stay at a very reasonable price, you can't do better than Les Jardins d'Helene. It's located about a 15-minute walk from Monet's house and gardens, on one easy, flat road.

The house itself is a beautiful mix of traditional and contemporary design, and clearly a labour of love by a very creative person. Among the treasures are a collection of vintage cameras and radios, a collection of art and photography books, jazz LPs, and a beautiful library for French readers.

I was travelling with my mother, a senior, and we needed two beds. We booked the "La Toccata" family suite that could comfortably accommodate a family of four, with a private bath, for €120, during the high season. I thought that was very reasonable.

The standard (and delicious) French breakfast is made extra-special by homemade jams, an assortment of cheese, and croissants so flaky and buttery that they practically melt.

Sandrine is the perfect host. She thinks of everything and is happy to accommodate your needs. We were leaving on an early train, so she started our breakfast earlier so we could have an unhurried morning, and arranged for a cab to the station in Vernon. As I was waiting for the taxi, she asked if we would like some bottled water for our trip. That's the kind of thoughtfulness that makes a lovely stay. Knowing I love books, Sandrine also recommended a place to visit in our next town, Rouen. It turned out to be a gem that we would have otherwise missed.

Note that Les Jardines d'Helene does not accept credit cards, and there is no ATM in the town of Giverny. We were caught off guard, but Sandrine drove us into Vernon - which was also an enjoyable opportunity to learn about each other.

Outside Rouen: La Parenthèse Normande

About 25 minutes outside of the city of Rouen, in the village of La Neuville-Chant-d'Oisel, La Parenthèse Normande sits among quiet farmland and lush gardens. We stayed in a family suite that was sheer perfection in style and comfort.

A small house off the main house is divided into two suites. The building is brick, but the front wall is all glass, offering a full view of the garden and farmland beyond. (Don't worry, there's a good curtain for privacy and darkness.) Inside, the decor is what I call "rustic elegance," a mix of sleek blond wood, crisp white linens, stainless steel fixtures, and exposed brick and beams. Our family suite had a queen-sized bed downstairs and two twins upstairs. This was only €80 a night for two! For four, it is currently €105.

Breakfast is typically and deliciously French, with baguettes, croissants, and jam, with the addition of two kinds of home-baked cakes. If you are able, I highly recommend making your stay truly special by booking the table d'hôtes, a dinner with your hosts Elisabeth and her husband Christophe, at their table. Christophe will prepare a typical Normande meal with fresh local ingredients, the kind of meal that can only be considered ordinary to the French, who place such value and respect on food. Dinner will include an appetizer, a main course, a cheese course, and a dessert, plus wine, for (currently) €25 per person. And it just might be the best meal you have on your vacation!

Your table d'hôtes will also be special and memorable because of the lovely company. Elisabeth is such a sweet person, so attentive and accommodating, and truly wants to make your stay perfect. Travelling avec ma mere without a car, we were less independent than I would have liked. But Elisabeth explained all our transportation options, drove us to the bus (about 6 kms away), and was waiting at the bus stop when we returned, called taxis as needed... and more. If you read this earlier post (scroll down to the discussion over dinner), you will see what these perfect hosts arranged for two guests who wanted more time in Rouen, but didn't have a car.

La Parenthèse Normande is about 25 minutes by car from the centre of Rouen. It would be easiest and best to visit if you are driving. However, if you are traveling by train, you should still consider staying there for the wonderful experience. A taxi from the Rouen Rive-Droite station cost €35. You can take a very convenient, easy, inexpensive bus from the B&B to the prime sightseeing area. The bus stop is 6 kms away. Elisabeth drove us and picked us up, or if you know your schedule in advance, she can reserve a shuttle bus to the regular bus. Don't be daunted, it's easier than it may sound. It is worth a little planning for such a memorable experience.

Where to eat (and not eat)

My experience when travelling in France, anywhere and anytime, has always been marked by eating excellent food. We almost always choose small, neighbourhood restaurants and are blown away by the quality and attention given to any simple meal. For example, on this trip, in Paris we tried the bistro across the street from the hotel, and ended up eating every breakfast and every dinner there (see earlier posts about Au Tramway). So I rarely have specific restaurants to recommend, and I've never had a bad meal.

This trip marks the exception.

First, the good news. In Rouen, I highly recommend eating at D'Eux Memes, located on Vieux Marche, opposite the church commemorating Jeanne D'Arc (actually on the site where she was killed). The food and the service are perfect. There are three different levels of menus (complet). We tried the €30 menu, and were astounded. This would have been a four-star meal in New York City, and cost three times as much.

The bad news is the food in Giverny. If you drive to Giverny, it's easy enough to pop into nearby Vernon. It's a thriving little town and I'm sure there are many excellent places to eat there. If you don't have a car in Giverny, I hope you do better than we did.

Arriving early in the morning, we needed breakfast, and there was nothing open. At 10:00 we were able to go to Terra Cafe at the Impressionist Museum. They would serve us only salads or desserts. If you're open at 10:00, why not offer le petit dejeuner? All you need is a basket of baguettes, butter and jam, and coffee. Of necessity, we ordered salads with cheese and hard-boiled eggs. They were no better than what I would prepare for myself in my own kitchen; in other words, extremely ordinary. For lunch, we found La Botanic Cafe, connected to La Capucine Giverny. Service is cafeteria style, and you can have soup, already-prepared sandwiches, or quiche. The sandwiches were ordinary and not bad, and sadly, that was the best meal we had in Giverny.

Dinner at Restaurant ancien Hôtel Baudy wins the prize for Worst Meal I've Had In France. My lamb brochette was seared on the outside and completely raw inside. Not rare, the way cote d'agneau is usually served: cold and purple. My mother's salmon was tasteless and swimming in a gloppy, salty sauce. The apple crumble dessert seemed to be canned applesauce with breadcrumbs dumped on top. My mother is extremely uncritical when it comes to food: the joke is that each meal she eats is the greatest meal she's ever had in her life. So imagine that she didn't finish her salmon or dessert, and pronounced the dessert "disgusting".

The restaurant itself seems not to know what it's trying to do. The decor looks like they're trying to be "fancy" - an inexperienced person's idea of what fancy looks like - but our server was a slouching 20-something with patchy facial hair, sloppy, wrinkled clothing, and absolutely no idea how to wait tables. In a country where taxi drivers are unfailingly polite and professionally dressed, and serving tables is a respected way to earn a living, this was quite remarkable.

On second thought, even if you're visiting Giverny without a car, treat yourself to a cab to Vernon, and get a decent meal.


rouen and home

We slept wonderfully in our beautiful little cabin, and the following morning we waited to see the other Canadians emerge from breakfast before we ventured out. I was amazed that my mother also didn't like them: she is so much friendlier and less curmudgeonly than me.

We ran into them briefly, and we both had the distinct impression that they had been waiting to see us before they left. And there's Elisabeth, wearing a Maple Leaf pin! These people must travel with a bag of Maple Leaf pins to distribute! Yikes.

Breakfast was the usual deliciousness of mini baguettes, croissants, homemade jams, butter and cheese, and this one included apple cake and chocolate cake. I cut a slice of each for Connie and she did not protest!

We asked Elisabeth to take a picture of us together and I got a few of the garden and of our host. Elisabeth called a taxi and he took us right to the restaurant, where the polite and attentive Mathieu took our suitcases and said he would see us for lunch.

The restaurant was on the Place du Vieux Marche, the square where Jeanne D'Arc - known to us as Joan of Arc - was burned to death. In the square, there is a church built as a memorial and tribute to the Girl Who Saved France. It's a huge wood and glass structure that, depending on who you ask, looks either like a Viking ship turned upside down, or a burning flame. Throughout the unusual and asymmetrical architecture, there are references to flames and fire. The interior is very sparse and clean, with bright stained-glass windows.

We hung out there for quite a while. I'm sure my pictures of it will suck - it was so hard to break down into compositions.

We walked around a bit more, ducking into a few stores. We used a toilette in a McDonald's, and learned the code for access to the washroom is printed on customers' receipts. I asked to see someone's receipt. Catching the door before it shuts is another method.

When it was time for lunch, our friend Mathieu treated us like visiting celebrities. For starters, Connie had large shrimps with an avocado sauce, and I had a proscuitto, parmigianno, and arugula concoction on mille feuille. Then Connie had le lapin and I had gigot d'angeau with fresh peas. And this was the best meal of the trip. The lamb might have been the best I've ever eaten. Literally literally.

Connie had riz au lait (rice pudding, kind of) for dessert and I opted for cheese: a selection of rich, smelly cheeses with quite a bit of red wine.

Mathieu offered to call us a taxi and retrieved our bags. Of course I tipped him for his trouble and attention, then wondered if I should have tipped more. I gave him 10 euros. This is a country where you don't usually tip. 20 euros seemed a little crazy, but was 10 enough?

Because we didn't have to spend time retrieving our bags, we decided to take an earlier train back to Paris. Good decision (and it was the same deal with tickets: no questions, no problem). We also decided to take the RER (commuter trains) to the airport. I've read that traffic to the Paris airports is often impossible. We didn't want to sit in a cab in traffic and stress about missing our flight. My only concern was that our train from Rouen would get into Gare St. Lazare and the train to the airport leaves from Gare du Nord. We needed two different RER lines, and would the transfer between them be accessible? I wasn't able to determine that before we left, but while there, I confirmed that the only fully accessible RER lines are the ones we needed, E and B. Amazingly and horribly, many of the stations are accessible, but the trains are not! Very few cars have roll-on/roll-off capability.

Our original train from Rouen to Paris left us with two hours to get to our flight. We thought that was plenty of time, but we took a train that left 40 minutes earlier and just made it! What I read online and in the guide book totally under-estimated the time required to take the RER to CDG. There were so many corridors, escalators, and elevators as we made our way from the intercities train from Rouen to RER E to Gare du Nord to RER B. One elevator was out of service and I carried all our luggage down a large flight of stairs. We were on RER B for a long time, then had a very long and circuitous walk (although fully accessible) to our terminal. It was a very long trip amd I ended up sorry to have put my mom through it.  We got to our gate a few moments before boarding began.

Boarding was delayed, then we were none too pleased to see ourselves squished into a three-seater row, in a row with no leg room and almost no foot room. When I saw the flight was not full, I asked to change seats, and a very kind flight attendant gave us our own three-seater. Much better!

Photos of the Church of St. Joan of Arc and the surrounding area are here.


My plan for Rouen was a bit more complicated than it had to be. I was reasonably certain it would prove well worth it.

There are many hotel options in Rouen, but they all left me unimpressed, mostly chain hotels or what sounded like dumps. I thought for the final night of our trip, we should do something special. I booked a room and dinner at a French country home about 25 minutes out of Rouen. My experience staying at French country homes has been very special, and I knew my mother would love it. I prepared her for the transportation issues, and hoped for the best.

Our plan upon arriving in Rouen was to see if there is a consigne in the train station - a place where we could check our luggage while we enjoyed Rouen on our last day (which is tomorrow). No bag check. Amazingly, some of the Paris stations still have them, but many cities no longer do, for "security" reasons.

We took a cab from the station to La Parenthese Normand, exactly as long (25 minutes) and at exactly the price (35 euros) our host had told me by email. When we saw the place, my mom and I were blown away. Our family suite is one of two suites in a small brick house off the main house. Exposed brick walls and timbers mix with sleek glass and blond wood design. It is somehow sleek and rustic at the same time. Downstairs, a big, comfy bed faces glass doors, a wall of glass, which looks out onto a lush flower garden and farmland beyond. The washroom and shower are downstairs, too, all sleek stainless steel. Up shiny wooden steps, there is a loft with two single beds, exposed bricks and beams, and a stunning view of the countryside.

Elisabeth, our host, has less English than Sandrine, although, like me with French, she can understand more than she can communicate. She gave us a tourist map of Rouen and pointed out the major attractions. The bus that I thought stopped right outside her home actually has to be reserved two days in advance. It must be some kind of paratransit, as it takes you to the regular public bus. That bus, into Rouen, is 6 kms (3.7 miles) away; Elisabeth would drive us and pick us up. She went off to organize for us and we decided how we would work everything with the bus and taxis.

Soon after, Elisabeth came back with the bus schedule. We decided which bus we would take, what time to have dinner, and such. The plan was bus back and forth today, bus onto Rouen tomorrow, but leaving our luggage at the house, then a round-trip cab ride to pick up our things and go to the station. Elisabeth was not too happy - she felt it was a waste of our money and time - but Connie and I were fine with it. The alternatives were keeping our bags with us for the day (impossible) or taking an early train back and losing a day of the trip (unacceptable!). We made plans for when to meet and when to have dinner. We assured her it was no problem...although I could tell she didn't believe us.

Elisabeth drove us to the bus and explained in detail where and how to go. The bus took us straight into town, leaving us by the river (the Seine) and very nearby all the sights. When we arrived it was raining too hard to go anywhere and we took shelter under a bus stop until it let up, for the second time in two days.

Before the cathedral we needed lunch. We stopped at an ordinary-looking place, like a place working people go for lunch, except everyone is eating three courses and no one is in a rush. We both had poulet et frites, then I talked Connie into a tartes aux framboise. (Not that I talked her into dessert, just which one.) I saw it go by and it looked so beautiful and delicious. Surprise: it was the most wonderful tart she ever had in her life.

After lunch we walked a few blocks to the Cathedral, the one Monet made famous. I love Gothic cathedrals, although I don't get the crazy rush of awe that I did when I saw them for the first time. Notre Dame de Rouen is being restored and cleaned right now, so part of the front is under wraps. Even so, it is truly awesome in its height, its stone lacework, the stained glass, and the sheer verticality of the building. We were totally wowed.

From there we walked through the pedestrian-only area in the oldest part of town. The streets are stone and cobblestone, and most of the stores are large international chains. The cafes and boulangeries appear to be local, and there aren't many schlocky souvenir stores, so that's nice.

While walking there, we passed one of Rouen's other big attractions, a big astronomical clock known as... le gros reloj (or le gros horloge). The movement dates to the 14th Century and the rest of it from the 1600s. It's part of an impressive old archway: you can see it here.

We made our way to Rue Jeanne D'Arc, first to a post office to buy stamps for Connie's postcards, and next to look for a bookstore recommended by Sandrine, our host from Giverny. (There are so many things I forgot to mention about Sandrine and that B&B that I will write a separate post on both places.) L'Armitiere has two stores, one general and one for children and youth. We found the regular one first, a big, well-lit, serious bookstore more interested in books than gifts and coffee. I asked about the children's store and was sent a bas, meaning lower down on the street, towards the river.

From the outside it appeared simply to be housed in an old building, with huge wooden doors that must date back centuries. But when we walked in, I truly gasped. A huge open space is carved out of wood and exposed brick, giving you the sense of being in an open courtyard, although you are inside, almost like a Spanish patio. The upstairs rings the ground floor like a balcony. And it's not just the architecture, it's one of the best bookstores for young people I've ever seen. The same bookstore has a separate papierie with beautiful blank books and writing materials of every description. I made Connie very happy by letting her buy me something!

We had a tea in front of the huge Palais de Justice, a pre-revolution building that once housed a Duke. Then we made our way back to the bus which would take us to La Neuville-Chant-d'Oisel. Between Elisabeth's great instructions and perfect signage, including a digital readout on the bus, it was very easy. When we came off the bus, Elisabeth was waiting for us. Happiness all around.

Back at the room, we changed and briefly relaxed before dinner: the table d'hotes I had reserved. If you ever have an opportunity to do a table d'hotes, I highly recommend it. You eat a home-cooked meal with your hosts, typically made from local ingredients, often a simple regional meal of the highest quality. We sat at a big wooden table in an open-concept kitchen, with Elisabeth and Christophe. Christophe had done the cooking, and his English is better, so he narrated the meal. He said for our last night in France they wanted to prepare something typically French, and typically Normand.

We started with tender white asparagus in a delicate Normandie sauce, which means cream. Note that I cannot eat cream at home; there aren't enough Lactaids in the world. But in France, cream has no negative effect. (Well, other than cholesterol!) With the asparagus, they served a Reisling from a local organic vineyard. They were a little confused by Connie not drinking wine, as if they did not know such a thing was possible.

After the asparagus, Christophe showed us his cookpot before he added the sauce, an almost unbelievably fragrant mix of veal medallions, carrots, mushrooms, and tiny onions. Then he added a light cream sauce, saying, "We are in Normandie, after all!" and served it over plain and perfect white rice. My mother does not usually eat rice and I do not eat veal, but we both cleaned our plates. It was incredibly flavourful and the perfect degree of tenderness. I had a small second helping which I would soon regret. I've read that the hideous practice of crating calves to make the meat more tender is not practiced in France; meat becomes tender through cooking. I hope that is true.

When the main dish was served, Christophe and Elisabeth were discussing something in French, and I caught two words: vin rouge. I said, "Oh, du vin rouge, oui merci." We all laughed. It was like a dog cartoon: blah blah blah blah vin rouge blah blah blah. Out came the red wine (I don't remember what it was, possibly a beaujolais).

And here's why I ended up sorry to have eaten more of the main course: out came the cheese. A cheese course! If only I had known! There were three kinds of cheese: a goat brie, a goat Camembert, and something made with raw cow's milk (take that, Canada!). I cut some for Connie, but I apparently did it wrong. They tossed the piece and started over!

They served the cheese course with a green salad, something I had never seen done. The salad was only lettuce, dressed in oil and herbs.

After cheese came a crumble, a typical Normande dessert. This was a dish of apple and rhubarb topped with a crumb mix and baked til it is gooey, almost but not quite burnt. Coincidentally, the crappy meal in Giverny ended with a crumble; Connie picked it apart looking for an edible bit but never found one. This one was sooooo good! This was definitely the best meal of the trip (to that point), and a very special experience for my mother, which is exactly what I hoped and intended it would be.

The meal was also lovely for the company. We learned a little about them, they a little about us. We talked about bookstores and libraries, our family backgrounds, places we have traveled... a bit of everything, helping each other over the language gap.

At dinner, Elisabeth and Christophe brought up the topic of our luggage for the next day. They could not let us take the round-trip cab, no matter how we insisted that it was fine. At one point, Elisabeth said she would drive our luggage to the station and we could meet her there! I told her she was too generous and we could not accept. When I translated for Connie, she had the same immediate reaction.

Christophe said he had another idea and excused himself to make a phone call. He came back with a business card from a restaurant where his friend works (maybe he is part owner). Christophe said we are to take our luggage there, leave it at the restaurant for the day, and retrieve it when we are ready. And the restaurant is the only one in the old part of town to serve Normande food made with only local ingredients. We instantly decided that instead of riding back and forth in a cab, we would eat lunch there.

We had heard that the suite connected to ours was occupied by a Canadian couple. I assumed they were francophones, but Elisabeth said no, they spoke English. And wouldn't you know it, when we walked back to our little house, there they were, finishing a pizza and drinking wine and beer. They practically pounced on us, introducing themselves, pulling over chairs from our patio to theirs, and pouring wine. I'm not known to turn down wine, and as Allan and I like to say, "That's how they get ya!"

They're originally from Mississauga, now retired in Barrie, and who the hell cares. I give them great credit for spending a month in France, but I could have lived without the details of their World War I and World War II pilgrimages. The self-congratulatory smugness was off the charts. What good Canadians you are, visiting both Vimy Ridge and Juno Beach! Let's put it this way: even Connie thought they talked too much. A full moon was rising and I was remembering that I had wanted to take pictures of the grounds and now had lost the light. Finally it got too cold and dark and we made our escape. The last frightening words we heard were... "See you at breakfast!"

Photos of Rouen are here. Some photos of the children's bookstore are here.

giverny to rouen

I have a lot to write tonight, and only two fingers to write with, so I may have to post this in two parts.

Yesterday, after we dried off, we rested for the afternoon. I remembered that our host needed payment in cash, so we asked about an ATM... and learned there is none in Giverny. Sandrine, our host, very nicely (and of necessity) offered to drive us into Vernon to use a machine there. On the way there, she asked about our last name. I suspected I knew why, and when she asked, "You are Jewish, no?" I knew I was right.

She is also Jewish, the only Jewish person in the town of Giverny. She asked if I am "active with the community" - an interesting expression - and said that she is very active with the Jewish community in Paris. I have noticed that my last name, which is almost always mispronounced in the US and Canada, is always pronounced correctly by French people. In France, it's a known Jewish name.

We had a lovely time chatting with Sandrine as she drove us around. Some friends of hers moved to Montreal last year. She would like to visit them, but because she can only travel between November and March, she's afraid of the weather.

On the way back, it was almost time for our dinner reservations, so Sandrine dropped us at the restaurant, also on Rue Claude Monet: Restaurant ancien Hotel Baudy. Those of you reading who know my mother will appreciate this: even Connie didn't like the food. Dinner was pretty bad, and that made a perfect trifecta of mediocre (or worse) meals in Giverny. I did not want to tell the lovely Sandrine that the local restaurant was sub-par, but I will send her this post and also review her brilliant B&B on TripAdvisor, so she might as well know.

We walked back - no rain this time - and had a great night's sleep in our separate rooms.

In the morning we had the one and only good meal we had in Giverny: breakfast by Sandrine. The table was picture perfect, and we had the classic French breakfast of baguettes and croissants and excellent coffee, but with three different kinds of homemade jam and an assortment of cheese.

Our taxi arrived, and the same driver who picked us up from Vernon drove us back to the station. In case you didn't read my previous post, I highly recommend Les Jardins d'Helene!

Two things happened next that I must document. To understand the first, you must know that my mother has trouble walking down stairs. She is afraid every time, and swears that without me to "help" her, she could never have managed the Paris Metro. I put help in quotes because all I did was reassure and encourage her, tell her to go slow, take her time, and so on. But for reasons unknown to me, she is afraid of walking down any ordinary staircase. The other thing to know is that she never carries her suitcase. Not for one moment. She is quite fit for her age, but come on, she's 83 years old! She wheels her suitcase, and if we need to lift or briefly carry our luggage, I do that.

We arrived at the Vernon gare just as the train was pulling in. I knew we had adequate time, but we had to go downstairs, under the platform, and up the other stairs, to cross over to the other side. I asked Connie to stand with her bag, wait for me while I carried my bag down, then came back for her. Imagine my shock when, placing my suitcase at the bottom of the stairs, I turned around and saw my mother creeping down the steps, one hand white-knuckled on the railing, the other carrying her suitcase.

I lost it. I'm not proud to say this, but I flat-out yelled at her. I ran up, grabbed her suitcase, ran down, grabbed my suitcase, ran upstairs carrying both suitcases, dumped them on the platform near some train conductors, then ran back down to get my mother and get her into the train. All the while having visions of my mother losing her balance and tumbling down the stairs, or throwing her back out, or worse.

As we took our seats, I was still angry, and Connie was throwing gasoline on the fire by refusing to listen. (This takes the form of her saying, "All right all right all right," over my talking. It's her way of saying "shut up".) Finally I very calmly asked her to listen to me. I said, "Mom, I am responsible for your safety on this trip. My sister and brother and sibs-in-law are all counting on me to take care of you. What will I tell them if you fall down stairs because you couldn't wait for me to take your suitcase?"

It worked. She apologized and I apologized for yelling at her.

The next issue was our train ticket. I booked all our trains in advance, but for some reason, I booked on the first train of the morning - at 7:00! That seemed ridiculous, so we took a 9:00 train... but it was too late to exchange the ticket. We didn't know if there'd be a ticket-taker on this train (there was none from Paris to Giverny), and if there was, what would happen. We decided to say nothing. The conductor asked for our tickets, read them, punched them, and moved on. I'm assuming he figured, they have tickets from this place to that place, there are plenty of seats available, who cares. I suppose if he wanted to be a jerk, he could have made us pay a fine or a fee, but as it stood, we gave each other a thumb's up.


giverny, plus tablet and ptsd updates


I love my Nexus 7. I hate the Minisuit keyboard, although the problem might be Bluetooth.

To blog, I need a keyboard, and I need to use Blogger via the website, as the Android app is too limited. (That seems silly, since Blogger is a Google product.) Using Blogger online with the onscreen keyboard is very inconvenient. I can't select, can't easily make links, and can barely see where I'm typing. 

I've adjusted to the tiny Minisuit keyboard. I dislike typing with two fingers, but I can do it. But I will never adjust to the cursor suddenly moving into a different paragraph, or characters not appearing onscreen for two minutes, then appearing all at once. 

What to do?


This afternoon my mother confessed that the reason she didn't sleep last night is because she was worried about the strange noises I was making in my sleep. She won't say what she thought was happening (superstition) but I think she was worried that I was having a heart attack or some other medical emergency. Strangely, she never thought to wake me or to seek help. 

I told her the noises she heard were the sounds of PTSD. My mother and I never talk about my issues. I learned early on that she runs away from them (as she does from anything painful or scary), and since I found her denial painful in itself, I didn't talk about stuff, which suited her fine. So it was a bit strange to talk about my PTSD and night terrors, now, with my Mom. But we did, a bit. I feel really bad that she was worried and that I disturbed her sleep!

And now back to our show

So Connie and I both had crappy nights, for reasons known and unknown. I think she is getting anxious as the end of the trip nears.

The bright side of insomnia is that it was no problem getting out very early. By 6:30 a.m., we were in a cab bound for Gare St. Lazare; we had a coffee at the station, and took the 7:20 train for Vernon. I arranged our tickets in advance, but no one ever asked to see them!

In Vernon, only 40 minutes from Paris, we caught another cab to Giverny. We expected to stow our bags and settle in later, but some guests had cancelled their booking, so our room was ready despite the early hour. 

Les Jardins d'Helene is a beautiful B&B, a lovely mix of traditional and contemporary. In order to get a room with two beds, I booked a family suite both here in Giverny and tomorrow outside Rouen. Our suite door opens on a long hallway. At one end, there is a bedroom with a double bed (Connie's), and at the other, a room with two single beds for me. In the middle is the bath and toilette. It's so spacious, and the same price as our Paris room. 

Our host brought us coffee and we hung out in a funky sitting area while guests from the previous night had breakfast. (What we really need is breakfast-and-bed, rather than the usual order.) The sitting room has a vintage radio and record player, a collection of vintage cameras and light meters, and a collection of photography books, books about jazz, and jazz LPs. My room, meant for kids, has a huge selection of Asterix, Tintin, and Gaston graphic novels.

Connie and I set off down Rue Claude Monet, the main drag, such as it is, of Giverny. The road is narrow and rutted, and lined with stone walls and stone houses, many of which are B&Bs. Flowers are in bloom everywhere, often spilling over the stone walls. Rue Claude Monet is flat, but both above and below it are steep hills.

We bought tickets for the Monet house and gardens, then, still without breakfast, waited for a cafe to open. When it did, they weren't serving breakfast, which seems strange at 10 a.m. They were willing to serve us anything cold on the menu, so we had salads with egg and cheese in them. It was our first mediocre and overpriced meal of the trip. Which is pretty good, considering how much we've been eating!

After our funky breakfast, we went back to the Monet house. We are super lucky to be here on a Monday. Until this year, the house and gardens were closed Mondays, and the tour groups have not made the adjustment - that is, Monday is the only day without enormous crowds of day-trippers from Paris. I have heard that the crowds can be so thick that you can barely move! The moderate numbers of people there today were enough for me.

The gardens themselves are beautiful, but I guess I am just not that interested in gardens. I have heard such raves about this place; many people told me it is a must-see. Meh. Not that I'm sorry we came, but I was pretty underwhelmed. There are lots and lots and lots of flowers, in a huge array of colours and varieties, and the lily ponds where all those famous paintings were created. Monet's house is filled with his furniture and photographs, and his studio is filled with copies of his paintings.  I do enjoy taking close-up photos, so I took a lot of photos of flowers. The most important thing is that my mom loved it. This was her second or possibly third time here, and she very much wanted to visit again. So it's all good.

We had little sandwiches for lunch, and talked about why Connie had trouble sleeping. On the walk back to the B&B, we made a dinner reservation, which our host said was important. Then we got caught in a huge downpour. We had umbrellas this time but it hardly mattered. The rain and wind were torrential. I spotted some kind of shelter - like a bus shelter built by Theodoric of York - and we waited it out there. A few minutes later, the sun was shining. The whole trip, the weather has alternated between gorgeous and miserable.

Now we are relaxing in the B&B, writing and gabbing.

Photos of Giverny and Monet's gardens are here.


paris, day four

We had quite a big day today! Most of it was completely wonderful.

I woke up kicking myself that I forgot to take pictures of R and Connie and me. I had the camera with me precisely for that reason and never even thought of it. And by the way, R emailed from the Eurostar. They very nearly didn't let her on the train, but she did prevail.

Connie and I didn't set our alarm this morning and slept until 8:40, which is like noon for non-morning people. We had one last breakfast at Au Tramway, but since today is Sunday, the bistro was well stocked with locals. There were young families and older men and small groups of friends. We were the only tourists.

When we came out, the sidewalk in front of our hotel had been transformed into a market! When we arrived on Thursday we saw the tail-end of a market, but we had no idea when it would return or how extensive it would be.

It was blocks and blocks long - stalls of vegetables and smelly cheeses and breads and seafood on ice, dozens of varieties of olives, chickens sizzling on outdoor rotisseries, charcuterie - all manner of French deliciousness. One stall had a huge cast-iron skillet - maybe someone knows the name for this? (Stephanie?) - in which a vast quantity of new potatoes were sizzling with garlic and onions.

You know I love markets, and so does Connie, and the surprise of finding this on our street after breakfast was such a delight.

We didn't get on the metro until almost 11:00, so I was a little skeptical about how much we would get to. Our first metro ride seemed long on the map, but the trains arrive so frequently - a three-minute wait at most - and then zip so quickly from stop to stop, that there really are no long train rides.

Our first stop was the Musee Marmottan Monet, just inside the beautiful Bois de Boulogne, a huge city park. There was a line to get in, and the museum limits the number of visitors allowed in at any given time, generally a good thing. Unfortunately it started to rain while we were waiting, and our umbrellas were at the hotel. Not because I forgot them, but because I left them there on purpose. Typical of me. My mom had her hoodie, and a nice solo (French) visitor shared her umbrella with Connie while I took shelter under a tree. A few minutes later, the sky was beautiful clear blue. That's the kind of day it was.

The Marmottan is the largest collection of Monet's work, bequeathed by a family who were great supporters of the artist. I thought we were only there for the permanent Monet collection on the lower level, but it turned out to be much more. There was a special exhibit in celebration of the museum's 80th anniversary: 100 Impressionist masterpieces held in private collections - and thus rarely seen - assembled for public viewing.

In addition, the Marmottan has a permanent collection of works by and about Berthe Morisot, a female Impressionist pioneer, who was also married to Eduard Manet's brother Eugene Manet. And they own an impressive collection of medieval illuminated manuscripts, which I love.

It was all wonderful, although the Monet collection blows the rest away. It features much of his later work, which is more properly thought of as post-Impressionist or even proto-Modern. In that vein, a circular room is filled with a series of wildly colourful, almost completely abstract water lilly paintings - paintings that were never shown in the artist's lifetime.

This visit came at a great time for me, too. The Impressionists were the first art I was exposed to, and I was mad for them as a child and young teenager. But I OD'd on them, and came to see much Impressionism as saccharine and cliched. Once I found Picasso and other Modernists, I couldn't see the Impressionists with the same eyes again. (Picasso would have approved! He hated them.)

But, after a long period of not looking at Impressionist paintings, I can now appreciate them again. (That happens with all kinds of art, doesn't it?) I still strongly prefer the later, post-Impressionist paintings that prefigure Cubism, but I do appreciate Monet again.

All in all, the Marmottan was terrific. Connie was quite over the moon.

After the Marmottan, we decided to continue to our next stop and eat lunch there. That proved to be a mistake. Walking away from the museum, back through the Bois de Boulogne, we could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance. It thrills us every time! I feel the same way when I see the Empire State Building in New York.

We had another easy and fun metro ride (our last!) to the 7th Arrondissement, exiting at the Varenne stop, right in front of the Musee National Rodin. Also right in front of a brasserie... that was closed. And so was the next one, and the one after that. And it periodically started to rain in sudden cloudbursts, and we'd have to duck under an awning. There seemed to be no open restaurants near the Rodin Museum.

I would not have minded for myself, but I am responsible for my mother's comfort on this trip, and I was afraid she would be tired and hungry, and possibly wet. I was brainstorming backup plans, while keeping up an optimistic, non-frustrated front. I've noticed that if I show the slightest bit of fatigue or dismay at anything, my mother says, "Oh my god oh my god," and seems very worried. Perhaps we are several steps outside her usual comfort zone, and she relies on my direction to ward off anxiety? Or perhaps I'm misinterpreting the "oh my god"s? I don't know. All I know is that we needed lunch, the restaurants were all closed, and it was periodically raining!

At last a cafe appeared, as it always somehow does. Although this one took quite a while and we were several blocks away from the museum. Cafe au lait never tasted so good. Connie had a seafood salad and I had a salade nicoise. She was ready to order dessert when I wondered what time the museum closed. We had a good laugh over the thought of the museum closing while Connie devoured a tarte aux peches.

We hiked back to the Rodin Museum, and strolled through the magnificent gardens and most of the rooms in the small museum. The gardens are particularly wonderful, with unexpected views of you-know-what. I love Rodin, and have visited this museum before, as well as the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. We did this one at a more relaxed pace, less closely observed than the Marmottan, and that was fine with me!

At this point I expected Connie to want to go home, and thought we would skip the third site on our list, especially since we started the day unexpectedly at a market. But no, Connie was up for one more stop, as long as we took a cab. We did, and enjoyed the city scenery en route to the Pantheon.

I don't know why, but I wanted to see the Paris Pantheon again, and I thought my mom would enjoy it. Understatement! She totally flipped.

It is a most impressive monumental building, with a crazy number of huge Corinthian columns, multiple coffereed domes, and enormous open space - way too much for any one building. Plus it's all meant to be a temple to reason and humanism. Many French greats are buried there: Rousseau, Diderot, Dumas, Hugo, the Curies. It was a fun stop, and brief.

The Pantheon is undergoing a huge facelift; right now the centre dome is under wraps. You can follow the progress at #AuPantheon. I'm loving the Pantheon having its own hashtag.

Everywhere we go, I have to pull Connie away from the gift shop. Not because she wants to buy herself things - that would be great - but because she feels she must bring gifts back for her grandchildren. Her grandchildren do not want or need the crap she would buy them and I'm sure they would prefer she didn't waste her money on trinkets. R was very helpful in this regard. Now I'm all that stands between us and a suitcase full of made-in-China.

We took another cab back to the hotel. Before heading upstairs, we stopped to go to a bank machine and buy water, and the only store open nearby was a patisserie! So we bought water and two desserts! Then we promptly collapsed on our beds, and Connie was almost instantly snoring. There were Happy Mother's Day messages from my sibs waiting. This was kind of a special Mother's Day!

I started writing this post, but put it down to go to dinner. Yes, more lamb at Au Tramway! Tonight the potatoes were even better - more crispier and more garlic-drenched. I had a quarter-litre of bad red wine and we  reminded each other that we had dessert waiting in the room!

Also at Au Tramway, there is an enormous shaggy cat that sprawls out on the banquettes, forcing customers to choose other tables.

Tomorrow morning we take a very early train to Giverny. My mom is anxious about it, I can tell. There are several trains we can take, and I paid extra for flexible tickets, so there is truly no cause for concern. But this is her. She is already getting anxious about the cab home from the airport in New York, and how our luggage will get downstairs here at the hotel. (Answer: by elevator.) I wish I could reassure her but it's beyond reason.


paris day three encore, in which I admit ptsd is forever

So it turns out it's not just my snoring that's keeping Connie up at night. It's noises "that sound like you're upset," says my mother. Allan recently told me that I cry or startle or semi-scream in my sleep on a regular basis. The incidents I think of as rare are not, in fact, rare. What's rare is my memory of them.

I feel I must apologize for ever telling a fellow PTSD sufferer that it eventually goes away. I was 21 years old when I was raped. If it hasn't gone away by now, it obviously never will. Thank [something] I can sleep through whatever my subconscious is going through. I wish everyone could sleep through their own demons.

paris, day three

We are back in our cozy room after a long, fun day with R... who I very much hope is now on the train to London!

Connie and I went to - you guessed it - Au Tramway for breakfast. We had the lovely petit dejeuner complet, with baguette, butter and jam, croissants, juice, and for me, plenty of coffee. Then we headed out to the Gare du Nord, hours in advance of meeting R's train, hoping to buy Connie a jacket or sweater.  

Somehow my mom left her jacket at home in New Jersey. In fact, when we went to Le Bon Marche on our first day here, it was to buy her a sweater... until we realized that was a very expensive store, and not at all what we needed. She has been wearing my leather jacket, but today it was cool and rainy, and we needed something for each of us.

We thought we might find a jacket in the train station itself, but although there were stores selling suitcases, scarves, and even underwear, there were no sweaters or jackets. Plus I had to convince ma merei it was perfectly all right to spend some time searching. How many errands have Allan and I done while on vacation? It happens all the time. No biggie. But also no jacket.

We waited for R's train, and as soon as R and I finished hugging, I told her what we needed, and also that Connie felt a little uncomfortable about it. I knew that R would not only understand but enjoy the challenge. We headed outside the gare, where the neighbourhood is working class and a bit gritty. To our surprise, all we saw was wedding gowns. Long, white, frilly, gaudy wedding gowns. And bridesmaids dresses. And tuxedos. And more gowns. It was quite amusing, reminding me of our old neighbourhood in New York, say, 181 Street, where Dominican girls shop for their quincinera. 

We did find one wedding gown store that also had a few jackets in the window, mostly boys' clothes but some unisex. The owners were only too happy to help us, bringing different colours and sizes. We bought Connie a black hoodie! Fits her great and she looks tres hip.

And none too soon, as it was damp and cold! From there, we decided, weather be damned, we were going on a boat ride. We had a long metro ride with various switches, and walked in the rain near the Eiffel Tower, until we found the right dock. The wonderful Fareh Bella gave me two tickets for a Seine river cruise, from her trip to Paris with her mother last summer. We picked up an extra ticket for R, and got onboard.

Seeing Paris from the Seine is so special - the elegant bridges, the stone buildings, Notre Dame, couples strolling on the quais. We just chatted and enjoyed the scenery. We didn't see the funny faux Statue of Liberty that we all remembered - this must have been a shorter cruise - but it was great. By the time we docked it was almost 3:00 and we hadn't eaten lunch.

We walked beside the Eiffel Tower, in the general direction that I remembered from my trip with Allan last year. And unbeknownst to me, we had another errand to do: my mother needed a drugstore to buy earplugs. Apparently I snore! All these years complaining about Allan's snoring (pre-CPAP), and he never complained about mine?! We easily found earplugs and continued on our way.

By this time we were famished, and a brasserie appeared to save us. I had a salade nicoise, Connie had a classic beef bourguignon, R had a vegetarian sandwich, and R and I shared a half-litre of wine, and - of course - we all shared a dessert, delicate crepes with chocolate sauce. 

When we emerged happy and full, the rain had stopped and the sun was out. We walked back to the river, directly under the Eiffel Tower - wow! - and along the Seine for a while. Suddenly it was past time for R to head back to her train. We hurried along, but she ended up hugging us goodbye and taking off at a run. 

Connie and I hailed a cab and had a lovely ride back to the 12th. My French has improved a bit, and everyone we speak to is so friendly and helpful that I'm less self-conscious of my bad accent. The cabs have been spotlessly clean and new. A cab ride is also an unexpected fun way to see a city. Allan may remember a night in Paris, after we had heard some Algerian jazz, when we learned the hard way that the metro closes for the night! We had no idea where we were, and had a magical cab ride back to our hotel through the City of Light.

Tomorrow is our last day in Paris before we go to Giverny and then Rouen. We want to do three things, but I don't know if we'll get to them all. I'll let you know!


paris, day two

Connie and I were both dead to the world by 9:00 p.m., and when I next opened my eyes, it was 8:30 a.m. Yes! That's an unheard of amount of sleep for me, and I needed it. We had breakfast in the hotel and were soon back on the Metro.

Since we didn't get the earliest of starts, by the time we got to the Musee D'Orsay, the queue/line/lineup (UK/US/Cda) was very long, snaking around a good eight or ten times. But no bother, we were patient and made our way in. The D'Orsay was Connie's number one site - as it had been mine on my last two trips to Paris - so we planned to spend the day there.

We saw about half the museum, then had lunch at the restaurant, as opposed to the cafe. The menu (i.e. prix fixe) no longer includes a quarter-litre of wine as it once did, but it was a full and wonderful meal... and I drank wine anyway. I notice Connie generally speaks English as if she's home, as if she expects everyone to speak her language. But my mom is not an "ugly American" by any means, and an extremely friendly and pleasant person, and so far everyone very nicely uses English in return. And by the way, Connie says this was the greatest lunch ever. "This is the most scrumptious chocolate cake I have ever tasted."

After lunch I was ready to call it a day at the D'Orsay but I didn't say that. In fact, I think the gateau must have gone to Connie's head because I had to ask her to enjoy the paintings without tugging on my sleeve and narrating and telling me stories. I did - I think - convince her to enjoy the remainder of the museum at her own pace and leave me to mine. I still think she was rushing at the end, but maybe she had had her fill, too.

One of the coolest things about the remodeled D'Orsay is the colour of the gallery walls. Guy Cogeval, the museum's director, eschews the standard whitewash for deep burgundy, eggplant, indigo, and such. The effect is like seeing paintings for the first time. But the very best thing about that museum is simply the physical space. No matter what's on display, it can't compete with the remodeled train station.

We took the metro back - rush-hour crowds this time - and in short order were lying on our beds resting. Coming back to this neighbourhood is wonderful. It's so lovely and looks and feels so Parisian.

Eventually lunch faded away enough to think about eating dinner. We went back to Au Tramway, and had a perfect meal of lamb chops, roasted potatoes, and green beans. [Allan: I miss you. You would love this place and you belong here with me!] Connie had the world's most delicious tarte au pomme while I had more vin rouge. I told my mom that Allan says she is always eating the most delicious [whatever] she has ever had in her life. We had a good laugh over it. 

Talking over lunch and dinner, we realized that even our modest and restrained sightseeing wish-list must be cut back. The toughest part of travel, for me, is always what to leave out.

Tomorrow we are spending the day with R from London! Can't wait.


paris, day one

Nous somme ici!

Connie (my mother) and I got tired of killing time in her apartment and decided to have dinner at the airport. Somehow we managed to stay awake until our 11:30 flight, but my mom was asleep soon after takeoff. I, of course, was up all night, as I can't sleep sitting up, ever. I find that listening to music helps a lot, although it can be a long night when everyone else is snoring.

The flight was perfectly normal and uneventful. I didn't even have to pay baggage overweight fees as I had been expecting. So based on this limited experience, thumbs-up for XL Airways France. We took a cab to our hotel.

I chose a hotel further out of the centre than we normally would, The Hotel Sport, in the 12e, near the Bois de Vicennes. This allowed us a slightly upgraded room at a budget price, plus we love to stay in a more residential area.

As soon as the cab pulled up, we were happy. We're in an archetypal Parisian - or European urban - neighbourhood: wide, tree-lined streets stocked with a florist, patisserie, small supermarket, and all manner of bistros and cafes. Our room wasn't ready, so even though we were somewhat disheveled, we walked around a bit and settled on a place to eat, Le Tramway.

I couldn't help but feel a bit sad that Allan wasn't with me: it was our kind of place, down to the chalkboard specials and the street-facing rattan chairs. After two cafe cremes, Connie and I ordered two simple salades composee, and the standard French miracle occurred. Mine, a seafood salad, was piled with exquisite smoked salmon, herring, shrimp. crab meat, and octopus. My mom's was a cheese plate, a small mountain of toasted goat's brie, luscious bleu, and a few other cheeses we didn't identify. Both were gorgeously arranged on perfect - and perfectly beautiful - green salads. Just a little neighbourhood lunch...

Connie and I love that after a day of sightseeing, we can have dinner in the neighbourhood and saunter (stagger?) back to the hotel.

Today, we were hoping for a boat ride on the Seine, thinking it would be the perfect low-impact activity for jet-lagged brains, but the weather is cool and wet, so we scrapped that. Thinking we were shopping for something we need, but completely miscalculating, we ended up wandering around Le Bon Marche, Paris' oldest department store. It is elegant and understated, but still over the top.

We also wandered around Le Grand Epicerie, the store's giant food hall [Allan, if you're reading, you should remember this], and then stumbled on the same chocolate store Allan and I were wowed by last year. My mother, for whom every bite of good food is the single greatest food experience ever, was beside herself. You would think she was raised by wolves or something.

The best part of this brief outing was showing Connie how easy it is to use the Metro. I could tell she was a little apprehensive, especially when she saw how many stops away we were, and that we had to change lines. She wanted me to write down the stop name (I did not, it's useless) and she didn't understand how we could walk to the Metro without knowing exactly where we were going. (Answer: big maps in station.)

So we did it, and she loved it. The Paris Metro is fast, clean, quiet, and above all, frequent. Although changing between lines is often highly inaccessible (lots of stairs), if you can do it, you can get almost anywhere. There are also buses, which are accessible, but I don't know how much of the city they serve.

Everywhere, people have been friendly and helpful. My French sucks, but I keep trying.

Speaking of which, staff from XL Airways saw my Canadian passport and greeted me en francais. I should have just faked it.

[Please forgive French sans accent marks. I am having horrible keyboard trouble.]


tablet update and off to paris

I've had a busy and wonderful couple of days visiting family and friends. Today my mom and I are planning our sightseeing, packing, doing last-minute errands, and generally getting in vacation mode.

What i'm writing on

I'm loving my new Nexus 7 tablet... with reservations, or perhaps just a learning curve.

The tablet itself is terrific. Once I got up to speed with Android functionality and interface, it was obvious why people prefer tablets for most online activities, especially those with no or minimal typing. The Nexus is amazing - speed, portability, ease of use, everything. It is magnitudes better than the Samsung Galaxy I use at work; in fact, the Samsung was partly fueling my skepticism about tablets.

The reservation is still the keyboard issue. I've reluctantly made my peace with touch-screen technology, and the on-screen keyboard with judicious use of predictive text works fine for minimal needs. But for actual writing... not so much.

I bought a keyboard/case/stand combo by Minisuit. I'm very good at adjusting to all different keyboards, but even so, this one presents a challenge. It's too small for touch typing, so I'm typing with two or three fingers, which slows me down considerably. Also, the cursor often jumps on its own, so I suddenly find myself typing in a different part of the screen. Is that a known issue with Bluetooth keyboards?

I definitely see the attraction of the ASUS Transformer tablet that doubles as a netbook, but it was both out of my price range and much bigger than I wanted. I can't justify having a desktop home computer, a tablet, and a netbook; I need one mobile device that will work for whatever I need.

So this leaves me typing this blog post at about half my usual blazing typing speed.

What we're flying on

Mom and I take off tonight on XL Airways France. I had never heard of this airline before, but fares were much lower, and reviews sounded fine. Instead of paying a good $1,000 per person for a round-trip to Europe, we squeaked in at $725 each, including all taxes and one free checked bag. XL Airways France doesn't fly from Toronto, but since they serve the Francophone world, I wonder if they will eventually have flights from Montreal.

See you next from Paris.


in which I go to paris... with my mother!

From my Flickr page
My mother said, "I want to go to Paris. I want to see Paris one more time while I'm still healthy enough and mobile enough to enjoy it. But..." - here comes the good part - "I have no one to go with." My mom's best friend passed away some years ago, and none of her other travel buddies are available anymore. I almost blurted out, "I'll go with you!" but I thought, better run this by Allan first.

Allan and I have each taken small trips without the other, but never for a full vacation, and never to a place we both love so much. Not that Allan would ask me not to go, but just how bad would it make him feel? Fortunately, when we went to Spain last year, we made brief stops in both London and Paris, so the answer was, not as bad as it might have!

I called my mom - "Remember you said you had no one to go to Paris with...?" - and she was over the moon. We talked a lot about what kind of trip it would be - what we wanted to see, where we'd stay, and so forth - and I planned the whole thing for us.

On Monday, May 5, I go to New York to visit with friends and family, then on Wednesday night, my mom and I fly to Paris together.

Last May was my first European trip since 1998... and now I'm going again the following year. And as an extra-bonus-very-special-highlight, my great friend R will join us for a day, taking the train from London. When R and I saw each other last year, it was the first time in 14 years.

If you dislike when this blog turns into a travel journal, consider this your warning. Although my mother and I have each been to Paris several times, neither of us has seen many of the most famous sites for a very long time. We're planning to re-visit many places, and will also visit Giverny, and Rouen.

You know, when NN and I went to Europe after graduating university in 1982, I truly believed that would be my only trip there. I had such a great hunger to travel, and I couldn't conceive of a life where I could make those choices. Now, I can't say I've realized my travel dreams - that really would be impossible - but it's comforting to think about where I've been and where I might still go.


what i'm reading: what's a dog for by john homans

John Homans' What's a Dog For? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend is my kind of dog book. I don't care for memoirs of heartwarming doggie hijinks or heartbreaking rescue odysseys. I've lived those stories myself, and books of that sort don't advance my knowledge of the species I've shared most of my life with. I am endlessly fascinated by canine behaviour - by what we know, and don't know, about dogs. So is John Homans. Homans is the executive editor of New York magazine, and before he adopted his lab-mix Stella, was a relative novice about dogs and the human cultures that surround them. He became curious... and so we have this very informative and entertaining book.

What's a Dog For? is a survey of canine science to date, and a history of the evolution of humans' relationship to the domesticated canine (that is, humans in one part of the world). Homans describes new trends in canine science, introducing readers to the proponents and detractors of the "convergence" theory, which holds that living so closely among humans has changed the dog's brain and made it more like humans. This type of study, Homans says, "is intended to shed light not only on what makes dogs dogs but also on what makes people people." Much is made over a dog's ability to understand a pointing motion, something even chimpanzees and other non-human primates can't do. Anyone who has marvelled at how their dog seems to read their mind will enjoy the analysis of this seemingly simple communication.

As the title says, What's a Dog For? is also a book about history and politics. Homans walks us through the evolution of attitudes towards dogs in our society, from the days of rampant and brutal experimentation (much of it with no scientific value), to the mania of inbreeding for specific appearances, to the mass euthanizations of "the pound" (thought to be humane in its day), to no-kill shelters, spay-neutering awareness, and the current culture of rescue and adoption. The book is not a polemic, and the most disturbing parts of that history are merely stated, not described in gory detail. But What's a Dog For? is definitely a book with a point of view - not a radical point of view, but one that many readers will find enlightened and perhaps a bit provocative.

Homans sometimes oversimplifies and stretches reality to make a point. In researching Stella's roots, Homans discovers what he calls a North-South, or red-state-blue-state, divide, between the US states where lax animal-cruelty laws reflect regressive attitudes towards animals, and states that supposedly protect animals. In the world of dog-rescue, this amounts to supply and demand: a large number of dogs are rescued from puppy-mills in Tennessee, Kentucky, and other Southern states to be adopted in Northern states.

While that last part is true, it is only part of the picture. In order to make his animal-cruelty story work, Homans writes, "If we leave out pit bulls...", thus negating an egregious form of cruelty to dogs, which takes place all over the US, in both urban and rural areas. Homans adheres to the red-state-blue-state divide as if he doesn't know that New York City may be blue, but the rest of New York State is red, or that rural California between the Bay Area and Los Angeles does not exist. Pennsylvania, a northern state, was the puppy-mill capital of the US not very long ago. It's not necessary to paint "the South" as an ignorant backwater and "the North" as the land of enlightenment; neither is accurate. Having lived most of my life in the US, I find that dichotomy a bit ridiculous, and I wish Homans hadn't framed a big segment of his story around it.

These criticisms aside, What's a Dog For? has much to recommend it. Charles Darwin and Jane Goodall both figure into the story, as does Pavlov, but the reader is introduced to the work of many anthropologists, psychologists, and animal behaviourists who are not household names, who are advancing our knowledge of both canines and ourselves. The history of dog breeding, of the now-defunct high-kill shelters, and of the animal-rescue movement, is a hopeful one. Here in North America, it's an unfinished story, and in much of the world, it has yet to begin.

I didn't always agree with Homans' conclusions, but I'm grateful for his curiosity. He's unpacked many fascinating stories and tied them together in an excellent book.