Part 8: France and England

The next day was largely a travel day to London via Chunnel. I actually do prefer trains to planes because it’s a lot less of a hassle. Plus you leave from the center of the city (usually) and arrive in the center of the city. I wish we had the fast trains in the US. Imagine going to NY in 5 hours or something! It was a pleasant ride as always. However, we did see some small shanty towns in France before Calais. Stark reminder of the contrast of worlds.

When we got to London, we threw our bags into the hotel (a common occurrence) and ran to the British Museum. We were staying a block and a half away. It was about 4 o’clock and the museum closed at 5. We had a little bit of time to say hello to our favorite galleries: the Ancient Egyptian, the Parthenon Marbles. I had a chance to wander in the old fashioned galleries that try to tell the story of the history of the museum and recreate a little bit how things were displayed. I love the stories on the cards. There is an Indian currency that is both in Greek and the particular Indian language of the region. Yeah, the Greeks got as far as India. This coin helped decode the language since it had the Greeks.

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The Egyptian Galleries are amazing. 

Also, there’s a copy of the Rosetta Stone in that gallery that you can touch. Or in my case, hug.

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The fake Rosetta Stone

The following day was spent at the Middle Temple. This was my fifth year of preparing a speech for the Loyola Law Program in London. My topic this year was the history of coffeehouses, tea and Twinings. Some readers of this blog know that I find food history fascinating. It’s a wonderful intersection of all different kinds of history: social, cultural, economic and political. I talked about the contested history of coffeehouses in Britain. While they were spaces to discuss and read news and research, this new order wasn’t simply accepted by society. The monarchy and parliament were wary of this new social space and they attempted to control it. Also the news could be libelous or completely fraudulent; being told that something “coffeehouse news” was not a compliment.

One neat thing about coffeehouses was that they specialized in specific professions, regions of England etc. There was a coffeehouse for stockjobbers, another for actors, another for maritime traders. Lloyds, you know the insurance company, came out of a coffeehouse by that name that specialized in maritime trade. It published its own newspaper and a group of insurance brokers came together to create the insurance company.

The funniest thing I learned was how people were really suspicious of coffee. It has suspicious origins: Turkey. Most English and other Europeans experienced it for the first time and due to the prejudices of the age, Turkey was morally suspect. Generally anything foreign was. Some people warned against the dangers of coffeehouses and coffee. They thought men spent too much time there, impacting their virility!

That’s all for now. Next time I’ll talk about the Twinings part of the speech and the second part of our day in London.

France and England: Part 7

It was the day of the Louis Vuitton Foundation. A year ago, the Foundation had opened. It’s a collection of contemporary art in a building designed by Frank Gehry in the outskirts of Paris. You had to reserve tickets. Last time we were in Paris, the only available ticket times were at the same time as the Cirque d’Hiver. Sacrifices had to be made. On this trip, I was committed to making it. I booked our tickets.

However, I woke up feeling rather horrid. I’m still not sure if it was a stomach flu or food poisoning but I did not feel well. But as I said, I’m committed. We ended up taking a cab to the Foundation instead of trying their 1 euro bus near the Arc de Triompe.

The building was incredible. It’s a real testament to Frank Gehry’s work. Every angle revealed a different view. Parts of it are open to the elements. Simply magnificent. Worth the trip alone.

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Fondation Louis Vuitton

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Another View from the Fondation Louis Vuitton

The collection…Well, it contained a lot of contemporary art. To be honest, most of it wasn’t my taste. Lots of abstract work, video installations, which aren’t my cup of tea. However, they did have an amazing piece by Marina Abramovic where there were about six metronomes on the wall, each ticking away. You were invited to sit down in a beach chair in front of any of the six and listen for as long as you wanted. She recommended 40 minutes. It was a wonderful experience. It was comfy chair. I closed my eyes just to listen to the metronomes. They were at slightly different speeds so they would cycle through complete synchronization and then fall apart. It almost sounded like the ball being hit between two tennis players.

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Marina Abramovic’s piece

There were some other works. Some photographs of car races by Andreas Gursky were sort of interesting. Not my favorite of his works. There was a beautiful two story silver flower that was pretty cool too. We also passed through the event space by accident. It was filled with the paintings of Ellsworth Kelly, who would die the following day. His giant canvas of bright single color hung around the empty room. I think it would have been a neat place to have an event.

To get back, we took the 1 euro shuttle, which was pretty comfortable, to the Arc de Triompe and took the metro back to the hotel.

That afternoon, after a nap, we took a walking tour with Paris Walks. I’ve talked about them before but it bears repeating. They have walking tours on diverse subjects all over Paris. The tours are led by ex-pats (American and English) and they are really good. The walks are fairly inexpensive (12 euros) for a two hour tour. BUt make sure you are ready to walk. We did their French Revolution tour, which was basically outside our door!

We learned about a lot of the places around our hotel that had importance during the Revolution. THere’s a tiny pedestrian street that was where the guillotine was perfected. Apparently, Louis XVI finalized the design but suggesting a slanted blade instead of a curved one. Creepy! We also discovered that one of the few remaining public sculptures of the meter was just around the corner. During the Revolution, they tried to force everyone to use the metric system so they displayed measures on walls throughout the city so people would know what a meter was. Very cool.

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Meter!

That’s all for now! Tomorrow we are off to London! Land of the Queen!

France and England: Part 6

The following day, we started at the Louvre. I discovered that my husband had never been (never said a word!) so I decided to rectify this oversight. We bought tickets in advance, which was the right call, especially for the Louvre. We got there close to when it opened and there was already a line around the square. Thankfully our advance tickets got us to skip the line and pretty much immediately made it inside the museum.

So I decided that we would go on my Highlight Tour of the Louvre since we had about two hours there (I know, I know. But two hours is better than zero hours). So we scampered off to the Mona Lisa to get there early in the hopes it wouldn’t be mobbed. On the way, we passed Winged Victory; it was magnificent as always!

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Winged Victory

We found the Mona Lisa quickly and as always, it was very crowded. I had to resist the urge to take photos of people taking photos of it… We spent some additional time in the Renaissance hallway that leads to the Mona Lisa. I found some amazing Arcimboldo paintings depicting a profile of a person made up with vegetables, flowers, leaves and other natural things, one for each season. I love his work since it is surrealist before it was a thing. (Same goes for Hieronymus Bosch).

Then it was time to head off to find the Venus de Milo. On the way, we passed by Michelangelo’s Captives, two sculptures of men trying to escape from their chains, the marble itself. Amazing as always. On the way to the Venus de Milo, we ended up in a gallery of artifacts from Cyprus, which was very impressive. They had this monumental sculpture of a woman that really dominated the room. And there was a beautiful mosaic floor. The Venus de Milo was striking as always.

We ventured off to see the Egyptian galleries, which are my favorite. I managed to find the Zodiac ceiling of Dendera, one of the five treasures that Egypt wants back. This ceiling, taken from a temple by explosives, shows the night sky and suggests that the Ancient Egyptians knew about eclipses and whatnot. Very impressive stuff. Sadly, it’s kinda tucked away in an off room so you might miss it if you don’t know it’s there. Should be front and center like the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum. Alas.

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Sphinx Installation

Our final stop was the decorative art galleries on the second or third floor. There were several Louis XVI (or an earlier Louis) style rooms. We found Marie Antoinette’s traveling case! We also found a neat interactive video that talked about the foods that were eaten.

That rounded up our trip to the Louvre!

Afterwards, we had a nice walk before we ate at a restaurant near Les Halles. I had a classic steak frites. But I got to taste a little bit of a Steak Tartare, which I’ve always wanted to try. I love my meat rare, almost blue, but I’ve never gotten the nerve to order this classic French dish. I knew that I couldn’t quite handle an entire meal of it but the taste I had was so good!

Then we decided to go to Angelina’s, a fancy pastry place on the Rue di Rivoli. We waited in line outside but only for about 20 minutes before we got a table. This place has the best hot chocolate in the world. Thick and tasty. It’s an entire meal. I decided that I wanted slightly lighter fare so I ordered their Christmas tea. But I also wanted a pastry. I sort of chose at random and got a fruity thing that was fine. The tea was fantastic. My husband and our friend got the chocolate and they were very pleased.

Thankfully, we had a long walk home to the hotel after the heavy lunch and then heavier snack! We walked through Tuileries park and watched the Eiffel Tower twinkle in the distance.

Oh Paris.

That night, we had Japanese food for a change of pace and then watched The Big Short. Holy cow, that movie is amazing. One of the best from last year! And this time, the show completely sold out!

Tomorrow, I’ll finally talk about the Louis Vuitton Foundation and the French Revolution Tour!

That’s all for now!

France and England: Part 5

Christmas day in Paris! We had a late start in the morning since it was Christmas day. We spent the morning just wandering around the city. Mostly everything was closed but people were out and about.

We went to Luxembourg gardens nearby and enjoyed the little bit of nature. The grass was still green, which is always amazing to me since Chicago is usually a barren wasteland of ice and snow by mid-November. Along the gates of the park, there is always a photography exhibition. One year it was political cartoons, another year it was animals of the jungle. This time, the exhibition dealt with bees and beekeeping practices around the world. I have a soft spot in my heart for bees (a hobby I plan to take up in my retirement like Sherlock Holmes) so this was really neat.

On the way back to the hotel, we saw a cafe or bar that seemed to specialize in broadcasting lucha libre. I’m seeing more and more Mexican restaurants in France, which is interesting. I’ve only tried Mexican food once in France (in Nice incidentally) and it’s a mistake I’ll never make again. The signs on this cafe/bar though are pretty swell.

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Lucha Libre Bar

That afternoon, we attended the Cirque d’Hiver again! This was our third year going to this Paris institution. Again, we were the only people without children with us. The main clown was a clear homage to Jerry Lewis and the show began and ended with him putting on and taking off his makeup and clown clothing. The circus was top notch as always. This time the show started with tigers. Very odd to see tigers jumping and sitting up on their hind feet. What beautiful creatures. There was also a guy with trained parrots, which was pretty cool. One drove a little car!

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Cirque d’Hiver

The best piece was this duo acrobats who did foot juggling but with a person instead of a ball or a chair. Very impressive as the one acrobat flipped the other through the air with his legs and feet! There was also a cool trio hand-balancing act where they did things that seemed impossible. I love when circus does that!

I thought the flying trapeze with a 1920s Parisian theme was really quite good. I’ve seen a fair amount of flying trapeze acts and they don’t give me the same thrill anymore. But this one had a special energy or something that made it stand out from the rest.

On the way home to the hotel, we did pass Bataclan theater where people had died in the terrorist attacks in November. People were still putting flowers and other memorials nearby the theater. What a tragedy. We also passed the Place of the Republic where people are putting memorials near an impressive statue of Liberty. Incredible.

That night, we had our Christmas dinner at Le Procope, the oldest restaurant in Paris. It actually started out as a coffeehouse and was frequented by the stars of the Enlightenment. It has both Rousseau’s and Voltaire’s desks. Also, the founding fathers, like Benjamin Franklin, also frequented the place. In the foyer, they have Napoleon’s tri-corner hat on display; apparently, he left it as collateral for an unpaid bill!

My mom and I opted for the giant sea platter for our Christmas dinner. I love love love oysters. This platter had four different types of oysters including weird black inky ones that stained my skirt. THere were big shrimp, langoustines, and tiny tiny shrimp. So good!

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Our Christmas Feast

After dinner, we decided to go to a movie, a recent tradition on our European winter holidays. Past years, we’ve seen the Hobbit movies. So this time, we saw Star Wars VII even though we had already seen it. It’s a fun experience going to a movie theater in a foreign country. It’s a different experience. Aside from France, I’ve never done it anywhere outside of the US. We had to wait outside for the movie (kinda like NYC). The commercials are all in French which is fun and strange. You get to see trailers for movies that may never make it to the US. THe movie was fun the second time around. It was in the biggest screen in the movie house but it was far from full. The Big Short, in contrast, was sold out.

That’s all for now. Tomorrow I’ll talk about our trip to the Louis Vuitton Foundation and a French Revolution walking tour!

France and England: Part 4

The next day, we flew to Paris for Christmas Eve. We got there early enough so it was still fairly busy but all the shops would close early. Our first stop was the little Christmas market at St. Germain de Pres. It’s a staple of our Christmas visits. Several little booths sell various goods including Russian boxes and pins, cheeses, and jewelry. There, I got my Nutella crepe from a little stand. It was everything I could have hoped for. I’ve mentioned this time and time again, nothing tastes as good as a Nutella crepe from a hole in the wall in the streets of Paris.

I also stopped by my favorite tea shop in Paris, called Lupicia. I believe it is a Japanese company but they have very few locations. THere’s one in San Francisco. So this Paris location is one of the few I can make it too outside of the Japan itself. The tea is really good – especially some of their holiday tea. But you can also buy a teapot for 800 euros. So yeah.

We spent a few hours just wandering the streets of Paris, my favorite activity. We walked on level with the Seine, something I don’t do very often when we visit. It was neat to see the house boats up close but also to see the bridges from below. We could see all the different faces on the Pont Neuf. What wonderful grotesque faces! We also saw marks indicating how high the river got at various points in Parisian history.

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Next to the Seine

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A Face on Pont Neuf

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Marking River Heights

We found ourselves at Notre Dame. However, due to the elevated security, we actually had to be searched twice before we could get into the Cathedral. But once in, it was magnificent as always. It’s one of my favorite places in the city (I really love medieval architecture). Beautiful stained glass, amazing wood carvings. The creche this year was a giant Kraków szopka, which was really cool. They also had a place where you could write notes for peace and slip them into a giant glass/plastic cube.

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Notre Dame at Night

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Kraków szopka

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped by the Shakespeare & Company bookstore nearby Notre Dame. Now that I know more of the history, I’ve really grown to love the place. It reminds me of the old Seminary Co-op, windy rooms with nooks and crannies overflowing with books. Upstairs, there is a reading room where you can use the books on the shelves. There’s a piano and a typewriter. Very picturesque.

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Staircase at Shakespeare & Co.

That’s all for now!

France and England: Part 3

Then it was our last day in Nice! We spent the morning in Nice, wandering around the city. We tried to go to the Chagall Museum, which I remember being quiet good. (I don’t have good memories of the Matisse Museum). However, when we got there, we discovered that it was closed the entire we were in France. So boo.

We decided that we were not going to be deterred from enjoying the sights of the city. We decided to walk to the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral. It was such a lovely day; I even took off my jacket. The Cathedral is simply magnificent. Inside, it is beautifully decorated as well. We walked around the grounds, enjoying the sun and the architecture.

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St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral

We wandered back to the hotel, making a short detour at a chocolate shop. The chocolate shops throughout France are truly special. There’s the incredible displays, especially for Christmas. I’ve seen displays of life size chocolate gorillas, or small wondrous creatures made of chocolate and other goods. But then the actual items for sale are simply magical. This place in Nice had a giant wall of different kinds of chocolate bars. I ended up choosing one with sugared violet in dark chocolate and another with sesame seeds in dark chocolate. Also, I bought marron glace or sugared chestnut for my husband and I. Almost so sweet that it made my teeth hurt! So good!

We had a very informal lunch of some sandwiches from a nearby shop in my parent’s room. We had a wonderful view of the beach and the Mediterranean. It was a simple sandwich of ham, cheese and butter.

We spent our afternoon in another perched village named Eze. It’s on the way to Monaco and was apparently frequented by Nietzsche (he had a special path). Also, it was a town captured by the Moors back in the day. We’ve only recently found it but it’s quiet charming. It has a decent number of art galleries, jewelry shops and tourist shops but much of it was closed for the holiday. St. Paul de Vence is much much more established and bigger. But Eze has a certain charm. So much easier to get lost in its windy stone streets. There’s a little cemetery too but smaller and more constrained than the one in St. Paul. There’s a botanical garden at the very top that we’ve never managed to get to. This time it was closed. But we did get to see a storm coming in the distance. It was neat to see the fog rolling down the hills from a distance.

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View of the Fog from Eze

When we got back to Nice, we went to the Museum of Massena, close to the hotel. The museum is largely about the history of Nice in a beautiful palace. Andre Massena, the namesake of the museum, was a pretty awesome general during the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon nicknamed him “The Dear Child of Victory.” Throughout the museum, you can see his admiration for Napoleon including frescoes (or something akin) of various victories. There’s also a lot of neat artifacts including items from both Napoleon and Josephine. There’s a room of old advertisements in poster and playbill form that made me really happy. There’s even a fantastic picture of Queen Victoria…I think she liked vacationing in Nice.

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Inside Massena Museum

That night we tried to find a place that served Bouillabaisse, the French fish stew. It was actually harder than we expected given that we were in the South of France next to the sea. The Koudoo restaurant had a version of it, a sort of Bouillabaisse for beginners. It was much smaller and less soupy. The broth wasn’t nearly as flavorful as I would have hoped. Oh well! (Those mussels that I had the other night were amazing).

That’s all for now. Next time, I’ll talk about our time in Paris on Christmas Eve.