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Archive for April 2010

After a delightful (seriously) ten hour flight on United Airlines from London to San Francisco and a pleasant flight from California to Washington…I touched down on American soil and have been going nonstop since the plane landed.  I have been surrounded by loved ones of every age and have not yet unpacked a thing.  It may take me a bit longer than I expected to get caught up with my postings…as it seems many people, places and things were waiting patiently for my return.  The jet lag and eight hour time difference are nothing compared to the tasks that lay stretched out in front of me.  Thank you for your understanding.  
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 There are some incredible photos and wonderful stories from London waiting to be shared.  Captured images include stunning architectural dream buildings and gardens filled with handsomely placed flower beds…parks decorated in true spring form with families and friends…lovers holding hands and every possible combination of humanity enjoying the natural feast with wide eyed wonder.  Beautiful statues and heritage buildings well known to tourists are also part of my collective effort to capture historic London while appreciating modern renditions on this perfect spring day.  I hope you will visit each of the new London photo albums once they are set in place.  An earnest attempt was made to honor both old and new…representing each in the best possible light.  If by chance you find yourself in London some day…I would encourage you to mix and mingle with the many smiling faces at your disposal.  Do not be too shy to ask if there is a great  place is for enjoying a picnic…or which building they find the most interesting.  Don’t be surprised if they share knowledge of the Beatles store on Baker street or recall stories from their childhood where legendary characters were larger than life.  Exploring is only half the fun without knowing the secrets every person and beautiful place will share…if only you are willing to listen.  I wrongly assumed that a few days in England would provide extra time for organization.  Ha !!!  Between the amazing pools to swim in…lovely old pubs to treasure…and new haunts waiting to be explored…I neither slept nor slowed down a bit.  I sincerely apologize for the delay in postings…but the look on my face says it all.  I am loving every moment of every day…and have some incredible photos and stories to share of my journey and the many wonderful people I have come to know along the way.  The colorful cast of collective heroes and wonderful people I have come to know along the way will be forthcoming soon.
The immense greenery of Vienna was perhaps the most striking feature that caught my eye during my brief visit to Austria.  Crops are strewn in widely swept rows with mustard yellow colored plants in between.  As bright and freshly green as the landscape appears…I was even more curious about the tall row of trees that divide plots on all four sides.  Unlike a windbreak scenario where the wind is menacing from one particular side…the large sections of land are surrounded with trees that would seem to provide ample shade and perhaps serve as a boundary of sorts.  Fencing was not to be seen.  Vienna is rightfully quite proud of Mozart.  His image and music are seen everywhere and on any possible combination of consumable and household goods from chocolates to music boxes that bear his beloved music.  Every single person I encountered were friendly and eager to share their knowledge of Austria.  A return trip will be in order and at that point in time I will attempt to paint a visual picture of this enchanting land.    
  I sampled a taste of Brazil before boarding a cruise ship for eighteen glorious nights.  The sea portion of my magnificent vacation was nearly over when I learned that my youngest child had wrecked her car.  She was understandably pretty upset by the ordeal…so I said "Come to Paris".  Everything just seems to look better when you are sitting in the most amazing city in the world.  My child noted that a close friend would give anything to be able to see Paris again.  A very high fever had ruined her friend’s only trip five years ago and sadly…her vision of Paris was little more than a blur.   So…I bought two pairs of tickets instead of one.  Before the ship docked in Italy…my plans had changed from touring an additional twenty countries by train…to a few days on the beach in Italy followed by locating a new apartment in Paris.  Our normal haunt for our annual mother and daughter Paris trip was not available.  I placed an ad searching for a place to rent for a month.  I intended to run around Paris for a few weeks and be joined by the girls for a dream vacation together.  I am one of those Moms who would move heaven and earth for her kids…sparing no expense when it comes to making memories.  I leased an apartment along the canal and set about exploring the new neighborhood.  Everything was in place long before the girls were set to depart.  They had weeks to do the usual "shop till you drop" and spent a good part of every day making plans for their arrival.  Not a moment would be wasted.  They were to fly from Washington to Utah and then to Pennsylvania before the final flight to Paris.  When the girls got to the airport to board their first flight…the final flight from Philadelphia to Paris was being cancelled.  They asked the ticket agent for help but were only told to call the 1 800 number or get online at www.Delta.com.  The girls called me frantically not knowing what to do as the ticket agent would not help them at all.  I had been checking with the web site and it was "not available at this time"…and the 1 800 number had a recording that said they were not able to answer the phone and to try back later.  When the girls got to their gate I asked them to hand the phone to the gate agent…and the gentleman said a few airports may still be open for options to land…Shannon, Ireland or one of two airports in Scotland.  Their flight was called and off they flew.  As soon as they landed…the girls went straight to the Delta agent to ask for help.  The Delta agent in Salt Lake told them they had to use the international phone line in another terminal.  If they would have gone to the other terminal they would have missed their flight to Philiadelphia.  Missing any leg of a trip pretty well means your journey ends there.  And so off to Philly they went with no help from the airlines.  I assured them that I would have options lined up before their plane touched down.  I was able to get online in Paris and gathered some ideas.  I was unable to get any assistance from Delta either over the phone or online.  The girls could have gotten a room at the Westin Hotel which is connected by skybridge to a mall with seventy stores and restaurants.  They could have stayed at another nice hotel and been close to the Liberty Bell and Independence Square…or enjoyed a tour on the famed bus that would show them all the well known spots.  As the girls were now going to be stranded three thousand miles away from home…and had been refused any kind of help at all from the airline they were flying on…they were understandably concerned.  They were too young to rent a car…and too young to get a hotel room on their own.  They were not given any food or water or travelers assistance of any kind.  I made the decision to buy them four more tickets and flew them to Florida for three days to allow the volcano to settle down a bit.  There are relatives in Florida about two hours away from Orlando…so off they flew.  I spent the next eighteen hours on the phone and internet trying to make arrangements for them to fly into anywhere in Europe where I could retrieve them.  I considered Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, the south of France, Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany and more.  The few times I was able to connect with a Delta representative I found the agents rude and unhelpful.  Okay…I am an airline brat.  My Mom worked for an airline for many years…and I have nothing but respect and appreciation for the job reservation agents do…as I know every aspect of their often thankless position.  I had taken the time to write a commentary for a well known publication asking people to be kind to others in the volcano crisis…to dig deep and produce all the patience they could find.  I asked for people with means to consider buying a meal for a young family…to buy two water bottles and give one to a stranger…to share their cell phone and more as everyone is in the same boat but with different size wallets.  Something as simple as buying a coloring book and crayons for a young child could make a big difference in this stressful time.  As there was no other place in Paris to sit down and talk to Delta face to face…I opted for taking the metro and then the train to Charles de Gaulle airport.  The airport is about 45 minutes away from Paris…and the cheapest cost of making the trek (by train) is 17 Euro.  When I got to Charles de Gaulle I was not prepared for what greeted my eyes.  A veritable ghost town sprawled in front of me.  I walked outside from terminal to terminal without seeing a sole.  A Russian girl pounced on me in hopes that I might have change so she could use the internet.  A young family on the train discussed their options.  A British gentleman said his family had been put up in a hotel for three nights and he simply had to leave them behind to return to work in London.  When I arrived in Terminal 2…the Air France counter was alive with activity.  As the final flight that was cancelled for the girls was an Air France flight through Delta…I got in line at the Air France counter.  The Delta counter was closed that day.   An Air France representative stood at the end of the line asking questions to ensure no one would wait in line needlessly.  Another agent handed out bottles of water.  There were trays of sandwiches on the counter.  We all waited in line for more than an hour…but no one seemed to mind as they were clearly doing the best they could to help everyone.  When it was my turn I was given confirmed seating for the girls on a flight from JFK in New York to Toulouse in the south of France.  They would need to get from Orlando Florida to La Guardia and then take a shuttle to JFK but I did not mind.    UNEDITED AND NOT ANYWHERE NEAR COMPLETED YET…ARTICLE IN THE MAKING. 
Not surprisingly…perhaps some of the best kept secrets are not only unknown to tourists…but to many Parisians as well.   Montparnasse Tower is one of them.  This magnificent structure stands proudly visible for many miles in any direction.  The cozy observation deck encircles the 56th floor.  I use the word cozy in the nicest possible connotation.  No matter what the weather might be like outside…this is clearly a warmly inviting place to visit.  Wise travelers will come back again and again…as there is nothing that rivals the splendor it has to offer.  The elevator is said to be the fastest in all of Europe…ascending more than 600 feet in all of thirty eight seconds.  This fact sounded a bit daunting to me as I envisioned a heart stopping ride with perhaps my own hair standing straight up on my head upon my exit.  This was clearly not the case.  It was in fact one of the smoothest elevator rides I have ever had the privilege to enjoy.  As you depart the elevator and enter the largest room…you will have your photo taken as a courtesy…in the event you may opt for any variety of pictures as a forever souvenir.  There is no attempt at all to sell you anything…and we could easily have walked out forgetting about having had the photo taken.  You have a choices of daylight, midday or illuminated night time views from the tower as a backdrop.  Packages were quite reasonably priced.  The gift shop offered some wonderful choices in very affordable price ranges to ensure no tourist young or old would have to go home empty handed.  There is a video room complete with images and descriptions of notable landmarks in Paris.  Just outside of this room is an interactive floor surprise that was enjoyable for children and adults alike.  A cafe in the main room beckons you to sit back…relax and enjoy the journey as you imbibe in something to quench your thirst or please  your palette.   The atmosphere is casual and comfortable in such a way that you forget you are in the midst of a very large city.  And in keeping with my pattern of story telling…the best is yet to come.  If you opt to ascend a couple of short stairwells…there is a rooftop view that will take your breath away.  From this incredible vantage point…you can see all of Paris and take perhaps the most amazing photographic memories of your entire trip.  In all fairness…I have to admit something to you.  I have a new camera.  In the nearly two months I have owned it…the telescopic lens has remained in the packaging in anticipation of the right moment to try it out.  Yesterday that moment presented itself.  The majority of my photos in the new Montparnasse album were taken with the regular lens.  The few pictures I took using the telescopic lens are quite obvious.  I walked around and around on the rooftop almost forgetting all semblance of time and the young Belgian girls with whom I shared the day.  We met a few days before at the Cafe Trocadero and exchanged information with the intention of going to Montparnasse together for the first time.  The tower is featured in a movie and is quite well known throughout the land because of the wide exposure.  In the film it is noted that only workers are allowed in the actual tower.  Sadly, I discovered a large number of French residents as well as many tourists from all over the world had no idea that anyone was allowed inside.   Admission is very modest (Adult fare as of this writing is only eleven Euro) and lower prices are available for every other age category.  You need not be a tourist to enjoy the wonderful treasures that await you at Montparnasse Tower.  A short metro ride away held another delightful surprise.  Most visitors to Paris catch only the smallest glimpse of the famed Parisian landmark known as the Champs-Elysees’.  I sincerely apologize for not having a French keyboard to write this article as I am sorely aware of misplaced punctuation.  I will sentence myself to one hour of typing on a French keyboard as penance.  It is always a surprise for tourists to discover that some of the letters of the alphabet have been moved.  The Champs-Elysees’ is widely known for the seemingly endless designer stores and the infamous Arc de Triumphe in plain view.  Many people opt to walk under the street to cross over and see the eternal flame and sombering tribute to lost soldiers.  I will cover this wonderful heritage sight another time…but it is the corner stone of the Champs-Elysees as well.  The avenue is widely traveled and built with just that purpose in mind.  The traffic lanes are intended for perpetual travel on a grand scale.   Sidewalks on both sides of the avenue are like none other I have ever seen.  They were meant to afford leisurely walking and shopping visiting side by side with your friends and loved ones.  The lavish displays and ample cafes dotted along the way are a gentle reminder that you have in fact arrived.  The importance of such a place does not go unnoticed.  With a short walk of the Arc de Triumphe you will encounter many famous designer stores offering every kind of merchandise.  Beautiful young women like Katy Holmes can readily blend in and maintain a sense of normalcy.  At last…a chance to be stylishing attired in a celebrity rich environment void of intrusion.  If you are in the mood for a bit of excitement the Lido show proffers superior entertainment.  Most people tend to get caught up in the enormity of it all and seldom wander past the first block or two.  The effort to go even one more block can make all the difference in the world.  There is an incredibly adorable little coffee shop decorated in pink on one side of the avenue.  The car dealerships have space age modern displays and colorfully built and designed buildings to inspire the inner child in all of us.   As you approach what appears to be the end of this section…there is a stunning display of floral elegance that meets the eye in every direction.  If you think of a roundabout being like a pie neatly divided into slices…each slice is a different color where countless blooms nestled at the base of trees meet perfect spring grass and landscaping your eyes will dream of long after your journey to Paris has ended.  The fountains that normally adorn each bed of flowers were not fully prepared for spring time yet…but the view in front of you is already sheer perfection.  I will spare you the details of all the wonder and surprise I have left out of my wide eyed stroll through Paris…as you will no doubt want to discover them for yourself.  I will however tempt and tease you with a few of my photos from a day well spent and money wisely invested in a life I have come to not only embrace each and every day…but to love in both new and exciting ways.   
I have a bad habit of writing almost everywhere I go.  I might appear to be just another person walking down the street but as my eyes take it all in visually …my mind processes it into written thoughts.  Today was no exception.  It was my intent to walk through the streets taking photographs of places off the beaten path.  Most tourists do not even see a small fragment of the invaluable treasures Paris offers to share for free.  There are stunning buildings in virtually every neighborhood…with architectural influences from days gone by and a social life so endearing it might take the imagination of a brilliant artist to capture it on canvas.  As with any story worth telling…there is always more that does not necessarily meet the eye…unless you are willing to look.  In the underbelly of Paris is a maze of subway trains lovingly known as the Metro system.  London has the tube system, New York thrives with endless subway tracks, the San Francisco bay area utilizes the Bart above ground fast train…and they all provide an immeasurable opportunity not only for travel but for studying humanity in so very many ways.  The Metro trains and tunnels are enriched with a wide spectrum of free enterprise.  There are many small stores and shops in various tunnel locations as well as an ample supply of musicians playing for donations in the trains or perhaps located anywhere along the way.  Some of them are quite good.  The tunnels and streets of the city also have an abundance of seemingly homeless folks who attempt to raise money in a number of ways.  Most assume a slumped position…eyes to the ground and hope you place coins in their little basket.  Some opt to pray…eyes closed…face and hands in prayer…looking for help that is perhaps heaven sent. I am very selective about whom I donate money to on city streets and in subway tunnels though I always carry a generous portion of cash in smaller amounts to distribute among the many.  I encountered a man who looked rather skinny…while his dog looked to be quite well fed.  I donated to him on behalf of someone I know who loves his own elderly dogs in the most heartfelt manner.  I ran into a gentleman playing saxophone so beautifully that he could have been a professional musician…and perhaps was in his younger days.  He too inherited a bit of extra money.  I broke with my own tradition and ate in an American affiliated restaurant…in anticipation of taking back food for the man and his dog…but sadly they were gone when I returned.  Next on my list was a bus ride along whose route I had seen some beautiful structures worthy of capturing.  I have had three French people ask me for directions in two days…and I was not only able to help all three find their way…but took this as yet a further sign that I have acquired the knack of blending in…as they assumed I was French too.  I hopped off the bus at my next photo stop only to discover a huge protest in front of my face.  I needed to cross the road…but could not.  The protestors were waving banners and shouting wildly about Palestine.  There were hundreds of gendarmes (French policemen) in full riot gear.  This is an opportune time for me to announce my undying love and appreciation for the French gendarmes.  Their presense at the airport or any other place of importance is at first startling when you encounter officers and military personnel carrying large scale weaponry…prepared to use it at a moment’s notice if needed.  It is intimidating on a large scale.  The seriousness with which they leave their responsibility to serve and protect is admirable in every possible way.  I have never felt safer in any place in the world because of it.  The hundreds of officers yesterday accounted for the entire block being surrounded with enormous police buses and patrol vehicles.  If the gendarmes outnumber the protestors and are armed significantly well…the chance for peaceful gathering and dispersal is immensely greater.  I took the photos I came to capture for the day and headed next to the Trocadero area.  My daughter and I have a favorite cafe in our old neighborhood where we have been like a fixture as we come and go.  I peeked in the window and then the door…hoping to see if our favorite people were working.  I did not think about the huge camera dangling from the front of me.  Ironically there was a famous singer whose initial reaction made me feel like a paparazzi.  I was not there to take pictures…only to eat.  Funny enough…I was perhaps the only English speaking person in the restaurant who did not bother him for a photo…and also the only one with mutual friends and shared memories.  I enjoyed my meal and left him in peace before strolling across the street to watch the Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower) sparkle and shine like a million diamonds for ten minutes as it does on the hour every hour.  I will be continually adding to my Paris 2010 photo albums…but included a few new ones with this blog to give a hint of what there is on any street to enjoy.  I will sift through the hundred or so photos I took yesterday and post a fair number to share.  If you ever come to Paris I would strongly recommend enlisting the aid of someone who knows the city quite well…and further exploring on your own to discover the many hidden delights.  I will be enjoying a well known panoramic view of Paris in the next day or so with a couple of young sisters from Belgium.  They were seated next to me in the cafe and we had a wonderful time visiting together.  I found the idea of a twenty year old making good on her promise to take her little sister to Paris one day warmly endearing to witness.  The little sister looked at her older sibling with loving eyes…not just for the trip…but by her impressive ability to communicate largely in English.  Some things are more valuable than money…and the hero worship I witnessed first hand is among them.  The girls and I will have a delightful day discovering Paris from previously unseen heights.  Have a look around where you live and see what your eyes might have missed in the hurry and scurry of everyday life.  You owe it to yourself…to know every wonderful person, place and thing that is yours to enjoy for free…in the community you call home.   
As I sauntered out of the apartment at noon…there was something decidedly different about me.  Gone were the trappings of French fashion many tourists try so desperately to imitate…the traditional scarf tied loosely around the neck, the black coat and dark clothing, shoes that make no sense for walking around in…stylish hair and accessories that set Paris apart from the rest of the civilized world.  I make a concerted effort to blend in with the locals on the streets I have come to know.  My infectious perpetual smile is missing in action.  Eyes seldom meet another’s gaze.  Glancing in the direction of anyone on the Metro is more likely to gain a glare in return.  And so we learn.  Sometimes there are simply days when raw emotions…a stiffling headache…sleepless night or  unforeseen tragedy force us to break from the molded pattern and just be a bit different.  Today was one of those days.  I scampered across the street wearing blue jeans and my most comfortable pair of sneakers.  In my infinite wisdom I made a bee line straight for the ice cream parlor along the canal.  Armed with a single scoop of sweet gooey goodness perched on top of a cornet (the French word for cone) I began bouncing down the sidewalk and city streets as though I owned them.  Happiness truly does come from within…and the instant transformation in mood and attitude netted immediate results.  With waist length hair blowing in the gentle breeze…I was greeted by a bevy of admirers.  The fact that most of them were young enough to be my children mattered not…because there is something both charming and endearing about a handsome young man on a bicycle blowing you a kiss as your paths cross.  The French are very generous in that way.  Paris is clearly a girl…both young and old…waiting to be loved.  Everything about this magnificent city is a tribute to femininity.  Buildings routinely ugly and mundane in many parts of the world are romantically enchanting with architecture that draws the eye and fascinates the mind.  Streets are often sprinkled with trees or graced with the vision of small balconies softly decorated in spring flowers.   As I strolled up and down the canal for a mile or so each direction…I was greeted by families simply out to enjoy the loveliness of yet another sunny day.  Men were playing bols in the dirt near the water’s edge…children were skating, riding bikes and scooters… oblivious to everything around them.  Countless people of all ages simply walked together…some holding hands…others lovingly admiring their children.  It is my understanding that France has a rule about not being able to disown your offspring or leave them out of your will.  If this is true…it could readily explain the warmth and connection between father and child whose presence I have witnessed more in this city than in any other place in the world.  Perhaps it is a cultural thing learned by everyone from years of kissing friends and loved ones on both cheeks as you part ways.  French men seem to be taught at any early age to love and respect women…all women of all ages.  I managed to make a few tourists happy by offering to take their picture collectively as a group…sharing knowledge or pointing out the best there is to enjoy…when asked for my opinion, of course.  I came home just long enough to write this little memory and regroup…so I will now bid you adieu…and walk once again down the sun filled streets.  With any luck…I will remember this ordinary day…soon to be tucked away within the folds of my memory bank.  Today…I was an American…in Paris.        

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