The grand finale (Europe Trip Day 8)

Let’s talk about the Louvre.

According to the museum’s website, there are over 35,000 pieces of artwork on exhibit there. Depending on how you calculate it, it could take years to look at everything that’s there, and that’s with just a quick glance at each piece of art.

Or, you could be like us and just wander the grounds, which are a work of art on their own. Considering the sewer grates are ornate and beautiful, we didn’t feel like we missed much by not standing in line to get inside.
We also checked out a church next to the Louvre, Salle paroissiale de Saint Germain l’Auxerrois. Beautiful architecture.

Anybody want a keychain? With this being our last day in Paris, we spent some time doing some final souvenir shopping. Had we known that the proprietor of the last shop we went into was going to insist we take a complimentary keychain in every color he had, we wouldn’t have bought the ones we did earlier in the day.

So … anybody who wants an Eiffel Tower keychain, we’ve got plenty to spare.

How about that view. Before we took our evening boat cruise on the Seine, we ate dinner at a restaurant along the water (PRODUCT PLACEMENT WARNING: Eddie Bauer Travex waterproof pants come in very handy when clumsy oafs like me knock a whole pitcher of water onto themselves). The actual restroom facilities for said restaurant were downstairs where the boat we’d be going on was docked.

I obviously can’t speak for the view from the women’s room, but the urinal in the men’s room was right below a porthole that, yes, looked out toward the Eiffel Tower.

I dare say that’s the most scenic piss I’ve ever taken.

Let’s end on a lighter note. The only time we got rained on during our time overseas was on our final night in Paris, on our evening boat cruise of the Seine. The downpour didn’t last long, fortunately, and the view of the City of Lights, even in the rain, was breathtaking.

Normandy (Europe Days 6-7)

It seems appropriate that I’m writing this entry from the airport in Baltimore, sleep-deprived after getting up at 3:30 a.m. for a 6 a.m. flight and wishing I could have slept on the plane.

This is about hitting the wall.

So after our whirlwind tour of Frankfurt, Germany, a train ride to Paris, France, and two packed days around the City of Lights, our third full day there was one spent dealing with hitting the proverbial wall.

We took a lot of bus rides (again), just checking out the sights. Did a little shopping. Ate some good food (more macarons; a delicious, ridiculous, oh-so-sloppy French version of an American cheeseburger in a little pub along the Seine) and generally took it somewhat easy.

It didn’t make for the most exciting blog, I’ll admit, which is why we’re going to go ahead and jump to …

Day 7, and our trip to Normandy.

When we were planning our trip to Europe, we knew Paris was the destination. But when our travel agent brought up the possibility of a day trip to Normandy, we knew we had to add that in.

I read every book on WWII I could when I was a kid—some that really weren’t proper “kid” reading material. I’m not sure now what it was about that war—and to a lesser extent, other wars—that piqued my interest. But I devoured every detail. I was hesitant to ever ask my grandfathers about their experiences, but I did eventually talk briefly with my paternal grandfather about his time in WWII.

He came into Europe through Normandy, although he landed a couple days after D-Day. And I think one of my grandfathers was involved in the Battle of the Bulge, although my memory may be playing tricks on me.

Regardless, I’m proud of their service, and I’m proud of all those in my family who served our country.

Back to Normandy. Our tour guide first took us to the hills overlooking Omaha Beach, where we toured the German bunkers that still stand. It’s awe-inspiring to look out over the English Channel and imagine the massive fleet that filled the waters below; to stand above the deep craters left behind by the Allied bombs; to go to the American cemetery where rows and rows of white crosses mark the graves of those who died on that day, and the days after.

While we were at the cemetery, there was a group of Americans who must have had a family member buried there, because the National Anthem and Taps were played over the speakers. The anthem came at a good time for us; nothing against France, but it was good to hear a bit of home.

I wish I could say more about the experience, but it’s one I’m still processing damn near a month later. To walk on beaches and fields where such an important conflict took place, to see grave after grave of those who gave their lives to the ultimate cause … it’s a lot to take in, and to try and find the right words for it has left me lacking (hopefully, only so far).

This looks familiar. I was struck again by the similarities between home and western Europe. Normandy is about a three-hour drive from Paris, so our tour guide drove us by highway. And just like in the States, there are travel plazas along the way—your typical gas station/convenience store.

Friendly French. Speaking of our tour guide, Celine was quite chatty, which was nice. Aloofness is not a trait one wants in a tour guide. She was also very forthcoming with her opinions from the time she went to the States as a high school student—we love our peanut butter too much, apparently—and on the presidential election. I won’t go there because I’ve vowed to not discuss politics because we’re all snapping at each other because of the two despicable people running for president, and I won’t be party to that.

Restaurant du jour. Our evening dinner was at Le Scheffer, a restaurant not too far from our hotel. I’m not a big fan of fish, or seafood in general, but if you serve me haddock in lemon butter, apparently I’ll devour it.

You want me to go up there? (Europe Day 5)

Far be it from me to toot my own horn, but I may just be the best husband ever.

I’m afraid of heights—that’s not what makes me the best husband ever, of course. But I know that weakness, and I knew it was something I was going to have to deal with because we were going to go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower on our anniversary.

It wasn’t easy.

When you see the Eiffel Tower in person, it seems even taller than you might think, probably because there’s no other buildings that tall in all of Paris. It just sits there, tall and alone and imposing. I mean, the damn thing is 1,063 feet tall.

But, I’m going up there. I’m going to do this.

So we cram into an elevator with a bunch of other people to go up to the second level. I’m not doing bad so far, relatively speaking, but I’m still well over 300 feet off the ground. So I’ll stay back from the edge, thanks.

Next is the elevator to the top. This elevator takes you about 150 miles into the air, the ride lasting somewhere around two years. OK, maybe it just felt that way to me. I’ll give myself some credit; I did look out the glass at one point. That lasted about a second too long and I put my attention back onto the person standing in front of me. Not looking out again, no thank you.

So the top of the Eiffel Tower is essentially two parts. You get off the damn elevator that you’re trapped in for days and come out into a nice, safe enclosed space. There are windows to look out but with actual walls around you, it becomes a nice safe cocoon.

There’s also the outside part above you. I chose not to take that in. That’s all Bessie. I’m going to sit on this bench and keep telling myself that this thing has stood for over 120 years so there’s no way its falling now just because I’m there.

Funny part about it all is this: going back down, no problem. I’m looking around, checking out the scenery, taking it all in. No worries.

But I’ve done it. I’ve gone to (almost) the top of the Eiffel Tower and lived to tell the tale.

And I never have to go up there again.

And I will give credit where it’s definitely due. My beautiful wife knows full well just how afraid I am of heights, and she was very supportive through the whole process.

I’m only the best husband ever because I have the best wife ever. Love you, Toots.

Are you serious? Later that day, we’re back on the Big Bus Tour, and as we’re turning a corner in the Place de la Concorde there’s an explosion.

If you’ve paid attention to the news coming out of France over the past year or two, you can understand why my first thought was the T-word. Turns out I was close, except it was a tire blowing out on the bus and nothing, you know, terroristic.

Still, not the best thing that could happen. Fortunately, there was another Big Bus a few minutes behind us, so we all jumped on that one.

Where are we going? To save some money, we didn’t sign up for any sort of international phone usage. Basically we kept our cell phones in airplane mode the whole time, and only accessed the Internet when we could use the free wi-fi at our hotels.

But that also meant we couldn’t just pull up maps when we needed to, like when we were trying to find the fancy restaurant where we were going to have our anniversary dinner.

Fortunately, we found a nice Indian couple who were able to point us in the general direction of La Fermette Marbeuf—we did have to stop along the way to confirm our directions and, oh, what a shame, buy some macarons from the nice ladies at the patisserie—and we made it to the restaurant on time.

I’m not sure how much the meal would have cost, since we had already paid for it. But it was definitely worth it. The food was magnificent, with the appetizer—green beans with grated parmesan, hazelnuts and balsamic vinaigrette—kicking things off in delicious style. Our main course was veal with “risotto”—I’m pretty sure risotto is supposed to have rice and not just vegetables, but it was still yummy—and I tried soufflé for dessert while Bessie had crème brulee.

When we go back to Paris, I’ll take out a second mortgage so we can eat there again.

Other modes of transportation. Just to show we didn’t only ride the Big Bus, two other ways we traveled while in Paris—we took a river cruise before our fancy dinner and rode in a bike taxi back to the foot of the Trocadero afterwards.

I’ll write more about the cruise on the Seine in a couple days—we took the cruise again on our last night in Paris—and there’s not much to say about a bike taxi other than it’s a neat way to get around, especially at night.

Chasing the bus (Europe Day 4)

I didn’t run as much as I intended to in Paris. For one thing, it was really damn hot the whole time we were there, and for another, we were trying to cram as much experience into our time there as we could, and I didn’t want us losing an hour or more because I’m crazy enough to go run a half-marathon again.

But boy did we run when we thought we were going to miss our bus.

A little background: as part of our travel plan, we bought a two-day “hop-on, hop-off” bus ticket with Big Bus Tours. We decided it made sense to use it on our first full day in Paris, so we would have a chance to see the sights and get a better idea of where everything was.

Like most tour buses, there’s seating up top so you can actually see the sights, and you can choose a variety of languages to listen to through the complimentary headphones. (There’s also music playing in between the recorded commentary, some of which was pretty damn catchy.)

We took one tour just to see the sights, then got off for lunch before taking the tour again to actually get off at some of the spots. As for that lunch … the first three cheeses on that four-cheese panini we bought on the street were pretty tasty. The fourth, which was some version of bleu cheese, was frankly, pretty disgusting (and I say that as someone who actually likes bleu cheese). It ruined my appetite for the rest of the evening and on into the next day.

That didn’t make it any easier on me when we were trying to catch our bus. We had got off near Notre Dame, where a variety of vendors were selling books and artwork and jewelry along the Seine. I was looking at the books, trying to find just the right souvenir, when we realized it was getting late. The problem was that the Big Bus Tour, which stops everywhere, doesn’t stop very often along that part of the route. We thought for sure we were going to get stuck hailing a taxi or even walking all the way back to the hotel, when finally we saw a bus pulling over, well ahead of where we were.

I hope we at least looked amusing dashing down the sidewalk, all the while me fishing in my pocket for our bus tickets.

A closer look. Obviously, even before we got on the bus, was a walk over to the Eiffel Tower. I didn’t keep track of how much time we spent around the tower while we were in Paris, or how many pictures we took, but I think it’s safe to say that landmark was the centerpiece of our trip. One might even say it towered over everything else.

I apologize.

Might as well start smoking again. It’s easy to forget how rare it is to experience secondhand smoke here in the U.S. anymore. Unless you’re hanging out at a bar, or with a bunch of smokers, it’s pretty easy to avoid.

Not so in Europe, where cigarette smoke is a major part of the ambiance, as it were. Even though the restaurants themselves are non-smoking venues, the habit is allowed at the tables on the sidewalk, so the smoke just wafts your way. It’s quite the treat.

Europe by train, or Paris, here we come (Europe Day 3)

Turns out train travel is worlds more comfortable than plane travel. Who knew?

So when we were planning this trip, we decided it would be neat to take the train from Frankfurt to Paris rather than boarding yet another flight. The chance to see the countryside, not having to worry about security checks … but even those pluses pale in comparison to the heavenly amount of legroom that comes on a train.

The legroom. Was. Glorious.

Funny part about the whole train experience though; we expected that, since our hotel is right above the train station that we can just board the train there. Nope. Gotta go to the main train station in Frankfurt. So we get on one train, along with all our luggage, and head into Frankfurt proper. There, we need to switch trains to get to another train station. I go to buy tickets. The machine won’t read my card. And you have to have exact change to get the tickets.

So now I’m scrambling around trying to find somewhere to either A) break this 100-Euro note I got out of the ATM the night before, or B) buy tickets from an actual human being. Fortunately I find B, and in the meantime, Bessie has figured out that the platform where I left her waiting with the luggage is not, in fact, the platform we needed to be on to catch our next train.

Don’t worry, the guy who sold me the tickets told me where we needed to go, so we ended up getting to the right platform about two minutes before the train we needed to be on got there.

So, another train ride takes us to our final station. However, I’m looking around for a big board that will tell me where our train will be leaving from. These big boards—you know, like the ones you see in airports—either don’t exist in Frankfurt, Germany, or are so cleverly designed and well-hidden that silly Americans like me can’t find them.

Fortunately, we find an information booth and the guy tells me our train will be departing from Platform 19. (A side note, and I’ll likely mention this later as well: for all the rumor that Americans are treated like dirt in Europe, we never experienced that, at least until we got on Air France to come home. But that’s another story for another day. Maybe it’s because we made the effort to speak the language while we were there, or we weren’t obnoxiously American, and maybe it’s because we were tourists going to touristy places, but we had no issues with rude service while we were there.

But Air France, ooh boy …)

Better watch your speed. So maybe you’re asking, “But, Andy, how did you and your lovely wife make it from Frankfurt, Germany, to Paris, France, in a matter of hours by train?”

Well, Dear Reader, turns out that once those trains hit the countryside, they are moving.

There was a display board in our train car that showed the next stop and where we were eventually headed, and once we got going, the speed was shown as well.  At one point, we were doing 316 km/hour, which is about 196 mph.

I’ve never driven quite that fast, but I think I’ve come close.

Hey, there it is. Here’s the deal: visiting Paris has been on Bessie’s bucket list for a long, long time. And the Eiffel Tower has been THE thing she’s wanted to see in person.

I know, hard to believe for anyone who’s seen our décor.

So once we got to Paris and were picked up by our driver for the trip to our hotel, I’m sure we were both looking for our first view of the Tower. We were taking in the other sights along the way, of course, and we were wowed when we reached the Arc de Triomphe.

Then, there it was. The Eiffel Tower, peeking out from above the buildings surrounding the Arc.

I’m not sure Bessie’s been that smitten with something since she met me.

Needless to say, we didn’t spend a lot of time at the hotel once we got there. Drop off the bags, freshen up a little, let’s go get dinner.

We ate at a place called Café Kleber, which is on the Trocadero with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Our first meal in France was steak frites; I had a Heineken and Bessie had a mojito.

Then we walked around and waited for night to fall so we could get pictures of the Eiffel Tower all lit up. It really is a gorgeous sight in person.

I’ll never complain about driving again. We decided that we weren’t going to try to drive in Europe. Too stressful, too much anxiety.

We had no idea.

Our first experience at the Arc was eye-opening to say the least. There are no lanes, not really. It’s just a big circle around the Arc, with six or seven or 20 (I lost count) different “lanes” of traffic all going around and darting off when they can.

It did make some sense after our driver explained to us that vehicles entering the circle from the right had the right of way, so you were supposed to let them go. Considering the madness of the French streets, I’m amazed we only saw the aftermath of one accident in our week there, and that was a minor fender-bender at best.