travelswithjulie

travelswithjulie

A journey taker. A writer.

A Barrel of Salt: Salzburg, Austria

Last summer I started this post talking about a saying my father handed down to me.  “You can’t know a man until you’ve eaten a barrel of salt with him.” Those are my grandmother’s words passed down to me by my father. I don’t remember exactly when dad said this to me, or how many times, but it was a lot. It always had me wondering what a barrel of salt was, how large and how many spoonfuls were in a barrel, and how long would it take for me to get to know someone, truly know someone, if measured by how long it takes to really eat a barrel of salt.

An actual barrel full of salt.

An actual barrel full of salt.

This idea came back to me recently, and it had to do with the devastating Brexit vote in the UK.  Just when I thought that the British were the smartest people in the world, so worthy of admiration on so many levels — the “Little England” vote won the day. Apart from my jaw dropping (which stayed dropped for a good 24 hours) and feeling like I had personally been kicked in the gut, I started to think about our assumptions of different countries and their people.

Here is where the post was going to take a turn to talk about the salt mines of Hallein, Austria, which are still in operation as a tourist attraction.  My boyfriend, his son and my children and I had the pleasure of dressing in silly salt miner clothes and sliding down wooden slides deep into the earth to get a close up look at the ancient salt mines that put Salzburg (Salt Fortress) on the map.Salt made Salzburg rich for many centuries and the history of salt and the intrigues surrounding the powerful families that controlled it might be somewhat fascinating to history buffs. Salzburg itself is beautiful, and I have many pictures to share in a future post about this magical city.

But since I started that post, a few things have happened in Austria that we here in America should pay close attention to. There was a Presidential election in Austria last May that resembles, in many ways, the election we are all suffering through in America right now.  I’ll try to encapsulate: A formerly Green Party Member, Alexander Van der Bellen, narrowly won the election by 31,000 votes against a right wing candidate, Norbert Hofer, “an anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic” leader of the Austrian Freedom Party.  In what is becoming increasingly the new normal, Hofer and his party won the right to a re-vote, challenging May’s election results on “procedural irregularities.”  Sound like something Republican Candidate Donald Drumpf might pull?  It certainly does to me.

Alexander Van der Bellen

Alexander Van der Bellen

Norbert Hofer

Norbert Hofer

Van der Bellen, for his part, was gracious when he accepted his election to President back in May, 2016.  “While the elections had revealed a great rift running through Austrian society, the 72-year-old said: ‘This rift has existed for some time, though perhaps we didn’t look at it that closely in the past.’ The fact that people had debated the presidency so intensely was a positive sign that ‘people are not left cold by politics – they want to actively shape it.'”

That’s a wonderful way to look at the world, that all of the hoopla around the election is just people finally participating in democracy.  I would like to take the high road myself and see that people who are on the other side of how I look at the world have finally found a way to have a voice.  I do believe that Donald J. Drumpf  (forgive me, I have a filter on my computer that always changes Donald’s last name back to his ancestral name, the one his father gave up when he moved to America…), is not the man his avid supporters think he is. In fact, I think he is the very opposite man they think he is. He has never had their back in the way he deceitfully portrays himself to those Americans who really are just looking for someone to speak for them. I don’t believe they are all racists, or misogynists or Islamophobes. And I do have moments, many of them these days, of feeling sorry for them.

However, we must remember what’s happening right now in Austria.  The re-election takes place on December 2nd of this year and currently Norbert Hofer and his anti-EU, anti-refugee, anti semitic position is beginning to win again in Austria. It will be another tight race.  By god, with this upcoming election in America, we might have a Norbert Hofer in the Presidency both in Austria and at home.

We Americans, and the Austrians, would be hard put to eat a barrel of salt with either Donald or Norbert, but we just might have to after all.

 

 

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To Hiroshima, with Love

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President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzō Abe at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan

On May 27, 2016, President Obama visited the city of Hiroshima in Japan. It’s the first time a sitting President has visited Hiroshima since America dropped an atomic bomb on the city, August 6, 1945.  He and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe placed a wreath at the Peace Memorial to honor all fallen soldiers and innocent victims of World War II. There was no apology from President Obama on behalf of America for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima nor the subsequent bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

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President Obama hugs Shigeaki Mori, an atomic bomb survivor and creator of the memorial for American WWII POWs killed at Hiroshima. –

I was disappointed to read this, but later an article about it popped up on Reuters and a local man from Hiroshima, now a taxi driver, was interviewed.  He had been born two years after the bomb was dropped on his city.

“We’re still 10 years from the possibility of a (U.S.) president issuing an apology,” said Kenji Ishida, a 68-year-old Hiroshima resident and taxi driver who was born two years after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. “Japan has to apologize for Pearl Harbour, too, if we’re going to say the U.S. must apologize,” he said.

This morning, on NPR, they interviewed a survivor of the bomb, Kikue Takage and as the reporter thanked her for taking the time to talk about her experience, including the fact that all of her classmates perished while she was home sick that day, she ended the interview with a cheery, “Thank you very much!”

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One month after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, a man stands amid the ruins. The structure in the back is now called the Genbaku or A-bomb dome.

 

I visited Hiroshima In late December of 2014 while traveling to Japan with my boyfriend Masanori, his son and my two kids. Although I had been to Japan before, alone and with my kids, this trip was different than my previous travels. This time, we were traveling in order to meet Masa’s family. Most of his family still lives on a small island in the western region called Etajima, a 30 minute ferry ride from Hiroshima. It is the closest major city to the little island of Etajima and became the metropolis that Masa and his family ventured to during his childhood when they wanted or needed big city products and services.

The Ferry from Etajima to Hiroshima

When Masa and I first met and I learned that he was from an island across the Inland Sea from Hiroshima, it didn’t take me long to ask him if his parents had been affected by the bomb and what had his family done, and had anyone suffered from radiation sickness and did everyone in his family hate Americans because of what we did to them? This was me, being an American, trying to bulldoze answers out of him, needing to find an emotional toe hold on what I was certain must have been incredibly traumatic for his parents, who may have been young children when the bomb was dropped. I was certain that the family and his community had many discussions about what happened, and knew many people who suffered.

Masa’s answer was a thoughtful and quiet “No.”  No his parents didn’t talk about the bomb, didn’t discuss it with their children.  No, to his knowledge he didn’t know anyone who had suffered from radiation sickness. No, no one he knew hated Americans.  He shrugged, knowing I was expecting a different answer.

How could this be? We killed 10,000 innocent people in one day.  By the end of that year, 140,000 people died of radiation poisoning, and for decades others died or suffered in some way due to that Atomic Bomb.  “Why?” I asked. “Why don’t they hate us? I mean why don’t you hate us?” Masa said,  “I guess because we love peace more.”

So when I read the taxi driver’s statement that Japan had its own apology to make as well, and heard Kikue Takage’s interview it reminded me of that conversation with Masa, and our subsequent visit to the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which opened in 1954, is a large, green expanse built on top of an empty field created after the atomic bomb exploded. At the front of the park is the Peace Memorial Museum. We arrived on a day that the museum was closed entirely, which was disappointing, although I had a certain dread about going in, and Masa was worried about the graphic details and his son’s response.

We moved on through the park, where the main Cenotaph (empty tomb) sits, a large wave shaped cement sculpture. Standing in front of the Memorial Cenotaph, five or six Japanese people bowed their heads. A small stone pot with Hiroshima, ひろしま, etched into it sat on a marble slab surrounded by flowers. Further on, the Peace flame burned, and will continue to burn until all nuclear weapons are destroyed around the world.

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At the Cenotaph is a plaque in Japanese and other languages which translated, “offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of the victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima — enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony and prosperity for all, and yearning for genuine, lasting world peace.”

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I’m still shaken up by the very fact that the Japanese people are so forgiving, have indeed transcended, or try to transcend at the very least, hatred. My first Japanese teacher, Toyoko sensei said to me once, “Don’t you notice that many Japanese people like to make the Peace symbol with their two fingers when they are photographed? That comes from our national desire to have Peace and to not have war again”

Can you imagine Americans having this transcendent desire to forgive after the tragedy of 9/11? A different story, a different circumstance perhaps. But is it really? Aren’t there so many layers of events that happened with America’s support that created such hatred from the Middle East towards us? Can we not take some responsibility ourselves for how 9/11 came to be?

The Children’s Peace Memorial within the park is a tall Cenotaph which offers the symbol of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, a story familiar to many children around the world. The metal sculpture of Sadako Sasaki sits atop the Cenotaph,  her with arms outspread and lifted, and a crane shooting up to the sky behind her. IMG_7427Sadako Sasaki was two years old when the atomic bomb dropped. She developed radiation related leukemia and was hospitalized when she was twelve. While in the hospital, she began to create oragami paper cranes, hoping to be granted a wish once she completed 1000 of them, as Japanese legend has it.  Her wish was to live. Although the children’s book about her life says she only completed 644 cranes before she died, and the rest were folded by her family and buried with her, her brother Masahiro Sasaki, who travels the world promoting Peace on his sister’s behalf, says that she actually completed 1400 of them.  Many of these small paper cranes have been presented by the Sasaki family to other memorials, such as Pearl Harbor and the 9/11Memorial in New York.

Every year the Peace Park receives thousands of paper cranes dedicated to World Peace. Anyone can present them in person or send them.  Once sent, you can register your name in the Paper Crane Database, which records your wish for World Peace and a world without nuclear arms.

Thousands of paper cranes are sent from all over the world.

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It was New Years week when we arrived and Hiroshima had a beautiful light display all along one of the main boulevards near the Peace Memorial Park. Many of the displays had hearts and peace symbols. Walking among those light displays, I thought of the Japanese people, their culture of not imposing, not making waves. Americans sometimes don’t understand this aversion to individualism, to standing out, standing up and being heard.

After the Atomic bomb was dropped, and the war came to an end, and McArthur rolled in and set up camp, the Japanese people moved on. They were able to transcend the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were able to put the pieces of their lives back together. Most importantly, they were able to forgive. This is something to aspire to, and I think that President Obama’s presence at Hiroshima might help the world think differently about War and its consequences and how to truly survive.

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The Willows Inn on Lummi Island: A Celebration

As an honorary B’hamster, (what people in Bellingham, Washington call themselves) because I visit my boyfriend Masa there so often, I had heard tell of an incredible restaurant on the small island named Lummi, across the Bellingham Bay. A birthday was upon us, I won’t say whose, so Masa and I made our way there for a celebration. Driving North on the 5 freeway, 12 minutes from Bellingham, we took the Slater Road exit and made our way to the Whatcom Chief Ferry.  The ferry lands at Gooseberry Point and takes its passengers, many of us still seated in our cars, for a seven minute glide across smooth waters to the landing on Lummi.

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Lummi Island is small, with only about 900 occupants most of the year – though that number swells in the summertime with local US and Canadian residents (only 20 minutes from the Canadian border in Washington State) hitting the island in great numbers for fishing, hiking, wild berry picking and water recreation. There’s one school house, one post office, a couple of cafes and a burger joint called Sauce Burger – which everyone raves about but is only open Friday-Sunday in the off season. (Sadly, we were there on a Monday.)

And then there’s The Willows Inn. Located about halfway round the island, driving the bend you’ll start smelling the nostalgic aroma of campfire, which means you’re almost there.

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The Willows Inn is a small wooden building that looks out to the wide open Rosario Strait just across the road. Set above the gravel driveway, to the right of the restaurant and reception lobby is a small smoke house and the roaring fire we smelled about a half mile away, burning Birchwood or Alder.IMG_7195

Masa and I checked into the hotel, then took a hike while waiting for our room to be ready. We were told there was a nice easy loop nearby so we headed there and noticed pruning shears on the cork board near the entrance with the map of the area, next to notices to keep the park clean and to stay out of the locked community flower garden. The shears were available to any hikers who wanted to cut fruit from bushes or trees or help keep the trail kempt.IMG_7028 (2)

 

 

All fruit was finders keepers, so we headed out hoping for some late spring findings. No such luck, berries are summer fruit and aside from the lovely flower garden, there was nothing else to cut.  Even the pathway looked perfectly pruned on both sides — but we did work up an appetite on that short hike, something much needed for the dinner ahead.

Apart from the lovely setting and it’s long history (first opened in 1910) The Willows Inn is now famous for its 22 course meals prepared and designed by head chef Blaine Wetzel and his motley crew of foraging chefs. Blaine is arguably one of the most inventive chefs in America right now. His method is to use only local ingredients from Lummi and surrounding islands and encouraging every mili-ounce of flavor out of that ingredient. Sometimes that means not doing much to it at all, allowing the flavors of incredibly fresh produce and meats to speak for themselves with just a nudge of creativity. And sometimes it takes a great degree of inventiveness. Here’s a review from the editor of Saveur from June 2015.

“At the grill, a cook named Nick is rolling turnips directly in the embers. Once they’re nicely charred and cooked through, the roots will be peeled—leaving a few sticky burnt bits around the edges for character—then halved and marinated in lovage-infused whey. Then five hours in the dehydrator and, just before they’re served, the withered turnips are slaked with a grilled shiitake broth and garnished with toasted mustard seeds and tiny marjoram leaves.

I laugh—because of course it doesn’t sound simple at all. Later, though, encountering this dish at dinner, I see what he means. The taste is clear, dazzlingly direct, the essence of turnipness expertly coaxed forward by all this burning and slow-drying and careful reconstituting. Who knew a lowly turnip could possess this meaty depth of character, such goddamned swagger?” — Adam Sachs, Editor-in-Chief, Saveur

Masa and I sat down on the deck, along with the other 30 or so guests – we were encouraged to arrive no later than 6 pm.  Along with our cocktails, the beginning of the food parade began – at least five appetizers, maybe more – all while watching the sunset over the bay. IMG_7125 (1)

Masa and I delighted in the small dishes, each one with so many layers of flavor all perfectly suited to the main ingredient. A simple roasted kale, but with dots of truffle emulsion so heavenly we stopped talking instantly to take in full “moment” of it. And the next offering, smoked cod “doughnut”, a savory, plump ball of perfectly fried dough, with a bite of smoked cod buried within, was even better. Just one each, but just one was all that was needed, each bite so deeply flavorful. Roasted sunflower root, native oysters and cured rockfish followed. I was so taken aback at the bliss of it all, I forgot to take pictures of some of these.

  • Gin with Ginger, Lillet and Green Tea.
  • Baked Kale with Truffles and Pink Bellingham Bay Salt
  • Smoked Cod Doughnuts
  • Roasted Shitake, Smoked Cod Doughnut and Savory Clam
  • Crisped Crepe dusted with Nori. Served with Salmon Roe and Bull Kelp Seeds
    Crisped Crepe dusted with Nori. Served with Salmon Roe and Bull Kelp Seeds
  • Native Oysters in Wild Greens Emulsion

 

We moved into the main dining room after cocktails and appetizers. The entrè dishes began. Revelation after revelation. At one point we had just tasted a bite of spring turnip shoots, roasted and sauced with squid ink broth. We just shook our heads and stared deeply into each other eyes, which could only mean there were no words for flavors as sublime as these. Another favorite was salmon berries, tossed with local rose petals and rose granita. There was even a course that was made up merely of huge slices of homemade bread (of course), local butter and pan drippings in which to dip. A guilty pleasure (often performed behind closed kitchen doors in homes everywhere) offered up as gourmet course. Brilliant!

  • Turnip Shoots With Squid Ink Broth and Carmelized Razor Clams
  • Coonstripe Prawns in Prawn Butter
  • Seared Skirt of Razor Clam
  • Wild Herbs and on a bed of Herbed Pesto and Crisped Mustard Leaves.
  • Bread, Butter and Pan Drippings
  • Salmon Berries, Nootka Rose Petals, Rose Granita

 

What caught our attention almost as much as the incredible, indelible food, was the staff and the way Blaine Wetzel has managed to create a sense that everyone — chefs, guests, and servers — are in this together. Each dish is curated (and I don’t use that hipster word lightly, ever. But in this case, it’s apt.) by one of the chefs who is in charge of it from start to finish. This means sourcing each ingredient, even if it means foraging berries, or finding a local resource for the items. At cooking time, the ingredients have been prepared earlier in the day and one dish at a time is produced by the lead chef for that item with all other chefs helping.

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The kitchen is wide open to the dining room. It’s run so perfectly that at any given time there are no dishes, no clutter, just beautiful black slab counters with only the exact ingredients needed for the next dish – and all hands on deck making it. I know this, not just because I could see the operations clearly from our table, but because the guests are welcome to walk into the kitchen at any time and watch, chat, take pictures with any one of the chefs or workers. In fact, it’s encouraged. This is a one sitting, four-hour meal; it’s nice to hang out with the cooks for some of it.

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Head chef Wetzel himself came to our table, though we had no idea it was him, following a server who described the dish set in front of us. Wetzel walked behind the server, setting down hot towels on the table. He was laughing, though a better term is “giggling boyishly.”  I said, “Why are you laughing?” “Because I’m just surprised that the server didn’t really explain the dish to you very well.”  We had met just about every server so far, the protocol appeared to be constant rotation – and to us, this was another waiter. “Oh, would you like to explain it further?” I asked, joshing with him. He did, much more extensively, and I think I said something like, “Well done, thank you.”  He laughed again and went off into the kitchen. Later we learned that it was Blaine Wetzel. (And later, when we realized other people were walking straight into the kitchen, we had to go and explain ourselves and, of course,get a picture. He was so happy to participate, as if nobody had ever asked this before).

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The pace is slow, the dishes are small, but they go on and on and on. One bite is so delectable, you don’t want the flavor to end, so one is happy to eat slowly, savoring. Masa and I both noticed that the waiters, chefs, even the dishwasher, seemed like just about the most content people on earth.

I walked through the kitchen twice, talking to everyone, snapping pictures. I’ve never seen anything like this quiet, pleasant operation of young men and women dedicated in each moment to the food they devotedly prepare, and to their guests’ enjoyment. It felt as if after dinner we would all sit down by the fire and chat about our lives. It’s that kind of “we’re all in this together” feeling I mentioned before.

I’ll be honest. It’s a dearly expensive culinary excursion; meals cost $175 per plate at the time of writing. We are already trying to justify another celebration such as this, for some reason, any reason, just so we can experience this locally sourced, passionately prepared, foraged feast again. Well, I think my sister is having a very big birthday soon…

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Paris by Mouth

 

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Paris by mouth, by eye, by nose,by ear, by index finger and thumb. I visited Paris last summer when it was all and only about magical skyline and charming street level shops, about food and friendlier than expected waiters, about Parisian men all dressed in the exact same summer-blue blazer, button up shirt and jeans and loafers with no socks – paired with their counterpart, the classic Parisian woman with her sensible but beautiful heels and a scarf just so. It was not about terrorism.

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The terrorism that resulted in the world shouting Je suis Charlie Hebdo was six months in the past. The massacres around the city which would again unify the world and became the campaign Je suis Paris had not yet happened; that was four months into the future. Parisians were enjoying an idyllic summer. They needed it. The weather was mild and green, there was a buzzing mix of tourists and locals, whose ambient energy created a delightful hum.

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The excitement that is Paris had eluded me in trips past. Maybe because the first time I ventured there I was backpacking with my friend Nicki and the owners of the youth hostel liked to yell at the young people coming to stay overnight for 42 francs. Nicki and I spent the week eating baguettes and cheese and wine, a crepe here and there. One night we splurged to sit at Le Deux Magot for a glass of wine and a croque monsieur. But we had to return to the hostel by 10:30.

The second time in Paris I was pregnant and all I remember is the smell of the city and how it revolted me. We walked by windows full of pastries or chocolate or cheese and I wanted to heave. Paris was for the gastronomically inclined and I barely survived the trip.

But this time. This time… Paris enchanted, seduced, delighted every sense. I was traveling with Masa, we were on our way home from a longer trip, a trip to Germany and Austria. Masa and I traveled with our blended little family – his son and my two kids; Paris was just a quick stop on our way back home.

Paris came alive for each one of this motley traveling troop. We had such a short time and so much to see. I wanted more than anything to spend two weeks peeking inside each of those charming shops where women of a certain age (about mine I suspect) wore beautiful suits and wagged their finger at anyone touching the clothes before trying them on. (I didn’t really mind the short French reprimand of “No!” ) The galleries and museums beckoned, the bistros and cafes were enchantment itself. Two days, two weeks, two months – none of this would ever be enough.

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Hotel Pont Royal, only blocks away from Musee D’Orsay.

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Our first day, booked a guide through Ultimate Paris. Manuela took us through Le Marais, I’Ile de la Cite Paris and the Latin quarter. Tours and guides are good when you travel with teens and kids. In fact no matter where or with whom you travel, I suggest guides for an overview of the city. Manuela took us around the newly fashionable area of Le Marais. Once home to Parisian and visiting aristocrats (many notable historic hotels here) it is now considered the most intimate neighborhood in Paris, a place for Parisians to come to get away from the crowds visiting St. Germaine, the Latin quarter and other well known tourist spots. Small art galleries, up-and-coming restaurants are open all week, even on Sunday (unlike most of the rest of Paris). In fact, Le Marais is where many cultures mix, with Chinese,and Jewish and LBGT neighborhoods side by side.

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Berthillon, arguably the best ice cream in Paris.

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Artful dragons chase evil away.

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A view of the Seine.

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Bustling Latin Quarter neighborhood.

Stephanie brought us to the Rohan-Guéménée mansion in which Victor Hugo’s apartments overlook Place de Voges, a large and very beautiful garden square. Stepping through Hugo’s chambers was surreal. Hugo sat on that chair to write, took tea in this room with his collected china, slept in that small bed. Victor Hugo really did this. This happens to me sometimes, when traveling – the disconnect of time and space. (It happened once when I toured Charles Dicken’s actual home as well.) The shock to the system, to the mind and heart, that the famed person is not some sort of imagined fairy tale. They lived, breathed, ate, made love, put coal on a fire, used a bed pan, and wrote. In real life. Victor Hugo’s apartment stunned me in this way.

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Hugo’s famed porcelain collection from China.

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A very small bed. Hugo slept sitting up for his health.

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“Life’s greatest happiness is to be convinced we are loved.” –Victor Hugo

On our final day we took a gastronomical tour called Paris by Mouth which took us all over the St. Germaine area tasting local specialties with a knowledgable guide named Diane, former food editor of Vogue Magazine, now married to a Parisian. She took us from specialty shop to specialty shop, explained the history of each food and the awards that had been bestowed upon the chefs. There were only seven of us: our bunch and a couple from Texas.

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The wonderful pastries of Poilâne, St. Germaine.

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Patrick Rogers Chocolatier – the winner of the Meilleur Ourvrier de France award.

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Lovely, award winning fromage.

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Arnaud Lerhar Marcons.

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A rich L’Edel de Cleron on Poilâne bread.

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Our final picnic with wine, cheese, breads, chocolate and macarons.

Why did Paris elude me for so long? Why, on earth had I been so late to the party?Had I been too young? Too pregnant? Too much of an Anglophile? (My love for all things British knows no bounds.) Whatever the reason, that’s in my past. The City of Lights has enchanted me.

Je suis Paris. Paris je’ t’aime, at long last.

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Check these out! 

Maison de Victor Hugo

Paris By Mouth

Ultimate Paris Guide

Poilâne Bakery

Patrick Rogers Chocolatier

Arnaud Larher Marcons

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Expecto Patronum

If you know me at all, you know that there was a period of my life that I was besotted with J.K. Rowling’s works.  I read my son each of the Harry Potter books every night, slowly, half chapter by half chapter for years.  It was delicious to read the series this way, slowly and aloud, explaining vocabulary to a precocious five year old, explaining why some events were taking place, what it might mean, what might happen next.  Delicious too was discussing the sounds of the character’s names, and the charms and spells, knowing Rowling borrowed heavily from latin to create brand new words that have now entered the English vocabulary.

My daughter came to Harry Potter on her own a few years later.  And though it wasn’t the same for her because she started later and could read them on her own to begin with, in her own fashion she became the biggest HP fan of us all, ending up reading the entire series five times and the last two books seven times.  (She even began a Harry Potter trivia club when she was in elementary school where she would organize trivia contest for any and all players at lunchtime.)

When we came to London last time, it coincided with the release of Rowling’s final book, The Deathly Hollows.  Back then, (was it five years ago now? Six?)  I booked a private tour with a guide who took us in a black cab around London to areas where the first 5 films were shot and then to the outskirts of London to the three locations where the original Potions dungeon, Harry’s home on Privet Drive and many of the scenes from inside Hogwartz were filmed at Oxford University.

Unfortunately part of that didn’t go well.  On our way to Oxford, the London area was hit by a rainstorm so furious that all motor ways in and out of the city were clogged, and we inched along for four hours in the most exciting downpour any of us had ever seen.  The guide, who was also the driver, was terrified of the roundabouts as we approached each one, many of them pooled so deeply that the water came half way to the door handles.  We skidded and lurched forward, and sweat out the terror of it.  We reached Oxford in time for the doors to close at 6 pm.  Instead of seeing any portion of hallways or great halls or the Dark Arts classroom, we sat in a pub eating cheddar sandwiches and waited out the rest of the storm.

We came back into London late that night just in time to stand in line at Waterstone bookstore, one of the first people in the world to purchase The Deathly Hollows.  Afterwards it was back to the little red hotel around the corner from the British Museum and my daughter and former husband fell fast asleep while I read aloud to my son until 1 am. Though he could easily have read that final book on his own by this time, it was our tradition.  We had come this far in the series and we wanted to finish it in the same way as we had begun.

That last book felt like a roller coaster, we wanted to read faster and faster, the thrill of knowing it would be the end, a bitter sweet reward to find out the thrilling ending.   We were both clutching our side of the book as I read – I noticed both of our hands were paper white. We didn’t finish until two days later, now back at home in our usual place, on the couch in the family room, snuggled next to each other.

So though it sounds cheesy, especially if you are from the land of “the industry” as I am, (I wouldn’t be caught dead at Universal Studios for instance) this time we headed to Leavesden for a tour of the Warner Brother’s Studio tour of the Harry Potter film sets.

There was no way to be disappointed by this, I will say that first off.  My fandom (our fandom) is fairly massive and very forgiving.  I expected to like it, and probably to love it.  However, I can honestly say that if you have ever had just a mildly pleasant feeling reading the books or watching the films, the experience of walking through the very simply organized tour will probably spark more than just mild delight.

Even with my Hollywood jadedness, the incredible detail the set designers, costumers, project architects, property masters, etc. put into each and every scene in each and every film astonished me.  Much of what we see in the film could have been recreated with CGI, as most fantasy films rely on this now.  But with the HP films, almost every prop you see on film is real; every costume has multiple layers of very particular fabrics, every set piece a written history.  The Gryffindor dorm rooms have things like off set corkboards for the actors playing their characters to leave messages for the other characters.  A portrait of a beautiful young Maggie Smith, dressed in finery, adorns the Gryffindor commons room, as a young professor McGonnical of course.  In Dumbledore’s office, an incredible glass curio cabinet houses eight hundred vials, each with a handwritten label of one of Dumbledor’s memories (which, if you have read the book, you know he can take out a memory and put into his Pensieve to relive).

The detail is hard to fathom, hard to wrap one’s head around.  Each wand in Olivander’s wand shop for instance also has a label on it, detailing the type of wood and core of each one.  (“Elm, Phoenix Tear;” “Willow, Heron Tail Feather” for example) There are 1500 wand boxes on that set.  The mere feat of these kinds of endeavors belies the passion that the crew had for this series.  I think this is why the films hold up to the books.  Among Potter fans/ Rowling fans (take your pick of which you would like to be called) there was always the fear, with each film released, that the “feel” of the book would be lost.  That it would cheapen once it hit celluloid.  The magic of the film series is that it never lost the depth of the incredible sensory world that Rowling built up for the readers, layer by layer by layer.

The only thing missing from this experience was leaving for the studios from track 9 ¾ at Charring Cross station (which does exist by the way, you can go there and see half of Harry’s luggage cart sticking out of the wall).  Instead we boarded a charter tour bus and sat squished together on the lumbering, 90 minute bus ride.  Many of us fell asleep, including the man sitting just ahead diagonal to my seat.  He woke me up when he fell out of his chair in his slumber and straight onto my outstretched leg.  All 250 pounds of his dead sleeping weight.  I have quite a large black bruise that covers most of my knee on that leg, and though my leg pinched every time I stepped on it throughout the tour, it didn’t keep me from loving every second.

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The First Post – London


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As a quick fix for my need to write, I’ve created this travelog.  I suppose about half the blogs out there have a theme or angle (I have another couple that do).  This one however is merely the account of one single-woman’s journeys through various geographies.  Definitely not a travel guide, and hopefully not just a boring journal.  I am sometimes alone, sometimes with my kids.

 At present, WordPress is new for me, and I haven’t really figured out how to make it look Whiz-Bang yet.  I had a great picture set to post as background and it came out about an inch square, no way to resize it easily.  As time goes on, I will either figure it out myself or have to make someone a really nice dinner for getting this blog up to speed graphics wise…for now, WP stock backgrounds and colors will have to do…

For now, a couple of longer entries to start, since we’ve been on the road for over a week…I’m traveling with my 14 year old son and 12 year old daughter – we spent a week in London before heading to where we are now, Dublin.

London, July 1-7.

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Perhaps I’ve been to London too many times.  It was charming, as ever.  But that “zing” of travel wasn’t there for me this time. London felt  like an old boyfriend.  Still handsome, still winning – but not enough chemistry between us to sleep with him again. I remembered the old love affair, my Mod days, traveling all over England on a Vespa with my friend Nicki  – showing up at dance halls in Brighton, drinking hard cider, wearing our Beatle Boots in the rain. Later, on other trips, Buckingham and Kensington Palaces, King Henry VIII, every manner of study and sight seeing about the Plantagenets, Tudors, Stewarts, Yorks and Windsors. All things British, up to and including Colin Firth, were beloved.

But last week when the kids and I rented a flat overlooking the Seven Dials in Covent Garden, I felt jaded and wondered if I had been to London too many times.  Or was it that I had been too many places;  if cities didn’t all just melt into one big cosmo-opolis, if the world hadn’t  become just too damn small for me to ever really be excited by travel again.   Everyone on cell phones.  A Subway and a Starbucks and a Five Guys and a Banana Republic everywhere we looked.  We went through the paces of tourist sights (photos to follow) and all had their own delight to be sure, but my relationship with London had changed.  A comfortable, well worn friendship had been established long ago but this time without the electricity of novelty.

Though there were still things I’d never seen before (oddly, the Tower of London – and the Warner Brother’s  World of Harry Potter in Leavsdon)  the “Here Comes Christmas” feeling in my bones I get when on the road didn’t rise up,  but a certain sadness did.  I wanted to always have London to go to – this was my 5th trip (in oodles of years). Would it be my last?

It could be that I wasn’t traveling with a partner.  How fun it might have been to pop down to a pub for a Pimms or a Half and Half, or to have a romantic dinner.  Or even to spend time really perusing the Galleries and Shops – which neither of my kids wanted to do much.  (I guess I can feel lucky in a  way that they aren’t shoppers.)

It could be that my son and daughter had just arrived at the very moment of their  teen and tweenage lives when they realized together (and with precision teamwork) that Mom is the Other and that not only is she hopeless in things like technology, but that she actually knows Nothing of the World.

There was a moment when my daughter and I had it out in front of the National Gallerie.  It wasn’t over something big.  In fact it had to do with reading a map.  There are moments, as a traveler, that one is as certain of which way to go as if one’s body was an actual magnetic needle on a compass.  But there are also times that a companion is just as certain that the opposite direction is true.  As she and I  tried to convince each other about the validity of our routes, while thousands of other tourists milled around us, while men who were spray painted copper patina created the illusion of being statues, while school children clambered deftly atop bronze lions, my daughter grabbed the map out of my hands, thrust her finger at the place on the map like I had never seen a map before, and shrilled, “You don’t know what you’re TALKING ABOUT!”  When did this happen?  When did she stop trusting me?  At what point did she decide that it was OK to scream at me?

I stopped speaking. A fiery  chill ran up my body.  I gave her a cold-blooded stare, one that said “Don’t Mess With Me. Ever.”   I knew that the way I was glaring at her was a look that she would never forget. And I instantly felt guilty.

She glared right back at me.  She held my gaze. Her look said, “Don’t Mess With Me. Ever.”  I imagined a slap-fight right in the middle of Trafalger Square.

Jetlag?  Tween-hood?  Daughter vs. Mother?   All I know is that as we stood there, while the rest of the National Gallery  loving world stood still,  it dawned on me that this trip would be different  than all the others.  That the “kids” were going to assert their Selves with a capital S, and that any chance of my trying to pull off “my way or the highway” parenting was not going to work.  I would have to find a new way to helm the ship.  And that was going to be a new journey indeed.

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