Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Montmartre and Dinner

After the performance, we took the bus over to Montmartre and the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, which is one of the more amazing areas of Paris. This is artist's alley, with dozens and dozens of roaming artists who walk around and do quick sketches of tourists. There is so much awesome in this particular area, that it is really hard to explain in words. However, as your intrepid narrator, I shall endeavor.


















First, you need to go up a couple hundred stairs (or ride an incline car) up the side of the hill to get to the top. I'm fairly certain that this is one of - if not the - highest areas in Paris, and the view from the top is extraordinary. It will absolutely take your breath away. The city stretches into infinity in front of you, the cream-colored majesty that is the city of Paris. The great landmarks - the Arc d'Triumphe, Notre Dame Cathedral, etc - are framed by the offices and homes and apartments of the residents. People gathered on the hillside, sitting with drinks and picnics and their loved ones, just to sit and take in the view.















The Basilique du Sacré-Cœur is a beautiful work of art. The carvings on the outside walls, the carvings and statuary inside, are extraordinary. Unlike the other cathedrals where we've toured, this one has a man stationed inside who will hush you. Photography is not allowed, but you can buy postcards in the gift shop if you want to take the images with you. The chapels inside were also elaborate and beautiful. You walk the path that is outlined, clockwise from 6 o'clock (where you start) around the whole shape of the building. Apparently, there are catacombs underneath that you can explore, but they didn't have a pamphlet or map or something like that. Barb and Jim went down there, but they came back up relatively quickly because they didn't know what they were viewing.












Around this area, there is ART. There are street performers singing and playing instruments. There was a Mary Poppins-looking accordion player that was a particular favorite of Katie's. Every other boutique was an art dealer: either selling their own paintings or other people's paintings. Wandering the streets are random people who are looking to create art for you: drawing your picture, or your significant other's picture, or creating paper sculptures with scissors. They're pretty aggressive, too. If you say no, they will appeal to how happy it will make your girlfriend... then tell you that they'll draw it and accept payment only if you like it. Of course, at that point, you feel an obligation to pay for it, so.... there you go. Your own artwork.

We had gelato, and it was wonderful. The neat thing is that they had a small size cone, right around the size of an actual single scoop serving on the package of the ice cream. All I usually want is a small size, a taste; I don't need the normal American portion of huge.












Portion sized in France, in general, are about half of the size of American portions, and I love it. I love eating rich and delicious food, but not feeling overfull and gross afterwards. It really makes sense as to why French people are skinny like they are; a lot of walking around the city and reasonable portion sizes. I have not seen the normal assortment of over large individuals walking around, like you do in America.

After some more walking around and shopping through souvenir stores, we took a seat in a small cafe, sitting outside and enjoying an espresso and a glass of wine (I had the espresso). We just sat for a half hour or so and watched the people walk around; watched the people, looked at the fashion, watched the street performers work, watched the artists across the way paint and sell. I did a little bit of writing while I was there.









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Dinner was at Noces de Jeannette, a restaurant. It was beef Burgandy, a potato pancake, a salad, and some chicken pâté. I had a glass of the house red wine, generously donated by our own Jean!!!! The whole thing was delicious. I really believe that this might he have been the best meal that we've had all week. The dining room in which we ate was sumptuously decorated and beautiful, with mirrored walls and deep colors.






Right now, we're heading back to the hotel for the night. No more planned activities, although I'm sure we are going to find a nice place to go.

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We went walking after we all gathered back at the hotel and changed clothes. We found a little pub called "Indiana," about three blocks from the hotel. Eight of us sat around a few small tables and just chatted for an hour or so. It was nice. It was also interesting that a half carafe of wine wound up costing us less than anybody else's drinks, so Molly and I drank cheap. I love France!








We sang a few songs, and people seemed to like all of them except the last song we sang, which was Send Your Love. Katie decided that was overstaying our welcome...


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Irish Cultural Center Performance

After the bus tour, we stopped in the Place de la Contrescarpe, a "normal" neighborhood, where the Irish Cultural Center is located - that was the site of our afternoon performance. The area had a whole bunch of little cafés and shoppes and restaurants. I looked into a newsstand for a gift for the boys - looking for a Justice League comic or coloring book in French for them - before we found a neat little café for lunch.

The French love their ham. All of the sandwiches are ham based: croquet monsieur, which is ham and cheese; the croquet madame, which is the same but with an egg on top. I have not seen a roast beef sandwich, or a turkey sandwich, except as an additional ingredient to a ham sandwich. And, when they say a sandwich is covered in cheese, they mean the sandwich is covered with cheese.

As we were sitting outside the cafe, enjoying the weather, we suddenly heard a low, gravelly, frightening voice shouting from above. Across the street, a figure that bore a startling resemblance to Grumpy Cat yelled from above:









In speaking with others, she is a beggar that goes around the neighborhood and pesters tourists and others. She was pestering Gordon and Mark, and their waitress was quite stern with her. Interesting. Apparently, Gordon was counting the change in his hand, and she joked up to him and tried to pull the money from his palm. Aggressive lady.

That area, according
to Patrick, is one of the more exclusive areas in the city. It has an amazing school that is only available for people who live in the neighborhood.

We notice that there are an awful lot of cool little playgrounds sprinkled throughout the city. The boys would enjoy that.

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The performance was part of a lunchtime concert series at the Irish Cultural Center. It is a gorgeous little building in the middle of the neighborhood, and it has a quiet courtyard in which to sit. People frequently come there to study, to eat, and to get away from things. There are a number of these places throughout the city, and Patrick tells us that those places are what makes life in the city survivable and bearable. Every once in a while, you need to remove yourself from the hustle and bustle and reduce the sensory input, and this is the place to do it.



Our audience was not big; probably only about fifteen people that stayed for the entire show, and another five or ten that stayed for part of the show. They were gathered around tables with chairs, usually with their lunch in front of them. There was a young family with baby twins, probably about four or five years old.

Funny bit: as Sidekicks sang "What a a Wonderful World," they got to the part where they sang, "I hear babies cry, I watch them grow..." and one of the babies started to cry a little bit. It was very, very well timed and very, very cute.

The concert was a formal performance in our sparklies, and the concert organizers seemed to be pleased with the performance. I think we sounded just about as good as the other night, considering that we were outside. Outside plays heck with acoustics, because there is no realistic way to hear people in the chorus.

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Morning Challenges and a Bus Tour

So, this morning was a little bit of a fiasco, involving the lack of shower water and a lack of breakfast food. In order: there was an issue with the hotel's hot water supply. There was no hot water available for much of the morning. Personally, I was up at 6 and went to the hotel gym to run on the elliptical machine, so I didn't get into the shower until after 7. The water in my room ran brown for a little while, then ran grey for a little while, then eventually cleared up enough to take a shower.

When I got downstairs, I ran into grumpy singers who told me, "Good luck getting food." We were sharing a breakfast room with another group of foreign tourists, and they were... not gracious. First, they tried to bully our group out of the breakfast room. That didn't work out too well for them. The other fun thing: the waitstaff brought out trays of food, and. The other group, universally, decided to fill up their bags for lunch. So, 30 bananas came out, and they too 4-5 each and disappeared. The croissant tray came out, and they took handfuls of croissants.

Well, everything can't go too smoothly. The trip has been fairly uneventful to date - everything has been relatively smooth - so we were due. Meh. Not a big deal.

Today we do a bus tour of Paris, then lunch at the Ireland Center, where our second formal performance awaits. Tonight is at our leisure.

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I'm not sure how cool I am with the "European" restaurant restrooms. They have a stall for men, a stall for women, and a urinal - usually directly between the two stalls. It might or might not (usually not) have some kind of "privacy divider" in between. I don't think I'm okay with standing at a urinal and having mixed company coming into the restroom. I understand that everybody uses the potty - I understand that Europeans have different notions of modesty - but I'm not willing to suspend my Puritan background for that.

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The bus tour was... well... a bus tour. To be honest, I'm not a big fan of them. I'm too antsy. The stuff we saw was interesting, and we had a tour guide whose specific job was to point out items of interest and give their histories. I'm just not so much into sitting on a bus for long periods of time.






We did get out of the bus for a few minutes outside of Napolean's tomb and the military hospital, and that was really nice. There were a couple of aggressive young salesmen waiting to sell trinkets and scarves, which was a little annoying. There was some really amazing carvings and sculptures on the side of the tomb.






Interesting thing: how the buildings in Paris are capped at a certain height. There is one skyscraper inside of city limits, and it's regarded with some embarrassment. The five star hotels are in a major competition with each other, as you'd imagine (€10K per night rooms, amirite?); the only way to really compete is, every once in a while, knock down the building and start over again, with the latest amenities and upgrades. The Ritz Paris is under construction right now.

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Thee are a lot of dogs, all over the place. In the restaurants, in the stores, on the sidewalks, in the art booths, everywhere. It's actually kind of nice, and there is way less dog poop than you'd expect.


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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Afternoon in Paris




We arrived in Paris just shy of 3pm, and we disembarked right next to the Eiffel Tower. The drive to get there was quite scenic, as you would imagine: beautiful bridges across the River Seine, which included gold statues, other carved statues, and a small replica of the Statue of Liberty. Patrick pointed out some of the relevant features as we went past.

The line to get to the elevator to get up to the observation deck 2nd floor was about 45 minutes long, so Molly, Katie, and I decided to walk up the steps. It was five euros to get up there, 320-ish stapes to get to the first deck (where there is a five star restaurant - can you imagine the logistics of pumping plumbing up that high to run a kitchen?), then a total of 669 steps (from the ground) to get to the second deck. It took us about a half hour to do the climb, which had some absolutely amazing views of the Trocadero and the surrounding parts.



It was very cloudy and overcast, but you could still see a huge chunk of the city. Paris is built low to the ground, without the skyscrapers blotting out the landscape in American cities. Everything is close together and close to the ground, so the impression is one giant gathering of buildings and people. From several hundred feet in the air, we saw a group of young girls do some cartwheels in the park; maybe a school gymnastics team?



We ran into Barb and Jim up top. Jim didn't seem to be any worse for the wear, but Barb was pretty whipped:



As we were standing next to the steps down, gathering emotional energy for the trip, the window right next to me suddenly opened with a snack booth. It was the greatest timing that I've ever had in my life, because I turned my head at the noise to find myself eyeball-to-eyeball with a delicious chocolate croissant. It was a truly magical moment of destiny: love at first sight. A croissant that truly filled a hole within me.



We went on a boat tour of the Seine which wasn't what we hoped it would be - we got on one of those "stops in a whole bunch of places" boats instead of a "here are the sights you're passing now" boats. Sigh. C'est la vie. It was still cool to see the stuff on the river, and we met a nice young lady from Montreal. We saw Jean and Barb Anderson on a boat going the other way, which was cool.



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Our hotel is the same chain as we used in Caen, so it's quite nice with mediocre free wifi. Still, it's free wifi. Dinner was a chicken and pasta with an Alfredo sauce. The chicken was overdone, but the Alfredo sauce was good and the bread tasted fresh. Dinner was a Normandy apple pie and tasty. Altogether, it would have been nice to have had a French meal instead of variations on dishes we get all the time in the states.

After dinner, I went to a small bar close to the hotel with Molly, Katie, Barb and Jim, Luanne and her sister, and Connie and Joe Klug. We drank wine and beers that we don't get in the states, and we sang songs for the people in the bar (and the employees, which was also cool). I'm really lucky to direct a chorus that has such wonderful people in it: people who are smart, and funny, and creative, and interesting.



I am also consistently amazed and pleased at how friendly everybody is! The waitstaff at the various places, the audiences for which we've sung, the shopkeepers at the stores, and the random people in the street have all been accommodating, funny, and nice. Plus, it seems like everyone we meet is skinny and in good shape. Weird.


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Location:Passage Les Enfants du Paradis,Boulogne-Billancourt,France

Rouen

Since we didn't leave the hotel bar until 12:30 last night because of the cool Austrians, we slept in a bit this morning before packing, loading our stuff onto the bus, and grabbing a quick breakfast. The drive to Rouen for lunch went quickly, with the most exciting thing being a 25-minute discussion about whether or not you could tell the weather forecast (rain or not) by the cows lying down. The general consensus was that cows lying down meant rain, and - since it did rain along way - that opinion was proven, for the moment.

Someone said yesterday that purely white cows are only found in a couple of places - here, in Normandy, and somewhere else that I forget and am too lazy to look up in Wikipedia. Considering that the landscape is mostly crops and cows, we saw a lot of cows.

To reiterate: French coffee is quite good.

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We disembarked at the Cathèdrale Notre-Dame de Rouen, which has one of the largest church spires in the world. The scroll work and carvings on the outside of the church and inside the church were truly awe-inspiring.

Big doors and amazing windows:






Inside the church:






Jean found a dog just like her dog, Gus. She showed the dog's owner a video of Gus, and they bonded over their furry friends:






A street accordion player, the accordion being a very characteristic instrument for traditional French folk music:





Molly's shoe broke, so she had the excuse to go shoe shopping. While I was waiting for her (spoiler: she did not find an appropriate pair), I bought a hat at a store called Devred:



We had lunch at a darling cafe / bar named JM's cafe. It was a two-level restaurant, and our seat was right at a window overlooking the plaza, which had some street vendors and a little carousel. My children would have been all over that carousel, wanting to ride it forty or fifty times. Neat thing? The kid's meal came with a carousel ticket. Great idea, no?

I had pizza, and Molly and Katie had steak. One waiter was hilarious - if you had to draw a characature of a Frenchman, this guy would have been the result. He was hilarious, making fun of Molly's French and of Katie's Spanish. It was really endearing, and we took a picture of him with Katie:





He looked at the picture, pointed to himself and said, "Nicolas Cage." Said in the French accent, I think I will laughing for a few more days. He honestly reminded us of a character in the Disney movie, Rattatouie.

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This particular part of Rouen - which was an important city, having housed the French government at various time and also was the ruling seat of the Vikings when they lived the - was an old and a shopping area. There were a few "crap" stores, but mostly clothing stores, shoe stores (a lot of shoe stores), and food booths. There were a lot of pastry shoppes, including a few places with a press for crepes of varying types. The streets were pedestrian streets and lined with cobblestones instead of asphalt. Everything was outdoors, except for a couple of the restaurants (including the one in which we ate, because we didn't feel like getting wet while eating).

We sang in the Place de la Cathédrale, after the accordion player left. It was well received, and people called for more, but we had to get back to the bus.






I saw a little boy - probably a bit older than The Boy, who was sucking his thumb and twirling his hair like my Little Bear. I miss my Little Bear, who has the greatest smile in the world.

Off to Paris and the Eiffel Tower area. I think I'm just dumb enough to walk up the steps to the top of the Eiffel Tower, particularly if it's cheaper than buying a ticket for the elevator. Save money and get some exercise? Yes, please.

Molly and Katie are practicing quartet music in the back of the bus. Bari and tenor music.... just send two!!!!



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Monday, July 28, 2014

Arromanches-les-Bains

Lunch was in the town of Arromanches-les-Bains. Molly and I ate together in the restaurant De la Marine Hotel Arromanches, which overlooked the beach. The beach at Arromanches was one of the big landing points for the Normandy invasion, and you can see some of the floating cement piers that the Allied fortresses used to bring men and supplies across from England. It's a gorgeous little tourist town.



I also had a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone, which is my favorite flavor. The mint was a lot stronger than what I'm used to eating, which was cool. The peppermint flavor was a nice touch. Molly had a caramel ice cream cone, which had some butter cream chunks inside it, which was also tasty.



The surrounding lands are farmland - corn, I think, definitely wheat, and a lot of cows. There are an awful lot of cows. The houses are predominantly cream colored, some brick but mostly plaster-type outside with slate shingle roofs. The roads are quite narrow, making guiding this bus through town a mixture of skill, luck, and bravery. The buildings and walls are right up against the edges of the street - there are more sidewalks, but mostly the sidewalks are the streets. It is not uncommon to have the bushes and hedgerows grown out into the street a bit, brushing against the side of the bus. The speed limit signs are plain white circular signs, with the numbers written in black ink and a think red circle bordering the sign.

There was a small concert pavilion set up in downtown Arromanches, and Sidekicks and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (the combination Cleffhangers and Fancy Pants quartets, formerly known as Pantshangers) both sang a song. The crowds enjoyed the performances and spoke with us afterwards.




There were quite a few British folks wandering around today.







I don't know if it's a sign of my French or my accent, but when I ask for something in French, the shopkeepers all answer me in English.

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We warmed up on the bus for the Normandy cemetery performance. It was a unique experience, considering that I was holding on for dear life because of how Jean Josef, our driver, weaved his way down the roads. I tried conducting with one hand as much as I could, but when it got crazy, I held on with two hands and conducting with my head.


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Normandy American Cemetary













The Normandy American Cemetary and war memorial was sobering, to say the least. Situated on the hilltop overlooking Omaha Beach, it's the final resting place for approximately 9,300 American servicemen and women who fought and did to liberate France and fight the Nazis. We sang a memorial ceremony, and did a wreath laying, on the monument's steps, looking out at the reflecting pool, gravestones, and chapel. After the short performance, Col. Chuck Butler (res.) and Jennifer Fogle (whose son is on active duty) laid the wreath, some poems were recited, and "Taps" was played. It was an extremely emotional time.









It's easy to look at a major battle or series of battles and throw out numbers: 50,000 soldiers lost, or 150,000 injured, or something like that. We don't really take that to heart; it's a big number, but there is no real way to comprehend it. The guides in this cemetary and memorial do a great job of humanizing it. Anthony, our guide, told the stories of some of the missing and deceased soldier.






John S was felled by a sniper rifle on July 12, 1944, and fell into a ravine. In the heat of battle, his colleagues were unable to recover his body, and when they went back three days later, the body was gone. Fast forward fifty years, and in a nearby town, they were excavating land to build a new housing development when they came across a skeleton. Turns out, he was dragged away and robbed, and the thieves took everything except for his dog tags. His body was identified and interred at Arlington National Ceremony, and his entry on the wall of missing soldiers was modified with a brass flower.

A lady was given the telegram that said that her husband was killed in action. Forty-five minutes later, she received a second telegram, telling her that her son was killed in action. All families gave some, some families gave all.



We saw the resting place of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and his brother, Quentin. Quentin was killed in a dogfight (he was a pilot) in World War I; he was reinterred next to his brother at the request of the remaining brother in 1956. Theo Roosevelt Jr was 59 when he was part of the first wave of the Normandy invasion. Anthony, our guide, told the story that he had a handgun, a walking stick, and a hip flask. When he encountered a soldier who was having a crisis of faith, he would apparently give them a sip from the hip flask and send them on their way with the back end of the walking stick. This story was told to Anthony by a man who was on Omaha Beach during the invasion and said that he witnessed it; I hope that it's a true story.

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On our way out of the visitor's center, we met a group of veterans who were Scotsmen. Since we were in a patriotic mood, we decided to sing for them. I picked "We'll Meet Again," which was a World War II era song, made famous by the English singer, Vera Lynn. In the Sweet Adelines world, that's a regional song - kind of a standard song that everybody is supposed to know. It's also the regional song that fewest people know and fewer still like. However, it's perfectly appropriate for the trip.



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