Sunday, June 29, 2014

Paris

Paris was a whirlwind. Originally, we weren't going to see it at all. Our plan was to stay in Normandy for the entire last week. I was completely okay with this, especially before I knew that E was going to be joining me for that part of the trip. Normandy is beautiful and I knew we'd have plenty to do there. But when E decided he'd come, he said knew that being so close to Paris and not seeing it was going to be something I'd regret. So we decided we'd leave Normandy one day before the rest of our group (our train went through Paris, so the plan was to meet up at the train station the next afternoon to head back to England) and we'd try to see as much of a gigantic city as one can in 24 hours.

I was a bit nervous the morning we left Bayeux because I was still not certain the railroad strike was over. French newspapers still said things like "it is pretty much over, so 7 out of 10 trains are running." I was worried that our train would be canceled again, and worried that it would be harder to deal with logistics from a small train station like Bayeux, but our train was still listed online so we figured we'd go for it. We walked to the train station, and had a completely ordinary train ride to Paris. Just what I was hoping for.

Once in Paris we found our subway lines and transferred so we could get to the hotel. Once again I was happy we were not dragging bags behind us, and I was pleasantly surprised by how easy the Paris subway system is to navigate. We popped up at Saint-Michel, right next to the Seine, and I couldn't stop grinning.

Paris felt like a dream. I'm not sure if it's because we had such limited time there, or because I've never seen a city like it before. But I was happy to be the goofiest tourist, ever.  God, it was beautiful.

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First look at the Seine
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Our hotel (the three open windows on the right are our room)
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Lunch, and Notre Dame peeking through the trees behind E
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Another day, another metric ton of fromage
We arrived about noon -- the bells of Notre Dame were just starting to ring as we walked down the Left Bank. Our plan was to drop our bags at the hotel so we could explore, and we'd go back later once we could check in. Our room was ready, though, so we were able to check in. Of course by then we were starving, so we just found a little cafe and got to work on consuming more cheese.
Our post-lunch plan was to take one of those (completely nerdy--I know--but easy ways to see a bunch of things in a little bit of time) hop-on/hop-off bus tours. And it was great, especially because our time was so limited. We both got sunburned, though, because it was HOT.
At the Eiffel Tower, we got off the bus and proceeded to take our mandatory Eiffel Tower photo. Of course this means handing my camera to some random person who looks like they might not run off with it, so of course I have a bunch of really bad photos. The first girl I asked to take our picture took just our picture. I have a picture of our faces with some black bars behind us--we might as well be in Sacramento. We decided we'd walk to the other side of the Tower and try again. The second batch worked, at least.
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Paris wins. I couldn't get over it. I will try not to embarrass myself by gushing, but I was awestruck. I definitely had a moment. Well, I had a moment when I wasn't regretting my dark grey jeans. I was so, so, so sweaty.
After we got off the bus (even though I was a sweaty mess) I made E go with me to Shakespeare and Company. The original had such history for all the Americanexpat writers in Paris during the 1920s (i.e. where the Lost Generation found themselves). That one closed during WWII, but this current store (named in honor of the first) opened in the fifties and has also been an important literary site since. It felt like another necessary stop on the Heather Sees All the Literary Things Tour.
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Me. Paris. Books. Win. 
In what I am sure will be the story of my life, by about 5:00 I had overdone it, not had enough water to drink, and I felt like crap. Our plan had been to go back to the hotel to clean up and then to go to Notre Dame or maybe Sainte-Chappelle, but of course I was a giant turd who felt like I was going to get sick. I just couldn't keep going. So even though the bells of Notre Dame were ringing just outside our hotel room window, we decided we couldn't do it. It was closing at 6:00, and there was just no way.
Les sads.
But listen. When you're in Paris, you're not allowed to be sad for too long. Because you're in PARIS. So I rested a bit, showered, and by dinner time I was ready to hit the fromage streets again.

We wandered the narrow streets around our hotel and eventually settled in at a little bistro and enjoyed every touristy minute. Even the accordion player playing La Vie en Rose over and over again next to each restaurant. I was happy for another nice, slow dinner that ended in cheese.
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Notre Dame from our hotel room
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Sunset over the Seine from our hotel room
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...and Notre Dame from our hotel window, by night. All lit up. Quite a view.
After dinner I realized that my time in this country was limited; we wandered the streets and I continued to eat French pastries with an almost academic dedication. We were back to our room just as the sun was setting on Notre Dame.

Our plan the second day (or what we had of it--we had to be to Paris du Nord to meet the rest of our group by 1:30 PM) was pretty much the Louvre. We were packed up early so we could leave our bags at the front desk and walk to the Louvre before it opened. I am so glad we were there early. We were inside right at 9:00 and had about an hour and a half of seeing things almost completely by ourselves. The busiest pieces--the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, etc had a small crowd, each, but the majority of the museum was empty and we wandered alone in front of so many great works.

Favorites: Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix, Canova's sculpture of Cupid and Psyche, Jacques-Louis David's massive painting of Napoleon crowning Josephine, Hammurabi's Code, the Assyrian winged human-headed bulls, and Michelangelo's sculptures of slaves. But I think one of the best things about the Louvre was just being in the Louvre. Miles and miles of art and history. My one bummer at the Louvre: the one thing I really wanted to see, Winged Victory, was out for restoration.

Basically, I'm saying I need to go back.

Louvre - 01
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We walked until our feet wouldn't carry us anymore. Which was (I think?) about 11:30. Somehow we managed to see all of things we wanted to see. We had about a mile to walk back to our hotel and we needed to eat, so we ducked into a pizzeria just after hearing the the bells of Notre Dame ring for 12:00 again. Our time was up. It was back to the hotel to grab our backpacks, then onto the subway so we could get back to Paris du Nord.
It ended up being a long travel day. Our train back to England was delayed about an hour, and then once we were back at St. Pancras we had to take the subway another hour to get out to our hotel, which was by Heathrow, and even then it was quite a walk. My legs and feet were really aching by that night. we ate a hearty dinner at the hotel and collapsed.
Heathrow was a crowded, insane mess when we got there. British Airways' luggage system was down, so the line was wrapped around the building. Luckily, we found an agent who helped check us in and we were able to get to our gate early. We decided at some point that we wanted to go straight home, rather than spend the night in San Francisco as had been our original plan. Luckily, I have the best friend in the whole wide world in K, and she agreed to drive to San Francisco that night to get us. We couldn't wait to see our kids, and we surprised them that night at my parents'.
This trip was amazing and I still don't think I've processed all of it. I'm happy to be home, but I'm already thinking about the next trip.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Bayeux Tapestry and Cathedral

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Our last day in Bayeux was very low key. The combined effect of taking in the DDay beaches plus racing around the region because our driver was in such a hurry the day before left us all pretty tired.

We'd decided to go see the Bayeux Tapestry first thing in the morning so the museum wouldn't be too crowded. Since you can't take pictures inside (for obvious reasons), I only have my picture in front of the museum. You can see the panels of the Tapestry here. This was one of the things I was most excited to see in France. Scholars estimate the BT was made in about the 1070s as a piece of propaganda detailing the importance of oath-keeping and William the Conqueror's victory at the Battle of Hastings. It's in surprisingly good shape today. The Tapestry (which is really embroidery, not tapestry) hung at one time inside the Bayeux Cathedral, which we visited later the same day. I can't find a picture of this online, but in the Tapestry museum they had an artist's rendering of what the Tapestry would have looked like hanging inside the nave of the Cathedral. The museum was small but well done, and even though we had museum overload by this point, we were impressed with the display.

After the Tapestry, we walked over to the Cathedral, which we had only seen from the outside. Portions of the Cathedral survive from the 1000s, which blows my mind. But it's also in really good shape (and a working church), and the Gothic portions and stained glass from the 1800s are really beautiful. I tried to go into the crypt--which is one of the parts of the church that survives from William the Conqueror's time--but the mold really aggravated my allergies.  The Bayeux Cathedral is an amazing structure.

By the time we saw the Cathedral, we were hungry. We stopped by breakfast location #1 and had some lunch, and then we spent the rest of the afternoon napping and reading. I was so exhausted by that point, and I felt like I had a bit of historical whiplash from jumping between WWII and medieval history so much. We decided to rest up for the remainder of the day, because E and I were catching a train to Paris in the morning.

Friday, June 27, 2014

What I Packed

Three weeks out of a backpack. No checked bags.

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In the Heathrow airport, headed home

For my three weeks in Ireland, England and France, I knew I'd be moving around a lot. I decided I wanted to bring a bag I could carry on the plane. And because I wanted to be even more portable, I didn't want to deal with wheels. I limited myself to my backpack and one crossbody bag that I'd be using as my purse/day bag.

The good thing about taking a backpack is that the bag itself is pretty light. I wanted to be able to carry everything myself without having to ever ask for help, and I wanted to feel more like I was in control of my stuff (no extra bags hanging everywhere or things to keep track of).

This is what I packed, if you're interested. It wasn't perfect (see notes), but it was pretty good. I read a lot of travel sites before I left (this one in particular).

THE BAGS
Backpack: Kelty Redwing 40 (E has the 44)
Shoulder bag: Baggalini Partner Backpack (could also alter straps to wear it like a small backpack)

Inside the backpack I used some packing cubes from ebags and nylon pouches from Ikea to keep everything organized. I needed to unpack and pack a lot, and that way I knew right where everything was without having to dig for it.

I washed laundry as we went--mostly in the sink, a few things in the hotel laundry service, and in the washer when we had it at our flat in London. Since it was cold/rainy in Ireland and hot in France, I tried to pack things I could layer.  If I was going to be in one climate for the whole time, I wouldn't bring as much. But I ended up using pretty much everything between the three countries. Almost all of the clothes I brought were black, gray, or white. Everything could be worn with everything else. I rolled all of my clothes inside the cubes except for my jacket and sweatshirt.

The packing list, including what I wore on the plane:

CLOTHES
Fleece zip-up sweatshirt (compressed in a gallon ziplock to save space)
Waterproof shell rain jacket
1 pair Jeans
1 pair lightweight pants (like these)
1 pair Leggings
1 pair shorts
1 skirt
2 sundresses
1 pair shorts to wear under skirts (like Spanx)
1 scarf (E's aunt bought me another one along the way)
1 pair PJ pants
2 T-shirts (bought 2 more along the way)
3 camisoles
1 long-sleeve top
3 sleeveless blouses/shells
1 cardigan
1 pull-over sweater
1 canvas jacket (like a denim jacket, kinda?)
5 pair socks
1 bathing suit (didn't use... but you never know)
6 pair underwear
2 bras

SHOES
1 pair Converse (old, so I could toss them if I needed space)
1 pair running shoes
1 pair Toms (old, so I could toss them if I needed space)
1 pair flip flops (I never wore them)

TOILETRIES/STUFF
sleep mask/ earplugs
travel-size Kleenex/ hand wipes
Shampoo and conditioner
toothbrush/toothpaste
floss
hair ties and bobby pins
medicine/ band-aids/ Q-tips
razor
nail clippers/ tweezers
brush and comb
makeup remover
moisturizer/ chapstick
contact solution and case
glasses and case
Packtowel and clothesline
laundry/body soap (This and this. They both worked fine. I used the liquid as a body/face wash for most of the trip.)
Makeup
Hair spray and curl cream
Neck wallet/ Passport/ credit cards
Bag for dirty laundry
Collapsable backpack (like this) in case I needed more space to pack on the way home (Didn't use)
Ziplocks (a big one to hold memory stuff)

TECH/ STUFF
earbuds
DSLR camera/ charger
extra camera batteries and memory cards
iPad/keyboard/ chargers
iPhone/charger
Travel power adapter (similar)
Small power strip (like this)
TSA locks/thin cable
iPad camera connector kit and USB cord for camera
copies of all important paperwork (also emailed to myself)
pen and pencil
Small coin purse

I weighed my backpack before I left and it was 18 pounds. It was full, but manageable. I measured it to make sure it fit carry-on regulations, but nobody gave me a second glance any of the times we boarded a plane. 

As we went, I ended up ditching a few things that I didn't absolutely need. I prioritized before I left and knew which things I'd ditch. I left my Converse in London on the last night. They lasted the whole time but they were ready to go. In retrospect I would have brought different running shoes. My Nike Free Runs didn't have enough support and the bottoms of my feet hurt when I wore them, which is why I ended up wearing the Converse almost every day (even with dresses). They have a thicker sole. I was tired of wearing everything by the end, but I could have kept going easily. Wash, wear, repeat.

A word about photo back-up:

I was really concerned ahead of time about how I'd make sure to back up my pictures. Since I wasn't planning to really buy very much, I knew those pictures were the main souvenirs I'd want of the trip. I brought my gigantic DSLR camera which was a pain in the ass to lug around but it takes great pictures. My backup process was to put the pictures onto my iPad every night and then when we had good wifi, to back them up to Dropbox. It worked fine as long as we had good wifi (which we sometimes didn't). I also kept them on the memory card so they were in three places. I know I'm unusually freaked out about losing files, but I didn't want to wait until I was 35 to go anywhere and then accidentally delete all the pictures. The system worked, but it took some odd cord-plugging since Apple doesn't yet make a memory card reader for the lightning plug and my camera uses the old CF cards. But I worked it out.

In my day bag, I'd carry my camera and phone and kleenex, chapstick, water, etc, but no credit cards and never very much money in case it got nabbed. When I flew to and from London, I also packed it full of my prescriptions and the ipad, just in case my big bag got separated from me. I had my passport and anything important in my neck wallet--as much so I didn't lose them as so they'd be protected.

I can't tell you how HAPPY we both were that we didn't bring bags with wheels. I knew that having a backpack would be better over cobblestones, but I didn't have a sense of just how many cobblestones we'd be looking at, and how wobbly they be. And how many stairs... And how many escalators... On the subway, being able to carry everything easily was a lifesaver. We never got stuck in a turnstile, and I never felt like my stuff was too far away from me. When we were traveling from place to place (subway, train, etc) or leaving our bags anywhere for any length of time, I locked the zippers shut.

When we got to Heathrow to head home, there was a line wrapped around the entire terminal because their baggage system was down. It felt so good to bypass that mess and get right on the plane with our stuff.

I think that's it? We're total converts to backpacks now, and packing less.

Normandy: DDay Beaches

I decided to wait until we got home to finish the rest of the posts about our trip. I'd been trying not to be too specific about E being with me for the second half of the trip (I didn't want to advertise that we were both out of the country), but I realized after the day we visited the DDay beaches that I couldn't keep that up. I also needed time to process after we spent the day visiting each of these sites. I couldn't get right into what I was feeling by writing that same night.

But anyway. We're home now, so here are the rest of the things we saw...

I started my second day in Bayeux just as I had started the first. I had breakfast at my two favorite breakfast spots. Yes, two. Breakfast 1 was in a little cafe so I could have some wonderful coffee (I was missing good coffee so bad when we were in Ireland and England) and a little protein. Breakfast 2 was at the patisserie next door. Every day. No shame in my pain au chocolat game.

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For our tour of the American landing beaches (we were only touring those, so we didn't see the British or Canadian landing areas), we had a private tour guide and car. This made our experience much more focused. We were able to ask questions and get a lot of personalized information. E's grandfather was at DDay, serving on an LST for the navy. We were able to cater the tour mostly to things that related to his service.

But before we did that, we started at the Airborne museum in St. Mere-Eglise. If you've seen The Longest Day, you know this as the place that a paratrooper, John Steele, got stuck on the spire of the church as he attempted to land. St. Mere-Eglise also has a small museum dedicated to the 82nd and the 101st, the men who liberated the town in the early morning hours of DDay.

The museum was good, but we were antsy to get to the sites related to our family. Most of our day felt rushed, which was too bad. We could have spent a long time at Utah and Omaha Beaches.

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Utah Beach - 03
At Utah Beach there's a pretty new memorial to the Navy and their contribution to DDay. Our guide was really knowledgeable about each branch of the American Service and what they'd done. He was able to tell us about how the Navy was particularly successful at Utah, but that they had not been recognized as much as other branches of the military until more recently.
Utah has such a gradual slope that it is shallow for as far as you can see. And it's huge. I was really moved by not just how big each beach was, but how much area the entire invasion took up. We spent most of the day driving between spots and it's hard to really convey in pictures just how many miles this invasion encompassed.
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After seeing Utah, where E's grandfather landed first (and where the Navy memorial is), we made a stop at Point du Hoc, where the craters from the bombardment are still virtually untouched. Our guide had pictures (that's what he's showing in the one below) of the men who fought at Point du Hoc and eventually found the guns the Germans had moved before the invasion.
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Our last stop was Omaha, specifically the area of Fox Green where our information says E's grandfather's ship came in during the third wave to deliver supplies and take out wounded. This is farther East of Verville, where the worst casualties of Omaha occurred. Our guide was able to give us an idea of exactly what people on his ship would have seen at Omaha. All of this was surreally juxtaposed with the fact that many families were enjoying a swim on the beach the day of our tour. It felt more than a little weird, but it's a sign of how life moves on, I suppose.
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After Omaha, we visited the American Cemetery on the hill above.
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