Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I See The Light

Tucked away along a side road running perpendicular to Notre Dame (which in itself is mythical in atmosphere and impressive in stature) hides the chapel at Saint Chappelle. Like most other landmarks in Paris, it is a tourist destination, albeit a little less known and a little less mobbed. There really is only one reason to visit there - kick yourself if you don't do so on a sunny day - but that one reason will leave your neck permanently craned and your eyes spoiled forever. Because they will never see colors like the did in Saint Chappelle. The room is about 80 yards long, the roof just as high. Covering every inch of the walls, stained glass windows reach up to the vaulted ceiling. The sun moseys on in from the outside and suddenly purples, blues, greens, yellows and reds are skipping around mid-air. Forget this is a church, this room is a religious experience without all the Christian relics and symbolism. I'm still rubbing my jaw from all the times it hit the floor.

But what actually made me smile the most was the permanent smile on my wife, Danielle's face. You see, she's been waiting to return here for just about twelve years. She visited Saint Chappelle on her European tour in high school and it quickly became her favorite spot. She mentioned it in our dating days, she described it when we were planning this trip. But to see her face and hear the little gasp of delight as we stepped into the room, that was worth the price of admission (which coincidentally enough was zero, since Saint Chappelle is covered on our Paris Museum Pass - 34 Euro and we can enter any museum in Paris for two days in a special line without paying, I highly recommend it).
As sappy as it may sound, that was the highlight of my day. Yeah, the Arc du Triomph (sp?) was impressive and the view from atop it astounding; Orsay Museum hid a different masterpiece in its little nooks (I can't even imagine what the Louvre will be like tomorrow, my feet and brain hurt already just thinking about it); Sacre Cour was beautiful, even though the surrounding area had a seedy feel; the walk down the Champs E'Lysees had my head spinning and my wallet crying. But those moments that you can't get from the Rick Steve's guidebook, that you can't capture with your Nikon, are the ones you remember the longest.

Rick's a good guy, one of the best people I've never met in person, in fact. But as I said to Danielle today, sometimes he's just a suggestion, not a to-do list. And Rick, I'm absolutely sure, would agree with me. Which is why on our walk down the hill from Sacre Cour, I took a right. Then a left. Then I don't know what. I used the map to put us in the vicinity of the street that may or may not take us to Moulin Rouge (tourist trap in a seedy XXX part of town - photograph the big red windmill and move along).

Along the way we found a cheese shop. We stopped in a bought some cheese, somehow, from the shopkeep who didn't speak English. We ended up with a small wheel of soft, stinky French cheese that was too pungent to eat on its own. So around the next corner, when we smelled fresh baked bread, voila! Another left, another bakery, another baguette. Further down that hill we stopped into a wine shop and scooped up two bottle of what we think is local wine (we can't translate the bottles but who cares, its wine - oh and my French pronunciation must be getting good because my Bonjour, Monsieur made the shopkeep start a conversation with me in French. Danielle had to tell him we had no idea what he was talking about). The last stop before the train home was a tiny shop filled with mustards, jams, spices, pattes, salts, etc. The jelly sampled would go well with our little dinner. So just like every other Parisian I've seen trekking home from work, we hopped a train with our baguettes, en route to a makeshift French meal. As I sit here polishing off one of the bottles of wine, I must commend myself and my wife - tre bien!

Stupid Tourists: 2 - As we left Saint Chappelle four tourists passed us. How did I know from 30 feet away that they were American? For one, the men were wearing "The Da Vinci Code" baseball hats they obviously bought for their trip to Paris. Two, they were from, I'd guess, Long Island - and I know that by accent and attire. The loudest of the women yelled to her friend across the entry courtyard, "Do you think its real stained glass in there? Pssh, the woman said so but, pssh, I don't know." Stupid Tourists.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Day One

It is currently 10:00pm in the beautiful City of Light and Danielle and I have been awake for 37 hours straight. Therefore, you're going to have to bear with me as I list a few things I've learned about France sicne we touched down this morning.

1. If you don't like French people, don't come to Paris, they're everywhere!
2. Every French woman is in some way gorgeous - and before you start squawking about how I'm on my honeymoon and my wife is the only woman I should ever look at, know this: this was said and elaborated upon by Danielle. Don't shoot the messenger.
3. The Eiffel Tower is ALWAYS far away - I don't care where you are, you're always far from it (sidenote: once you get to it - but remember you're always far away from it - but once you get to it, it's amazing. I don't care how touristy and cliche it is, the damn thing was impressive. Especially cuz it took so long to get there).
4. Rollerblading is HUGE here! Yeah, rollerblading, I know, I thought that went out with razor scooters too. Guess what, they have razor scooters here too! Yeah, I know! Everywhere! We almost lost a limb because some guy was doing figure skating moves on rollerblades!
5. The French love androgeny - we had a wonderful dinner at a cafe (Duck Confit is my new best friend - I'm thinking of somehow incorporating it into GrillFest next year). But the highlight for Danielle was her trip to the toillette. It was unixsex. Not like one toilet, lock the door unisex but rather, a few stalls next to one another labeled men and women. Go figure.
6. The French don't hate us Americans. They just don't care that we're in their country, spewing forth our bank accounts because they have more important things to worry about. I don't blame them, have you seen their city? This place is amazing!
7. Americans are obnoxious. That is why from here on out I'm going to start a little counter at the bottom of posts. I call it the "Stupid Tourists Ticker." Self explanatory. Oh, Danielle and I aren't immune from it either.

Stupid Tourists: 1    -   Coming up the escalator at Charles de Gaulle Airport an American family of 8 stops short at the summit of this Matterhorn-esque escalator. The father doesn't move but rather comments on how the Arrival Board is in purple and he's never seen that in the State. This causes a chaos I've never before witnessed with pissed of french people yelling, flailing and generally in disarray - and as I've learned, the French are very rarely in disarray. Unless they mean to be in a disarray, and then its for fashion. Anyway, Stupid Tourists.

There's plenty more I've learned today, like our visit to Notre Dame, hearing a French mass there and lighting a prayer candle to St. Dennis, who I believe was the Patron Saint of Irked fathers; or perhaps the fresh crepe sucre and crepe nutella we had for lunch. Unfortunately I'm going to pass out and drool on this tiny little computer, thus rendering it useless and my pithy, urbane European observation nonexistent.

Until next time, adieu

Sunday, August 29, 2010

America, to go

Apparently the good ole' United States wasn't done with us just yet. An hour and a half delay put us at the Newark airport about 5 hours early. Thus, here I sit observing the international terminal C trying to guess who hails from what country by using the most stereotypes I can remember. Hey, its passing the time. I do, however, appreciate that out the window NeW York City shuffles hazy on the horizon. The city reminds me that despite all its ills (Glenn Beck had a rally? Really people? That's enough already. Just stop listening and he'll go away and we can all go back to the normal non-in-person fear mongering that we"re all accustomed to from the GOP), I love America. So Danielle and I decided to show our patriotism by knocking off a few hours at the Ruby Diner here in terminal C. What better way to kick off a whirlwind European tour than sharing a plate of chicken fingers, fries and two straws from a chocolate shake? If I didn't know I was in Newark (and believe me, we're definitely in New Jersey, you should see the high heels and hoop earrings fluttering around this place, not your typical travel attire), I'd think we flew back in time to a sock hop. All we needed was the poodle skirt. And thus we took a little bit of home. Danielle just got back from the checkin counter at our gate. She had them add our sky mile points to this trip. Oh a whim she asked how much to upgrade our seats for the flight to Paris. If it was a few hundred, maybe wed do it, she said, its our honeymoon. "That would be 6000 dollars. Do you still want to upgrade?" Then he mocked us by saying, "Paris on your honeymoon? That's original." And we're back to the European state of mind. I love you America, see you in a few weeks.


Last night we attended a wedding in Albany that saw the joining of not just two people, not just two families, but two cultures. The ceremony and reception flawlessly blended the bride's Indian traditions with the grooms Catholic ones. The colorful, beautiful and raucous results made for a fantastic way to get into the international spirit (highlight of the evening - a boy about 10 years old dance battling anyone and everyone that dared step up to him - needless to say, the entire wedding party got served).

And with that, Europe awaits. Since "ciao" is used both as a hello and goodbye, I'll multitask - CIAO!

There's not much else to say - here we go, "andiamo" . . .

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Danke, Papa

Nana and Papa DeSimone, in their day, were the avidest of avid world travelers. Mexico, Ireland, Italy, the world was their oyster - scratch that, my maternal grandmother is extremely allergic to shellfish - the world was their, let’s say, $9.99 Prime Rib Special.

My grandfather earned his travel chops the hard way – World War II. He participated in the European theater as a field medic, saw his fair share of nightmares and made the most of his time overseas by exploring where and when he was able. He even had a girlfriend in Paris. Michelle Dupont, he likes to point out in front of my grandmother for a rousing chuckle, may still be waiting for him on, “one of those bridges over that river.”

They haven’t been able to travel in recent years, even squashing their annual snowbird migration to Hallandale, Florida. They’d be the first to curse the knees, the hips, the heart and the hearing.
But nothing can hide the gleam that undoubtedly sparks in their eyes when they start reminiscing about their travels together. Nana sees very little, but she sees those mental pictures without any glasses, more vivid than any HDTV.

I like to think of Papa as the original American Husband in Paris, before he was even a husband. He seized an opportunity. He saw whatever he could, experienced whatever he could experience. And despite the horrors of war he witnessed, the only memories he shares are unabashedly joyous and distinctly humorous.

Danielle and I stopped by to see them earlier this evening, hoping to get a few travel tips and maybe a story or two. They didn’t disappoint. My grandmother corrected Papa during a story about a Mexican salesman who told my grandmother she was too “grande” to wear the shawls he sold out of his kiosk.
But the highlight was the small 4 inch by 4 inch German Language Guide my grandfather dug out of his closet. On the inside cover it reads:

War Department
Washington 25, D.C.. 22 June 1943.
TM 30-306, German Language Guide, to be used with the Introductory Series Language Records, is published for military personnel only, and is not to be republished in whole or part without the consent of the War Department. By order of the Secretary of War:
G.C. Marshall, 
Chief of Staff.

There is an Archie comics-esque cartoon on the next page depicting four G.I.s sitting around a record player, presumably practicing their German. Each one has a confounded look and the small Dachshund dog with them appears to be howling at their ineptitude (The weiner dog is all over the booklet, I’m guessing he’s the least offensive representative of German culture they could come up with in 1943). It is quite awesome. The comics run throughout, each one is of U.S. soldiers mocking each other for their poor bilingualism. There’s even a general in a bathtub that looks suspiciously like Wilford Brimley.

It’s not so much that this little booklet is from 1943 or that it has outdated maps and possibly offensive cartoons lavishing its pages. I think it’s the fact that my grandfather kept this thing as a memento of his time overseas. Tonight, when he gave it to me, he said he wished he kept the French one too.

Danke, Papa. We can’t wait to share our stories with you both.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Now you don't need me"

"Aw, I love it! Oh and it's 'Dov'e il bagno' -- so now you don't need me"
This was Danielle's response to my first post and despite it being adorable and educational, it poses the first of I'm assuming multiple issues for me, a husband/traveler.
Let's get a few things straight. Danielle is sarcastic. She is smarter than me. She has heard Italian spoken in her family (mom, Pucci) since she was a 'neonato' (excellent, I can say 'baby' . . . 'neonato' steps, Michael, 'neonato' steps).
I, on the other hand, am cynical. I am more impulsive than her. And I can't figure out what the damn difference is between 'bagno' and 'gabinetto.' Because if 'bagno' is bathroom, why does my Rosetta Stone lesson show me a picture of a toilet underneath 'gabinetto,' even though I'm fairly certain the literal translation for that word is cabinet. Either there's some linguistic finer points I'm not picking up on, the Europeans keep their hoppers in some weird places, or those Rosetta Stone bastards really want to see me defile someone's kitchen.
Back to the issue. She's being sarcastic. Clearly, I'll need her. But for a guy who's life revolves around the intricate manipulation of words, not being able to form a cogent sentence really irks me, and I come from a long line of men who hate being irked. So issue number one now becomes tackling a new language, one that is not the Spanish I keep reverting back to during my Italian lessons. And as I do this, try to prove to my wife I'm not an academic sloth incapable of grasping a few basic phrases.
I can only chuckle, though, because we're spending a large part of our trip in Paris and Switzerland. And neither one of us can ask where the bathroom is in French.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love"

Hemingway's sound advice - and why wouldn't it be sound, he was Hemingway - probably wasn't intended for newlyweds.

Well, I'm making it so, for the specific purpose of documenting my honeymoon.

Danielle and I were married almost three months ago, so expectations for this little overseas jaunt are high - so high, I'm not even sure Danielle can reach them. What? She's short, she knows it, it's like we put these expectations on the top shelf in our kitchen cabinets.

This trip isn't just about us - it's about the future family that may or may not prevent us from ever doing it again. We want the most out of it, the experience of a lifetime, as they say. My parents never went back to Hawaii. It's my fault. I owe them a trip to Hawaii. As soon as I get back from Europe I'll start saving.

(Sidenote: A special hello to my future kids, I love you! But I want you to understand that there is a little-known tenth circle of Hell reserved for parents who take any child under the age of "not-crapping themselves" onto a plane for more than three hours. Daddy doesn't want to go there, so we're staying stateside for a while.)

So with a little levity, linguistics and luck, Danielle and I head to Europe - yes, Paris, as the title suggests. But we'll be continuing on to Switzerland and Italy, trying to shed our romantically American naiveté. No, I will not be wearing any Red Sox t-shirts.

No tour guides, no bus trips just the belief that the two of us together can navigate the Eurorail and about 50lbs worth of Rick Steves books. In honor of my friend Hemingway, we're taking an Ernest approach - gin at the dive bars, conversation with the natives, and just when you think you've moved on from being just a "temporary local," that's when it's time to go.

I'm hoping to learn a little about them that you can't read in a travel guide or hear from a tour guide. Maybe, later on I can share the stories with my children, maybe while we're on a plane, heading on a trip somewhere less than three hours away.

This blog exists mostly for family and friends to check in while we traipse over the Alps and slide along the European countryside by train (I keep telling myself it'll be just like the old James Bond films, sans the murderous giant with metal jaws).

This is a blog about not knowing how to communicate, get around or generally live without hurting myself in Europe, but doing it anyway.

But this is also a blog about not knowing how to be married, but doing it anyway. This blog is about spontaneity (even though the trip took a year to plan), family (even though we'll be foreigners) and love (even though there's a good chance she'll hate me before she gets a tanline on her ring finger). This blog is about completely relying on one other person - and not just because she knows how to ask, "where's the bathroom" in Italian.