tourism

pluie à rotterdam

Sometimes you go on vacation for so long it becomes very regular, like home. You grocery shop at your regular store, you work, you go out sometimes with friends. So sometimes you need a vacation.. from your vacation. The nice thing about being in Europe is the ability to hop a train for a modest fare and end up two countries over, two hours later. So it is with the Netherlands, my most cherished vacation spot, a place a few years ago I thought I would never go and now have gone twice.

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Gare du Nord

It calls my name, equally nice in the fall as it is in early summer. The clean air North Sea air breezes through town as the easy going locals zip by on bicycles usually with a partner hitching a ride sidesaddle on the back. Many a kind and smiling face greeting me around town, the gentle tune of the melodic Hague church bells like a pleasant memory floating through the air to greet me through the patches of ever-drizzling rain. I don’t think it stopped raining the whole weekend, though my spirits couldn’t be dampened. We hopped over just for the weekend so say hello again, snack on street food and acquaint ourselves with the newly re-opened Mauritshuis museum in den Haag.

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Den Haag Centraal

I was tempted to see the collection last year as it toured while the museum was under renovation. The closest stop was New York and it was a very tempting 12 hours away, though I’m glad I didn’t because getting to see the works in the new space was a real treat. The Royal collection is small, compared to the massive retrospective department-stores-of-museums in Paris, and is housed in a 17th century residence, now owned by the government of the Netherlands. The museum houses a stellar collection of paintings, mostly Dutch Golden Age, including some very famous favourites such as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson and Fabritius’ Goldfinch.

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Het meisje met de parel (Vermeer) 1665

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The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (Rembrandt) 1632

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The Goldfinch, aka “puttertje” (Fabritius) 1654

The museum was absolutely packed, especially with snooty art types like me who refrain from snapping selfies and linger in front of works contemplatively scratching their chins. They were also all above a certain age.. I won’t say which. The only way in which the flighty consumer types that normally frequent the said massive retrospective department-stores-of-museums in Paris are superior, is that you can bet that they won’t spend more than 2.6 seconds in front of a painting, so if you want a look, you just have to wait around for your turn. With snooty art types this could mean waiting for a very long time. That’s okay though because there were a number of truly excellent works that I could just stand in front of all day.. well at least until my legs fall asleep.

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Vanitas still life (Claesz) 1630

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Old Woman and Boy with candles (Rubens) 1617

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The Messenger, aka “Unwelcome News” (ter Borch) 1666

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Wooded landscape with cottages (Hobbema), 1665

There were a number of works which I have never seen before, and it’s always nice to make new friends and be surprised. I’m afraid my SO is rapidly becoming my artist’s assistant, helpfully scribbling down titles and observations for later digestion. My notebook came home full of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Claesz, Jordaens, Leyster, Rubens, Steen, Hals, as well as some new pals such as Beuckelaer, van der Weyden, van Aelst, ter Borch, de Vlieger, and Hobbema.

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Spruistraat

Retiring from the Museum we shopped around the slick cobbled pedestrian streets of den Haag, checking out the celebrations leading up to St. Nicholas’ day on Dec 5th, featuring Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) and his racially inappropriate sidekick Zwarte Piet. Zwarte Piet’s origins lie somewhere between a liberated Ethiopian slave to Moorish origins, to the more modern preference of his helpful little face blackened with soot from climbing down chimneys. Regardless local folks seem to like dressing up in Victorian garb and blackface playing carnival music and tossing candy out to the little kids.We followed this parade from a distance, trying to figure out what was going on until we stopped for nieuwe haring and the folks behind the counter explained the tradition to us.

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Similar to traditions back home, children leave shoes by the fireplace on St. Nicholas’ eve in hopes of waking in the morning to find a treat inside in exchange for good behaviour. Though if you’re naughty you don’t get a lump of coal you get beaten with a switch by Zwarte Piet. The children usually leave out a carrot or some hay with a thoughtful bowl of water for Sinterklaas’ horse, a cup of coffee for Sinterklaas and a beer for Zwarte Piet. Despite the fact that traditionally Sinterklaas was accompanied by just one Zwarte Piet we have Canadians to thank for throwing a Sinterklaas party after the liberation of the Netherlands, encouraging a whole slew of Pieten to roam the streets.

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Lola Bikes and Café

We departed our rented flat early on Sunday, forgoing a cold shower as the hot water heater was inoperable, and strolled up to the so called best coffee in the Netherlands. It also doubles as a serious bicycle store because, hey, you can pursue two passions at once. SO had a good time checking out all the bikes and gear, pointing out the superior composition of the metal in particular bike gears or somesuch. I decided I liked the pink one for.. reasons. The coffee was truly excellent and we happily lingered way longer than intended. Back on the train we traveled to nearby Rotterdam to check out the town and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

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rotterdam at night

Rotterdam has a very different feel, the majority of the buildings very contemporary with lots of skyscrapers. A huge amount of old Rotterdam was destroyed by bombing and subsequently rebuilt in modern fashion. The city has much less warmth and character somehow, probably a figment of my imagination as I’m known to be very sensitive and have a tendency to personify and anthropomorphise.

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The “little” Tower of Babel” (Bruegel (the Elder)) 1563

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The Wayfarer (Bosch) 1500.. the only museum to house Bosch in all the Netherlands

Boijmans is a huge museum with a very diverse collection, ranging from medieval to contemporary and every facet in between. It has a lovely selection of Bosch and Bruegel, including the famous “little” tower of Babel and the Wayfarer who is said to be choosing between debauchery and virtue. Some other favourites of mine include van Dalem, Koninck, Havicksz, and Daubigny.

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 landscape with dawn of civilization (van Dalem) 1570

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An extensive landscape, with a river, (Koninck) 1664

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The cascade of Mahoura, Cauterets (Daubigny) 1873

The museum also houses a very nice selection of French Impressionist works including featuring a nice but unusual MonetMaison du Pêcheur” featuring a very nice seascape with cabin on a very uncomfortable angle lending the impression you are in some danger of leaning too far into it. The collection also houses some very nice works by Sisley, who is rapidly becoming a favourite of mine.

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la Maison du Pêcheur, Varengeville (Monet) 1882

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Le moulin à eau Provencher à Moret (Sisley) 1883

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Un verger au printemps (Sisley) 1881

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Moonlit city square in Cherbourg, (Sidaner) 1934

A bit father down in the collection there is a really nice Sidaner, an intimist painter whose “moonlit city square” is expertly illuminated, and its quiet volumes of night shades a rare achievement in my opinion. Apart from the very broad range of styles and endeavours there is also a lovey collection of very modest floral still lives which are uncomplicated, delicate, and very lovely.  

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Peonies (Fantin-Latour) 1882

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Polder with mills near Overschie (Gabriël) 1898

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Cineraria (van Gogh) 1885

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In the vegetable garden (Mauve) 1887

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Study of the Trunk of an Old Tree, (de Gheyn II) 1600-1610

If you decide to go museum hopping don’t forget that art feeds the brain and the heart, but not the stomach so around 3:00 we were losing steam and remembered that humans require nourishment to walk around for hours and hours and had to resort to overpriced museum café food. Oh well. After exhausting the collection, and the soles of our shoes, we wandered around Rotterdam taking in the weird architecture and public sculptures before picking a restaurant with maximum comfort and slow service for some r&r in the form of Phở

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glace aux pétals de rose

We are far enough in to our vacation that the ending is coming in sight and we’ve started counting down instead of up. Missing holidays and events back home, missing our family and friends, missing our pets, our language and our lifestyle, we’ve begun to respect the time we have left in France and look forward to home. We currently have a “to-do” list of things we want to see and do and considering SO works all week we only have a few weekends left to accomplish these. I have the unique opportunity to be able to come and go and check stuff out around town without obligations but it’s tricky to strike a balance between spending vacation blogging in your apartment and seeing all the sights without your partner. I’ve taken to checking out small or so-so things, (or places I would uniquely go nuts for) during the week and leaving the show stoppers for the weekend.

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This includes, of course, shopping. In the plethora of research I did before coming to France, I heard that the French dress very smart and jeans and sneakers are unheard of. This is not true. It’s probably an outdated statement because they fashion sense here is very similar to back home. This time of year people all around this latitude bust out their scarves for fall. As far as I can tell the French wear scarves all year. If it’s too hot they wear amazing Hermès silk scarves and if it gets cold you would be hard pressed to find someone without a pashmina, even the guys. The gentlemen here seem less concerned about preserving a “manly” attire opting for fashionable scarves, jewelry, shoes and purses. I don’t know what they’re called. Murses? Regardless they are very popular, especially the small, flat ones that go across the shoulder and sit against the body. These are super common due to the pickpocket problem.

Women’s style is almost indistinguishable from back home until you go shopping. The whole low waist thing never happened here and all the pants, skirts, panties and shorts all are what I would call “high waisted”. You will also find a greater amount of slacks to jean material here. I don’t think of myself of a “tall” lady, I’ve never shopped in a special section because I’m a pretty average 5′ 8”, but I have to buy special pants here or I end up with floods. I dunno if people are just shorter on average here or something but back home pants are always long enough. That’s ok I just have to shop in the “tall” section.

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There is also the stereotype of the French having an aversion to bathing. SO’s supervisor informs me that 20 years ago you would see people around town with really greasy hair but the whole shampoo trend seems to have caught on. Though, women seem less concerned with their coif then back home, and the men moreso. Recently a lot of men have adopted the super spicy pompadour-fade hairstyle, which you probably saw a lot of if you caught the world cup this year. You won’t find $50 blow dry bars here, just average small stylist shops and nice cuts without all the straightening and highlights you find back home. I’ve heard foiled hair referred to as bacon strips.

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Hnnnngg  Photo: AP

French ladies seem to go for a more au naturel hairdo, embracing their hair in all its frizzy curly wonderfulness. The most attractive thing is the confidence. Back home everyone is so worried about their appearance they go to such lengths to preserve a perfect look, so me being the schlub that I am I often feel embarrassed when I see gorgeous primped ladies walking around. The bad news is everybody feels that way, primped or not. I’ve ran across the street enough times to buy bread without a bra, no makeup and my crazy unbrushed hair thrown up in a bun.. and nobody batted an eye.

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Photo : damejuliette.com

Anyway, getting back to excursions, I took a trip out to Chantilly to see the Fra Angelico exhibition they have going on. Chantilly is about 45 minutes to the north. It’s a nice, small town with lots of forest to stroll through. Chantilly is famous for it’s horse racing and the Château de Chantilly which houses the Musée Condé (one of the oldest art collections in France). Of course you may also know Chantilly lace or Chantilly cream. The latter is not exactly ditinguishable from regular “whipped cream” though some think the addition of sugar and/or delicate flavours like orange flower water is the distinction. It’s very light, not like that waxy stuff that comes out of a can. Regardless, it is delicious. I went to Dame Juliette to snack on a crepe topped with raspberry-violet jam, rose-petal ice cream and chantilly cream. Omg the best thing I’ve eaten in I dunno how long. Seriously if your mother ever told you not to shove flowers in your mouth she’s wrong. Well, flowers that have been whipped and frozen with cream and sugar. Also, not poisonous flowers.

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“Saint Benoit en extase au désert” (Musée Condé),
“Saint Romuald interdit l’entrée du couvent des Camaldules a lEmpereur
Otton III, coupable d’adultère” (Koninkijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten),
“La conversion de saint Augustin” (Musée Thomas Henry),
“Scènes de la Thébaide” (Collection particulière), “Saint Grégoire le Grand
(ou Célestin V) refuse la tiare pontificale” (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

(Fra Angelico) 1395 – 1455

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“Cinq anges dansant devant le soleil” (Giovanni di Paolo) 1405-1480

The museum itself has a collection of Fra Angelico works as well as some contemporaries such as Botticelli and Raphaël. The highlight was the curator’s brilliant deduction of how a number of pieces from various different collections are actually fragments of a larger work, so they managed to get these works on loan and rearranged them. It’s really astonishing. They also had a number of works that formed the panels of a chest which for hundreds of years had been separated. Not only this but they had a number of works from the permanent collection of Musée Condé that were of the highest calibre from that era I’ve seen yet. Indeed, the Musée Condé itself has a great amount of very old and/or very famous works, which shown in an intimate interior setting is a refreshing change to the pristine and echoing halls of contemporary galleries. The Château’s interior is unsterilized with amazing patterned parquet floors, marble topped furniture, elegant wainscoting, high ceilings, gleaming objet d’art and shimmering chandeliers.

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In preparation of my return to Paris I had purchased a return RER ticket thinking that if the RER goes there it must go back the same way. I’m not sure if this is so because all the trains seemed to be TER or IC, which I’m not sure the ticket is no good for. The train station was under construction and consequently there was no one to ask for help. Afraid of becoming stranded but also not wanting to spend another ten euros on a duplicate ticket, I eventually decided to just get on a TER and hope that my ticket was valid, playing the ignorant tourist if I had to. Instead of delving into my notebook I spent my travel time nervously fiddling with the ticket in my pocket, my eyes darting around the train for ticket control. The fellow next to me asked me something in French that I didn’t understand but upon spotting the control officer at the back of the car he shiftily changed seats looking as guilty as I did. Relax, I thought. You paid a fare it’s not like you’re stealing. Even still I left the car for one not containing ticket control to join the group of shifty freighthoppers, getting off at Gare de Nord before anyone was wise.

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When you have to catch an early train, it’s only natural that bar next door gets rented for some crazy hootenanny and the dj pumps music all night. What’s worse is the French love for disco and trying to sleep while they’re belting out showtunes or somesuch. That being said, waking up early enough to catch our train was aided by my excitement, a feeling reserved for trips, birthdays, Christmas and the the last day of school. I have become quite blasé about the latter three so I hope travelling never gets old. The ride to Caen is about two hours. Having not seen my S.O. basically at all during the week, the train ride went by all too fast, talking and joking the whole way, laughing so hard I had tears welling up and all my strength employed to avoid orangina shooting out my nose.

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We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow

Arriving at the station, we managed to figure out how to buy bus tickets to Courseulles-sur-mer despite the language barrier and not being able to find the station door. We had some time to kill after so we walked around downtown Caen, ending up at a église st-jean, complete with crazy modern stained glass and courtyard with late-blooming poppies. Back on the bus, which was more like a coach, we had a nice lolling sojourn through the northern countryside. It’s not uncommon to pass a world war cemetery in almost every town, neatly kept with straight rows of brilliant white crosses. The town themselves are pretty small and the houses almost exclusively stone with terracotta or slate roofing. The towns maintain a quiet old-world charm and of course, there is the perpetual church steeple poking out at rapid intervals.

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“here is the church, here is the steeple”

We slowly made our way into Courseulles-sur-mer, getting off at ‘Place de 6 juin’ the date, of course, of D-Day. The square is the very centre of town, where the pier, boardwalk, each access, carrousel and town monument meet. There is a croix de lorraine just across the quay to commemorate the return of Charles de Gaulle to France 14 June, 1944. We arrived at high tide, the brisk and salty sea air greeting us with pleasant acquaintance.

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At the centre of the square is a Canadian Sherman tank, pulled from the frigid waters of ‘Juno’ beach some 25 years after it sank during the commencement of operation Overlord. It was of course cleaned and restored, now adorned with the insignia of the troops that fought and died here including the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Regina Rifle Regiment, Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, and North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment. The tank itself is now enveloped in a pillow of flowers, often red and white organized into the Canadian flag. Also placed nearby is a German Kwk 39 anti-tank gun with obvious signs of battle damage, also restored.

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For it’s early in the morning and I’m far, far away.

Making our way to the Juno beach centre, we waited for the swing bridge to let some sailboats in and we checked out the catch of the day, at the plethora of stalls erected right beside the fishing boats docked in the river. Arriving at the centre you can hear the waves crashing along the shore, the gentle breeze rustling the long grasses. The landscape has long since returned to tranquility, though the centre acts as a reminder to us the events of the war.

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Juno Beach Centre

The tour begins with footage of the landing and an audio representation of that the soldiers would have heard preparing to land on the beach, the sound of the sea spraying over the boat, heavy artillery exploding and rumbling nearby.. the tour encourages you to also learn about Canada’s fragile military and economy predating the war to further appreciate the difficulty lying ahead.

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The centre of the tour had a trove of information about the different ships, tanks, aircraft, formations, payload, propaganda, home front and war effort from a Canadian perspective. It was absolutely fascinating to discover the attack and defence strategies, and certain difficulties unique to north america such as trans-atlantic transportation of supplies and how to diminish u-boat damage. Also, that Canada went from having basically no air force to the 4th largest during wartimes. We also attended an emotional video giving an in depth detailing of the Juno beach events.

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The final room was a relievingly lighthearted Canada factoids room for those not acquainted with our culture. There was a great amount of hockey gear and curling rocks, let me tell you. It was my great pleasure to encounter other Canadians accessing the tour. You can easily pick them out because if they want to get by you while you’re looking at something they linger first trying to wait for you to finish what you’re doing, then slip by you giving ample berth while saying “sorry”. There were also a lot of toques.

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the shepherd will tend his sheep, the valley will bloom again

We also attended a tour of two recently excavated German bunkers. The first was built early in the occupation so it was not built as a defensive post but to aid in the organization of potential invasion of England to the north. The structure was built using French labourers and whatever materials they had on hand, some parts brick, some concrete, even railway ties for beams. It is speculated that the French tried to sabotage the building by placing the cinder blocks on their sides so the walls would have hollow pockets. The walls also had wood interlaced for hanging up maps and fixtures.We also visited a bunker built much later in the war, at a time when German occupation of France was shakier and they were preparing heavy defensive fortifications.

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escape hatch

This bunker by contrast is solid cement, with two heavy metal doors that double as a gas proof chamber, a gun slit facing the only entrance and 365 degree parascope. Our guide told us that it was expected of soldiers to do 36 hour shifts in the bunker so there were also fold down beds and a small stove for comfort. The bunker walls are 3 metres solid concrete and the only emergency exit was a small tunnel filled in with sand, so if you were trapped at least you could start digging your way out. Apparently in allied training it was instilled that if you see a grate or opening into a building that you should throw in a grenade to clear the room before entering. Once the Germans caught on to this practice their bunkers, as this one did, had false grates installed that lobbed the grenade back out at the intruder. It was also equipped with a gun nest, each pointed on angles across to beach to create crossfire.

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In 1944 the bunker was right on the water and locals can remember as children jumping off the parascope into the sea, but nowadays the beach has shifted greatly and there is now a barrier of sand in front of the bunkers so you have to use your imagination a bit to picture how the beach looked way back then. We finished our tour on the shore where we got to see the buoy indicating the shoreline at low tide, which is much farther out. Upon deployment, the entire beach was riddled with anti tank and anti personnel mines some 5 ft apart, blockades, razor wire creating what was dubbed a “devil’s garden”.

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Just before deployment there was heavy bombardment to reduce the German numbers by an estimated 60% though in effect only reached 5-15 % depending on the area. Despite the odds, the fortifications on the beach were overcome and the troops moved inland to liberate Courseulles-sur-mer. The Canadian troops lost 356 men, 574 wounded and 47 taken prisoner, though the losses were lower than estimated from the devastation of its predecessor mission operation Jubilee in Dieppe. Despite the difficulties and objective failures Juno beach alongside Utah is considered to be the most strategically successful of the D-Day landings. Walking the sands where such a critical and painful battle was fought is truly a moving experience. The land is now so beautiful and the town so gentle and quiet it is hard to imagine what it was like, which is why I personally believe it’s important to keep listening to the stories and remember the sacrifices made.

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We made our way around town to to our rented room. We decided to try out airbnb for the first time. We got a private room with key in an old converted garage with facilities shared with the homeowner. Our host was very nice and accommodating. I did my best to speak French and we understood most of what the other was trying to say. Airbnb is of course much less expensive than a hotel which suits us just fine. That being said any money we saved on the room we probably promptly spent at the most hit-or-miss restaurant I believe I’ve ever been to.

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We decided since we were “on vacation” that weekend we would live a little, by which I mean order a drink with dinner. Big spenders! We both got the house cocktail which turned out to be cheap champagne spiked with curacao and a generous profit-margin of juice topped with a stale candy and sugar rim. It has got to be one of the worst drinks I’ve ever had. Next came the complimentary bread. It’s basically expected to get free bread with your meal here, and being France the bread is always fresh and delicious. So when I tell you that the bread was so stale that no pigeon would eat if you can see why we started to become suspicious of this place. Next came the complimentary appetisers brought out to us by the chef. Maybe the chef should spend more time cooking and less time schmoozing because the only thing the app was good for was a raised eyebrow and hearty laugh. I think they were supposed to be maki.. I think. Being by the sea didn’t help this dish any. I think it contained rice that was made three years ago that they found behind the radiator. Or it might have been tiny pebbles, I’m not sure. If you go to pick up your app and it crumbles into a pile of dust you know something is wrong.

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However, next came the oysters. Thankfully all they had to do was open them for me to enjoy a wonderfully delicious treat fresh from the sea. SO had some kindof yummy bouillabaisse. It was stewier than most but he seemed to like it. Our main was some kind of tiny braised fish on a bed of lentils, which were quite yummy. The fish was decent. For dessert? Bread pudding. Now I’ll give them a break because it’s not a french dish. That being said, they’re only a stone’s throw from England and also bread pudding is easy, who can’t make that? They took a slice of old bread, presumably the same stuff they served before dinner and instead of soaking it in cream to make it soppy and delicious they kindof.. toasted it? Then drizzled cream on top? I’m not quite sure what was happening there but the tiny after dinner mints were good. Here’s a tip to enjoying a shitty restaurant : a) don’t read the bill too closely cause you’ll just get mad b) make fun of everything relentlessly.

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croix de lorraine

Anyway, late in the day the tide was going out and the inlets had become rapids. We strolled along the now widened beach to tiptoe thru the seaweed and find cool shells. We wandered home and settled in for a good night’s sleep, lulled by the patter of rain that amazingly decided to be nice and hold off until we were tucked in.

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Our host was still asleep when we left early, trying to get a leg up on our journey back to Paris. The bus took us on the reversed journey, this time the cities quieter and more cars at the church parking lots. Arriving at Caen we stopped first for pain au raisin before heading up to the Chateau de Caen. The Chateau is an 11th century fortification buit by William the Conqueror. It saw several engagements during the Hundred Year’s war, and the keep pulled down during the French revolution. It was also used as a barracks during WWII and was heavily bombed at that time. It is one of the largest castles in western Europe.

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Caen

It now houses two museums and a church, and you can see the ruins of other structures such as the keep, William’s residence, ramparts and curtain walls, and the two fortified doors. There is still ongoing work to excavate the bottom of the walls and more ruins are still being uncovered. The walls are incredibly high and you can peer thru the bow slits into what would have been a moat, though these days just grass. The stone stairs heading up the ramparts and towers are so worn from literally a century of use they are very curved.

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super neat.

It’s a huge area which was great fun to explore. The art gallery at the top houses a nice collection from many eras in French history, which matches beautifully with the lineage of the castle. Afterwards, we strolled around town, the majority of stores being closed but lounging in parks and cafés is not a bad way to spend your afternoon. We finished off the day at a nice restaurant in an old area of town on rue du vaugueux ie) beggars row.

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It’s a small and narrow pedestrian street with old shifting houses, once known for squalor and crime. It also once housed a bar owned by Edith Piaf’s grandparents, and the woman who murdered Marat. It now houses a number of nice restaurants while maintaining the enclosed medieval structures. We had some nice wine, confit du canard, terrine de poissons, croustillants de chèvre chaud and ile flottante which is a whipped meringue cake soaked in thin caramel sauce. I really need to learn to make this back home! Before having to catch our train back we made sure to watch the sun set behind the glimmering houses from the parapet.

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parapluies dans le bain

Despite my SO working long hours we try to make time to get out and sightsee.. and it’s easier to accomplish when I show up at work for a three course lunch and afternoon husbandnapping. We finally managed to get French SIM cards, which means cell usage is now local rates instead of international so it’s easier to meet up while out and about. That being said I still forget what its like to live without data so we inevitably forget to look up the hours for things before we go.. like the Orangerie and Grand Palais. Hint : both closed on Tuesdays.

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We still managed to get some more mileage on the vélos before this realization. We instead went to the Petit Palais, and though the collection is somewhat small and Courbet-y its still a ridiculously nice building (Palace) complete with amazing chandelier.. well really, everything is nice. The more time we spend in France the more I foresee a courtyard in our future.

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They also have a little collection of non-Courbet realism, which is very nice. The dichotomy of the subject matter with their grand size and detail, hung in the glimmering halls of a palace is interesting. The way the subject is treated inherently gives you information about how you should feel about the painting. Two paintings really caught my eye, both by Fernand Pelez.

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Sans Asile“, 1883, gives you a scene firmly grounded in the stone foundation of Paris, the stark wall behind the figures not giving you any way around the figures, no where else to look except to notice the remnants of posters on the wall advertising fancy parties for the aristocracy. The woman is not engaged in chores nor is she distracted by anything else. She directly faces you, her gaze fixated on you, demanding attention. The children sleep around her and the baby suckles at her breast, participating in things that all children do. However the older boy has become more aware of their situation, aware that they are in a different situation to other children. He is growing up in this painting, coming to realize the disparity of it all and begins to emulate the same actions of his Mother. The mirroring of mother and child here also gives the impression that their poverty is cyclical, their impoverishment passed down and continuing through the generations.

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By contrast, Géricault created a series of portraits of beggars and insane people, some of these are at the Louvre. The figures are those who are normally hidden and marginalized by society but Géricault elevates them to a stature worthy of having your portrait painted, normally reserved for the rich and important. But the information that’s given in the works is much different than Sans Asile in the relatively small scale and quickness of the application. The figures are not carefully painted appearing looking away and fidgety as if they are constantly distracted by their malady. They are fully consumed by it. The blackness of the background gives the impression they are enveloped in a world of uncertainty. The figures are not given names, only identified by their condition. Criticisms of early psychiatry argue that “classifying, containing and observing people was effective only in silencing the voices of the mentally ill, rendering them invisible and therefore subject to abuse”1. But giving them recognition and exploration into their personal lives provides an air of empathy and dignity. Géricault is believed to have had a mental breakdown after completing his psychologically taxing masterpiece the “Raft of the Medusa” and as a Romantic painter is devoted to portraying intuition and emotion over reason, exploring the wild and aweful turmoil of the natural world, as well as a revolt against order and idealization, and rationality. “What perhaps strikes one most about the portraits is the extraordinary empathy we are made to feel for these poor souls, who might not strike us immediately as insane, but who certainly exhibit outward signs of inward suffering”2.

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There is another Pelez painting right beside entitled “au lavoir”, 1880. The scene is of washerwomen perpetually engaged in their labour. There are some items around but none that aren’t washing-related indicating the is no reprieve or separate identity for these women. Similarly, they are in a darkened room with no reference of time of day to determine beginning or end to their chore. The woman rings out the garment, her arms muscular from practice, her legs apart and anchored firmly. She represents the hardworking and resilient woman, the labourer. She embodies both the typical role of a woman but at the same time, the antithesis of typical feminine appearance and demeanour.

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Another nice painting in that room is Les Halles” (Léon Lhermitte), 1895. I really like the bustling composition and the snippets of folks in their market-day actions. I also like that you can still go to Les Halles well over 100 years later and walk around the open air shops and stalls that run down the same streets. Though these days there are less chickens.

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We also biked to Église de la Madeleine, situated just north of Place de la Concorde: the giant roundabout complete with Egyptian obelisk and crazy fountains. Église de la Madeleine’s design is based on the Roman temple Maison Carrée. Interesting side note : Frederick Chopin requested Mozart’s requiem be sung during his funeral but the church did not permit women it its choir. Eventually, the funeral was allowed to proceed only if the female singers remained hidden by a curtain.

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klaxonner

After checking out the church we walked down rue Réaumur to ogle the copper pans in the highfalutin chef stores and wander down some tiny restaurant-filled alleys just ducking into the subway before the rain started. Though we did manage to encounter our first subway delay in two months and ended up walking the four remaining subway stops in the rain, stopping for bread and chouquettes, which are little puffed clouds of deliciousness. I seriously need to learn to make these because they are so delicious, plus they’re the closest thing to timbits here.

0290017105961502-c2-photo-oYToyOntzOjE6InciO2k6NjU2O3M6NToiY29sb3IiO3M6NzoiI0ZGRkZGRiI7fQ==-recette-pas-a-pas-de-la-pate-a-chouquettesCrédit : © AlexQ – Fotolia.com

1, 2 http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/gericaults-portraits-of-the-insane.html

les étapes nombreuses

One of the nice things about having co-workers in a new city is the excuse to go out for social time. As promised by our Korean friends we went out to a restaurant of their recommendation. We managed to get a table, somehow and as the night went on the line out the door got longer and longer.

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jantchi

For good reason, too, the food was really nice. SO and I had a hard time picking what to order, on one hand since learning how to make bibimbap we wanted to know how it’s done at a nice restaurant, but on the other hand there were so many new things to try. We settled on bulgogi and it was amazing. It came to the table raw on a big cooker thing. We were scared. But after enquiring with our Korean guides as to how to eat it we were happy. The food also came with a selection of appetizers which were also really yummy. I don’t remember them all but included yangnyeom tongdak, japchae and of course, kimchi.

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out for a stroll aka. thinking about math

We also met up with our friends last weekend in Montmartre to enjoy what might be one of the last sunny and warm weekends of the year. We met up at Abesses, the main subway access and sort of central hub. There’s always something going on there and on that particular day it was a thrift market. I love Paris! Lots of tables set up with all sorts of strange and wonderful things to dig thru.. painted glasses, old lighters, books and prints, glass negatives, fur shawls, rollerskates and my favourite, a stuffed goat head riding in a soapbox car. I really should have got a picture of that.

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We climbed the 222 steps from Abesses to Sacré Coeur. It’s always a lovely thing to look at. We strolled thru the interior of the church. I checked out the murals more this time, and they were really nice. I also got to see a cool statue of St. Michael slaying the dragon. The Basillica explicitly states no photography, though I think I was the only one who obeyed.

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tiny streets, the way medieval paris was laid out before the war…s

We then strolled around the top of the hill checking out the tiny winery, various stores and goings-on. We got lunch at a busy restaurant and though it was pretty touristy I got the best croque madame I’ve ever had. Even the couple next to our table were like, ‘what’s that I want to eat that’. We also stopped and got candied peanuts, being made fresh by a street vendor. They were much like beer nuts from back home, one of my most loved snacks.

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pls ignore purse strap. it was crowded

We eventually decided no trip to Montmartre was complete without checking out the dome at the tip top of Sacré Coeur so we paid the € 8 for the privilege of climbing the two spiral staircases summing 300 steps total. Now, that sounds pretty cynical but it was really awesome. First of all, spiral staircases are inherently cool and there is a distinct lack of them back home, probably because they’re a slip-trip-and-fall hazard… OHES training ftw! Anyway, it goes straight up probably 200 steps, then you get out on to the roof of the main chapel and get to walk by the gargoyles and bird shit, across the roof to another spiral staircase (going counter-clockwise which is more difficult somehow) to reach the summit.

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om nom

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Paris has like.. 3 sky scrapers.

If you think the view from the top of the hill is grand, try standing on top of the largest building around. Holy shit. Not only can you see basically all of Paris proper but can pick out the various elevations changes and figure out the arrondisements accordingly. Plus due to what is probably a lot of smog and a little sfumato, the ends of the landscape take on a cool blue glow. Plus it makes the Eiffel tower look puny, which makes me feel good as I irrationally think the tower is lame.

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je t’aime

Then back down the 522 steps to get back to Abesses to check out le mur des je t’aime which has the phrase I Love You in over 250 languages. It’s really, really well done. Back home for more bibimbap and FTL.. and of course taking pictures of the view from my window late at night when I can’t sleep.

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quattro passi

The weather has abruptly turned chilly, and we’re heading into a long fall. This is something quite new to me. I’m used to the beginnings of fall followed by delightful indian summers and then uncompromising winter. Instead l’hexagonne seems to have long dreary cool falls. and a complete lack of turkey which makes Thanksgiving pretty lame. Also, no Thanksgiving. I’m missing apple picking and pumpkin-patch-traipsing, chardonnay and (Mother’s) homemade pie.

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In an attempt to get over this flu I’ve taken to alternating going-out-days and sleeping-in-and-playing-video-games-all-day.. days. My small excursions, however, took me to the Louvre for small visits, gardens, concerts, churches and museums.

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On one of the nicer days SO and I agreed to meet after work at Jardin des Plantes to take in the late-blooming flowers before they’re gone for the year. This garden is much more lax than the others, less strict and contrived and more free-spirited. We had a lovely picnic (or, pique-nique as they say) mixed in with the strolling daydreamers and running school children. We got to see lots of lovely late-bloomers like ageratum, skimmia, salvia spendens, morning glory and equestrium. That which wasn’t in bloom had equally lovely berries and pods. We also visited the alpine gardens to see some nice rocky shubby growers such as Phyla Canascens, who doesn’t seem to conform to any architectural garden design.

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fuck the police

The Jardin des Plantes is definitely my favourite garden by far, and there are lots of other things to see here another day, such as the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution, the Mineralogy Museum, the Paleontology Museum, the Entomology Museum, the Menagerie (Zoo) and botanical school, winter garden, and Mexican and Australian hothouses. Though we did manage to peek through the gates of the Menagerie to catch some glimpses of wallabies, red pandas and some kind of cool green bird.

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wallabies are kindof.. wierdos

We also went to check out Sainte-Chapelle, which is a Gothic church built by Saint Louis to house some thirty Passion relics. By the way, Sainte-Chapelle is celebrating its 800th year. It is also under renovation (understandably) so we were unable to see the famous rose window, however the unbelievable grandeur of this place was still quite literally jaw-dropping. The first area is the lower chapel with beautiful painted archways. “The vaults are decorated with fleur de lys, whereas the vault of the upper chapel is covered by golden stars: it’s an example of the recurrent alternation between royal and divine symbols”1.

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“I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night”

The upper chapel is accessed by a very narrow spiral staircase. It contains fifteen enormous and very intricate stained glass windows, over two thirds of which are original dating to its 13th century creation. It’s Rayonnant Gothic style marked by its sense of weightlessness and strong vertical emphasis2 fills the room with bright and rich colours, glinting and floating around the room as the sun plays behind the clouds. The church is quite popular, with a very long line for admission and packed quite full. Visitors on the lower chapel are often shushed for their lack of respect in carrying on conversions. There is no need for a shushing attendant in the upper chapel though, the stained glass does that pretty well.

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IMG_7224shiny, captain

We also happen upon the Église Saint-Germain, which by the way is 1000 years old this year. It is in quite a state of disrepair, with a great amount of the paint and frescoes peeling away or so blackened with age they are hardly recognizable. However this small church has a quiet and unassuming atmosphere, especially in comparison with Sainte-Chapelle. It houses a number of lovely statues and paintings, however the loveliest is the Pietà, by Hippolyte Bonnardel.

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Pietà (Hippolyte Bonnardel),1856

The popular image of the Pietà, such as by Michelangelo, often depicts Mother Mary as quite a bit larger than Jesus as there is inherent difficulty in depicting a grown man cradled in a woman’s lap. She is also often depicted very young as a symbol her purity. The Pietà by Bonnardel however is unmistakably realistic, the weight of Christ’s body unable to fit in her lap instead crumpled and draped over her knee. We are reminded of the Crucifixion by the nails arranged at the foot of the sculpture, and the crown which Mary removes. Her gaze is not at the heavens but at Christ. Her gaze, coupled with the realistic stature of both persons give the sculpture a realistic and personal feel. The representation is as much mother and child as it is religious symbolism; the reprieve his suffering captured in the moment she lifts his crown and gazes lovingly at his face conjures up the feeling we all get when our mothers cradle us and take away our pain. I don’t think you really have to be religious to like this sculpture, we all have had mothers.

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I dont even..

We also got taken our for dinner and a show by SO’s supervisor who is visiting from back home. We dabbled through the Marais, lead along by our guide from memory, peeking in at notable and amusing places. We ended up,in a roundabout way, at Salle Gaveau to hear Muza Rubackyte play a piano concert, which was very nice.

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Biking down to the Louvre its inevitable that I find something to ditch my bike early for.. like pop-up markets. Sometimes they’re full of veggies, sometimes charcuterie, this time it was overpriced organic honey and giant halva slabs.

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We also took a very long and rainy trip to visit the Musée Français de la Carte à Jouer, which houses a number of amazing historical sets of playing cards and the original woodcuts and lithos to create them. They had a number of complete collections which you could illuminate on a timer, which I thought was a nice preservation idea. They had a huge number of sets some with stunning designs and many different types such as Italian, Tarot and of course the French design which back home is our standard. A few weeks ago I bought a pack of botanical drawing cards at Tuleries, and now I know why my face cards are Roi, Dame and Valet.

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IL H O O Q

I’ve been making an attempt to visit the medieval and greek wings of the Louvre, not to eschew them in favour of my preferred medium. These wings tend to be somewhat less overrun with folks so its nicer to wander around. Plus I know very little about Medieval and Greek sculpture so I can just wander happily without having my mind blown every five seconds. Just every fifteen.

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20,000 subway pants

Something I’ve noticed about the Louvre is, it’s very very dusty. Especially at the end of the day, after 20,000 people have come through. Literally. It’s not surprising that amount of simple transference of filth is happening right in front of the artworks. Nonetheless, you think they would dust them every once and a while. A great number of works have glass panels in front of them to protect them, especially from folks who would like to slash them with a knife or throw acid at them, just to name a few examples. It it also protects them from accidental damage such as hot moist breath and greasy fingerprints. Seriously people you don’t have to get that up close and personal. Gross. That being said, it makes a sort of doubled-glazed system and I’ve noticed on more than one occasion the collection of dust and debris between the layers.

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Church Interior (Emanuel de Witte), 1669

Despite the dust, the painting underneath is quite lovely. It features a church interior, whitewashed and somewhat unadorned in Dutch reformation style, though it is adorned with the comings and goings of everyday folks, dogs and gravediggers. What’s truly spectactular about this work is the light and the perpective point. Paintings of church interiors were popular during de Witte’s time, by artists like Houckgeest and van Vliet, though what sets de Witte apart from the others is the gentle play of light and shadow rather than hard perspective lines. “He avoided minute detail, a selling card for many of the Netherlands’ most successful artists, which might detract from the overall impact of the image. His approach to painting can be said to be tonal, rather than chiaroscural” 3. The vibrancy of the paint and and unique perspective point gives the viewer the sense of being in the space rather than looking in upon it.

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Interior of Oude Kirk, Delft (de Witte), 1650

“He often incorporated the pulpit or other church furniture in his views of Delft or Amsterdam churches” 4. The incorporation of church adornments and the sometimes depravity of the activity in the church (see Oudekerk above) opens up some interesting questions on de Witte’s motivation : was he merely interested in accurate depiction of light and shadow? Does his depictions of adornments in Protestant churches hint at at an unpopular religious alignment? Is de Witte commenting on society from the activities taking place in the scenes? Unfortunately there is very little known about his life. “Although it is believed that De Witte initially aspired to become a history and portrait painter, in about 1650 he abruptly changed artistic course and began to produce close-up interior views of the two most venerable monuments of historic Delft, the Oude and the Nieuwe Kerk” 5. He eventually became an indentured man due to the criminal activities of his daughter and second wife and after incurring some substantial gambling debts hanged himself from a bridge.

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here, something cheery.

1 http://architecture.relig.free.fr/chapelle_en.htm

2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sainte-Chapelle

3,5 http://www.essentialvermeer.com/fakes_thefts_school_of_delft_lost_sp/school_of_delft_four.html#.VD0pAxa2WL8

4 http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/artist-info.16054.html?artobj_artistId=16054&pageNumber=1

les animaux de compagne

The trouble with having the flu on vacation is feeling guilty for staying home and ignoring any potential sight-seeing. After a few days of watching Firefly with French subs you think.. ‘hey I think I’m feeling better, I better go out and see that thing that is this weekend only!‘ A good idea if you’re actually feeling better, but the more I push the more the stupid flu pushes back. That being said, even though I feel like shit today I did see some cool things last week.

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We took a trip out to the west end of town, quite near the Eiffel Tower, to the house of Honoré de Balzac, French playwright and author. We were able to both tour his house and also view an exhibit of a selection of Daumier’s lithographs. Daumier is best known from his social and political satire in caricatures, paintings, print and sculptures. The collection displayed at Maison Balzac was a series of lithographs, printed in La Charivari, depicting the antics of Parisians bathing and swimming by the banks of the river. “Daumier, could not help but to caricature these innocent occupations and point out the comedy of some situations ridiculing those Parisians of all ages and from all walks, frolicking in the Seine” 1.

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« Le pècheur à la ligne est l’homme indépendent, perseverent et résigné, l’adversité ne le décourage pas, il combat tous les embarras qui l’entortillent; philosophe, il subit les orages et ne murmure jamais. »

« The fisherman is an independent man, perseverant and resigned, adversity does not discourage him, he fights against all difficulties; philosophical, he suffered storms and tempest in silence. »

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« Oui Madame, c’est comme j’ai l’honneur de vous le dire, je l’ai porté onze mois, qu’on croyait que j’étais hydropique; Dirait-on que ça n’a que six ans, il tient de son père, Tambour major de la 6ème Légion, chantant la Marseillaise par cœur et buvant la goutte le matin comme un petit pompier. Oh! n’amour, baisez vot’mère tout de suite. »

« Yes, my dear, it is just the way I have the honour of telling you. I was pregnant with him for eleven months and people thought I was dropsical. Would you believe that this is already six years ago? He takes after his father, drum-major of the 6th legion. sings the Marseillaise (national anthem) by heart and has a drink in the morning like a real fire-fighter. Oh, my little darling, come here and give your mother a kiss! »

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« Excusez, regard’ donc la grosse Fifine qu’on aurait juré que c’était Vénus…
ah ben en v’là un déchet! »

« Hey, now look at that huge Fifine! You’d swear she was a Venus –
what a disappointment! »

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Afterwards we took a stroll down to Bois de Boulogne and sat by pond a while to rest. The weather in Paris is pretty temperate considering the talk of snow-storms back home that keep popping up on my facebook feed. The warm sunlight and gentle breeze made for a nice afternoon of napping in the grass or practicing how to whistle really loud. We watched row boats make their way along the pond, with men rowing women around with pond scrub clinging to the oars. We found some vélos and biked around the park passing a carnival. I love carnivals, but somehow when you have the flu, the smell of hot sugar and diesel doesn’t do much good. However, what does do good is fresh bread.. especially when it’s covered in melted cheese and floating on top of onion soup. That’s the best. Also, flan. I really need to learn how to make that.

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We also attended an IHP shindig on the 24th floor of a Paris U building. Not only were there stellar panoramic views of the whole city at sunset, but free champagne, nibbles, and of course, pleasant conversation.

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There were a lot of things going on this weekend, and I tried to go see a piece of them all. Of course I’m glad I went but it was probably a bad idea. Nuit Blanche was happening this weekend all over Paris. I have gone to the Toronto version a few times and it has ranged from somewhat interesting to horrible and useless, though I had some hope for Paris since you know.. everything in Toronto is pretty horrible and useless. The only thing I went out to see what the piece at Hotel de Ville (City Hall) which was a grid of glowing balloons contained in a mesh sheet being controlled like a kite by two guys. The piece is lighthearted and fun, lending itself well to the crowds of kids drinking vodka out of gatorade bottles and eating overpriced churros. Parisians already don’t seem to have a problem having fun in public spaces so the balloons, I thought, were a bit of silly overkill. Seems you can’t go two blocks without seeing a couple of young Parisians lollygagging around the canal sharing a bottle of wine.. or three.

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Instead of checking out any other Nuit Blanche things I went to attend an Idle No More : France Solidarity vigil at Notre Dame. I was surprised to hear there was INM support in France but there is a small group who put the vigil together to raise awareness and show support for the thousands of missing and murdered women, not only in Canada but worldwide. It was great to smudge and to hear the drum again and sing along. Plus a lot of people stopped by to check out what was going on and learn a little bit.

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We also went to check out Animal Expo which showcases different companion animal breeds and check out some cool vendors. TBH it wasn’t really all that enlightening, although we did get to see some cool European breeds we hadn’t encountered before, like Czechoslovakian Wolf Hound, Cane Corso, and Scottish Fold. However we spent most of our time with the Newfs, the Beagles and the Bassets because they’re the best.

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The Cat’s Prayer :

o my master , do not take me for a slave, because I have in me the taste of freedom
do not try to guess my secret , for I have in me the taste of mystery .
do not compel me to caress as I have in me the taste of modesty.
do not humiliate me, because I have in me the taste of pride.
do not forsake me, because I have within me the taste of fidelity
know how to love me and I will love you as I have in me the taste of friendship

1 http://parismusees.paris.fr/fr/exposition/plages-paris-selon-daumier