Posts Tagged ‘France’

Rail trip across France, Spain

May 23, 2014

“I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” ― Ernest Hemingway

Trying to get back to Europe is no easy feat (lorsque le temps viendrait!). Airline tickets can cost, at the cheapest, anywhere from $1,000 to $1,800 per person. Decent hotels in big cities like London, Paris and Madrid are usually over $200 a night. Forget about hotels by the beach in July and August. And while rail travel is still relatively inexpensive, it’s not what it used to be. Of course, you can definitely do Europe on a budget. Staying in hostals and sharing a shower with a bunch of backpacking twentysomethings is probably your top best budget saver. But, really? Not for a family of four.  So…bide your time, save your money and try to devote a few hours per week to perusing TripAdvisor for deals and tips and soon enough, you’ll have a realistic idea of how much you’ll need for the trip of your dreams.

Style, budget and space, check!

A rail trip across France and into Spain not only requires money but time. Reasearch time, in particular. Hours of Google searching went into each of these hotels, painstakingly trying to find ones that fit into my budget, without compromising that one commodity I just don’t ever want to give up: atmosphere.  Being the hotel snob that I am, any place I stay must have that certain je ne sais quoi, that ambience that delivers a true “I’m in Europe” feel. And believe it or not, that “feel” is not easy to find. Many hotels across Europe are plain, simple, and at best, functional. They may have a stunning reception area, but rooms oftentimes can be barren (a bed, end table, TV and bathroom), and lacking in what I call an American idealized version of what we think a hotel in Europe should be. Worse yet, is that in certain cities the hotel fashion at the moment happens to be all-American, New England, circa 1982 (ahem, Madrid, I’m talking about you. You go from the sublime to the ridiculous). The worst though are the hotels along the coast in France and Spain. Little seaside resorts that are inundated in summer with European travelers. Booking three months in advance isn’t soon enough. You need to grab some of the better hotels six months to a year in advance, or get stuck with the typical highrise hotel room that makes you feel more like you’re in Wildwood, NJ than on the Costa Brava.  Lastly, and most importantly, is that when you travel as a family through Europe, it’s almost impossible to find big rooms with a separate living area. Many times what they offer are quadruple rooms, or “quads” which is basically two double beds smushed together in one small room. And while that may save you money, you just may end up killing each other by the end of your trip. I hate to be a whiny, privileged American girl, but — when you’re traveling together for 18 days straight, you need your space. So, all of the rooms I booked either had connecting rooms, a separate bedroom area or, we simply rented two rooms.

OK, so…the particulars… This particular itinerary is an 18-day rail trip, consisting of  seven stops, beginning in London and ending in Madrid. Because my kids’ grandparents live in Madrid, we saved it for last, where we will stay for five days in an apartment, not a hotel (I’ll get to why, below). Every other stop along the way will be a two-day stop. Had we not extended our stay in Madrid, we probably would have gone from Barcelona over to Pamplona (one day) then to Bilbao (two days) and then Madrid. Each hotel is in walking distance of public transportation, either directly walking from the main train stations, or by connecting Metro stops. The only time where this is not the case is in Annecy, France, where we plan to rent a car from Paris and drive to Annecy (in the French Alps). We are doing this for two reasons: once in Annecy, we would like to take what we believe is a 45-minute car ride to Geneva, Switzerland (a train ride from Annecy to Geneva apparently takes three hours, due to a gazillion stops and layovers along the way), and so that when my husband has to go back to Paris the next day, to head home, he can simply take the car back, and drop it off at Charles du Gaul airport. If you would like actual cost of the trip, or hotel recommendations, please feel free to comment. And of course, when I get back, I will give my firsthand account of how it all panned out!

LONDON, ENGLAND • HOTEL: The Academy Hotel,
 21 Gower Street, Bloomsbury 
London
WC1E (Tube Goodge Street- Northern Line 6HG)(Two night, family room) I chose this hotel (instead of the Think Apartment Hotel, which I had originally booked) because it was a little cheaper and it was a little more central to where I wanted to be. This hotel is in the literary Bloomsbury district in walking distance to Covent Garden. Their family room consists of two separate bedrooms and a living area. It doesn’t look too fancy, but London hotels are extremely expensive. We’re lucky to have found what we hope will be a nice place. • TRAIN: Aprox. 2 hours, EuroRail Train London-Saint Pancras to Paris Nord (four persons $459)

PARIS, FRANCE • HOTEL: Villa Pantheon, 41 Rue Des Ecoles 5th arr. – Quartier Latin Paris, 75005 (Metro Maubert Mutualite) (Adjoining rooms) Also pricey are hotels in Paris. This is a British-style hotel supposedly in the Latin Quarter, but it’s if it is, it’s on the very edge. It’s much closer to the Saint-Germain-des-Près area, farther south-east. But the area itself is another favorite area of mine–right by the Pantheon, and of course, in the heart of Paris, on the left bank. Here, we reserved connecting rooms. • Rental Car Company: Auto Europe. Picking up a midsize car at the Gare du Lyon around the corner and heading to Annecy (aprox 5h 30m )

ANNECY, FRANCE • HOTEL: Hotel Les Tresoms 3 Boulevard De La Corniche Annecy, France TELEPHONE: +33-450514384 I wanted to splurge a bit at this location. When will we ever be back in the French Alps? Why not have a hotel room on Lake Annecy? A bit over budget, but hopefully worth it. • TRAIN to Aix-en Provence (aprox 3h39m)

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, FRANCE • HOTEL: Hotel Aquabella 2 Rue Des Etuves, Aix-en-Provence, Bouches-du-Rhone, 13100 This hotel is right in the center of town 11 minutes walking distance from the main train station. I can’t forget to have some ratatouille while here, and of course, a little bit of red wine de Provence. We reserved two separate rooms at this hotel because of their size. And unfortunately, there is only one late night train to Aix from Annecy, so we will pretty much lose a day here. Quel dommage! • TRAIN: (About 2h30m to Sete)

Update: this hotel was a huge disappointment–very unclean and definitely not as up-to-date as the photos would have you think. However, it is very close to a charming plaza right off the rue Merindol, before you hit the the Place Forum de Cardeurs where we had a great Moroccan dinner in an outdoor cafe, called Le Pe’tit Tagine. My suggestion: if you want to experience Aix, rent a house in the countryside

SETE, FRANCE • HOTEL: Le Grand Hotel, 17 Quai Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny, Sète, France. This is one of those places that has probably become far grander in my imagine that it is in reality. I say this because the hotel looks amazing, yet the town looks completely lacking. In fact, it looks as if it’s just a canal town. And yet, it’s Provence. I’ll make the best of it. • TRAIN: (aprox 3h3m)

BARCELONA, SPAIN • HOTEL: Hotel Duquesa de Cardona 4* Sup.Passeig Colom 12 – 08002 (Metro: Jaume 1 or Drassanes) Barcelona (España). This is another stuning hotel with a roof top bar and pool overlooking the sea. Here, we will be staying in their largest room, the Junior Suite La Duquesa, with double balconies and a separate bedroom. Once I arrive in Spain I believe I can finally relax! I speak Spanish far better than French, and I am far more at ease here as I know the customs much better. Además, este es el país del padre de mis hijos. • TRAIN: (about 3 h 5 m)

MADRID, SPAIN • HOTEL: Apartment Plaza de Santa Ana 1, 2º Dcha B, 28004, Madrid (Metro: Anton Martin. Apartment arrivals can be made between 4.00 pm. and 9.00 pm. Last but not least! Madrid, my old home! Because we normally stay with my in-laws, I have never had need for a hotel in Madrid. However, now that my sons are so big, and we all take up so much room, it’s time we got a place of our own. When I looked into hotels in Madrid, I was greatly disappointed. And then I remembered apartment rentals for a similar price. Bingo! For under the cost of a hotel room with two double beds and a bath, we will be renting a two bedroom apartment on the Plaza Santa Ana (one of the most popular plazas in the center of town), a huge living room, kitchen two bathrooms and a dining room. Outrageous. It’s also right near the Tirso de Molina metro stop, which means it’s a direct line to my kids’ grandparents’ house in Vallecas.

Feel free to share this itinerary. And if you have any questions, comment below!

Home

November 14, 2011

The summer after I graduated high school, I left home. I worked on the boardwalk in Wildwood, NJ with Israelis, Moroccans, Canadians, French and Russians. Those people did crazy things to me. They introduced me to the world. They pulled at my insides, sparks flew, something felt very right, like a calling to turn my life over to God. I was eighteen and still remember sitting in Frieda’s tiny, one-room apartment on Young Avenue. She was a woman with whom I sold t-shirts. A ton of Israelis, after their stint in the army, would live in a kibbutz and would have connections to others who were making tons of money ironing decals on t-shirts at the Jersey shore. Word of mouth sent her here. She knew she could make money under the table for the summer while getting to know America.  In the winter, she, along with everyone else, migrated to Fort Lauderdale, and then back again, year after year, never entirely settling down. There was something familiar in the ebb and flow of the way she lived her life. But I could never put my finger on it.

On a hotplate plugged into the wall she made me “Israeli coffee” and poured it in a tea glass, with sugar. We talked about life on the kibbutz, Shimon Peres and the Palestinians. “We are all human,” she said. She taught me how to say I love you, in Hebrew, which incited me to go around to all my other friends and ask them how to say I love you in their language. By the end of the summer, I could say I love you in English, Hebrew, Arabic, French, Russian and Hungarian.

It may have begun then.

When I turned 20, I moved to Paris and lived in a one-room chambre de bonne on rue Rimbuteau. I read a lot of Henry Miller, got laid, dropped out of my French classes at the Alliance Francaise and existed in such a state of poverty that my friend Karen and I would steal food from her stepdad’s house during the day, and then at night, we’d flirt with rich exchange students at the Violon Dingue trying to get them to buy us free drinks. I was even homeless for a few days and spent a good 24-hours with a transient, tattooed, pierced, skinhead named Will West who kept me laughing through my vagrancy. We would stay at free night clubs all around Les Halles and dance like zombies until seven in the morning, until the cafes opened and then, we could sit for hours with the alcoholics and street people, drinking cheap coffee and toasted baguette for ten francs. Je ne regrette rein.

When my mother dragged me home in the fall of ’89, I applied for a job as a cashier at John Wanamaker’s. The woman who interviewed me read my application and saw that I had just come back from France. She smiled and said, “Coming back to reality, eh?” It wasn’t long after that that I repacked my bags and took a bartending gig in Greenland. I’ll show you reality, bitch.

Sondrestromford, was a US and Danish military base right below the arctic circle. It was cold as hell. Thirty degrees below zero could turn a flower to shattered glass. There were no trees. Just gray, monochrome hills with dark skies and the occasional aurora borealis that slinked across a sky so lit up by stars you thought you might be looking through a telescope. A fjord the color of wet cement cut along the base.  I served drunks at the NCO Club and dated an American bodybuilder who taught me how to lift weights–there was nothing else to do up there but use the indoor gym, hunt musk ox and make money. I did that for a good five months before realizing that some places are better left untraveled. So, I came back home.

Part of the experience of being away from home, was longing for home. There was a weird dichotomy there. It was like what someone said to me about living in Paris. The only way to continue to love Paris, is to leave. So, for many years, I lived at home to the point of exhaustion and ennui, only to pack my bags, and live somewhere else for a time, until I missed home again. Back home, back out again. Back home, back out again. Just like that.

The older I got, though, the length of time it took to get to the point of missing home shortened. Until eventually, I did the unthinkable. I married and settled down. Granted, I married a Spaniard, which afforded me several costly trips back and forth to Madrid. Kids have to visit their Abuelos, you know. But the truth is, for the first time in my life, I actually liked home. I no longer wanted to run away. Making peace with the idea of stability, continuity, and permanence was a trip in itself. Something I had never known. The drawback is that kids force you into such a state of routine that you end up feeling trapped. At least I did. Drop off, pick up, drop off, pick up, breakfast, lunch, dinner, bed-time at exactly eight. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.  Nothing to jostle the monotony. So, you join the Junior Women’s Club. You go to Longaberger basket parties. You volunteer at school to serve lunches. You ask your mother to babysit so you and your husband can actually be alone and scream during sex. When that only happens once every six months, you go back to school and get a degree and have an affair. Well, you don’t have an affair. He does. And well, then you get to a point where you kinda fondly remember the monotony. But, that’s another story.

Permanence wasn’t my thing anyway. And so, in 2004, three events occurred which, even in their bad sad miserable way, allowed me to reclaim my inherent nature–a traveler. My father died. I divorced. And, I finally got my college degree (granted, the last was a positive consequence of my years as a stable New Jerseyan). When these three things happened, my tether broke. And when a tether on a hot air balloon breaks, there’s no telling which way the wind will blow it.

Within months, of these events happening, I hit the road. Twenty eight days, across the Heartland. Long stays with my kids in the Utah desert. Hiking the red rocks of Moab. Flying over the Grand Canyon. Twelve-hour car rides that had me fantasizing about the practicality of wearing a Depends undergarment so as not to make so many damn pee stops.

Travel is in my blood. Which gets me thinking. It probably didn’t begin with Wildwood. It didn’t begin with Paris or Greenland or week-long trips to Long Beach Island, or summers in Philly, or any of the trips I actually took to simply get away from home, get away from me. It began much further back than that.

In ’67, my mother and father eloped. They packed up my mother’s 1963 Chevy Nova and headed to Vegas. A year later, they made their way back to the West Coast, to Hollywood, where I was born in May of ’68. In November, we came home to Jersey and stayed a while. But not long. And while we never, vacationed, per se, we did move. And every move was an adventure.

In fact, we moved every year, for fourteen years. A new house every year, sometimes less than a year if my father couldn’t pay the bills. Adapting, readapting, not adapting so well. Moving in anger; moving in fear. Moving with our tail between our legs. Moving out of shame and necessity because we had burned our bridge. Moving with elation and joy to be in a new, undiscovered world of hallways and bedrooms and hidden closets and eiree basements and blistering hot attics. We weren’t moving to anything, now that I think of it. We were running away. Well, I wasn’t running away. It wasn’t me who couldn’t pay the bills. I was just along for the ride.

But a funny thing happens to a child whether she likes it or not. She inherits her parents’ hopes and fears and everything in between.  The circular reasoning that makes up 90 percent of the gray matter in her head. There was, in fact, a box of dolls I no longer played with that remained packed for many years because my mother was sick and tired of unpacking them. This frustrated me for a time because, of the few friends I was able to make, most had a wall of pretty little knick knacks, dolls, and porcelain (or plastic) horses on display with which they no longer played. I did not. My walls were bare. And so, when I was finally old enough to take these dolls out of the box, to pull them from their captive bundle of newsprint and bubble wrap, I didn’t even like them anymore. And so, I ended up throwing them away or maybe giving them away to another little girl who might have appreciated them more than I. Their traditional spot on a dusty, permanent shelf, where they could have sat throughout my entire childhood, held no meaning for me. And yet, I was embarrassed for so long at the transience of my life. Even now, when I explain my past to people (because traveling 14 times in 15 years is a bit much for a kid, don’t you think), they ask, “Was your father in the military?” I can’t say that I’m not slightly ashamed to have to say, “No, he was not.”

My childhood was a rich fabric of insanity, joy and adventure. I’ll leave it at that.

But here’s the thing. Every house was a home, a world unto itself –like a country, with a different language spoken within its borders. Each closet, to my child’s eye, was a landmark, a monument; each new kitchen, served a new regional cuisine. Every backyard was a continent, a varied landscape with fields that stretched to the horizon, or snowcapped mountains, or dark forests; seascapes, city lines, quiet, fenced-in corners pulsing with tiger lilies and skies broken to pieces with big white clouds. We traversed New Jersey, then up to New Hampshire, then back again. We lived in farmhouses, big houses, small houses, ranchers and even, what my mother not-so-fondly called, “a cardboard box.” My life is thusly divided into fourteen different worlds, with a myriad of experiences.  The cliché “home is where the heart is,” aptly applies.

In less than a week I’ll be in Holland. A month ago it was Bear Creek for work. Then Sedona.  Followed by Baltimore and now NYC. The instability of all this travel wears me out. Some days, I’d simply rather stay home. And yet, there is the eternal, inborn wax and wane, the coming and going, the internal rotating door that can’t be tuned out. An opportunity to adapt, readapt, not adapt so well. At the heart of it, I suppose, I’m used to the discomfort, the inconvenience. It has meaning. It’s who I am. The doll on the shelf can’t shake a stick at the story I tell and retell. And to me, the significance of that is far greater than any gift I may bring back home to decorate my walls.  More importantly, the child in me is finally OK with the idea that there’s no need to unpack.

The Manzanares

June 16, 2010

This is a revised piece

There is a river that runs through Madrid. It’s called the Manzanares, and he’s right. It is ugly.

“It’s not the Seine, y’know.”

“I know, I know. But I’m curious. There’s got to be something to see. Can we go anyway?”

“No, there’s nothing to see. It’s ugly and you have to take the Renfe Cercanias.”

But I don’t mind taking the Renfe if it gets me out of Vallecas.

So, I go alone and he’s right. It is ugly. Maybe he told me to get off at Principe Pio. Maybe it was Puerta Del Angel. I can’t remember now. But I wind my way through orangy brick tenements, with green, mangled awnings before I see the river and make my way to the Puente de Segovia. It’s nothing to see. And I cross, pretending it’s the Pont Neuf or the Pont Alexandre III in Paris. I practice pronouncing the line in my head that some day I will speak if I ever go back: Je suis a la recherche d’ une personne du nom de… And I remember the nights I stood at the Pont St. Michel at three in the morning, soul kissing the American after dancing all night at Le Balad’jo. It hurts to do this. But the Manzanares is ugly, and I am useless and apoplectic when it comes to finding beauty when it isn’t there. I’m not creative enough. The water is black. The air is cold. And there are huge concrete cinder blocks left like debris on the sides of the bank.

I head back down the understated arc of the overpass. It’s late in the afternoon and I don’t want the Spaniard to worry. But I’m lost—I miss the turn at Calle Caramuel and keep heading down Antonio Zamora instead—looking for the entrance to the Metro, wandering down a street where a Gitana sings an unknown song of sorrow, tremulous and pulsating, from a terraza draped in laundry three flights up.

This post has no point except to say that time is circular, despite the illusion of it being linear

January 1, 2010

One year ago today, I learned how to make soap. In fact, I uncovered the buried understanding that adding any number of additives will not, after all, interfere with saponification and that soap is actually a paradox. It takes oil to remove oil. I even made my own recipe:

24 ½ ounces of Olive oil
12 ounces Palm oil
4 ½ ounces of Cocoa butter
6 ounces Canola oil
1 ounce Palm Kernel oil
6 ¾ ounces Lye
17 ¼ ounces distilled water

I never actually made the soap. I got distracted. I listened over and over and over again to DeBussy’s Claire de Lune while emotionally reuniting with the girl I was in Paris, in 1989. I sang Martha Wainwright’s “Wish I Were” lying on the floor of my bedroom, until my voice shattered into broken glass and I kept quiet for a very long time. I read Hills Like White Elephants and prepared my soul for its delivery, though I didn’t know it at the time.

A year is long. But we are only reminded of its length at the end, when we have the sensation that we are back “there” again. Remembering the past. And all that we no longer are.

Bits & Pieces: Karen

August 30, 2009

My friend is an artist. She’s visiting from England. She’s staying with us for the next four days. She’s never been to Madrid. Once, a long time ago, when her parents were still together, her mum and dad took her to Torrevieja on summer holiday. All the Brits holiday in Spain. They come down in July and August and no matter where you go on the coast you only hear English. You never hear Spanish, and when you try to speak it, you’re cut off and the shop keepers answer you in English. It’s frustrating because I’m not a tourist. But Madrid. She’s never been to Madrid. So I promise to take her everywhere.

I’m so happy that I cry when I see her at Barajas Airport. I see her beautiful brown skin in a sea of white and when she’s there, right in front of me, I hug her and don’t let go. It’s been ten years.

I’ve fixed up her room; the room overlooking the red roofs and green awnings of the gypsies that live behind us. The ones that have the chickens in cages on their terraces. My mother-in-law gave us R’s old twin bed. I found a desk for cheap at the flea market. And I bought posters of the famous bullfighters and a set of old red curtains there too. She will be able to see the sun come up from this room, and I can’t say that I won’t be a little jealous.

In Paris, we shared a one-room chamber-de bonne in Les Halles. It had a double bed, a shower, a toilet and a formica-top table with two chairs.  Maybe even an electric double-burner for cooking. I can’t remember. She never slept at her step father’s place out past the Bois de Boulogne because he’d make her watch the baby all the time, and she felt so far away from all the fun. Instead, she’d let herself into the courtyard of my apartment and yell up to my window to be let in. 26 Rue Rimbuteau. She wanted to be in the center, with me.  She was nineteen. I was twenty-one. We partied all night, missed the trains, walked back home at three, four, five o’clock in the morning and then slept all day. Sometimes we woke up with our legs wrapped around each other, and then laughed about it over a coffee down at the Saint Placid where we’d go for breakfast if money came in.

“For fuck’s sake, the closest thing to me getting laid is sleeping with you, every night.”

“Oh Karen. You really do live a rah-ther pathetic life…” I always tried to copy her London accent. She appreciated the effort.

We’d do shots of espresso, smoke long brown cigarettes, flirt with rich Americans doing semesters abroad and “get pissed” every night at the Violon Dingue. We never went back to the Alliance Francaise, where we met, taking classes. We remained together. Each other’s foreign education. From there on out, we lived a rah-ther cliché, expatriate life, and came of age where only a lucky few, privileged girls do.