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Paris: Let me talk about eating…

24 Apr

You can’t visit Paris without at least one post about the food.

Our first night in Paris, Kelly and I struck gold when we had dinner at Café Constant. If you’re a foodie, that name probably rings a bell because it’s one of four restaurants in Paris (three of which are in a neat little row on the same street) by Chef Christian Constant. Also worth noting: it was a bargain – dinner was only 16 Euros per person in a city of often over-priced meals.

It was a hopping Friday night and the café had a nice little hustle going on, so the only place available to seat us was at a small table tucked under the stairs. Some diners might not find it desirable, but I enjoyed it, feeling like a little turtle tucked up in its shell as I ate.

Though most people in the café were French, two older, American-sounding women sat at the table next to us. We didn’t try to eavesdrop on their conversation, but when their dessert came, we gathered that one woman had ordered the roasted prunes in some sort of red wine reduction.

“Nasty,” I whispered to Kelly. “I would never think of a prune for dessert, would you?”

She was just shaking her head when we both heard something that caused us to lock eyes, raise our eyebrows and lose ourselves in laughter: The woman had raised her spoon and told her companion, “I might just shit myself at the table after eating this!”

You can take a girl out of ‘Murica, but you can’t take ‘Murica out of the girl.

That gave us one just more reason to split the profiteroles rather than try our luck on the prunes…

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Hair past a freckle

24 Apr

IMG_3836When we arrived in London, Kelly asked if I wanted any specific souvenirs from the trip. “I don’t have room in my suitcase,” I told her, nodding to the small carry-on I was hoping would get me through two weeks. “But I DO need a watch, so maybe if I find one I like, that could be a good keepsake.”

A few days later, I’m sure she agreed that it would not only be a good keepsake, but an essential item for the rest of the trip, as I asked her to check her watch for what felt like the fiftieth time.

I didn’t buy a watch, however, and instead used my iPhone as my timepiece when I wasn’t bugging Kelly for the time.

That was fine until we arrived in Paris, where we entered a bit of a time-warp. We arrived Friday night and made plans to meet the next morning at 9am for breakfast. I woke early the next day (as I tend to do every day) and spent the wee hours reading and planning the agenda for the day.

At about 8:30, I received a text from Kelly. “Have you eaten already?”

“No!” I wrote back. (I’m not sure why I was excited enough to use an exclamation point.)

“Want to meet downstairs in 30 minutes?” She wrote.

“Perfect.” I responded, thinking, “Isn’t that what we decided last night??”

Half an hour later, I was seated a table enjoying a croissant. “I’m here,” I wrote to her. “Got a table for two near the back. No rush.”

She wrote back, “I ate already. Want to let me know when you’re done?”

Confused, I thought maybe she decided she was tired of me and needed a bit more down-time. I plowed through my meal and met her in the lobby 30 minutes later.

“Sorry for the confusion this morning,” I said.

“Yeah, I think I must’ve been tired when we made plans last night,” she offered.

“No biggie!” I dismissed it, excited to get our day started. “I found a walking tour for us over in Montmartre – if we head out now, we should have perfect timing!”

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 7.31.28 AMWe popped up at the Metro station near the Moulin Rouge about five minutes before the tour was slated to leave. “I don’t remember what they said they would be wearing,” I told her. “Let’s check both sides of the street to see if there is a group forming.”

We spent the next ten minutes looking everywhere that seemed plausible for a tour to meet, without any luck. Then Kelly said, “Wait. What time was the tour supposed to leave?”

“Eleven,” I told her, pointing to my phone. “Basically, right now. Maybe they’re being very French about it and it doesn’t start on time?”

“Alison,” she said, pointing to her watch, “It’s noon.”

I looked at my phone again. “No, it’s 11.”

She shook her head and showed me her watch. “Noon.”

Suddenly, our confused dining plans earlier in the morning made perfect sense. The clock on my phone hadn’t automatically gained an hour when we arrived in Paris, so I was still operating on London time with an hour delay. No wonder we had missed each other in the dining room. As I paged back through our texts, the mistake was obvious.

Realizing a tour guide was never going to meet us, we started up the hill toward Sacré Coeur on our own. And I never DID find a watch I liked. Next time…

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Sacré Coeur, which inexplicably smelled like cheese and manure.

The plumbing was a bit dodgy.

15 Apr

London has been – and remains – one of my favorite cities. There’s so much history and charm and character. And – something I really didn’t appreciate until I lived in France for a while – communication is EASY. If anything, the few differences between British English and American English tend to provide small moments of delight.

Who doesn’t enjoy seeing things with these names on a menu: Toad in a Hole, Eton Mess, Jam Roly Poly, Champignons Rumbledethump? Real example: the other night at dinner, the person to my left asked for bashed neaps and tatties, while the one on my right ordered bubble and squeak. It might all be English, but it doesn’t mean I understand it. (And it doesn’t mean I can repeat it – when I tried to remember the name of the one dish, I called it “bashed teats and nappies,” which I think is something entirely different!)

For all the general convenience of London, there are always a few things that remind me I’m in a very OLD country.

One is the plumbing. Whenever I encounter a toilet, I feel it’s a bit of Russian Roulette to determine if it will flush. In my hotel, it seemed to work one out of every three times, generally. At the office, there was no rhyme or reason to when a toilet would flush. People seemed to just close the lid and move on. There were times when I’d head to the bathroom and find ALL the toilets with their lids closed – only to return an hour later and they would all be clear.

Every time I went to the bathroom, if there was another woman in there I would ask about it. “Am I doing something wrong? Do some of these toilets just not flush predictably?”

I would get a shrug in response. “Yeah, they’re a bit dodgy.”

In the States, this would be grounds for outrage. We would be on the phone with the building supervisor, complaining that the restroom needed repairing and threaten to break our lease if it wasn’t resolved quickly. In London, it seemed gently accepted.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 11.03.11 AMThe other reminder on this trip that we were clearly in another country was the hair dryer provided by the hotel. Look at that thing!

After checking into the hotel and stashing our stuff, my traveling companion reported back, “I don’t think that Flowbie-thing is going to cut it!”

Not only does it look like something you might use to vacuum out your car, it also blows air only a smidge warmer and more forcefully than if you attempted to dry your hair by blowing through a straw.

Finally, I don’t know what it is, but the Brits LOVE their mayonnaise. I’m acutely aware of this because I do NOT love mayonnaise, so I found myself scraping it off EVERYTHING. Even things that rightfully shouldn’t have mayonnaise on them seemed to be slathered in it.

Differences aside, London was kind to us. The people were warm and friendly. The weather was generally sunny (aside from an odd 15 minute stretch where it when from sunny to rainy to hailing then back to sunny). The sites were lovely.

Mission completed, we pulled out of St. Pancras on Friday bound for a few days with our Paris team, where the toilets might work reliably, but our language skills would not.

 

One point for socialized healthcare!

14 Apr

We arrived in London at 7am Saturday, running on fumes from the two hours of sleep we garnered during the red-eye over. We made ourselves push through the day, taking in sites and hopping on a walking tour, so that we could adjust to the new time zone. We covered 20 miles on foot over the weekend and felt properly acclimated by the time we ventured to our office Monday morning.

Unfortunately, I also had the start of a sore throat. A sore throat that got increasingly worse as the day went on. I led my training sessions in the morning, doing a baton hand-off to my colleague after lunch. I sat in her session with an eye toward helping out, but I found I was struggling to swallow, let alone talk. Finally, at 3pm, I decided it would be stupid to continue pushing through while I was obviously getting sick, so I cut my losses and headed to the National Health System’s walk-in clinic.

As a side note, I found the signage around the clinic a bit odd. British people don’t seem very violent to me, but apparently there must be a fair amount of medical rage:

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After arriving, I was told there was a £75 charge for foreigners to see a doctor. The woman telling me seemed apologetic and assured me I would only have to pay if the person running triage couldn’t resolve me. I didn’t bother telling her that it would cost me $200 – even with insurance – to walk into an ER in the States.

After waiting only 10 minutes, I saw the triage specialist. She took my symptoms, checked my throat, ears and sinuses and said, “Unfortunately, it seems it is viral at this point. I don’t think you need to spend the money on a doctor, but DO get yourself some over the counter meds to manage your symptoms. And if you develop white spots on your throat or your symptoms get worse, come back.”

Part of me was relieved with this advice since I go to great lengths to avoid antibiotics, but part of me wanted some course of medication that might make me feel better since I had nine days of training sixty people ahead of me. I returned to my room, took a bath and crawled in bed.

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 7.41.38 AMOver night, my throat became much worse. I couldn’t swallow without crying. It was so painful I couldn’t sleep. I was back at the NHS walk-in clinic as soon as it opened in the morning. This time, I was admitted to chat with a doctor, who took one look at my throat and pronounced it strep. (White spots had appeared over night.) She gave me a prescription for penicillin, which I filled before returning to my hotel room.

As a side note: you know how expensive it is to fill a prescription in the US? With insurance, there is generally a $10 or $20 co-pay. Sometimes, if you go for a name brand drug you pay beyond that. And if you don’t have insurance? You’re totally screwed.

Imagine my delight at the pharmacy when I was given four boxes of pills for less than £20. Not too shabby for someone who is uninsured.

Even better – within 12 hours of starting the antibiotics, I was able to swallow again. By the time I woke up on Wednesday, I was feeling almost normal and completely able to resume the training sessions we had designed.

If we had another day in London, I would’ve made a trek to the Fleming Museum so I could see the lab where Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and give thanks for his brilliance. Without that intervention, this trip would’ve been a bust.

Now I just have to hope I don’t pick up something viral on the flight home!

You’re getting very, very sleepy. (Or not.)

3 Apr
Not me.

Not me.

I’m in London for work this week. I flew out of DC Friday night after work and arrived Saturday at the crack of dawn.

Every time I travel internationally, I am reminded of how bad I am at sleeping on planes. Who ARE those people who are so knocked out they’re snoring? Aside from the times I’ve traveled in First Class in a seat that reclines to a create a fully flat bed, or the time I took a Xanax on my way to Australia, I’ve only gotten – at most – 30 minutes of uninterrupted sleep on a plane.

This trip was no exception, despite my luck in seating. I was lucky because a) I had checked in online early enough to secure myself a window seat with only one companion (as opposed to being in the center row, which sticks five people together), and b) I was in one of only a few rows where my seatmate never arrived. Theoretically, with two seats to myself, I should’ve been able to sleep. But try as I might – and I DID try, using every inch of those two seats to full advantage – I was never able to make it work.

I passed two hours watching the movie, “Sisters,” starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. It’s definitely on the low-end of the intellectual spectrum, but I found myself laughing out loud at lines from time to time. (“You’re so full of shit, I’m going to buy you pull-ups.”) It was a perfect distraction as our plane bounced around for what amounted to 90 minutes of on-again/off-again turbulence while we left the DC area.

When the movie ended, I found that the cabin was dark and around me – with few exceptions – people were sleeping. Glad I didn’t have a slumbering seatmate to awkwardly crawl over, I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth.

Other than knowing my row was empty, I hadn’t really paid attention to WHICH row it was. I thought the emptiness would make it easy to spot, so when I returned to the bathroom, I found an empty row and set about tidying up the loose blankets strewn across the seats. Except I learned that it wasn’t ACTUALLY my row when my hands connected with a BODY under the blankets. Um, oops?

The person I’d groped was either a sleeping zombie or paralyzed by fear of imminent sexual assault, because he/she didn’t move or say anything after I patted him/her in various places. Mortified, I continued on my way without an apology for fear of waking him/her. I walked down the entire aisle to rule out other “false positives” before confirming my row was really mine.

The rest of my evening unfolded without any drama (or further trauma), aside from the lights cutting back on with a harsh brightness, JUST after I’d finally zonked out for about 20 minutes. One fruit cup and a cup of tea later, I saw the city of London out my window, it’s landmarks obvious even from the distance. The Tower Bridge, the London Eye, Big Ben: I was immediately oriented and – despite my nighttime challenges – wide awake.

Here’s hoping I manage to sneak in some rest before I show up in the office. It’s one thing to have accidentally pat-down a stranger on a plane; it’s another thing entirely if it happens in an office. While Europeans DO tend to think Americans are overly-friendly, I think our HR team might have a problem with it.