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19 July, 2014

Day 16: Last day and humidity

We slept pretty late today. It was a late night, and we'd also been getting progressively more worn out from all of the activity each day. There was also surely the pending emotional letdown of knowing that this trip will end, and we will return to regular life.

We had breakfast at our go-to place around the corner. It seems lame to keep going to the same place every morning. I know. But coffee is a bodily function. You don't want to mess around with that. It's like when you're in the wilderness and setting up camp. The first thing one must do is identify a source of fresh water.

There is a part of the city that is supposed to have some artsy stuff and shops that Allie was excited to visit. It is called Rue St. Paul. We went there. It was humid. It was hot. We were tired. We walked there through some indirect route, along Rue Dauphine, across the river, and eventually found ourselves there. There were many shops. It was like a farmer's market atmosphere on the street, with many options. Everything looked interesting. Actually, maybe it wasn't like a farmer's market. Maybe I am confusing that with another city. Another time. I looked at some Google images. Maybe it was this trip, this town. Maybe it was this street. Maybe it was like a farmer's market. Nobody can say for sure. Except anyone who has been there and has a better memory that I do.

Okay. This is a shitty blog.

We bought berries. Did I say that already?

Wait. It gets better. I remember this part.

We were wandering. This day was mostly wandering. And we came across a 15-piece string ensemble playing beautiful music near the archway between a couple of old buildings. There was a small crowd gathered. We were just passing by, but there was not really any way to resist standing and listening for a few minutes, because it was good. You wouldn't encounter this in Seattle. Or Kansas. Definitely not in Kansas.

We wandered more.

To Villages St. Paul, because Allie wanted to find fabric. She did find fabric. She bought some. I was hot, but trying to be patient since she loves fabric.

We had lunch at Au Bouquet St. Paul. My notes claim that we had a burger and a mozzarella salad. This is completely beyond my recollection. I wonder if Allie remembers that. Even looking at a Google image of this restaurant only jogs the vaguest of memories.

We were dragging this day. I remember that. We were tired and maybe a bit down. I remember that. And I remember what happened next. We decided it was too far to walk home, so we went into the Metro to take the train. The train in Paris has two doors. There's the door to the train itself. Then there's the glass wall that borders the tracks, with a glass sliding door that opens when the train arrives. This is to keep you from falling or jumping on the tracks, I guess? So, I grew up in Boston. It was not uncommon to be almost missing the train, and try to board as the doors were closing, and if the doors hit you, they either spring back open, or you push them open. Either case, no problem.

DO NOT TRY THIS IN THE METRO IN PARIS.

The glass doors do not stop. They do not bounce. They cannot be pried, reasoned with, or otherwise. If the bell rings, and you are not on the train, only extend those limbs that you are willing to lose, because the glass door will close, pin you, and you will be destroyed.

This is what happened, except for the destruction part. The Metro terminal was very crowded. As we were boarding the train, Allie was just a few paces ahead of me. She got on the train. The bell rang. I attempted to continue getting on the train. The glass door slammed on me, and pinned me. The train door started to close, and all I could do in this panic was think, "I have 2 options: separate from Allie, or die." So I desperately attempted to pull myself free of the glass door, in the "not toward the train" direction. I figured, if the glass door is willing to pin me, I am sure the train is willing to kill me.

So now we were separated. Oh yeah. I forgot. And one of us had a dead phone. I can't remember which of is it was. Probably me. And I don't think she knew my phone was dead. So now it's a battle of wits. What will she do? What should I do? What does she think I will do? What do I think she will do? To be honest with you, I don't even remember what we did. I was hoping that she would not get off at the next stop and come back. Because that could be confusing. I also didn't know if she would go all the way back to the apartment and meet me there, which I think involved more than one train line, but maybe not. I believe she exited one stop later and waited for me at the next stop. Somehow we made reasonable choices, and reconnected. I felt like an idiot, which I really shouldn't have, but did. The heat. The fatigue.

We went to the apartment and rested.

Then we decided we would go to Sacre Couer, because we both had nice memories of it from before. To get there, we needed to take some strange train route because the regular train one would want to take was not running, or something. And we needed to go through what might have been a bad neighborhood? I don't know. It's also possible that I am just a xenophobic, paranoid freak, and we were in the hippest part of town. But I don't think so. It was definitely edgy. And when we got off the train we stood out like a sore thumb, and still had a reasonably long walk to get where we wanted to be. But we were fine, and it was all worrying for nothing. to get to the viewpoint at Sacre Couer was up many steep slopes and steps. And when we arrived, what we found shocked us both. It was a huge party scene of drunken idiots with litter everywhere, and general unpleasantness. Basically, I think it's the difference between visiting on a weeknight in March (my previous visit) versus a weekend in midsummer. The latter is a bad idea. We stuck around only long enough to gawk at the scene. Then we walked down the many stairs on the front of Sacre Couer (having ascended from the side), to the streets below (others were taking a tram). We were in a limbo state between hungry and not, and settled on Gelato.

I don't know how we got back to the apartment. It must have involved a train. And it must not have been eventful enough to have a line item in my notes.

This was our last day in Paris. The last day of our trip. I am sure I will visit Paris again, one day, barring a premature death. Even in spite of the recent terrorism in the world, which definitely makes me apprehensive at this moment, I am sure that my attitude will shift, and my passion for these places will prevail.

I write this entry almost 19 months after our trip ended. I am not sure why it has taken me this long to write these entries. At the bottom of this post, I leave behind the remnant of the notes that were used as my reference from each day. Without these tiny little reminders, I would never have been able to write this after the fact.

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We slept pretty late today after the late night, following afternoon naps and coffee.
Breakfast around the corner again
Walk to Rue St. Paul via long indirect path along Rue Dauphine, across river, etc.
Explore many small shops
Buy some berries
See 15-piece string ensemble
Wander more
Wander to Villages St. Paul and look at goods for sale (Allie buys fabric)
Find lunch at Au Bouquet St. Paul (Burger / Mozzarella Salad)
Train back from there (get separated at station)
Rest from the heat and humidity.
Weird train ride
Sacre Couer?
Gelato

Day 15: Queues and crowds

Today the plan was to go to the Catacombs. This is apparently one of the biggest tourist attractions in Paris, and it would seem to be the one with the longest queue associated with it, owing to the fact that there's a rough limitation of about 200 persons allowed in the catacombs at a time. This is a good thing, preventing it from being a horrible experience, as well as helping to preserve the integrity of the site. We didn't get up quite as early as we should have, but not too bad. The catacombs open at 10am and we managed to get there by around 10:15am, after stopping briefly for takeout coffee and a sandwich (both of which were good), around the corner from our place. The walk to the catacombs was about 30 minutes, and we passed through the edge of Luxembourg Garden. The morning air was relatively comfortable. A constant factor throughout our time in Paris has been the oppressive heat and humidity. It's truly unpleasant, in exactly the same way that I remember Boston being unpleasant in the summertime. It makes it difficult to remain enthusiastic about a long series of outdoor activities, or transiting between places.

Anyway, we got to the catacombs, shortly after opening, to find that the line wrapped all the way around the entire square where the entrance is located. The line was long. If I were to venture a guess? I would say there were about 300 people in front of us in line. I could be off by over a hundred though. Our initial reaction was "Oh, shit!" The catacombs were one of the few things that were at the top of our list of things we wanted to do, but Allie's first reaction to the line was "Forget it. We don't need to see the catacombs." And that's where serendipity comes into play. Right as we arrive in the line, and we're debating exiting the line, a man in front of us, of perhaps 50 years old, turns to us and says something funny about waiting in line. He says something like "Allow me the opportunity to entice you with the following introduction: I was born in Beverly, and..." The basic idea being, we have enough time to learn each others' entire life story while waiting in this line. And, of course, when he says "Beverly," I said "Beverly, Massachusetts?!" And that's the story of how we ended up waiting 2.5 hours in the blistering sun, talking with Scott and Tracy, as we waited to enter the catacombs. They were both software engineers. She was from Hawaii, and he was from the Boston area, but they now both work in Oregon. So our stories were similar in the move to the West Coast. They had their two kids, ages, 15 and 12, with them, and this was the middle of an 8 week sabbatical for them. I guess he has the opportunity to do this every 7 years at his company. The last time they did it, they went on a Roman-themed exploration of Europe. This time, the theme was Medieval. And they like to plan their days, stays, activities one day at a time, often changing plans, and following their whim. Letting chance take them to exciting new places. We talked the entire time, about work, about France and Italy, about philosophy on life. If we hadn't been in line behind them, I seriously doubt we would have endured the line for even 10 minutes. Especially considering that the worst of the heat and sun in that line occurred after moving around a corner out of the shade, a little less than an hour into the wait. But they were funny, friendly, honest, engaging, and the conversation will stand out as one of the memories from the trip that we hold onto forever.

The good news, on top of that good news, was that the catacombs were actually pretty amazing, and refreshingly cool, being a few hundred feet underground. It's a sight worth seeing. And because of this slow-moving line, with the strict limit on admission, it means that one can be virtually alone during the majority of their walk through the expansive space. We spent quite a long time down there. The bones go on endlessly, and it is obvious that we don't even have access to the full area. You can see mostly femurs and skulls, because of how they've arranged things. I guess the other bones must be piled behind these front rows. We hypothesized about why. Perhaps the femurs stack well, and form a good "wall" for the storage, and then the odd-shaped bones are more haphazardly packed in behind.

After the catacombs, we came out and wandered a bit. We found a street that was interesting, Rue Daguerre. It had many markets and food shops, all of which looked interesting. We were both completely out of cash, and had to pass by some of them. But when we found a cash machine, we actually went back to that section again, and bought some fruit. We also had a sandwich and some bruschetta-like bread thing from a bakery.

I could be mistaken, but after that, I think we made our way slowly back to the apartment to rest. That rest consisted of a 4 hour nap, which was perhaps not a fantastic idea, in the afternoon, but that's what happened. The heat takes so much out of us, it's hard to avoid being tired. For what it's worth, I recommend visiting Paris at some other time of year than this. Yuck.

After the nap, we decided to look for dinner. It was about 7pm, perhaps 8pm. There are many good options on our street and neighborhood. After briefly surveying them, we went with our first choice, which was a Greek restaurant called Evi Evane, on Rue Guisarde. The atmosphere was great, they had air conditioning, and the service was very friendly. We tried some resin wine (which we didn't like), and then had some wine from Crete, which was good. Very vanilla-butter-caramel kind of flavor to it. We had dolmades, moussaka, and some vegetable and feta casserole. The food was very good. We made friends with our server, who was a 26-year old from Cypress (which, incidentally, is not part of Greece, in case you were not sure about that). The funny thing was that he looks exactly like one of Allie's Facebook friends. We showed him the picture, and he was startled because, at first, he thought we somehow had a picture of him! That's how remarkable the similarity was! Anyway, it made for a good laugh, and he called his coworkers over to show them. Then he told us a little about where he was from and how long he'd been here. We saw him again the next morning, and he greeted us happily. It doesn't take much in this world for people to build connections. It's like we're programmed to make connections. I commented about this to Allie, saying that's probably why con-artists are so effective, is because they play on our natural tendencies to want to connect. Scary, actually. We made, perhaps, the mistake of having coffee after dinner. Combined with a 4-hour nap, this would mean we didn't actually feel sleepy until ridiculous wee hours of the morning.

After dinner, we came back to the room briefly, before grabbing one of our Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines (the 2004 La Nerthe), to hop on the train and ride to the Eiffel Tower. It was already dark outside, and there were thousands of people having picnics and celebrations on the grass of the park. We walked all the way to the tower, stood under it, walked back a ways, took lots of photos, sat in the grass, drank all the wine, watched people. By the time we left, it was almost 1am, and we walked all the way back, close to the Seine, on Rue de l'Universite, which is one street south of the river. It was a nice walk, and the streets were fairly deserted, right until we got back to Rue Guisarde, our street, where the streets were absolutely packed from the clubs.

A long day. It was a touristy kind of day, but we still did our own version of it. Sitting in the dark, on the grass, with thousands of people from all over the world, in front of the Eiffel Tower, which is possibly one of the most beautiful structures in the world, really makes me think about how lucky we are to be able to do that. We're lucky because of the freedoms we have. We're lucky because of the technology that enables us to get from point A to point B easily. We're lucky to personally have the resources to make such a trip, because not everyone can do it.

17 July, 2014

Day 14: Van Gogh, Skeletons, and More!

We woke up late today. I would venture a guess that it has something to do with the 750mL of Chateauneuf-du-Pape that we consumed the night before. 

We had leftover bread and cheese (cantal) from the previous day, and this is what we ate to start the day. Then we headed back to cafe around the corner and had our grand cappuccinos and some pastry. The plan for the day was a fairly ambitious one. Thinking about my attitude toward travel now (18 months later), I believe we violated one of my new "codes," that being "Don't try to do two major things on the same day." But that we did, as I shall tell you.

Plan #1 on the agenda was the Museum of Natural History. This was one of the main highlights of the trip that Allie wanted to see, and I was enthusiastic about it as well. The reason that we wanted to go here is because they have a lot of skeletons from various species. To say that, without having been there, it sounds interesting enough. But when you actually arrive, and realize the insanely comprehensive collection of comparative anatomy, it is mind-blowing. 

We walked there via the Seine river. I do not remember much of the walk there, other than that it was already getting hot before we even arrived. This museum is located in complex that has many buildings, each housing different museums. We walked around the area a bit, before entering the museum. We saw a horticulture museum that could maybe have been interesting as well, but decided that we needed to stay focused, and that there were plenty of plants in Seattle, such that looking at plants inside a building in Paris was not necessary (Il n'est pas necessaire).

We entered the museum, and it was a building of much old wood, and many windows. And it was hot. It was hot inside, because it was hot outside, and the sun was beaming in through the windows, unabated, and there was no air conditioning. But there was no way around it. Too much to see. Too interesting to miss. There were skeletons of every imaginable animal, and more of animals you'd not yet imagined. The specimen cards, written in French, looked like they were many decades (or a century?) old. For many animals, there was only a single skeleton. But some of the "important" ones had multiple specimens at different ages, in different poses. Allie was taking hundreds of photos. I was trying to Google the names of all the skeletons to figure out what species it was in non-Latin terms. Honey Badger. We would not have known that it was a honey badger if I had not Googled Mellivora capensis. This is why I am needed. For the subtle context.

After looking at literally every specimen on the main floor, which included preserved icky things in formaldehyde, we took a peek at the prehistoric exhibit on the second floor. But it paled in comparison to the comparative anatomy. And, if I recall correctly, my low back hurt so badly from the standing, that I thought I was going to die. My back pain is fairly random. Sometimes I am fine. Sometimes it hurts. Standing tends to be worse than walking or sitting. That is not interesting to you. So I will move forward.

After probably 2-3 hours at the museum, we departed, and wandered around the gardens in front a little bit. They are nice gardens with many flowers.

Here's where we set ourselves up for being overwhelmed (though, somehow, we were not). Next stop was Musee d'Orsay. This is the museum of Impressionist art. My favorite museum in Paris, and probably one of the most famous museums in the world (according to Wikipedia it is the 11th most visited in the world, and according to Reuters, it's the 5th most important art museum). The reason I love this museum so much, and it's the second time I have been there, is the art of Vincent van Gogh. Though I like most of the Impressionist art, and am a pretty big fan of pointilism too. I guess it's just such a pleasant diversion from seeing thousands of pieces of dull religious art. 

It was a pretty long walk to the next stop. According to Google Maps, it's about 2 miles. And we realized on the way there that we were starving, and there was no way we would make it through another museum. If I recall correctly, and it's coming back to me now, our moods were both eroding because of the heat, fatigue from first museum, and hunger. I think we weren't even really sure where we were going, because (also, if I recall correctly) GPS location is really poor on mobile devices when you're in another country. At least with AT&T that's the case. I assume that it may be cellular data only, not GPS, so it's less accurate, and probably lower-priority data when you're on a borrowed network. Long story short, we stopped at a grocery store and stopped the emotional bleeding, buying some bread, fruit, cheese, and yogurt. We found a place to sit in the shade on a bench near Notre Dame and we ate. The mood slowly returned to normal. 

So we went to Orsay. And there's not much I could say that hasn't been said before, so I won't belabor this part. But just standing in front of a painting and knowing who did it, when it was from, and thinking about the importance of it, and being right there in front of it... it's no small thing.

After that, we went back toward our apartment, and had a pretty good dinner at an Italian restaurant that was on our street, called Positano. On Rue Guisarde. One of us had bolognese. The other had Cream Tomato Penne. I don't remember which was which. That's not French food, but it's close enough to Italy that it was good Italian.

After dinner we vegetated, because that seems like the only sensible thing to do after all that standing and walking. Then we did yoga together. That was the one and only time, if I am not mistaken, that we have done yoga together. I don't remember why she wanted to do it with me that day. And I also don't remember why I was so dead-set on doing it, because it certainly sounds like we'd had enough activity for one day. And I remember that I wanted to finish the yoga because we couldn't start having wine until after the yoga. But we couldn't do the yoga until after the dinner had been sufficiently digested.

That all seems like silliness now. And if I had it to do over, perhaps I would have drank wine with dinner, skipped the yoga, and drank more wine after dinner.

Hindsight is 20/20.

16 July, 2014

Day 13: Paris

Time to depart for the final leg of the trip. Paris.

We got up early, since we needed to make a drive to Avignon, drop off the car, and get on the train. A TGV train, which I was excited about, since I've never been on one before. I didn't know what TGV was, so I looked it up, and it stands for "Train a grande vitesse," meaning "fast train." Funny that. Being the last morning, we decided to venture around the corner past our usual bakery to a different bakery, where we got bread. It was amazing bread, and we wished we'd discovered this bakery sooner in the visit. There was a street market, and we walked around a bit to explore and find more potential food items. We found yogurt from an organic farm stand, and cantaloupe.

We brought all of this back to the apartment, and had breakfast there. Then we finished packing, made sure we hadn't left any messes, or left anything behind. And we said goodbye to our apartment in the village of St. Remy-de-Provence. It's a place I will always remember but, with the world as large as it is, I may never return. I've probably said that before in this blog, but it continues to strike me as strange and sad that we do not have forever to experience all things. Of course, I waste so much time sitting around in my regular life, it perhaps would not be that valuable to have infinite time. Digression into existentialism, which I'll resist.

The drive to Avignon commenced with plenty of time to spare, since I am a planner, and didn't want to have any missed connections at all during this trip. I cannot recall how long the drive was. Maybe 30-45 minutes? According to Google Maps, it says 25-30 minutes, so I guess that's all it was. When we arrived at the station, the car drop-off for Europcar was incredibly easy and friendly. They barely even looked at us, and there was no paperwork. It was an outdoor lot, very close to the main entrance of the train station (good design). The cars that were being returned were much nicer than the car we had. Lots of Audis and even fancier ones. It appears that renting a car from Avignon probably means there are far more options than renting in a tiny town like Menton, where they only had the one car that we'd reserved. But we were happy with our car, so it was another of those irrelevant details like discovering the better bakery on the last day.

We walked over to the main station, arriving at least 30-45 minutes ahead of schedule. It was a big futuristic building. The station has 2 levels. The lower level, at ground level, is where all of the shops are, and the trains arrive on the second level, outside the terminal, on elevated tracks. It feels much more like an airport than a regular rail station. It's very well organized, with digital signs inside the building for you to align yourself with the spot where your reserved car will stop.

While waiting, we stopped in a small cafe in the station, and had some pastry and coffee to pass the time. It was a typical kind of place you'd find in an airport, though maybe a little less busy.

When we were waiting for the train to arrive, I was anticipating it with some enthusiasm. When we went outside to board, the temperature was well over 90 degrees. Not pleasant at all. We boarded the train, and the ride began with very little delay. It was very comfortable, air-conditioned, and very fast. Very, very fast. I turned on my "SportsTracker" app on my phone to see if the GPS could give me a good estimate of our speed. I am not sure I am remembering correctly, but I believe the train had a top speed of about 185 miles per hour. According to the Googles, the top speed of these trains is 201 mph, so that seems like a reasonable recollection on my part. It's weird how it does not feel like we're moving that quickly, because the landscape was so expansive, and most of the objects of interest were in the far distance on the countryside. It's all relative, I guess? We're much more sensitive to acceleration than velocity, perhaps? I mean, when we're in an airplane, we're moving at between 150-600 miles per hour depending on the phase of the flight, and it never really feels like it's fast.

I spent most of the ride trying to write this journal, but I was not writing the entry you're reading now. I was probably writing entries from a week or more earlier, since I hadn't done a great job of keeping up. One thing I did succeed in doing very well was taking notes on each day in a timely fashion. This entry is being written 18 months after the fact, but I remember it nearly as vividly as the day we were there, because of my simple list of activities. Having a list, even if brief, is enough to shake loose all of the memories from what would otherwise be lost in a hopeless sea of what? What are memories that aren't presently being recalled? Are they electrical? Proteinaceous? Chemical? Who knows... but they're in there, because I'm able to retrieve them from such simple phrases as "Metro to St. Germain" or "Luxembourg Garden." When I see those phrases, I immediately remember things like us getting incredibly confused in the metro station, connecting between lines. And I remember us getting into a bit of an argument at Luxembourg Garden because we were both hot and hungry and tired, and I think Allie needed to find a restroom and I was anxious to explore. Doesn't take much to stimulate recall of stories, sights, emotions, sensations. So let me get back to telling you about those things.

I don't actually remember the arrival of the TGV at the Paris TGV station. I only recall that there were a couple of changes of train that we needed to make to get to the neighborhood of the apartment we'd rented. I believe we probably took the M4, since if memory serves correct, all the RER trains were under repair (well not all of them, probably, but certainly every one we'd wanted to take). To get to the right train we had to snake our way through bizarre underground tunnels that were in no way logical, nor linear. We made it, but I seem to recall I was in a hurry, and had some completely unnecessary urgency to this trek, which I can only imagine made me unpleasant to be with. It was hot, and we had heavy bags, and I was making Allie rush through crowds. It was completely unclear what direction we needed to walk to get to the next train line, and seemed like we were just walking underground forever. At one point, we even (if I recall correctly) went up a walkway that said we should not enter, because there did not seem to be any other way to get where we needed to be. I probably should have been a lot more relaxed about this. When we arrived at the St. Germain station, we were able to easily find our way to the apartment, and called our liaison, named "Eric," along the way. He was running a bit late. I don't know if he was the business partner, or significant other of the owner of the apartment. I also don't know if the person who rented me the apartment was the owner or if they were just a property manager. This kind of thing isn't really clear.

Eric was really friendly, and he complimented me, with what seemed to be sincerity, for my attempts at speaking French, although it was mostly via text message that we had that interaction, and my French texting is a combination of Google translate, and smoothing the edges into what I know probably sounds more right than the raw translation, or some combination thereof.

Eric gave us full tour of the apartment, which was decent, and in a building that really looked and felt like you'd expect to find in the heart of Paris, with a narrow winding red staircase to the 4th floor, and every apartment having an interesting looking door. Ours was modern on the inside, and had decent amenities, but no air conditioning, which turned out to matter, because it was very hot that week.

We settled into the apartment briefly. It's now been 11 months (so, clearly, 4 more months since I started writing this entry... sigh), so I honestly can't remember how long we settled in, but I think we probably relaxed for a bit before agreeing that we can't lie still in an apartment in the middle of one of the greatest cities on Earth. So we made our way out. We walked around the neighborhood a bit, and checked out a church that we passed, a few blocks away. What was it called? Saint-Germain-des-PrĂ©s. That's what it was. Googling it reminded me of what it was, and also reminds me of how sweltering hot it was with all the concrete around us. We went inside, not because we're huge church buffs, though it is always amazing to see the old architecture. The main motivation, if I recall correctly, was to get out of the sun briefly.

From there, we wandered over to Luxembourg Gardens. It was hot. We had need of both food and restroom, and the heat and fatigue caused us to bicker. Again, if I recall correctly (and I do), what happened was that Allie needed food and needed a restroom. And I was pushing for us to walk around. But that's not nice of me, and it's not fun either. If you have to eat, you have to eat. And if you need the restroom, you need the restroom. I don't know what my deal was, looking back. I think I get stressed in ways that are not conscious to me, and it comes out by being controlling or pushy. If I learn one thing from this trip to inform our next trip (which is now only 2 months away), the lesson would be to chill out...

A good friend of mine was coincidentally also in Paris. She was traveling with her boyfriend and his son. It was their last night in Paris, and our first. It seemed absolutely essential that we meet, so we had planned in advance to connect. The plan was to have dinner at Gladines. It was a moderately long walk there, but we thought it would be worth exploring and heading in that direction. It was longer than we thought it would be. And hotter than we thought. The kind of heat where you find yourself really trying hard to walk on the shady side of the street. I think we stopped in a thrift shop and were rifling through scarves, trying to find one special enough to replace the one that had been lost in the lobby in Florence. I saw a few that I thought were nice, and ridiculously cheap, but Allie was insistent that this purchase was not necessary, and that we could come back later. I think she said "I like it... but I don't love it..." which would have been funnier if we had already seen the Garfunkel & Oates episode where they make fun of that saying.

On our sweltering walk across the city, we were both fairly starving, and knew we couldn't wait until dinner time, so we stopped at a place that looked quite touristy, but wasn't bad at all, at a major intersection. The place was called Messer Lux. Googling it provides no useful information, which must mean that I got the name wrong. But I am pretty sure it was located near Luxembourg Gardens. We had pommes frites and red wine. It was not much food but it was enough to get us by and out of the sun. I practiced my bad French, which was greeted with patience, and I believe he even switched to English. Again, this is different from my memories of 2006, but I don't know if what has changed is me or the city.

We got to the restaurant and had to wait for a table, and wait for Jennie. Time was passing, and no Jennie. Eventually we were called for our table, and we also learned that Jennie and Andrew were at a different Gladines, located miles away. There are (at least) two of them. Actually, Google says there are five them. And I honestly cannot tell you which one we were at. Maybe on Boulevard St. Germain, but then that doesn't make sense because I thought it was far from where we were staying but that is close. It does look like the one in that photo.

Long story long, we didn't have dinner with Jennie because they were too far away. We ate steak and drank Bordeaux, and Allie ordered a bacon salad that had (if you can believe it) too much bacon for any human to eat. But the food was good. And the atmosphere was bustling, and extremely hot.

Jennie rode a bike over to where we were (I am not sure how she had a bike -- am I remembering wrong?) and said hello to us. Then she departed. I am clearly leaving out important details over her visit. Maybe we departed with her. I don't remember. I can ask Allie. But at this point, what do you really care? I could completely make this up and tell you we had dinner with Danny DeVito and you would have no choice but to believe me.

Somehow, after the above parts that did or did not happen, we ended up meeting up with Jennie (again, or in continuation), Andrew, and his 12-year old son, in Marais, at the outdoor restaurant where they were dining. And because I seem to recall that Jennie was also dining, I am inclined to think that she did not stay at our restaurant, or else she would not be dining when we met up with them. They'd been waiting for a table for a long time, I think, and they'd just received their meals. There was a lot of food. They offered us some. We were full, but the food looked really good, so I think we picked at some of the shareable items anyway, if for no other reason than it being socially more acceptable to eat with someone than to watch while they eat.

I was very moved by the fact that Andrew had brought his son on the trip. This is not something that I had the opportunity to do when I was a child. It was not the family life that I had. My parents, during my childhood, never took me farther than Florida, and not many times. They were not big world travelers. I feel like having the experience of Paris at the age of 12 sets someone up for very broad expectations of what the world can be. I eventually expanded my horizons, but it was not until I was in my late 20s and late 30s that I saw "The World."

Marais, to my recollection, is a neighborhood just north of Notre Dame (northeast, to be precise). We walked around the neighborhood with them for a bit. Then we walked "home" again, passing Notre Dame on the way. It was peaceful at night. There were many people in front, taking photos. Not a mob scene like the daytime.

Paris at night, Je t'aime.

15 July, 2014

Day 12: Wine tasting and more reasons to ignore Rick Steves

According to my notes, we slept late today. I don't recall if "late" meant 9am, 10am, what? But I guess it was something intentional on our part to say that an early start was not necessary.

There was one plan today. We would visit Chateauneuf du Pape. That's a town. It's also a wine region. It's also a "kind of wine" since a wine must have very strict composition to be designated as CdP (as they call it). I was excited to go here, because I have been learning about wine a little bit back home. Though I would not call myself knowledgeable by any stretch of the imagination (and also I tend to minimize any knowledge that I do have), I have quite a healthy level of enthusiasm for wine tasting and learning. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I have enthusiasm for wine drinking?

We ate the tomato tart for breakfast. It was quite tomato-y. I wanted it to be more like pizza than it actually was, but the crust was so good I was able to endure the extreme tomato experience. We stopped for coffee at our usual place, and augmented the coffee with a pistachio cookie, or maybe it was two.

The drive to CdP was pretty simple, save for a lot of roundabouts, which is clearly the way that France avoids stop signs or lights. Every time one road meets another, there's a roundabout. The navigation system in the car had an Irish accent, which I admit was by my choosing. So we would hear Sinead (or Siobhan) tell us "At the rind-a-bout go right" and that was just fine with me.

When we arrived in the town, the first place we stopped was a place called Brotte Winery and Museum. It was a wine shop, not really a winery. They're a distributor/reseller. There was a reasonably decent, if basic history (not really a museum) upstairs at the facility, with information about what it means to be Chateauneuf du Pape. It's a good place to start because of the anticipation upon arrival in a "special place." It was a Rick Steves recommendation. It's worth it as a tourism experience. But it was not the greatest place to buy wine because you're not (best as I can tell?) buying their wine. But they do a little bit of a hard sell and have a lot of touristy offerings. They were nice, but a little stiff. But they generously spoke English with us, and the experience was good. Like I said, though, a little stiff. Not sure how to explain it other than that. I decided I had to buy something because I didn't want to be rude. We bought a rose called "Tavel" and it actually turned out to be fantastic, so no regrets.

They were kind of busy, and the person running the place had someone helping out doing the pours who actually didn't work there. That guy was much friendlier. And, oddly enough, he confided in us that we shouldn't buy the wines here! He suggested a much better place down the street. How bizarre! Well, what more sincere of a recommendation is there than "Don't buy wine here!" So after departing Brotte, our next stop was Beaurenard Winery, right down the street.

We were greeted by a very friendly young French woman. Again, she kindly spoke English with us, after we greeted her in French. The interior of the building was very nice and rustic and French, though, honestly, not that much different than a lot of the best wineries in Walla Walla, who probably theme their interiors after the historical wineries. She let us taste everything that we wanted to taste, and she told us a little bit about the wines and the vineyards they have. Then she allowed us to take a self-guided tour of the wine-producing facility. We went through a cold room with barrels, into a warehouse with thousands of bottles and giant vats and more barrels. Rooms with strange equipment. We couldn't believe we had permission to be wandering through here, but nobody chastised us, even though we saw some workers.

We asked the girl who'd been so kind if she had any restaurant recommendations. I guess that was a bit of an obnoxious question, though we could not have known. She does not live in CdP and rarely ever dines there, likely because it's expensive and touristy. So she didn't really have any ideas for us, or at least not any in which she had confidence. So was made our way into the town, which was a mile or two up the road. It was up a hill a bit, as would be any desirable location from ancient times. It was getting hot outside already. And we parked along the side of the road in town. We were hungry, and hot, and we decided to eat at the first restaurant we encountered. There was an indoor portion of the restaurant, but everyone was sitting outside in shade under a canopy. The restaurant was called La Mule de Pape. We ordered a pork stew, which I think may have been the special, a chevre salad, and pommes frites. The food was excellent, and the service was very friendly. Most importantly, we got fed, and we were in the shade. The heat really was taking a toll on us, probably especially me.

After eating, we made our way up a narrow path/road that supported cars, but was not really very wide, up to the castle of Chateauneuf du Pape. There was a really good view from there out over the neighboring lands, which are mostly patches of farmland, and surely vineyards. The castle was not much to be impressed with, I think. Was it just a wall? Was it a building? I can't even remember. It was hot.

After taking some photos and looking around a sufficient amount, we started our way back down. I wanted to do some wine tasting, since this was THE PLACE. Allie was less enthusiastic about the wine tasting, not sure why. Maybe just hot? Maybe tired of listening to me talk about wine? Maybe who knows why? But she let me go into this one place that was a wine shop in a sort of basement cave-like place by myself while she wandered around the street looking at shops. It wasn't particularly touristy, actually. And there really were hardly any people around at all. When I entered the shop, there was a very confident smug man in the cave, and he asked me if I wanted to try his wine. I tried his wine, and it was not great. He wanted me to buy it, and it was expensive. I did not think it was worth it. The sign outside the shop gave the impression that he sold many different CdP wines, but the reality was that none of these were for the tasting. Only his wine. He explained how his wine was the best. I waffled, which he must have really loved. And I decided I would escape his cave without laying out my money for his so-so wine.

I relayed the story to Allie, who was appropriately amused, and probably glad she didn't bother coming in with me. We got back down to the mid-level of the hill where we'd eaten lunch, and discovered the tourist information center there. We went in, and asked some questions about wineries. They didn't really tell us much, sort of just one of those "There are many wineries here, and we will give you a map, and not all are open for tasting without appointment, but some are, etc. etc. etc." I was determined to TASTE SOME WINE since we were in CdP, and I really do appreciate and thank Allie for having the patience to endure this quest of mine (though, in fairness, it was one of the few missions I was driven to accomplish).

We passed a shop that looked pretty interesting... another cave-like building. The name of the winery was Pegau. We entered. Inside, we met a young man, perhaps 19 or 20 years old. He was manning the shop by himself. It truly was like a cave. A cave with a wooden table, and some wines. It was cool and damp, which was fine by us, since the alternative was 90 degree blazing heat. We learned that Max was the son of the owner, grandson of the original owner. They grow the grapes themselves. It's been in the family for these generations. Max is in college now studying viticulture. He was very knowledgeable, and it seems he will proudly carry on the family tradition, with the added knowledge of a formal education in winemaking. Max let us taste some wines. And he was very friendly and explained things to us, answering our (perhaps annoying) questions patiently. Meeting him stands as a highlight of the trip, because it is exactly the kind of memory I want to retain: a young frenchman who is carrying on the family tradition... tasting wine in the presence of one of the makers of said wine. When we were there, someone came in and asked if they could buy a case of the 2010. Max said that the 2010 would be X Euro per bottle (I don't recall). The person said "Well, last time we were here we got it for <much less than X> Euro" and Max said "Well, that is no longer the case." So there was some haggling, and Max said he'd need to ask "The Boss" and told the guy to come back later. I suspect that Max is "The Boss" and that he's just fucking with the guy, and will decide whether or not he feels like cutting him a deal on the 2010 (since 2010 happens to be a fantastic year for CdP wines).

His wines were great. We bought one bottle, not because we didn't love the wine, but because there's a problem with bringing wine (easily) back to the states through customs. Apparently one can bring either 2 bottles per person or 3 bottles, can't remember which, before things get "dodgy." And I didn't want to deal with dodgy. So I decided that we'd stick to the limits. But I now could imagine myself having bought a case of that wine. But alas, onward. We asked Max where else he recommended us trying. He mentioned two places, both of which we'd already heard about earlier: 1) Via Telegraphe, and 2) La Nerthe. He said that if we were interested in "The Wine" then go to Via Telegraphe because it's renowned. But if we were interested in a beautiful place with a beautiful tasting room, go to La Nerthe.

Where do you think we went?

So, we returned to the car, and headed to La Nerthe. Max had called ahead for us to ensure we had permission to visit, since it was not exactly an open tasting room. But on Max's call, we were "insiders," if you will. I could have imagined going to both, but (like I said) Allie was allowing for this out of the kindness of her heart. It's so weird, thinking back now, about why we didn't just go taste wine at twenty different wineries in the region. Since I have returned, I am all about the Rhone. And I am always ordering wines from the Rhone. Or from Languedoc. Or anywhere close enough to these regions that they're stomping on Grenache and Syrah grapes. But in that moment, it was as much as we could do, and as much as we needed. It was perfect, in that moment.

We arrived at La Nerthe, and it was, indeed, a very beautiful place. There was the vineyard, which was expansive. There was the winery building which was a very large, mansion-like building, overlooking the vineyard. There were shade trees and forest all around on one side, and then other farms and vineyards in the distance in the other direction. When we entered the winery, we were greeted by friendly people who spoke to us in English. The woman who helped us was young, and she told us about the wines. They had 3 wines for tasting: a 2011 (current year), a 2010 (the magical year), and a 2004. We tasted all of them and they were all good. They had a fancy tasting room setup, with a machine that did the wine pours, and must have kept the wine under vacuum or something. Very elaborate. There was lots of money behind this operation. We decided to purchase a bottle of the 2004 because (I reasoned), being an older wine, it was more special, and unlikely to be something we'd ever find here.

So we bought the 2004 with the plan of drinking it while we were still in France. Then we wandered around outside and looked at the vineyards, and we took a bunch of photos. It was very beautiful, and shady enough to be comfortable, even though the day was still hot. At some point after that we drove back to St. Remy.

According to my notes, I did yoga while Allie went shopping (for food, I presume). This was our last night in St. Remy, so we had to clean things up a bit. We were a bit concerned about Delphine, the owner, not being satisfied with the condition we left things, since her instructions were very specific about what needed to be done. We cleaned everything, got the trash together, put away what could be put away, washed dishes. Then we ate dinner at home, according to the notes, but I don't honestly recall what we ate, which I suppose is of trivial consequence at this point, 4 months later (actually, it's hard to believe it's only been 4 months... it feels like a lifetime).

We drank a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet (a white wine, which I am pretty sure comes from the Languedoc region), and relaxed. We'd bought that wine at a shop in St. Remy, and it was a variety I've had back home and liked.

After that, I guess we went to sleep.

14 July, 2014

Day 11: Storming the Bastille... Day

Just so you know, I'm now writing about things that happened over 3 months ago. It helps that I have really good notes to jog my memory, but I still let things get a bit out of reach in terms of the nitty-gritty. It'll probably sound good enough...

So we got up this morning with the main plan for the day being to go see the famous Arena at Nimes. This is supposed to be one of the best, if not the best preserved arena from the Roman Empire. So that was something that made it to our shortlist of things to do. The routine began with a trip to the bakery to get more of the delicious sandwiches. Unfortunately, they didn't have any today. So we went over to our usual bakery for coffee, baguette, and one sandwich. Then back to the first bakery, where we bought some quiches that we'd bring along with us for lunch. We'd sort of decided that we were not going to do the "looking for a restaurant" thing everywhere we went, because it can be both tiring and frustrating, and it's much easier to find things that look good in a store or bakery, and bring them along. Then, you can just eat when you're hungry.

The drive to Nimes was pretty simple, and there was a decent-looking, reasonably-priced underground parking garage right near the tourism office. We parked there, and then went up to the tourism office to get some information. We were surprised to find the tourism office was not open yet. It wasn't that early, but it wasn't that late either, and we figured maybe they have a weird schedule. So we decided to walk around first, and then come back. We walked over to the Arene, and then it all became clear... Arene was closed too. It didn't look open, and we went into a gift shop in the bottom of the building, which was open, and asked if they were open (in French), and they informed us that today is Bastille Day. Of course! We already knew this! But it never occurred to us that the tourist destinations would be closed because of it. I guess it was not so much that they're "closed" as they were being prepared for an evening celebration concert. So we only got to look at the outside of the Arene. I was a little bit disappointed, but I was able to quickly appease myself with the recognition that the inside of this one probably wouldn't be radically different from the inside of the one at Arles, even if slightly better preserved. And it would be hot. The best part of these structures is looking at them from outside, so we did that for a little while.

From there, we wandered around the town of Nimes. There were a few other destinations that seemed worthy of exploring. We wandered toward some gardens. They were called Fontaine Garden. On the way, we found a shop in a small alley that was run by what seemed to be either Middle Eastern or Northern African men. They sold shoes. Allie almost procured for herself a pair of golden slippers, but they unfortunately didn't have her size. It was quite entertaining and challenging trying to communicate the requests to them, since it was truly two disconnected languages, with my limited French almost useless for shoe shopping. We left with nothing.

The garden was nice. A large open area with criss-crossing sidewalks through a grassy park with some landscaping and foliage. There weren't a lot of flowers. There was some sort of water thing too, but hard to describe what it looks like. Just Google it :) By that time it was already getting very hot outside. I think we were both affected by the heat, but I always seem to be affected more so than her. We sat in the grass in the shade, and we ate our quiches. We saw a small truck arrive at the edge of the park and start unloading ponies. One after another, many tiny ponies were escorted out of the truck, and lined up. There would be pony rides for the little French children.

It was so hot I didn't even want to walk across the garden to get to the shady area where we could wander along some paths that were more protected from the sun. As I recall, I had a headache, and no sunglasses. We wandered up some winding sidewalk paths, because we'd read online that there was an important famous tower called the Tour Magne. It was, as are so many things, very old and very historically important. We walked to it. We looked at it. We peeked inside. And we decided not to pay the entrance fee. As I recall, I don't think Allie even peeked inside. We must have both been hot and irritable. There was a pretty tree outside of the tower, and I took her picture in front of it, and then she took a bunch more pictures of it. We must have those pictures somewhere. It would be quite helpful if I someday augment this blog by inserting relevant photos that go with these points I am making. Otherwise, you sort of have to take my word for it. I might have just been sitting on my couch at home making all this up.

We made our way across the town, probably about a half mile, to another important site called Maison Carree. Again, we didn't go inside, but marveled at it from the outside. We sat on the steps. It was an extremely well preserved Pantheon-like building. Since I don't want you to completely miss out, I'll at least post a photo that I just stole from the internet.

This was the Maison Carree.


Nice, right?

I guess the reason it is so well-preserved is that, unlike many buildings, it has been in nearly constant use through the centuries. I guess at some point one of the enemies used it to stable the horses, which seems to be a common theme. But there you have it. We came, we saw, we sat on the steps.

We walked back toward Arene. We decided we were hot and we were done with Nimes. We stopped at a modern-ish cafe right near the parking garage and ordered cappuccino from a very nice server. We drank them inside because they had air-conditioning. Then we departed Nimes. I think we had some difficulties with the parking pay machine, but I seem to recall we found the necessary coins to do what we needed to do.

Oh yes... but wait... there's more!

The other big thing we had planned for the day was to visit Pont Du Gard. Now it's all coming back to me, and I realize that this was probably one of the most activity-filled days of the entire trip. We knew we wanted to go here, but we hadn't really any expectations as to whether it would be a major attraction, so-so, or what. the drive was a medium ways from Nimes. We had two choices, either the Left Bank or the Right Bank. It was all the same to us, and we ended up choosing Left Bank, as I recall, because we missed the turn for Right Bank, and probably would have had no context as to which bank we preferred. As it turned out, there was really inconsequential difference, because you can get to either bank by... wait for it... walking across the Pont Du Gard!

It was a tiny bit confusing, but we arrived at a large parking lot. There was a little bit of a walk and then you come to the entrance gate which, of course, has places to buy food, get souvenirs, and there was also some sort of building that had galleries or something in it. We got our tickets (as I recall, I was able to pull off decent enough French to ask for the tickets). We entered, and got some water, then made our way across the Pont Du Gard. It was amazing. The views of it are amazing, and the experience of being on it was amazing. There were a lot of people there, but it didn't matter. There were people lounging on the beaches along both sides. There were people swimming in the river below. People were floating on rafts. And they were from all over the world, though it seemed to be predominately Westerners. We took a lot of pictures, walked across to the other bank, and down near the water, where Allie decided that she was going swimming in the river. I decided that I was not going swimming in the water, because I was a little stubborn, but mostly didn't want to go in the cold water. It was not warm. It was great to just be there and see it. Allie swam for maybe a half hour and then got out. We walked up a trail that was completely abandoned. It wound up, up, up through the woods, to the point that we were actually above the height of the very top of the aqueduct. The path then wound around and down, meeting the top of the structure, where there was (not surprisingly) a line of people waiting for a tour of the very top of the aqueduct. We waiting in line briefly, and then discovered, as they started letting people enter, that there was a special ticket for this. It was a ticket we did not have. It was not much money, but one needed to have it already. Meh. Whatever. If you've seen the top of one Roman aqueduct, you've seen them all. We took the path more traveled on the way down. It was a stone path, transitioning to steps at some points, back down to the level of the base.

By this point, it was definitely very hot, and we'd spent a lot of time in the sun. We decided to make our way back across the span, and head back. Out of curiosity, we entered the building where there were some exhibits. What we discovered was amazing. It was a large, completely dark room, with nothing but tiny spotlights shining on an art exhibit of a painter named Jacques Gorde. It was incredible work. We must have spent close to an hour looking at every piece there. He had a variety of styles, but all were interesting, and intricate. It turned out that this was a tribute to him, because he died recently. The exhibit was one of the highlights of the trip. If I think of it, I'll add an image from his collection.

I guess we also attended the Aqueduct Museum. I have no recollection of this which is not necessarily a reflection on its quality. As I seem to recall, it had some stuff related to the aqueduct. Ah, wait... yes! It was a museum that had all kinds of artifacts that related to the construction of the aqueduct, how people lived in the cities which were served by it, the importance of water, etc. Almost all (if not all) of the artifacts on display were replicas, which surprised us because they looked real. It had details of the plumbing that was used, etc. There was also an exhibit that depicted the technology and manpower that went into building the aqueduct. There was an exhibit that showed the relative size and length of all the major aqueducts of the Roman Empire. Really cool stuff. And on the other side of the building, they had a scientific study and archaeological details of every section of the aqueduct from its origin all the way to its designation, which spanned some extremely long distance (I don't recall but it was very very long). I was fascinated by all of it. Plus it was in an air-conditioned, dimly lit building, making it all the more appealing! They even had some places where you could sit on stones and hear simulated conversations, of a historical nature, in a language of your choice, which might have reflected what it was like to live in those times. Very cool. Glad I remembered that!

We drove back to St. Remy-de-Provence after that, uneventfully up to the very end of our drive, when we discovered that ALL of the roads heading into the center of town were closed, and traffic was diverted away, due to the preparations for the evening Bastille Day celebration, and some sort of parade that had occurred. We kept going around in circles, unable to get to the parking area. I started losing my shit, of course, but it was never completely off the rails. After going around in circles maybe 8 or 10 times, we found a different, wider circle that somehow enabled us to get to the other side of the mess and make it to the parking lot, which still had space in it (miraculously... that lot made life quite easy staying in St. Remy).

We were in a bit of a mood at that point. We were hungry, tired, fussy. I think Allie needed to use the restroom. We saw a restaurant in town that I thought looked good, but Allie didn't. So we decided to go back to the apartment, freshen ourselves up, then find dinner. We found it at a restaurant that was called Alpilles or something. It was not good. The ambiance was nice, and the service was friendly. But neither of us liked our food. I had a cheeseburger. She had fish and chips. I complained a bit about my meal, which was probably boring to listen to. Allie didn't complain about hers, but confided later that her food wasn't good either.

Not every meal is going to be perfect. While it seems important at the time, the reality is that an hour later, it's like it never happened. Food is for survival, not entertainment. Sometimes it's quite entertaining too, but that's icing on the cake. I should remind myself of that next time I am disappointed with my dinner.

After dinner, we walked around briefly and returned to the apartment again. I did yoga. While doing yoga, I could hear a cover band playing down the street. They were playing almost exclusively Rolling Stones songs. It was kind of weird hearing a French band playing Rolling Stones, but I guess they're popular in France. They were French residents for a time, so probably not surprising. When I finished yoga, we heard the fireworks start. We went on our balcony and were able to stand out there and see them. It was kind of romantic. The air was comfortable, and we had this experience of a holiday that wasn't the 4th of July, but felt a little like it.

The fireworks motivated us again, and we wandered out one more time for another walk. When we arrived at the town square, we discovered that there was an amazing band playing on a huge stage. Everyone was dressed to the nines, and there were dancers, backup singers, costume changes. It was very flashy. They did a mix of new and old songs, from the US, Britain, France. It was pop and classics. And different members of the group sang each song. The stage was fancy with all these tiers to it, so it was quite the extravagant performance. People were packed in the streets, and it was just an incredible party. We watched for a long time, including when they had their one slightly embarrassing moment of a poorly executed Beatles medley. Finally, we grew tired, and wandered back slowly. It was probably close to midnight. We went to bed and could still hear the bad cover band that had been playing Rolling Stones earlier in the evening as we drifted off to sleep.

As I write about it, so much after the event, it strikes me what an amazing and full day this was.

13 July, 2014

Day 10: Castles and Heat Stroke

Today we had one plan, and it was not a big one. In the interest of slowing things down, planning one thing a day is a good way to create space. Unless that one thing is climbing K2, but I promise we weren't doing that. 

The plan for the day was to go to a place called Les Baux-de-Provence. This is an old castle on a hilltop that was very important for a very long time, until finally, the powers-that-be destroyed it beyond repair because its residents were feisty folks who kept stirring up conflict through the centuries. It's another example of how it's easy to look back and think "Why did they destroy something of such historical value?!" But, of course, it's easy to have a rosy perspective looking back on the distant past, and it's also easy to think this was some extremely precious structure when, in reality, it was one of thousands like it (all or most of which have been destroyed). If you've got a problem with some people, and they're creating chaos, sometimes you need to destroy some historical shit. I guess that's the entire history of mankind, including, if you believe the fables, God himself, deciding to send Noah off with his ark, while he destroyed all. I suppose he probably sent Noah a text message to let him know the flood would be coming.

But I digress.

We started the day by visiting two bakeries. One was a little closer to our apartment (meaning, 2 minute walk instead of 4 minute walk). We bought a sandwich, a brioche, and a tomato tort (or tart). The first two items were for the daytime needs. The latter was for dinner. It looked like a deep-dish pizza, covered in sliced tomatoes. It looked too good not to buy. We then stopped at our usual morning stop, to see our new "friend" (friend = someone you've greeted 3 times). There, we got some small baguettes and coffee, and ate it at a table outside.

Then, back to the apartment to drop off the tort, or tart. I can't remember if it's a tart or a tort. At any rate, we placed it on the counter and departed for Les Baux. I don't remember much about the drive. We may have taken the highway, with a small toll for a portion of it. Or maybe that was the next day when we went to Nimes. In either case, the toll booths were no longer the scary situation they were 4 days earlier. Things become familiar very quickly. That's the most amazing thing about living things is that we all adapt.

So we drove to Les Baux, which was rather easy to find. When we got close, the road started winding up a hill toward the town. Parking was a little confusing, because it was unclear if payment was required every day, or just some days, and the system seemed to involve paying at a machine and getting the receipt to put in the car. That's a pretty standard protocol, but it felt just a little bit different because the machines were not located all over the place. To get the receipt we had to walk like 5 minutes back down the hill from where we parked. Being a tourist town, there were other people who were confused as well.

I think we'd read from Rick Steves that the town was "take it or leave it" and that one could go right through it to get to the castle at the top of the town. We wandered a little bit, and it was certainly quaint, but it was indeed very touristy, with shops and restaurants catered to tourism (as in, needlessly overpriced for what they were). We breezed through as suggested, and got to the top, where there was an entry fee to see the castle and the surrounding grounds.

The day was beginning to get hot, and was incredibly bright. For some reason, I was very sensitive to the light that day, but also had been finding my sunglasses to be causing me to get headaches, so I was a bit "off" and low-energy, to top things. As soon as we got into the paid portion of the visit, it was a very exposed hilltop location. Hardly any shade to be found. There was an interesting cemetery just past the entry gate. Then there were a few ruins, including the largest, which was the castle itself. We had a map with an audio tour, and sort of followed the audio tour, though we had decided to interrupt this shortly after our arrival for the purpose of "The Catapult Demonstration." This was put on by a small gang of actors posing as medieval soldiers, engaging in a humorous display and demonstration. There were many jokes, and much slapstick, along with a fairly extensive explanation of the history and functionality of the various catapults. All of this was gibberish to us, since it was entirely in French (the nerve of those bastards, right?). But it was still sort of funny, in the slapstick way. The demonstrations of the catapults were rather impressive. The largest one that they demonstrated was capable of launching a BIG ROCK a VERY LONG DISTANCE. We were impressed. It was accurate enough that the actor who was standing a hundred or so meters in the distance had to jump out of the way after it was launched to avoid being hit.

After the demonstrations, we wandered around the ruins of the village, listening to the audio descriptions of various artifacts, most of which were quite interesting, from a historical perspective. Then we approached the castle ruin, at the very top of the hill. It was very badly ruined, but there was still a lot of structure left to it. The audio recording continued to be our friend, telling us a lot about how people lived, and what the various rooms were used for. We ascended steep, rough stone steps to get to the castle lookout, which was very high on the hill, and also overlooked the entire surrounding valley. I considered it a reasonable feat of overcoming my fear of heights that I was up there at all.

It was worth it, all in all.

After we finished the sights in the paid area, we wandered back through the town and found some steps on a side path, in the shade, where we could sit and eat the food we'd brought with us. The sandwiches were extremely good, and we both wished we had twice as much food as there was (well, I don't know about her, but speaking for myself, I could have eaten three sandwiches).

After that, we drove back to town (St. Remy) and wandered around a few shops. I can't recall for certain, but I think one of the shops I visited was a nice jewelry store while she was in a clothing store across the way. I immediately decided I wanted to buy her something in this store because everything looked to like it could have been made locally, and it was getting close to our "one year anniversary" so I decided that when she joined me, I'd ask her to pick out her favorite thing. It turned out to be a light-colored jade stone, in a silver ring. It's really nice. And it was made in Provence (though not in St. Remy).

We then went back to the apartment, rested for abit, and awakened to eat our tort/tart dinner. I'm almost certain it's a tort.

In the evening, after it had cooled off, we went for a walk, saw a village cat, which we said hello to, had some gelato, and then retired to the apartment to be lazy and relax some more. 

12 July, 2014

Day 9: 1 Museum + 4 Monuments

We got up early. Not ridiculously early, but pretty early. The goal was to get to Arles at a reasonable hour.I think we didn't wake up as early as we'd planned. For whatever reason, we decided to just go right on with the drive to Arles, and deal with coffee and breakfast when we got there. I don't think we'd eaten or drank anything that morning, and we were, or at least, I was a little tired. It's probably not a good idea for me to take on a new place, and a commute to said new place with no food or coffee. Lesson, perhaps.

We drove to Arles, and it was a reasonably easy drive. I think we might have taken mostly back roads and maybe one section of the "A" highways that charge a toll. But we weren't on it for long. Then we were in Arles, and needed to find a place to park. We'd read about some parking lot near the huge street market that happens twice a week (Saturday and Wednesday), and figured we'd park in that garage, even though it was not cheap - like 15 Euro for the day. On the way, we encountered a lot that seemed like it was free. Lots of cars, lots of empty spaces, and no meters or machines of any sort. A few kind of shady people, but not very. We didn't really know exactly how far it was from our destination, but it might have worked. After we stopped in a space, we had a brief conference as to whether this seemed like a legitimate spot. I think Allie was trying to prevent me from making a bad choice, and regretting it later, so she thought maybe we should keep looking. She was mostly just reading my apprehension, I think. So we left, and kept looking, and then ended up, again, in the maze of streets of an old city, with narrow ways, and unexpected one-way streets, with the GPS lying to us about what was a one-way street and what was not. At one point, we were on the road that circled the Arena, and I was, of course, freaking out, because there were no spaces, and I didn't know if we were even going the right way, and I felt like an idiot, and that I should have parked in the previous place. I had become generally unpleasant to be around. This fiasco lasted maybe 15 minutes, until, after driving around in all sorts of circles, we found a perfect, free street parking space which turned out to be only 3-4 blocks from the market that we wanted. Allie was probably afraid to even speak to me at this point, since my freak out had fouled the air.

In any case, we made it to the market, and we looked at a few of the stands, but then decided to divert to a coffee shop along the street and take care of the first necessity, which was coffee. We sat for a little while, had the coffee, and the moods mellowed, and improved. The girl who worked there was really nice to us. Then we used the restroom, and made our way out to the street market. There were tons of stands, all along the street in multiple rows, and it was a mix of meats, produce, cheese, cooked foods, jarred foods, you name it. We started with Sacristain, which were actually better than the ones from the bakery near where we were staying.

There were so many things to potentially try, potentially buy, it was actually quite overwhelming. In those situations, I am prone to try and buy nothing, which is unfortunate. This, of course, can be resolved by a feisty vendor who offers you free samples before you can even think to say "Merci, mais non." And that's what happened at a stand that was selling tapenades and spreads of various sorts. She offered a sample. Before I even finished the sample, she offered another one. And another. The samples kept coming. Then Allie finally realized I had not kept up with her, and came back to join me. The woman began giving Allie samples too. By the 8th or 9th sample, I had pretty much decided "I think I need to buy something from her" even though I knew this would mean needing to transport a glass jar of whatever back in my luggage. I ended up buying the last one I tasted, which was some sort of... you know? I don't even know what it was. It's orange. I don't remember what it had in it. I am sure it was good. That's good sales, I guess.

Further down the way, I tried some cheese samples. The salesman greeted me in French and I replied (in French). I was tasting the cheese. He asked me another question in French, and I had no idea what he said, even though I kind of did know what he said. What he said, turns out, was "Ou habitez-vous?" But I wasn't expecting that question, so I kind of shook my head in confusion. "Where are you from?" he said, and then I felt stupid for not being able to respond to a question I learned in my first year of French class. But there's the element of expectation. I was ready for a question about cheese. Not about where I was from. A few times during the trip, I let myself get a little down about these missed connections, and gaps in my ability to recall, respond, react, adjust, etc. It makes me feel even more inadequate in the foreign culture than I actually am, which is already pretty weak. But I should let it go.

So I bought a peach at another place. It was a donut peach. It cost about 20 cents. It was great. We wandered, and wandered, and looked at everything. So much to look at. After much strolling and wandering, we finally made our way to the previously identified Tourism Office, because we knew we'd want a map or information, or to purchase tickets to some attractions. There were a number of attractions worth seeing in Arles, so we decided to get one of these special passes. It was called a Passporte ticket, and it would offer us access to 1 Museum + 4 Monuments of our choice. There are 3-4 museums and maybe 7-8 monuments to choose. It wasn't too difficult for us to decide what we wanted to see. There was an Archaeology Museum that had all sorts of history of the Roman times, including artifacts that we wanted to see. Then we'd see the Arena, because how can you not? And something called the "Cryptoporticos" which was an underground thing that used to not be underground until people built on top of it. And the Baths of Constantine (seemed interesting enough). And a cemetery that seemed like it could be interesting, from a long time ago. A long list of things to do, and a full day to do them.

We decided we'd go to the museum first, passing through the rest of the street market that we hadn't already seen. It was mostly clothing and other non-food goods at the other end of the market. Some decent stuff, but a lot of garbage like you'd find at any market anywhere. To get to this museum, we had to snake our way under a highway, near a river (the Rhone), and then near large fields to where the museum stands, kind of isolated from the Old Town.

It was really hot outside. I mean, really, really hot. And when we walked near the river, we got the French Sewage odor that one occasionally encounters. Not pleasant. Not pleasant at all. But we survived it, and survived the extreme heat, and made it to the wonderfully air-conditioned museum. The museum is a very modern building, fitting in no way into the character of a city like Arles, but I guess it's okay because it's out of the way a bit. It apparently sits on the land that was once occupied by the place where chariot races were run. The museum had very nice graphics and narrative about artifacts dating back even further than Roman times. This was all written in French, so I tried to translate some of it, but it was mostly spotty understanding that I was able to gather from it. There were amazing models of parts of the city, including the Arena. When we first entered, the museum gave the impression that it was sparse, and maybe not the greatest, but it turns out to be a lot of stuff, even in very few rooms, and even with lots of open space. One of the highlights was some sort of barge that was used to transport concrete, which had sunk into the Rhone. There's a whole story about it in National Geographic. This boat sank in the 1st century A.D. That's pretty freaking amazing, and it alone was worth coming to the museum, not to mention all the other cool stuff that was there. Plus, the air-conditioned building.

To make our way to the Arena, our next stop, there were any number of routes we could take, including directly along the river, most of the way there. We started on the river route, but it became boring quickly, so we cut into the narrow streets of the town. It was fairly deserted at this time, due to the heat of the afternoon. Things were pretty. The buildings were pretty. There was laundry hanging in windows. There were pretty shutters. That's a theme of Provence is the pretty colored shutters. When we got close to the Arena, we saw a person with a few boxes of photos sitting on a table. They were all old photos that others had abandoned, and now they were for sale in a box, for one Euro a piece. Some were moderately old, others were very old. There were some great pictures, and Allie was fascinated by it. She decided to purchase a few and spent 10 minutes or so looking at them to find the perfect pictures. Then we went inside and realized it was a photography gallery of sorts. There were some really amazing enlarged photos of really beautiful places and people for really high prices. We could not buy those. A beautiful naked woman in French style for 800 Euro. It was that kind of place. So we left with our 1 Euro photos, and started walking down the final narrow pathway leading to the Arena, now in our field of view. We decided to sit in the shade of this narrow alley and eat some bread and cheese that we had wisely brought along with us, and drink all of the water we had with us. And then we made our way into the Arena.

There's not really that much to say about the Arena. It's impressive, of course. And it's pretty much what you'd expect from photos. I don't know that I could get a big "rush" from visiting half a dozen different Arenas unless I was either an extreme Roman architecture expert, an architect, or autistic. It was hot when we were in the sun, and cool when we were in the tunnels within. So, stands to reason, the tunnels within were more pleasant. But we made our way around the grounds, and even went up to one of the towers that were built into it, and looked at the amazing view from this height. The sun was sapping our energy, but we were doing alright, I guess.

We walked to the Baths of Constantine. They're pretty badly ruined. It's ruins, yes. I expect that. But it's sort of vague as to what it might have been like back then. We spent maybe 20 minutes there, not worrying too much about it, since it's one of the 4 monuments we get to see, and we already felt like we had our money's worth, whatever the money was, which I can't recall. On the way to the baths, we stopped in a Moroccan leather store, and saw some nice goods. The sales person was kind of pushy and was trying to cleverly sell us on his wares, which he probably didn't realize was not going to work with people like us. But he was entertaining, and then he told me I was a very lucky man to have such a woman, and asked if Allie had a sister. I guess that's a compliment, albeit a kind of skeevy one.

After the baths, we needed to find our way to these Cryptoporticos, which are essentially underground pillars that used to be above ground, and it's now just sort of a dank, dark ruin, though reasonably well-preserved underground. These are entered through the basement of a fancy Hotel Ville. We were not sure if we'd be able to easily find it, but we actually ended up navigating right into it, and arriving at it almost before we knew we were there. In fact, we were there, and discovered it by looking at the map and seeing that the dot of our destination was on top of the dot of our current location. Lucky. There was a couple walking down the street. A tall black man in an orange suit with a top hat and a feather, and a white woman decked to the nines in fancy dress and heels, looking like famous people, walking around near us. We observed them for a bit, and admired their style and attitude. Then we saw a big wedding that was just getting out from the hotel where it must have occurred. We took photos. There was a professional wedding photographer also taking photos. We made eye contact and smiled. A man accidentally stepped on the brides tails. A child laughed. And then the wedding party dispersed. We entered the hotel and went into the cryptoporticos, down many stairs. There was a German-speaking family with two young children near us. The younger child didn't stop making noise the entire time, and they were near us almost the entire time. I don't understand why this would be interesting for a child of 3 years old, and it disrupted what, for us, might have been a kind of peaceful and cool place. We wandered off down a side path, gaining solitude. It was darker. We both stepped in a giant underground puddle and got our shoes and/or feet wet. We wandered some more. It was reasonably interesting but, again, the big attraction was probably the cool air. Alas, we'd seen all of the underground ruin that could be seen, and we made our way back up and out of the fancy hotel that hides this "monument" as it is.

One more monument to go, and that was to be the Necropole/Cemetery/Church. It's a bit across town, but not entirely out of the direction of our car. We saw the ugly parking garage that we didn't park in. We people-watched on the way there. The cemetery was supposedly a place where Van Gogh walked and painted. It's not traditional. And it's mostly in ruins. There are some very old looking semi-ruins, and there are many sarcophagi lining the sides of one long aisle that goes for about a 5-10 minute walk. They're all in ruins, to varying degree, with none appearing to house anything anymore. But they were old graves. Stories about their history I have read and forgotten. At the end of the path is a decent sized church that is a mixture of stone and more recent constructions. It was originally a very old church, and then it was redone and expanded in waves during the renaissance years. It was probably the highlight of this location and, again, it was cool inside, so we liked it.

Having seen our 1 museum + 4 monuments, we walked back to our car, glad to find it without a ticket, and then drove back to St. Remy uneventfully.

We wandered to some shops, went to the grocery store again for some supplies, and returned home after a brief stop at a really neat little wine shop where I bought a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet, a variety of the general region (Languedoc, to be precise) that I was familiar with from back home.

Back at "home" we relaxed, I did yoga, we had a dinner of pasta, bolognese sauce, zucchini, and more of the Rose wine (saving the new wine for another day).

I did my writing, and that was a night. A long day. Lots of sights. Lots of sun.

Sleep.

11 July, 2014

Day 8: more perfect days of wandering

Today was a sleep-late-day. I am not sure what that meant, maybe 10am? We got ourselves up, with the plan being to go nowhere beyond St. Remy this day. We had traveled so far yesterday that it felt like the right thing to do today. There would be much exploring of Provence, but to start, we needed a day of recuperation.

We wandered out of the apartment, looking for a place for breakfast. There are really only 8-10 small roads in the circle that comprises the center of town. We didn't really have a destination in mind, but sort of took a wrongish turn from where we thought we were headed, and that landed us at a small bakery, which I guess, it turns out, is a chain, called Festival Des Pain. Who knows if the locals consider this to be like going to Starbucks? I don't know. It was a small bakery, and they had pastries in the window that looked delicious. We went in, and ordered two coffees, and a Sacristain Amandes, which is a Provencal specialty. We ate it so quickly, we ordered another one, and they weren't small. It was exciting to be in France, and be eating pastry, and sitting outside at a table in a village. The girl who worked there was nice to us. Though she didn't speak English, she was patient with our French, and we ended up visiting her there nearly every day of our time in St. Remy. The older woman who worked in the afternoon was not as nice, but she wasn't exactly mean, either. Just one of those situations where, when it's clear that I don't understand her, her response was to say the same thing, only louder. It's funny, because I bet that's exactly what I have done a million times to people who don't speak English, in the past. I'd like to think I am more considerate now, but who knows. It is interesting being nearly unable to communicate in a country. I have a hard time imagining how my accent sounds, how poor my words translate, and how impatient some people might be with me. In America, we'd probably think "Why can't they f**king learn English?!" And I imagine there will be some in France, who will think, at the very least, "If he's going to come *visit* France, maybe learn a little more French?!" But I could be wrong, and it's also the case that there are much higher expectations universally about people's proficiency in English than any other language. We have a distinct advantage. I am sure a lot of that is owed to the British Empire, but it would have to be the American Economy that is responsible for the ubiquity across the entire globe of people speaking at least a small amount of English. I sure do wish I learned my high school French better than I did, but I am glad I learned it at all, because it has proven quite valuable to me on this trip. I didn't think I had all that much French, but my ability to hack my way through in French has been far more significant than in either Italy or Germany. It's difficult to tell, in some cases, because the latter two countries will usually switch to English for you almost immediately. Only in France did I have the opportunity to struggle through in a few situations (and even then, in tourist-centric places, they'll usually switch).

After eating our fill of Sacristain, we wandered to the Tourism Information center, to double check that our parking space was legitimate, which it was. And that was really all we needed for information purposes. We decided, rather impromptu, that our next plan would be to wander up the road about a half mile, to the ancient Roman ruins of Glanum. We weren't sure how this going to be, but it seemed worth a peek. On the way, we saw the mental hospital where Van Gogh stayed. We walked around the outer grounds, and saw some olive trees that he had painted. It was moderately inspiring, but not enough for us to want to pay money to go inside the mental hospital, which is still in operation, but has tours of some parts of it. Meh.

We wandered on to Glanum. It appeared we could get there through a backroads path, and we wandered though a kind of woodsy area, only to discover that the Glanum is, of course, fenced in, because they're going to charge you money to visit. Duh. There were some other trails in the area that one could have hypothetically hiked on, but they were closed this time of year due to risk of forest fires.
So we retraced our steps back to the main road, and entered the Glanum the correct way. On the way there, we came across a donkey in a pasture, and that made Allie quite pleased. There were many photos taken, and she even insisted on petting the donkey, which ended with me insisting that she stop, because the donkey kept trying to bite her. She tried to reassure me that he was friendly, but I don't really want to have to go to an emergency room in St. Remy-de-Provence for stitches and a rabies shot, trying to explain to them, in French, that we were bitten by a donkey. But she was probably right. After all, she has actually lived near donkeys, whereas I have only seen them on television.

After the donkey incident, we made our way to the Glanum, which had something of a Tourist Information center of its own. It wasn't cheap to get in. I think either 8 or 10 Euro, but this turned out to be very much worth it. The Glanum ruins are in varies degrees of ruin, though, mostly, pretty ruined. There are some parts that have been partially restored, but it's still pretty ruined. But there are placards with information scattered around the site that explain what they know these buildings to have been before their ruin. And, most interestingly, they have a good understanding of how the site varied from the pre-Roman, to Roman, to later times (I can't recall the proper terms for these eras). Sometimes, entire structures would be demolished, or built on top of, as bigger needs came into play. For example, what used to be some important person's house, eventually, during Roman times, was consumed by the construction of the Forum. The diagrams used really neat color coding to show you the parts of the ruins that were from each stage of history. We spent probably 2 hours there, even though it was really hot, and felt like we could have spent even longer.

After that, we walked across the street to a place where there's a big arch (Arc de Triomph) and some other statue. They're sort of standing by themselves in a field, and it's confusing as to why they're over here, alone, while Glanum is contiguously across the road. But, it turns out, if you do your reading, that at the height of the Roman Empire, Glanum had become a far larger city, and these two things were actually part of the larger city. I am curious what happened to all the other structures, and how these two things stood, and also curious if they were restored, since it seems like we are often slightly misled about what is original and what has been rebuilt.

So much of what existed in Roman times is gone. It seems so unfortunate now, since the few things that remain are so amazing. And when I hear stories about things being demolished in battle, or out of disuse, or for repurposing, it makes me realize that, perhaps, the times we live in are not all that different from the past.

After looking at the rest of the Roman stuff, and making a sort of feeble effort to understand the long descriptions written in French, about the arch and the statue, we walked back to town. It was hot. when we got back, Allie wanted to pop into a small clothing shop just to see what they had, so I walked across the way to another small shop which had some jewelry in it. I could tell immediately that it was nice stuff that she'd like, so when she came over to meet me, we found something that she really liked, and that became her 1 year anniversary gift, since I'd been woefully delinquent in providing said gift (though nobody was really complaining to me about it, honestly).

We probably stopped in a couple of other shops before wandering back to the apartment. We had decided today would be a mellow day, and we also decided that perhaps we would have dinner at the apartment tonight instead of going out. So we found our way to the local grocery store, which was decent, and looked around for a long time, before deciding to buy some pasta, tomato sauce, some good bread, some cheese, some wine. The combination was intended to be for dinner and perhaps for lunch the next day. For wine, we decided (I mean, I decided, since I am the crazy one) that it would be fun to do a head-to-head Rose of Provence comparison. So we got one "Bordeaux" and one "Rhone" Rose. Not sure if this is the general trend, but in this case, the Rhone grapes (mainly Grenache) made a much better Rose than the Bordeaux grapes (mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, in this case).

We did some laundry, which required us figuring out how to use the odd machine. We did not successfully figure out how to add the soap, but figured a good rinse was better than nothing. Perhaps that's why I developed a rash during the trip!

We spent some time reading the travel books and mapping out a potential agenda for the coming days. After reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading the materials we had, we kind of decided that we wanted to visit Arles, Les Baux-de-Provence, Nimes, and Pont-du-Gard, and possibly Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The latter was my add-on to the list of otherwise agreed upon places. And we were open to the possibility that the plan might change from one day to the next.

I think we may have gone on a short walk after dinner where Allie was looking for bubble bath. But there was none to be found, and she must have settled for unbubble bath. I did yoga, while she took her bubbleless bath, and then we relaxed, drank more of the Rose, and eventually I spent a little time writing until we went to sleep.

It was the point in the trip where the clock started slowing down. I think we knew it would. There was something about the start of the trip, in Florence, that was still coming off the work trip, and the novelty of being on vacation. Then Cinque Terre had the element of trying to see as much as possible in each day. This was the first time that we knew we had a good long stay ahead in one place.

10 July, 2014

Day 7: Connections and connections

Today was, by necessity, destined to be a big travel day. We'd be taking a car, four trains, and another car after that, to cover the ground from Corniglia to St. Remy-de-Provence. I don't know how many miles it is. It might be as many as 400. There were all these connections and transitions, so I obviously had my worrying brain full of each of the things we'd need to "get right" to end up where we were supposed to be.

We rose early, and got ourselves out of the apartment, meeting Eleonora in the square for the ride back to the train station. We said goodbye, almost forgetting to give her the keys, and then waited in the morning sun for the train to come. It was a little late, but we had plenty of time to spare with this early departure. Arriving at La Spezia, the need was for coffee and some sort of breakfast. The only option at the station was a place that was called McDonald's but, upon closer inspection, the only thing about it that was McDonald's was the brand name. They had none of their menu items, and were more of a classic bakery and cafe. This was a great relief and joy, since I would not want to be eating an Egg McMuffin in Italy. We had coffee, pastry, and juice. And we had minimal trouble making our train connection. There was some weirdness printing out our ticket confirmation (again), with the machine telling me that the confirmation number did not match the name on record. I am beginning to interpret the Italian ticket machines as a form of SAT logic test, because it requires innovative thinking. This time, I was able to quickly determine that their system had, for some reason, associated Allie's name with the reservation, since they do ask for both passenger names during the online purchase. I was proud of myself for figuring out that one in less than 3 minutes.

The first leg of the train ride went to Genova, and was about an hour long. Then we had the switch to a train to Ventimiglia, where we shared a first-class cabin with a family from Brisbane. I believe their names were Wade and Jane, and they had a son who was maybe 9-10 years old, playing video games on the iPad. They were really nice people, maybe a few years older than us, and we talked about our travels. They were on a longer trip, that would be about five weeks total in Italy and France. Or maybe it was all Italy. Can't recall exactly. They asked us for travel tips about the USA. When to visit? Where to visit? They asked for tips about Hawaii. It was nice to pass the time on this 2.5 hour ride.
We said our goodbyes in Ventimiglia, and then purchased our ticket at the station to hop across the border, a 10 minute ride to Menton, France, where we would pick up the rental car. The end of Italy. The start of France. Shifting gears. A new language, a new culture. It's amazing how you can do that in Europe.

The car rental place was about a 5-10 minute walk from the station in Menton, and our Google Maps got us there without a hitch. The people at the Europcar rental place were very nice. We got a Renault Clio, which was a sporty little 5-speed hatchback. Diesel, as are virtually all the cars in Europe, and stylish. I thought it was a great car, until today (a week later) when we dropped off the car in Avignon, and realized that the main Europcar offices are giving away Audis! Being in Menton, there was only one car available, and it was the one that was reserved for us. But it sufficed, and gave us absolutely no trouble.

What's even better, it had built-in GPS, which is very convenient... except when you're driving 200 miles, and you don't immediately discover that someone set the GPS Route Planner to "Avoid all Toll Roads." We programmed the route to Provence into the GPS, and it tells us it's going to take 6 hours. Huh? We program the same route into my phone, and it says 2.5 hours. Something's not right there. We briefly look at the routes, and they seem to be about the same. But, straight out of the starting gate, we see a sign for some highway, I think the A9, going left, and our car tells us to go right. We do what the car says. The car is having us make a lot of turns. The car has us get on the highway. The car has us get off the highway. The car has us drive along the beach through Nice. Time is passing, and it's starting to become clear that we don't want to pay attention to the car's instructions in the irritating female British accent. I pull over, and discover, at last, that someone had set the car to avoid all toll roads, which is ridiculous for long trips, though I guess it would make perfect sense for short trips. So, word of advice: when you are traveling in Europe and have a GPS, make sure you set it the way you want it!

We turned the GPS on, and made good time, uneventful from that point forward. Though we did lose close to an hour in the commute due to the shenanigans. We arrived in St. Remy-de-Provence around maybe 7 or 8pm. It was light out still. And it was not clear where to park. I had one of my little mini-stress-outs, because the situation became further exacerbated by my phone being dead, and Allie's phone dying shortly thereafter. I should note that I *did* bring a car charger with me, but it didn't work! I was prepared, but not for the eventuality of non-functioning technology.

So, first we are being guided by the car GPS directly into the Centre Ville (Old Town) where hardly any cars drive. It's telling us to go down streets that appear to be one-way in the other direction, because the GPS sometimes just doesn't know what is a one-way street. I was getting anxious, because I didn't know where to go. We got out of the old town, to the circle road, and through a series of random fortune, found a parking lot. The sign at the lot said "Parking de la Liberation," which I tried to put into Google Translate, to see if that meant "free parking." It turns out, "Rue de la Liberation" was the name of one of the streets in the town, so my translation was essentially meaningless. But it was a giant lot, with part pavement, and part grass, and there were no ticket machines, and there were no indications on any vehicles that the lot was monitored. We parked. I asked a man (in French) in the parking lot if it was free, and he said yes. Then I asked if it was okay for overnight (also in French) and he said it was free all the time. So we scored.

Now we just needed to find our way to the apartment. The challenge? We have no maps and both our phones are dead. I was already a bit bent out of shape from having the stress of finding parking, though I really shouldn't have been, since we had great success. We went into a shop and asked the woman if she knew where Rue Nostradamus was (that's our street), and she didn't know. She suggested we go to the Tourism Office, which was closed, but we went anyway, and found maps outside the building (not for the taking, just posted). So I actually, if you can believe, it, made a hand-drawn rendition of the map that we could carry around with us. The remaining challenge was that we didn't know which way we were facing from the map. This should have been easy to figure out, if we weren't tired, and me stressed. All we needed to do is walk to one main street and read the sign, and we'd have our bearings. But I didn't do that, because I decided to be a cuckoo bird. So we started walking, which I quickly sensed was the wrong direction. Of course, I was making ridiculous proclamations, like "We are going to be wandering around all night!" Yeah. That was the situation. Really. We turned around, and as soon as we hit a main road, it became obvious that it was the curved road that encloses the "Old Town" and that all we needed to do was enter the heart of that circle, and follow the map. Within 5 minutes we were at the place.

When we entered, we discovered we had no electricity, which is a bizarre situation to leave the place in for guests, don't you think? My thought (being an engineer) was that they probably turn off the circuit breaker since they don't use the place often, and had forgotten to turn it on for us. So, then I just had to figure out "Where would I be, if I were a circuit breaker in a building that may have been constructed a thousand years ago, and retrofitted with electric?" By the front door, inside some cabinets? Correct. Flipped the lever, and Voila! We have electricity.

We were pretty hungry. After briefly settling in, we wandered around town a bit, and found our way to a restaurant called L'Industrie. It turned out to be quite good. I had a two-course meal of gnocchi with a nice cheese sauce, followed by a very rich stewed beef, served with tagliatelle. Allie had a burger, made from the same meat they use for their tartare, which he explained is like the highest quality beef. It was really one of the best burgers I have ever had, and I wanted to eat more of it, but was too full to help her much. We had leftovers from both of our dishes, and apparently committed some type of faux pas, by asking if we could take our food with us. He laughed, and he did give it to us, but I guess it's not common in France to do this, because a restaurant may not even have the containers for such things.
We wandered around the town some more. This would be our home for almost a week to come, and the initial impressions were very positive. St. Remy is small, friendly, quaint, and full of many interesting things to see, do, buy, and browse. But, other than one tiny little area in the square, where there were some merry-go-rounds and fairground stuff (probably in celebration of Bastille Day, to come), it was not an obnoxiously touristy location.

From there, after a long, long day, of many connections, all of which were successful, with a bit of creativity, problem-solving, and patience, we were tired, and slept.