Chateau Versailles

We juggled our schedule around to avoid the effects of another day of train strikes. Our destination was Versailles, which is about an hour train ride. Unfortunately, that route is run by the regional railway, RER, and not the Metro. It is the RER that is on strike. Which is not to say the RER doesn’t run on strike days. It’s just that there are fewer trains spaced farther apart. We decided not to chance getting stuck out there, so we chose another day.

But, in our usual fashion, we were late. On top of that, there was some kind of disturbance going on in the hood. When I went out for my morning trip to the boulangerie I saw a woman tying these ribbons to an air vent on the sidewalk:

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Other, similar ribbons were stretched across parking spaces on Avenue D’Italie that read something like “Crime Scene-Do Not Cross”.  By this time we managed to get out of the apartment we observed, off in the distance, a protest:

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Probably this was a demonstration by students and their supporters against tuition costs and some other issues. There were demonstrations and strikes all over France on any given day. This one was peaceful.

To get to our train station you go past the front of the mall:

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Unlike many American malls this one is on three floors and is always busy. Across the street is the Metro hub. We had to take the Metro to the Champs de Mars station to pick up the RER to Versailles.

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To get from Paris to Versailles, the train makes a number of stops, the final destination being the Versailles Rive Gauche station.  But, as we entered the city of Versailles the train pulled to a stop at another station called Chantiers. We sat there and waited to go to Rive Gauche. Then somebody outside knocked on our window and said something in French. We smiled and waved back, but unease started to settle in. Then another kind soul tapped on the window and, in English, said, “Last stop!” We scrambled off the train to try to figure out where the hell we were.

At the station they told us the Chateau was only a twenty minute walk and directed us to go over a temporary bridge.

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Then go down a walkway:

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And finally, down Avenue Nepveu to the Chateau. We found it necessary to take a few breaks:

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At last we were in the purview of  The Sun King himself, Louis XIV:

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Seemed like a perfect opportunity for another break:

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The only problem was, that by the time we had gotten this far it was now a little before five-o’clock and in the off season, that’s when this place closes. Fortunately, the hours changed a few days earlier and they now close at six. Well, we knew going in that we would not be traipsing over the many square miles of the grounds and gardens. So, we set our sights on the famous Hall of Mirrors and anything else we saw along the way would be gravy.

When we got our tickets we made sure we wouldn’t miss the last train out. A lady at the sales office had an up-to-date schedule and told us there would be several trains for us to take after closing time. Off we went:

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The palace gate

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The last picture above is where the entrance is. You start out in this pleasant reception area:

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Go up the stairs and then you work your way through room after gorgeous room:

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If you get tired of looking at all the stuff inside, and who wouldn’t, you can always go out on one of the balconies. It’s good to be king!

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Finally, the entrance to the Hall of Mirrors!

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And then, the Hall itself:

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When Louis XIV built the place, he insisted that everything be accomplished with French laborers. Unfortunately, nobody in France at that time knew how to make mirrors. That, apparently, was a skill set only to be found in Venice, which, back then,  was a country, not a city. Louis had his people go down there and “persuade” a few of the mirror-making artisans to re-locate to France. When they found out about it, the Venetian authorities were none too pleased. So, they made arrangements to have the traitors assassinated.  Still, the mirrors were somehow made.

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Those interested in long hikes are welcome to stroll the grounds, which extend well beyond the farthest stretch of water seen below. It also includes at least two other Chateau, one built for the king to escape the pressures of office and the other built by Marie Antoinette, to simulate the simple life of peasants. Unfortunately, not too many peasants were enjoying their simple lives, as she would later discover.

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I would be remiss if I were to leave the Hall of Mirrors without bringing up one of most famous uses of this room, the signing of the Treaty of Versailles:

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This was the treaty, the most important of several, that concluded The War to End All Wars. Key among the provisions of the Treaty were The War Guilt clause requiring Germany to admit to having caused the war, and, more importantly, the reparations clause which required Germany to make restitution for all the damage done during the war, calculated to have been $33 billion (or $2.3 trillion in today’s dollars.) This, of course ruined the German economy throughout the Roaring Twenties. Had any of the signatories of the Treaty of Versailles actually looked into any of those mirrors they would have seen the faces of the people who guaranteed the rise of fascism among the demoralized German public, the rise of Hitler and the slaughter of millions of their children and grand-children. Who knew?

After leaving the Hall we found our way through several more chintzy rooms:

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Last, but not least, we found our way into the king’s bedchamber. I think the thing I found most distressing is how similar it is to my own:

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As we left the boudoir, we observed from the staff the universal language of tapping one’s watch, so we worked our way to the exit.  We walked the much shorter distance to the Rive Gauche station only to discover that is was closed for the day, which is why we got mixed up on the trip in. We guessed the closure had something to do with the strike, a more subtle way to remind John Q Public of their grievances. So, we resumed the long slog back to Chantiers, only a few cartwheels distant for the young and fit. For us, it was like hiking the Appalachian Trail.

 

Wild Souls

Let me assure you that the title of this post does not refer to any of the three of us who visited Musee d’Orsay on our third day in Paris, although it might have described any of us at certain points in time. Instead, this is the English translation of the title “Ames Sauveges” which featured the work of artists from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, a special exhibition.

My first visit to Musee d’Orsay was back in 2012 and at that time I posted some favorite works on Facebook. If you are one of my “friends” and you care to revisit it, you will find it in my photo albums of that year. If you are not on Facebook, or you otherwise don’t want to bother, you can see a very nice representation of the holdings of this incredible museum here:

https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/musee-dorsay-paris

Instead we’ll begin with this iconic view from the museum. This is from the inside looking out over to Louvre to Sacra Coeur in the background:

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This is the central gallery of Musee d’Orsay. Off to either side are multiple smaller galleries featuring some of the greatest artists who ever lived:

Musee’ d’Orsay is a former train station, completed in time for the World Exposition in 1900. As trains got longer, the building proved inadequate and was going to be torn down till somebody came up with the idea of turning it into a museum. The rest is history.

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Although I said I wasn’t going to re-hash the permanent collection, I’ll throw in a few pieces that had special significance:

This is Van Gogh’s painting of his room in Arles, France. Since we would be going to Arles I had hoped we might see the place. Turns out bombers of World War 2 had other plans and blew it off the face of the Earth.

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Having just been here, I liked seeing how it looked in 1901. The artist is Maximillian Luce:

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This is the artist Berthe Morisot, a model and sister-in-law of Edouard Manet, the artist who painted her. The significance of this piece is that a few years ago it was featured with several other Manet’s in an exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. Good to see her again!

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Ames Sauvages

I have to confess that if I’m looking for great art, my first instinct is not to jump on a plane headed for the Balkans. What I have learned is that if I did jump on that plane, I would not be disappointed.

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The intent of this exhibit is not only to feature Balkan artists, but also to explore their use of symbolism. Unfortunately, there is not much there to explain the symbolism or what it means. Apparently, some of it has to do with folk lore and tradition. I’ll leave that to you to discover if you are so inclined. Instead, I’ll focus on the artists we met for the first time. In the exhibit their works are scattered throughout the hall, but I will group them so you get a sense of their style.

For me, the one who stood out above all the others was

Ferdynand Ruszczyc:

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La Vent D’Automne

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Konrad Magi:

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Portrait of a Norwegian Girl

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Meditatsioon

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I should add, that, looking over other works by these artists when I got home, Konrad Magi’s body of work is the most striking. Here is a look, if you are interested:

https://www.google.com/search?q=konrad+m%C3%A4gi&newwindow=1&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjDv4XhhrrbAhXE6FMKHXmDCP4Q_AUICigB&biw=1628&bih=1086

Johann Walter:

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Peasant Girl

Janis Rozentals

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Princess with a Monkey

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Portrait

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Death

Rudolph Perle:

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Sun

Antana Zmuidzinavicius:

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Tomb of Povilo Visinkio

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Milzinkapiu krastas

Vilhelms Puvitis

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Lettland

Kristjan Raud:

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Dancing with the Stars

So, this is just a small number of the paintings in the total exhibit, one of the best I’ve seen in years. I’m so glad we had a chance to experience it.

Well, in our usual fashion we didn’t arrive at Musee d’Orsay till after noon. We had a nice lunch there as well. By the time we had seen all the exhibits none of us were in the mood to take on any more museums. So, we headed back to the apartment. Not long after arriving there we found ourselves back at the Le Pub de la Butte for refreshment and dinner. In addition to the fine mixed board:

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we decided to kick it up a notch and order some skewers. You had your choice of beef, chicken, duck and mutton. We went with the sampler.

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After stuffing ourselves, we decided to venture out and stroll the hood. We had just made it outside when the young bar tender who had taken such a shine to us, ran out of the bar toward us. “Wait!” he yelled breathlessly, “I have a free digestif for you!”

Now, my brother and I have known one or two bartenders in our time and we like to think we are familiar with their ways. For one of them to run out of a bar to offer us something free was unique in both of our considerable experiences. But, the word “free” translates well in any language and in no time we were back inside toasting our good fortune with limoncellos. The radar was now up, however, and while we were as complimentary and cordial as we could be, we later spent some time trying to figure out what was going on. We never did come to a satisfactory conclusion.

 

 

 

 

 

Île de la Cité

It became apparent, not long after my brother, sister and I exited our plane in Paris, that we are not now the force we used to be. Particularly as it pertains to mobility, we just don’t get around like in the days of yore. And one thing to be said about Paris, it is HUGE, as are most of the things in it. And, while we could get to those things, pacing was the name of the game.

So, on our first full day in Paris we decided to begin with a small geographical area to test our stamina. For this, there is no better place than the Île de la Cité. This is an island in the Seine (rhymes with Ben) that has been continuously occupied since before the Romans, and now is the site of Notre Dame Cathedral, Saint-Chappelle, and the Conciergerie. With all these attractions on one island, it would be easy to get around.

One other thing about three people sharing one bathroom, is that we don’t typically get out at the butt crack of dawn. By the time showers have been taken and coffee and pastries purchased we are lucky to hit the trains by noon. Which is what vacations are all about, except that it does cut into some touring time. Not a problem.

So, we boarded the train headed for the Île de la Cité, which took us under the river and dropped us off at a station called Chatelet, one of the main downtown stations. One thing I did before we came to town was to plot out all the trains we would take to various destinations and put them on a spreadsheet. It was worth the effort. We knew what trains to get on, the direction they were headed and, if needed, the stations to get off and change to another train. This saved a great deal of time and anxiety. But there are multitudes of steps on the different layers of the metro and precious few escalators. So, we took our time. I tried to keep ahead to make sure we were going down or up the right stairs to get us to the right train. Mostly I got it right. Soon, we were back up in the fresh air looking across the Seine at Île de la Cité.

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La Conciergerie

The castle-like structure is the foreground is La Conciergerie, a former royal palace and, later, infamous prison. This was the first place we came to when we crossed the bridge to the island.

Now, I have to confess that my knowledge of the French Revolution is mostly limited to: the obvious fate of Louis and Marie, the musical Le Miserable, and Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities”. It was, however, in effect, a French Civil War and a confused one at that. At its heart was the conflict between the wealthy elite, and the poor, who would have been happy to eat cake if they could find any. But, of course it was not as neat and clean as all that. Particularly among the poor and working class there were various factions, the most notable being the Sans-Cullotes (literally “without breeches”) which was a militant radical group representing the poor, and the Jacobins, or the “Society of the Friends of the Constitution” who were even more radical and ruthless than the other guys. Then there were the Royalists and the Girondins who initially threw in with the Jacobins, but found them to be too radical. If you want the details you can look all this stuff up, but to get the point and the role of La Conciergerie: the Jacobins prevailed under the leadership of Maximillien Robespierre. In 1793, the National Convention passed the “Law of Suspects”, the first time that the use of terror was codified into law. It decreed that those “notoriously suspected of aristocracy and bad citizenship” should be arrested. Well, as you might imagine, lots of fingers were being pointed and lots of people were being arrested. They had to be put somewhere and, in Paris, La Conciergerie was the perfect place! A kangaroo court was quickly established under the auspices of The Committee of Public Safety (a good lesson: Beware of grand titles) to deal with the “suspects” and soon heads were rolling all over town.

In all 2,639 people were executed in Paris. Most would have passed through La Conciergerie. 16,594, were executed across France. The French kept meticulous records. The Reign of Terror ended in 1794 when Robespierre’s own head was detached. The revolution ended with the rise of Napoleon that same year. He went on to kill millions.

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The lines weren’t too long.

When you get inside you are in this room, where, in the 1300’s, soldiers worked out of here. The wooden trough is a work of art that takes water from the Seine and pumps it into a waterfall, visible outside.

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This section of the soldier’s quarters has been turned into a book store.

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Roughly 4,000 people were imprisoned at La Conciergerie during the revolution. Not all were executed. The name of each one was recorded in this office.

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This is the prisoners registry.

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In this room prisoners were given a haircut and allowed to freshen up prior to execution. Executions did not take place at La Conciergerie. Instead, prisoner were hauled off in wooden carts to several places, most notably Place de la Concorde, north of the Tulleries, near the big Ferris wheel.

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This is the restored cell of Marie Antoinette, which was off limits to us. Thanks to André Lage Freitas for this photo.

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Commoners were thrown into cells with straw covered floors. The wealthier could buy more comfortable accommodations, paying a large monthly sum to the jailers. Sometimes their stay was cut short, so to speak,  in which case the jailers re-sold the room for greater profit.

Actually, much of La Conciergerie is closed off to the public as many of the rooms are part of the modern day Palace of Justice, a far better justice than was experienced during the revolution.

Sainte-Chapelle

In medieval times, when La Conciergerie was the royal palace, one of the kings, Louis IX, ordered a chapel to be built on the palace grounds. But this was not to be an ordinary chapel because it was being built for an extraordinary purpose: to house the crown of thorns and other relics Louis had acquired. It seems that the crown had been in the possession Baldwin II, the Latin Emperor at Constantinople. However, by the time Louis was ready to cough up a whoppin’ 135,000 livres, it seems that Balwin, being a little financially strapped,  had hocked them to some guys in Venice. Louis, instead, paid the pawnbrokers and brought the relics to France. To house them, he paid another 100,000 livres for a silver chest, the Grand-Chasse, to be built. Then he ordered the construction of Sainte-Chapelle to be their permanent home. The entire cost of construction, including the stained glass, was 40,000 livres, so that just goes to show how pricey authentic Christian relics can be!

Construction of Sainte-Chapelle took only seven years, warp speed back in those days. It opened in 1248. By that time, Louis had also acquired a piece of the actual cross to put into the box as well! (I am reminded of the time when the great Jackie Gleason spent a fortune on a box of ectoplasm, which he could never open or else it would escape!)

So, did we see these relics at Sainte-Chapelle? No. The reason being, that during the French Revolution much of the chapel was destroyed. What we visit today is largely a re-construction. About two-thirds of the stained glass panels are original. The Grand-Chasse was melted down and the relics dispersed throughout France. A few have been recovered and are now housed at Notre Dame. The chapel has undergone years of restoration, which was only competed three years ago.

So, here is where the tour begins:

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The entrance is on the ground floor, already not too shabby:

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The chapel is on the second floor, accessible only by a stone circular staircase, not our favorite thing. But once you get up there:

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The chapel opens onto a balcony which features hundreds of intricate carvings:

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This is one of those places to which pictures will never do justice. There is no substitute for being there.

Well, it had already been quite a day! Time to head over next door to one of the many cafe’s in the area.

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This sandwich is the Croque Madame, a ham, cheese and egg delight available throughout Paris and very yummy. You can also get the Croque Monsieur, which is the same thing without the egg.

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Here is a perfect example of family humor:

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Notre Dame de Paris

After a fine feast at the cafe, we were off to Notre Dame.

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Unlike Saint-Chappelle, Notre Dame took the customary hundreds of years to build, starting in 1163 and wrapping up in 1345. Unfortunately, what it has in common with Saint-Chappelle is that it too was badly damaged during the French Revolution. So much so, that for many years thereafter it was used as a warehouse. It was not until 1845 that restoration actually began. During the second world war stray bullets broke many of the stained glass panels, but they were later replaced as well. Notre Dame does not belong to the Catholic Church. It belongs to the French State who leases it for the exclusive use of the Church providing that the Church operates it, pays salaries, and makes it available for free to the public.

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Some of the interesting things that have happened here:

-Henry VI of England was crowned king of France

-James V of Scotland married Madeline

-Mary, Queen of Scots, married Dauphin Francis, who later became king of France

-The coronation of Napoleon

And lots of other things, too! After Saint-Chappelle was trashed, eventually Notre Dame became the repository, and still is, of the Crown of Thorns, the piece of the cross, and, a later addition: one of the Holy Nails. These are not on display.

Rich and I had both been here before, but one thing we had not done is to visit the Treasure Room, so we ponied up 5 euro and here is a SMALL sampling of what we saw:

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Here are some scenes from the Cathedral itself:

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The outside is also spectacular:

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Originally all these figures and the cathedral itself, were painted. Obviously, it wore off. During the French Revolution many such figures on the west side of the Cathedral were removed and beheaded. Many of the heads were found in 1977 during an excavation nearby, and are on display at the Cluny museum.

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Notre Dame Cathedral was one of the first buildings to incorporate the use of flying buttresses. If you build thing walls too high, they cannot support themselves. You can either brace them from inside, which looks tacky and takes up space, or, you can support them from outside and do it quite beautifully as well!

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Behind the Cathedral is a very pleasant little garden.

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After a nice time there, we left Ile de la Cite, looking back on the other big island in the Seine, Ile St. Lois, which now is occupied by a bunch of cheap apartments.

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A little stroll up the Right Bank and we were soon at the Hotel D’Ville:

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Another cheap joint. That was enough sightseeing for the day. We were soon back on the train headed for Rue Vandrazzane and the comforts of home and the Pub De La Butte!

 

 

 

Settling into Butte Aux Cailles

Having found round trip flights to Paris for $426 pp, the next order of business was to find a place to stay. For this, we ruled out hotels immediately. We needed an apartment. So, time to call up AirBnb to see what they had to offer, which was plenty. Rich and Sis both agreed that they did not want to have to climb stairs, so that limited the search right away. And, it was a quick reminder that in France a first-floor apartment is actually on what we know as the second floor. So you would often see a first floor apartment advertised as being over, say, a bakery. Not what we wanted. We wanted a ground floor place. And, again, there were several available, but we needed to refine the search further.

My brother and I had recently shared a cabin in the wilds of Canada, so we were already aware that ear plugs and ventilation were a high priority. No need to subject Sis to that, so the best bet would be a separate area for her. Surprisingly, many of the apartments had one or more beds on a loft, which meant climbing a ladder to get to them. This was no more welcome than stairs, so the search continued.

And, of course, a further consideration was location. We needed quick access to the Metro. Paris is divided into districts, called arrondissements. The smaller the number, the closer you are to the central city and, generally, the more expensive the accommodations. But, the metro system is so good, you can easily be in the central city from the outlying areas in a matter of minutes.

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After the exchange of several e-mails we settled on a place in the 13th arrondissement near the metro hub called Place d’Italie. First, it was on the ground floor, it had one bedroom separated from the others and three single beds. It also had a nice courtyard, kitchen and bath. Previous tenants gave it rave reviews. I contacted the owner to confirm availability and we booked it. Seven nights for $400 per person, or, $57 per night.

After Air France had changed our arrival time to 8:45 am, I contacted our host, Catherine, to let her know. She said she would have a nice French breakfast waiting for us. That’s when we knew we had found a winner!

Upon arrival at Charles De Gaul, however, we had a few items of business to attend to. The first was to purchase a two-day museum pass, which saves considerably on entrance fees to the great museums of Paris. The second was to purchase a Navigo Découverte pass. This pass gives us unlimited use of all Paris buses and trains. There are two train systems in Paris, the regular metro and the RER, or regional express railroad. This pass was good for both and it cost 23 euro plus 5 euro for the week. The problem with the pass is that it is effective only from Monday through Sunday. Since we were arriving on a Tuesday we had already lost a day, but it was still much cheaper than buying individual tickets. To buy a Navigo card you have to have a photo of yourself, like a passport photo, only smaller. We had done this before we arrived, so we were ready for them. The Navigo is actually a plastic card holder. You stick your picture onto the insert, along with your newly activated card and you are good to go. The purchase and assembly process took longer than we had hope, plus it is about an hour ride from the Airport to the apartment, so we didn’t arrive until about noon. Still, Catherine was waiting for us with a very nice breakfast of baguette slices and croissants with honey and jellies and coffee and very pleasant conversation. I had brought for her a box of Dietz’s chocolates from home, and while it might seem like madness to bring chocolates to Paris, we know Dietz’s can hold their own anywhere in the world, and they were much appreciated.

So, when you get off the train at Place d’Italie, the first thing you see is a whoppin’ big mall. Also, you are in the center of a hub from which seven streets make up the spokes. Our street, Avenue d’Italie ran alongside the mall. The first intersection is Rue Vandrezanne and that is where our apartment was. So, you follow the mall, turn at the end, where there is this mall entrance:

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Across the street you see this:

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The door beside the gate has a pass code, which Catherine had given us. That takes us to DSCF3322

The glass door, for which there is a key, then you go across the courtyard to the apartment entrance, which is the corner glass door:

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The courtyard is mostly decorative. There are no chairs or benches unless you take some out. There are about seven or eight apartments there.

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Then you unlock your door, as seen from the inside:

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Here is the layout:

 

Please note, these are the AirBnB photos which are 100 percent accurate, but which show a much tidier appearance than those in my personal collection. The pink covered boudoir, as you might guess, was the lady’s chambers. The only downside was that it was also the pathway to the bathroom, so, sadly, privacy was rarely to be had. And other perils were all too close at hand.

So, following a very warm welcome by our host and an explanation of the keys and appliances, we settled in. Anticipating the jet lag and time zone fatigue, we did not plan to do much the first day except explore the neighborhood at our leisure.

OK, I believe I have mentioned in previous posts, but will restate: I still cannot get over the fact that I can sit at my little desk in Findlay, Ohio, click a few keys, and, months later, when I walk into the lobby of a hotel in France or Scotland or wherever and there will be a reservation for us just sitting there waiting. How is this possible? Sorcery?

Well, to blow my mind even further, with the assistance of Google maps I can now get a street level view of our apartment in Paris and I can stroll down the street in any direction with the aid of my mouse. I can look at various stores, and whatever as if I were actually there. So, by the time we arrived I had taken many a stroll down Rue Vandrazanne and knew the location of every boulangerie (bread bakery), pastisserie (yummy pastry shop), restaurant and bar in the neighborhood. Just amazing!

The neighborhood we were in is called Butte aux Cailles, which translates to Quail Hill, but is actually named for the Cailles (rhymes with “cry”) family who farmed the area. It used to be a small, independent village, but in the 1800’s it was incorporated into the city of Paris. It still maintains a small-town vibe. It is made up of small homes, surrounded by high-rise apartments. This is not a tourist area, which made it all the more attractive to us. It is where working class Parisians live. And, while we were clearly outsiders, we were made to feel very welcome. Here are a few scenes from the neighborhood:

DSCF3327Just outside our gate, down from the mall entrance, is one of those high rise apartments. There are many, many more to the east of us. But once you get past this one, Rue Vandrezanne is gated off to traffic and becomes a pedestrian gateway.

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There are small parks throughout the area, perfect for enjoying a coffee and pastry.

The most famous place around, though, is the Butte aux Cailles Piscine. There is an artesian spring around that the civic leaders turned into a public swimming pool. People can swim outside year round:

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Screenshot-2018-5-19 butte aux cailles piscine - Google Search

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The other thing Butte aux Cailles is famous for is graffiti, which normally I hate. But here it is done by an association of artists called  ‘Lézarts de la Bièvre’. Here is a sample, which is by no means all, of their work:

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Angel or Devil?

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The most famous of all the street artists is a woman named Miss Tic, whose work is found around the world:

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To the terraces of life the flash of our furious liberty

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I  wave to the man

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The abuse of pleasure is excellent for the health

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The masculine wins but where?

These, of course, are Google translations.

So, after a pleasant stroll about the hood, we were not at all surprised to end up here:

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Le Pub de la Butte!

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Fine cuisine and delightful beverages! Far from being American outcasts, we were warmly welcomed by all the staff, especially the bartenders. One, in particular, took a shine to us and began by offering a free beer to us. Sis declined, but Rich and I took full advantage. We spent a pleasant and relaxing evening here, to say the least!

 

On the Current State of Air Travel for the Commoner, As We Have Experienced It

In October on 2017 my brother, sister and I decided to attempt a family first: The three of us would fly to Europe. With the assistance of Scotts Cheap Flights, we began the search of places to go, based on a list of preferences they provided. I had promised to find flights below $400 per person round trip (which I could have, as it turned out), but when I found a Delta flight from Chicago to Paris for $426.16 we decided to book it. This was a trip with a departure of April 9, 2018 and a return of April 18.

This was such a good deal that I suggested to my wife that she join me in Paris on the 18th, when my brother and sister left and we would stay on in France for another 10 days, returning on the 28th. She agreed.

So, on October 25, 2017, I booked a flight for myself departing April 9 and returning April 28. I then booked two flights for my brother and sister departing April 9 and returning April 18. And a flight for Dianne arriving on the 18th and departing on the 28tth. All was well.

When I booked the flights I had the option of choosing seating for $23 extra. I found three seats together, booked one of them and then e-mailed my brother and sister to do the same so we were all in the same row. They did. And they paid the extra $23. All was well.

Then I booked a flight for Dianne and paid for her reserved seat with me on the return flight.  All was well.

My brother, sister and I were scheduled to leave O’Hare at 7:45 pm on the 9th and arrive at Charles DeGaul at 11:05 am the next day.

Dianne and I were scheduled to leave Charles De Gaul on the 28th at 3:40 pm and arrive at O’Hare at 6 pm. Since we were departing CDG in the late afternoon and we were arriving from Nice, I booked an Air France Flight for the 28th departing Nice at 9:40 am and arriving after 11:00 at CDG which would be plenty of time to catch our flight back to the US. All was well.

Then we received the first of several notices that our flight had been changed. Now, instead of leaving O’Hare at 7:45 pm, we would be leaving at 5:20 pm. Instead of arriving at Charles De Gaul at 11:05 am we would be arriving at 8:45 am.  Then, instead of leaving Paris at 3:40 pm and arriving in Chicago at 6:pm, we would depart Paris at 10:10 am and arrive at 12:30 pm.

OK, the first part was good news as it gave us more time on our first day in Paris. The second part was bad news since this plane would now be departing before we arrived in from Nice. Being ECONOMY we could not change the Nice flight.

This began the first of multiple calls to Delta. I had looked at Delta’s return flights There was a flight directly to Detroit (our ultimate destination) from Paris that same day that would have worked out better than the original. I was told, however, that Detroit is in a different “region” or zone or something and to get on that plane I would have to pay full fare in the thousands. I opted out. Instead we settled on them putting us on the original flight, but a day later, so we got one more night in Paris (and that much more related expense).  So that was the deal.

My brother and sister actually benefited on both end of their flights, so once again, all was well.

Then on February 23, I received this notice from Delta. As if by magic, our Delta flights had now become Air France flights. Now, we had noted the message in previous e-mails that the Delta flights were “operated” by Air France. You see that often with other carriers. It is another thing altogether to be transferred entirely to another carrier. One example of why that is a problem can be found in the notice of seat selection: There wasn’t any.

Once again, I called Delta and told them that I had reserved a seat for both flights. The guy agreed that I had indeed made the purchase, made the correction on his computer and was about to hang up when he said wait until I contact Air France and make sure this is in their records. He came back a few minutes later and said Air France has it. You are good to go.

I called my brother and sister and they made sure the record was straight on their end as well.

Five days later I received a “Reservation Itinerary” which showed my seat as “unassigned”. But, when I clicked on the “Manage My Trip” button that took me to the Delta site, the seats were reserved. I called again. And again, I was assured that the seats were OK. Then I got an e-mail from “Delta-KLM” (KLM, the Dutch airline is now also a Delta partner) with details of our trip showing all seats reserved. All was well.

Then on March 14, my brother and sister both received “Flight Receipts” showing them on Delta flights with the original Delta flight numbers AND no reserved seats. “Manage my Trip”, however showed everything normal. I suggested they handle it. We were now flying Air France.

Finally, on April 7, it was time to print boarding passes! I quickly discovered that I had been assigned to the wrong seat. Thankfully there was an option to change seating. I called up a seating diagram of the plane and called my brother. His seat was nowhere near me. Fortunately, this was not a fully booked flight and there were three open seats together a few rows farther back. I changed my seat and printed the pass. He changed his and our sister’s seats as well and we all, finally, got to sit together. On an 8+ hour flight, this is not a minor issue.

This is the first time we had flown out of Chicago. The advantage was, it was an easy drive from our house and saved the cost of flying into New York. The down side was that it adds at least two hours onto the flight, each way. But, things went smoothly at O’Hare. It took us a long time to find a place to park, and we got there just as boarding was being called, but the flight itself was great. For $426.18 we flew over 8,000 miles, got a free meal with free wine and beer and an after-dinner cognac AND a free breakfast the next morning on both flights. There was a good entertainment system and the flight crew was friendly and attentive. The actual flights were among the best we have experienced anywhere. But, sadly, that all disappears with the ticketing process and the many other issues we encountered on the ground.

So, anyway, we had a wonderful time in Paris.

The day before they were to leave Paris, my brother and sister received notice from Air France that, due to the current round of Air France strikes, their flight was being cancelled (Even though their web site said specifically that no partner flights would be affected.) Air France promised to work feverishly to find an alternative. Their solution was to put them on a flight to Detroit leaving later in the day and then fly them from Detroit to Chicago. They left for the airport about the time they received notice from Delta that their flight had been cancelled and they promised they would find a solution. Apparently, their computers had not been told that Air France had already solved it.

But, as it turned out, Air France had not already solved it. And neither had Delta. When they got to the airport, they were told that their new flight had been cancelled and they would have to stay over at a free hotel provided by Air France and they would leave the next morning on a non-strike day. Which they did.

In the meantime, Dianne had a very good trip over and we had no trouble making connections at Charles De Gaul. We had a wonderful stay in France, as you will see described later. Our flight was scheduled to leave on time and this was a non-strike day, so it looked good for the flight. Then I received an e-mail from Delta saying our flight to Chicago had been cancelled. But as I looked at it, I realized that this was not the flight we would be boarding the next day. It was the original flight we had booked back in October which they, themselves, had changed!

But, the day of our flight WAS a train strike day. In order to make sure we arrived at CDG in plenty of time for the flight, we took a cab from our hotel near Gare du Nord. On train strike days, the cabs charge extra, so we were looking at 65 euro for that trip. And, of course, traffic was terrible. But the driver was able to bypass much of it with his special routes and we arrived at CDG with more than three hours to spare for our flight.

So, we walk into the Departures area of terminal 2E and it is absolute bedlam with people running here and there and long lines to everything. We got into one of those lines to get our boarding passes. In time, we finally got to the kiosk. It scanned my passport and ouila! Out comes a boarding pass. Dianne scans her passport and the machine starts acting funny. Instead of a boarding pass it prints out a notice that looks like a computer glitch. It reads:

Warning! This is not a boarding pass!

Please check the API status in Altea DC.

We show this to an attendant for the machine. She advises us we are in the wrong line. Americans are to use the lines about sixty yards away. Of course, there are no signs and the computer obviously didn’t care what line we were in. However, she agreed to try for us and got the same result. She directed us to a desk, far away, where many people were also in line. This began our many adventures with the maze tapes, the ones where you have to go around and through one row after another for roughly a hundred yards to get to your destination which is 20 feet away as the crow flies. And where people in a bigger hurry than you are, push you at warp speed through these barriers, not caring how your feet hurt of that you are operating on very little sleep.

We finally get to the end of the line and wait and wait and wait for a clerk to tell us what is going on. Which she never does. Instead, we are given another form which is also not a boarding pass. We are directed to another long line where we wait again, all of this with absolutely no explanation of what is going on. Eventually we get to yet another clerk, who looks everything over and gives Dianne a boarding pass.

Now we are headed for the gate, where there is yet another long line. We pass through another gate and are on our way to security, when a guy flags me over. He takes my little carry-ons and weights them. They are 5 kg over! Now we could have distributed stuff to Dianne’s bags or done some other things, but there was no discussion. My carry-on was given a sticker and I was directed to go to yet another desk to have it checked. Of course, this desk was at the other end of the terminal. When I finally got there, I was dreading yet another line but this time there wasn’t one. I still had to go through the maze, but once I got to the desk, fifteen actual feet away, a lady took the bag and gave me a sticker. I was entitled to a free  checked bag, so that was not an issue, but it means having to leave the secure area in Chicago to wait for my bag and going back through security all while hoping not to miss the connecting flight to Detroit.

I returned to Dianne and we proceeded through another maze to get to passport control. Now this maze was set up to handle, maybe, a thousand people. But, there were only a hundred or so. Any one of the “agents” standing around, and there were plenty, could have removed a few of the gates on this cattle drive and we could have proceeded directly to where the actual line was. But, no. Customers are made to walk hundreds of extra yards through these things dragging bags, children, and whatever, while our customer service people check their phones or shoot the bull with each other. If you didn’t already understand it, this is where you finally realize where you stand as an airline customer in the grand scheme of things. You are just one more doggie, and you better be gittin’ along. Customer service? Here’s your customer service: Get your ass up the line or over to that desk. And don’t ask questions.

Then, after passport control, you go through the same thing in security. As we experienced in Scotland a few months previously, while you are waiting in the security line, you are approached by a team of three people, which we now affectionately know as “Trump’s Chumps”.  America is now safe again because these three people look at the same passport that has already been reviewed three times and which has been scanned, to make sure they are in order. Then they put a sticker on the passport over top of the exact same sticker that someone else had already put there before. But we smile and chat and they go away.

We get through security just as boarding is being called. Three hours have been wasted and substantial stress added. The airline people scan the bar codes on our boarding passes. Dianne is immediately flagged for extra security. We head down the jetway, still not sure if we’re going to board. Here there is a small team of airline people with a table set up to go through bags. They take Dianne’s purse and bag. From her purse they pull a half-finished bottle of water, which in all the previous chaos she had forgotten to get rid of. They give her the purse and bag and we are on our way. Why this wasn’t caught in the original security, who knows? We take our seats for the long flight home.

I later learned (because no one ever did tell us) what the cryptic message: “Please check the API status in Altea DC” means. Altea Departure Control is a computer program used by some airlines to control the passenger boarding process from beginning to end. API is “Advance Personal Information”. Now, we always provide the airlines everything they ask for when we buy the tickets, which is usually Name, address, contact info, passport number and expiration date. We did in this case as well, but remember we gave this info to Delta. Could this be yet another communication screw-up between Delta and its partner? Nah. Couldn’t be. Of course, Dianne had already flown from Chicago to Paris on the first leg of this trip without incident. Who knows? Who cares? Nobody we met at Charles De Gaul, that’s for sure.

Fortunately, we’ve traveled enough to know that these are the exceptions. We have never had trouble with TSA and appreciate their professionalism. We have never had trouble at US airports or other European airports. But, at Charles de Gaul, they have a lot to learn and no apparent interest in learning it. At Delta, they were foolish to partner with a strike-happy airline to begin with, but the fact that they could not get their computers on same page before booking thousands of passengers is inexcusable.

For air travelers in the year of our Lord 2018 it is the best of times and the worst of times. The bag fees that have made the airlines rich have introduced a new age of travel where carry-ons are now king. But there is no room for all of them, so, many are gate-checked and handed out in the jetway when you arrive. Most flights are at or near capacity with cramped seats and few services. At the same time fares are cheaper than ever, with many flights to Europe and other destinations in the $300’s. Which, in turn, means more people are flying and the ground systems and security can’t keep up. The miracle is, given the chaos in so many other parts of the industry, that planes continue to fly safely. The most recent incidents involving Southwest Airlines are worrisome.

Each trip is a learning experience, but this one was particularly educational. Although we travel light, we’ll be traveling lighter. We’ll be more strategic about the airports we choose to fly into. We are even now re-thinking our entire approach to travel.  We have to adjust to the times and to our own increasing limitations. Probabilities increase that we are more likely to do certain things and less likely to do others, but one thing above others we have learned is that in travel you never say never. In the end, it is the USD that calls the tune. It is only a question of whether, for how long, and where you choose to dance.

 

 

Aubrey and Eden’s Great Canadian Adventure! Toronto

The return train ride from Montreal to Toronto was made much more enjoyable by green slime, which provided hour of entertainment!

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This trip was shorter than the other one, but still ran late. We always try to be right downtown when we visit a city, but the downtown hotels in Toronto are peericeee! So, instead we looked for a condo. Sure enough, we found a few available that we could swing. One was right down on the waterfront, so we booked it.

Although I had been in touch with the owners to discuss arrival times and so on, as our departure approached I recognized that a few details were missing. Like, our suite number and how to get into the place. So I contacted the owners and they replied with their standard documents which read, in part:

“As this is a high-end condo we must ask that our guests take the utmost care in respecting our property, our neighbors and the building in general. There has been some negative vacation rental stories that have made the news as of late, which is causing property management to be very sensitive to the short term rentals…We kindly ask that you do not speak to front desk staff and if anyone asks, just tell them you are a friend of ours and you are simply visiting us.”

As one who has spent much of his career dealing with local political strife, I can assure you that had this info been provided to us earlier I would have booked elsewhere. It was too late to change now and, since we are not all that rowdy any more, I figured we had a pretty good chance of flying under the radar for two nights.

So, you wanna see what a half million (CAD) Toronto condo looks like?:

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The reason it looks like a construction zone is that apparently it has been so successful they are building another one next door. We were on the 9th floor close to the top. The view was not too shabby.

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Grandma and Grandpa had our own private room and the girls shared the expandable sofa, which worked out fine.

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There was a nice little balcony

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With a fine view of Toronto Island.

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As well as the outdoor pool.

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As soon as the girls saw the pool, that had to become top priority. This complex featured both an indoor pool and the one outside. Since it was just a bit nippy, they opted for the inside.

So, they changed and we headed down. We had been given a pass key to let us into these areas and as Eden and I headed in we passed a gentleman wrapped in a towel. He did not smile as he passed and then turned around a followed us in.

He said, “Excuse me. Do you live here?”

As per instructions I said were were friends of the owners and were staying here a couple of days.

He said that there had been a meeting of the owners and they decreed that rental people (we didn’t even bother with that part of the conversation) could not have use of the “amenities” because they were not insured. He said he would have to report me.

I just shrugged my shoulders and proceeded in. Eden asked if we could swim here. I said of course you can. I said, although that gentlemen seemed unhappy he and I have one thing in common. We both know the meaning of a contract. No one ever came down to question us.

After a nice swim we decided to head up to Chinatown for a dinner. We called a cab and soon we were splashing about in the rain in some of our old Toronto stomping grounds.

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I had not done my Tripadvisor due diligence for Chinatown, so we relied on Yelp. Highest rated in the area was the Yummy Yummy Dumpling, so down we went!

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And, they were yummy!

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Since the arrival of Eden’s adopted sister from China, the whole family has been trying to learn a little Chinese. This restaurant is overseen by a woman, no doubt the owner, who greets each guest and takes them to an available table. Her English was very good, but clearly Chinese is her home language. After she had seated us and left, Eden started with a few Chinese words. She asked if we thought she should try them and we said, of course. So, when the lady returned to take our order, Eden said “Me How” which, apparently, means hello. Well, the lady’s eyes got wide and she stopped what she was doing. “How you know Chinese Me How.” Eden explained the whole story. From that point on, she was in love with Eden. She gave her some other phrases and helped with pronunciation. Clearly, we made her day. It was far better than one of my previous visits to Chinatown when I bought a Chinese newspaper to impress the locals and discovered later that I had been holding it upside down.

After a fine dinner, we went on a shopping spree at one of the area markets.

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Although my supply of white fungus at home is running a little low, I didn’t see how I was going to get 500 grams into the old carry-on. Maybe next time.

Same story on the leechees.-

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Aubrey loved the bracelets and would happily have bought them all. We suggested paring down the quantity to about 3, which she did.

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The next morning we had a fine breakfast and then it was time for their last Big Adventure. It took us a while to locate it, but pretty soon we saw the unmistakable skull and crossbones of a returning pirate ship!

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Once secured to port, about 15 middle schoolers got off, collected their backpacks and boarded a school bus. No one else arrived.

I had purchased tickets long ago for Aubrey and Eden thinking they would be part of a larger group of kids. Not so. We were then advised that at least one adult would have to accompany them. Though I offered the opportunity several times, Dianne declined. It was left up to me to join the girls for a little plundering.

First we had to get into costume.

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Then, some very nicely done tattoos:

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Then a group photo op:

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Soon we weighed anchor for our great adventure!

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It is said there are no small parts, only small actors. And, I was afraid that since it was just the three of us that performance might be a little less than spirited. Not so! These people put their hearts and souls into their roles and gave the girls the show of a lifetime!

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First we had to be made into pirates at a christening ceremony

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Then, the best safety instructions ever!

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Then, through a series of clues, which involved one the pirates being taken over by the ghost of a fallen comrade, we had to solve the mystery of the lost treasure. When we booked this trip we were a little concerned it might be a little juvenile for these girls, but the bought in entirely.

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After many adventures, we solved the mystery and retrieved the lost jewels!

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We arrived back at port victorious!

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Thanks to the spirited crew of Pirate Life Toronto we had a great time!

After this, we decided to hike up to the St. Lawrence Market for lunch and a little shopping:DSCF9554

What better place than Crepe it Up!

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We bought the last of our souvenirs and called it a day.

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Rather than see more sights, we and the girls were ready to chill. We went back to the condo, enjoyed a few more amenities, including the outdoor pool. Then strolled the downtown looking for  dinner.

Of course, we had to sample the offerings of each vendor:

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And pet the numerous dogs:

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Until, finally, on the waterfront, we enjoyed our last poutine.

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It was time to say goodbye to Toronto, at least for now:

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And, to the glorious view from our condo:

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The next morning I picked up the car, drove to the condo to pick up the girls and the bags, and we were soon on the QEW headed west.

Aubrey and I got out at the Buffalo airport and she and I flew back to Virginia. Dianne drove Eden home to Rossford. The next day, Dianne picked me up at the Columbus airport. And that was the end our great adventure.

What charming companions these girls were! They were at an age where they could appreciate what they were seeing and doing and they were such good friends, each looking after the other. They have both traveled with their parents and now they’ve traveled with us. They’ve had a little taste of this big ol’ world. Who knows what adventures lie ahead?

 

 

Aubrey and Eden’s Great Canadian Adventure! Part 2

Our last full day in Montreal began as same as the one before, at Universel for breakfast!

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Just a block away from the restaurant they were setting up for a comedy festival, so we strolled the grounds.

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Montreal is a feast for the eyes. Art is everywhere! All this was a few blocks from our hotel:

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The subway entrance is a small park

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Then we were back on the subway for a trip to the Olympic Park!

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Eden is a big fan of the Olympics. She loved everything about this place.

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Our first stop was to ride to the top of the tower that extends over the Olympic Stadium. To get up there you ride a funicular.

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The view is spectacular!

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You may recall that the pyramid shaped complex is the Olympic Village.

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Here are a couple of Olympic athletes posing for a photo op. We were glad to get their autographs, too.

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The whole park is beautifully landscaped.

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The girls raced each other at every opportunity. Aubrey’s cross-country experience payed off big.

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After spending the morning at the Olympic Park we headed back to the subway for a trip to the site of the Expo 67. The girls thought it would be good to wave at the passing train passengers:

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There is not much left of the original Expo. The Geodesic Dome has become a Biosphere with different exhibits of various ecosystems.

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From here we headed back to Old Montreal, this time with a camera. On the way, we spied a building that Aubrey immediately fell in love with, The Rainbow Building! She wanted a picture taken in front of it. Eden was very cooperative.

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Next we came upon the Notre Dame Cathedral. The girls didn’t know that their surprise for this night would be right here.

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Throughout the Old Town there are buskers and street performers. The girls loved it!

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Sometimes they got into the act!

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Very European!

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Dianne had her heart set on fondue. It didn’t take long to find a place:

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The festivities started with cheese.

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Then the main course

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Finally a chocolate dessert, featuring the queen of chocolate vampires!

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Following dinner, it was time for the next surprise, so we headed back to the cathedral. By the time we got there the line stretched around the block.

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But, once the doors opened we were quickly inside, with a choice of good seats in this massive cathedral

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The event we took them to see is called the Aura. It is an incredible show of light and sound with amazing computer generated graphics. Just when you think your mind is already blown, they start the laser lights. Very well done, and the girls loved it! Here is a sample that by no means, represents the actual experience:

After the show, we headed back to the hotel and said goodnight to a great city.

Along the way Aubrey’s rainbow building was ablaze with color. Time for another pose, without Eden’s assistance!

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Near our hotel was a fountain which featured just water by day, but at night they light the gas jets:

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We capped off the evening perfectly when the girls stopped a lady to ask if they could pet her dog. She was very willing to oblige. We were impressed throughout our trip with how friendly the people here were.

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We definitely will not wait fifty years till our next visit!