Monday, June 25, 2012

Sacre Bleu! It’s the Sacre Coeur! - Day 3

On the third day, I walked.  A lot.  But first, the closer from Day 2.  No trip to Paris would be complete (I guess) with out a stop by the famous Moulin Rouge! 

Not quite as dramatic as in the movie.

Spectacular! Spectacular!  Or whatever.  I made the trip out as far as to take a picture of it, and then hopped the metro across the street back home.  Not exactly the most fantastic part of the city at night. 

Anyway, to day 3.  The day began with a climb up the tallest hill in Paris, Montmartre, to visit the Basilica of Sacre Coeur. 

Sacre Coeur

I ventured up the 300 steps to reach the top of the dome.  And let me tell you, those are a lot of steps.  I don’t know what my obsession with climbing to the top of monuments when I go on vacation is, but it seems to be quite the trend. 

Scenic skyline with Eiffel Tower

From the top you have more spectacular views of the city.  Have you ever noticed how all the buildings are practically the same height?  Maybe that’s what makes the city seem so strange to me. 

Following my adventures to Sacre Coeur and a walk through scenic Montmartre, I headed over to towards the south of the river, and stumbled onto another large domed structure, the Pantheon.  It’s almost reaching the point of “you’ve seen one dome, you’ve seen them all”, but this was particularly interesting, as its crypts house some famous folks the likes of Pierre and Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, and Louie Braille. 

Yes, that's written in Braille below

Yes, Braille’s crypt is the only one also written in Braille on the outside.  Imagine that!

But more fascinating to me was the center of the Pantheon, under the dome, which is where Leon Foucault first hung a pendulum to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth.  This became known as the Foucault Pendulum, and while not the original, they have recreated his original experiment in the same location: 

The Original Foucault Pendulum (restored)

For a science geek like me, this alone was worth the price of admission.  While most people just wandered by and were like “huh?”. 

From the Pantheon, I made my way to an interesting little district in Paris called the Place des Vosges.  Characterized by narrow streets filled with shops and galleries, it was buzzing with people.  And after picking up a sandwich for lunch at a local Boulangerie, I passed by an Italian gelato shop, and determined that I had to stop.  My mom would have stopped, and then gawked at how expensive it was, and bought some anyway.  I had a delightful combination of chocolate and cherry gelato.  It was delicious. 


After all my miles of walking, my feet decided it was time to head back to the hotel and relax.  So I hopped the nearest Metro back home, but while in the subway station, heard some music coming from down one of the corridors.  Not to pass up an opportunity to find some music, I wandered down and found this group playing some pretty awesome music.  If there were such a thing as French Mariachi music, this would probably be it.  Three accordions!  How awesome is that?! 

Band in the subway.  They were good.

And finally, we wrap up with a few additional observations from Paris.  Paris is an interesting city.  The people seem to be both lazy and hurried if that makes any sense.  I want to be enamored by the city, but honestly I’m not.  It has the things in a great European city that I enjoy: historic old-European feel, efficient transportation.  But it also feels like too big for its own good.  I enjoy the artistic history of it, but I’ve had enough.  For now.  Maybe I’ll come back and give it another chance later. 

Tomorrow I’m off to take the Eurostar through the Chunnel and over to London for a couple of days of excitement in an English speaking country.  Time to find some of the pre-Olympics festivity and enjoy it. 

Bon nuit. 

You’ll Louvre the Museums in Paris! – Day 2

It’s another bright morning in Paris, and time to venture out on our way.  Unfortunately, it’s no longer sunny and warm, it’s cloudy and grey. But early on, it’s dry at least, so we’ll go with that. 

I make my way to the Louvre first thing, and good thing I did, because the lines were minimal.  Not so much about 3 hours later when I left and the lines were all the way across the giant plaza, probably at least an hour wait just to get in.  Not my style.  I don’t even wait that long for a ride at Disneyland.  Where’s my fastpass? 

REALLY long line to get in now.
The line later in the day… all the way down the plaza.

Anyway, everyone has said it, but it’s hard to believe it until you’re there.  The Louvre is GINORMOUS!  Like crazy.  I had to take a map of the place and draw a line on it with my route through, just so I wouldn’t get lost.  But of course, the place is also gorgeous.  I was probably more fascinated by the galleries and the architecture itself than most of the contents inside.  But what I found the best at the entire museum?  The people watching!  OMG, what a hilarious time watching all of the tourists clamoring over one thing after another.  I walked into the room containing the Mona Lisa, and was immediately compelled to take a picture.  Not of the painting, but of the rest of the people all taking pictures of it. 

Crazy people fawning over a little painting.

This was the highlight of my day.  I was trying to restrain my laughter.  C’mon people, yeah it’s the Mona Lisa… but you know what it looks like.  You can find countless pictures in books or online (the same could go for most everything in here, no doubt), so WHAT is your obsession?  Hilarious.  But that wasn’t the best people watching of the day.  That has to go to the younger-aged Asian woman who had the big camera, and entered this large room I was in, and immediately starts walking from painting to painting, snapping a picture, snapping one of the sign, and moving to the next one.  It was well-tuned and mechanical.  I don’t think she even looked at the paintings, she just pointed the camera and shot, waiting just long enough to snap the pic and move to the next one, elbowing her way through the crowds.  All I found myself hoping was that she has an old grandmother who has always wanted to go to the Louvre, and promised to take pictures of everything and bring them home so she could see them.  Sadly, I’m pretty sure she will take them home and never look at them again, and missed the fact that there were awesome paintings and stuff to look at.  C’est la vie.  I made my way past most of the paintings, and on to the Egyptian artifacts and Decorative Arts, which I personally find more appealing.  I enjoy stuff that is historic and 3D. :)


Then I stumbled onto this busted up statue people were all obsessing over again.  I don’t see the fascination, there were plenty of un-broken ones just behind me in the gallery.  But not wanting to feel left out, I took a picture with it anyway. 

Enough of that, next I made my way across the Seine and attempted to go over to the Musee d’Orsay.  I was mostly curious why they needed a museum devoted to Pig Latin, but the line was ridiculously long there too, and it had started to rain, so I moved on and hopped the Metro over to the Eiffel Tower. 

A much better shot of Moi

Yup, it’s still here.  On a background of white clouds under the rain.  Again, long lines and lack of desire to pay to go up and see stuff in the clouds that I already saw from the top of the Arc de Triomphe the day before in the sun, I took some pictures, and left.  Though I must admit, it is a pretty spectacular landmark up close. 

From there I took a cruise down the Seine River, and saw the city that way.  In the rain, but the boat was enclosed so I could see it from the inside.  Not bad, but I didn’t really feel like I saw more than I do walking around.  It just allowed me to say I’m on a Boat. 

Finally I ended up at the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  I looked for the hunchback, but he must have been sleeping.  So instead I just looked around inside, and took some pictures outside.  Honestly, I’ve seen some pretty spectacular cathedrals in my travels, and this really wasn’t one of them.  Sure it’s historic, but I’m not one for seeing things solely because they’re famous.  I got nothing out of this.  But I waited in line in the rain to go in, because it was free.  I will wait in long lines when things are free.  I would not wait in a long line to pay $10 to climb to the top of the tower.  I’ll leave that for another trip. 

Notre Dame

And that brings us once again to everyone’s favorite part of the show where I comment on things I find amusing that don’t fit anywhere else. 

Observation #1:  The French language isn’t so bad
I was honestly terrified to travel to France for many years because of the stereotypes of the French people being very snooty if you don’t speak their language.  Honestly, I’ve probably heard more people speaking English on this trip than French, at least in the tourist parts.  There are people from all over the world, for many of whom neither English nor French are their primary language.  But if they don’t know these, they learn to speak English and that’s the common language of communication.  Sometimes not well, but enough to get the point across.  And I’ve yet to find a French person who didn’t know enough English to get by.  I can get by in stores with basic numbers from 1-10, bonjour, sil vous plait, and merci, without too much more needed.  Handing over Euros always earns a “merci!” without too much more to be said. 

Observation #2: The French must get really confused at dinner in the US
The hardest thing I had to figure out about meals around here is that entrée means starter or appetizer.  Of course, we Americans somehow got the idea back home that the entrée is the main course.  I have no idea how that got all mixed up over the years, but it must confuse the French at least as much as it confuses we Americans traveling to France. 

Observation #3: Things aren’t so expensive if you think about it
Blame the European financial crisis, if you will, but the US dollar is doing fantastic against both the Euro and the Pound these days.  About $1.25 USD = EUR, which I think is fantastic.  Though yes, things do seem to cost more, especially food, until I thought about it a bit more.  As an easy point of reference, a hamburger dinner here at a typical casual restaurant might be about 15 euros.  That seems like a lot, considering that same hamburger dinner would probably be $12 USD or so back home.  BUT, realize that the tax and tip are both included here.  Back home, I could expect to pay 10% tax and 15-20% tip on that $12 meal, putting it at somewhere around $15-16 USD after all is said and done. Still cheaper than Europe, but not as absurd overall.  Now, yes, their alcohol is insane compared to the US, but that’s another topic altogether. 

But I also was thinking how hard it must be for Europeans traveling to the US and the major differences in how we tip for service.  Most Europeans don’t have any idea what is an appropriate tip, though at this point they do seem to understand that it’s customary to do so.  They are aghast at the thought of paying 20% over the bill just for good service.  But they probably don’t realize that there’s a reason the bill is so relatively cheap in the US compared to Europe, and that the people working aren’t getting paid as much.  European servers come out like a bandit however, because most Americans can’t imagine not leaving a decent tip (even if less than they would back home), and I worry that in those major tourist areas the servers start expecting it.  I bet those servers wouldn’t be so happy if they had to rely on those tips as a major part of their income like US servers do.  Interesting observations.  But also I notice that servers here in Europe on the whole are less attentive and less interested than most US servers, probably for that same reason.  It’s one area that I think the US has the better standard for the customer. 

That’s enough observations for now.  Until Day 3’s adventures, coming up next! 

Bonjour! – Paris Day 1

So much to say about Paris.  And I’m too tired to say most of it.  But we’ll start anyway. 

I made my way from Sweden to Paris on a plane.  That flies in the air.  Varoom, woosh.  Anyway, once I arrived in Paris, I hopped the RER train down to the Gare du Nord and walked about 7 or 8 blocks to get to my hotel, dragging my stuff all the way there.  BUT, in a lovely beginning to my trip, on the train from the airport to the city, we stopped at one stop and a guy with an accordion walks on and starts playing.  Then of course walks through the train asking for money.  So this is the France I’ve heard of. 

First observation:  does this city not believe in escalators?  Even in the train station I was hauling my stuff up and down stairs.  Come to find out, it’s that way throughout the whole city.  OK, there are escalators occasionally, but for the most part it’s vastly a stair-based city.  Which is hard on the feet.  I digress. 

From my hotel, I ventured out into the city.  As I always like to do when I start my trips in a new place, I do an orientating wander.  Basically, I just start walking and see where it takes me – around my hotel, towards the typical touristy parts, just to see where it goes.  Next thing I found myself at the Louvre, about 2 miles later.  It was a wandering 2 hours, and it didn’t really feel like that much, but by the map it had to have been. 

The backside of the Louvre

I wasn’t planning to go to the Louvre until the next morning, so instead I walked straight across, through the center of the Louvre plaza, past the famous pyramid, through the Jardin des Tuileries where the locals were all out relaxing…


… past the Place du Concorde…

Fountain in Place de la Concorde

… and on to the Champs Elysses.  These places look close to each other, because they are, but it still takes forever to walk through them.  I walked the most famous street in Paris from one end at the Louvre, all the way to the other end, at the Arc de Triomphe.  This became the first of the famous Paris landmarks I climbed to the top of.  But the views were spectacular. 

Moi with a blurry Eiffel Tower

Paris is huge.  Well, it looks huge anyway.  All of the buildings are the same height, and they all stretch for as far as the eye can see in every direction.  I remember the tip I got when traveling to New York for the first time… go to the top of the second most famous building, that way you can see the most famous in addition to everything else.  In that case, I went up to the top of the GE Building at Rockefeller Center, but this time it was the Arc de Triomphe.  Good choices both times. 

And now we come to the part of the show where we discuss some rants and raves of the city. 

RAVE: The Paris Metro
Back in the Metro
I am a connoisseur of awesome public transportation systems, and to this I give a tip of my hat to the Paris Metro.  This has to be the most efficient of all subway systems I’ve ever been to in the world.  Trains appear quickly, they load and unload without wasting time, and they get you where you need to go quickly.  It’s also a pay-to-get-in system, like New York or Chicago, where you pay to enter the Metro, and from there you can get anywhere you want to, transferring from line to line as necessary.  None of this pay-by-the-distance crap.  Approved.  Clean and efficient. 

AND, the most brilliant thing.  Every major station has a bunch of exits, usually sprawled across an entire city block.  This is no different than most cities’ subways.   But in Paris, the exits are all numbered, and there’s a map on the wall to point out which number exits where, so you don’t have to guess by street names to figure it out. Simply brilliant! 

I do have a couple of complaints… 1)  Enough stairs people!  Put some escalators in once in a while. My feet are killing me.  2)  As efficient as it is, London’s Oyster Card has every other system in the world beat for efficiency of payment.  At least Paris does have visitor passes, which allow unlimited transport within the city for a certain period of time, but this involves a paper ticket that goes through the turnstiles over and over.  Whereas the locals all have the Oyster-style touch cards that just tap at the gates.  C’mon, let the tourists have the same convenience.   But overall, definitely a fine transportation system. 

RANT: Panhandlers
Panhandlers, con artists, impoverished youth, call them what you will.  This is a common issue among every major tourist city I’ve been to, but the French ones are the most… unique.  Not like the streets of Seattle back home, where the panhandlers will just shake a paper cup at you asking for spare change then leave you alone, no, none of that.  Interestingly enough, they all start out “do you speak English?” obviously because the French-speaking locals are too smart to fall for their ploys.  Racket #1 was the middle-aged man in the tweed suit with the old “I’m a tourist from New York and someone picked my wallet, do you have a few bucks to help me out?”  First of all, if you lost your wallet, you’re gonna need more than a few bucks to solve your problems, and either way I’m not going to be able to help you.  That one might work with the Brits, but a fellow American isn’t gonna fall for that one.  Racket #2, the passive panhandling.  Usually some Muslim-looking young girls, in the typical garb, kneeling in the middle of the sidewalk with a paper cup sitting in front of them.  At least they’re passive enough, but I’m unimpressed.  But at least it’s not a straight con, and I appreciate that.  Racket #3 (and by far the most prevalent), the “sign the petition to help the deaf-mute people (and give a donation)” con.  This one’s hilarious, because if you think about it, it makes no sense whatsoever.  You have some kids who back home would look like professional petition signature gatherers, with what looks like a very poorly photocopied signature sheet with at the top that says something to the effect of “I’m deaf/mute, please help support me”.  The list followed with something on the order of 10-15 signatures (all of which looked similar, but may have been previous dupees), followed by the amount of their “donation”.  They shove it in your hands, and point at the headings at the top, and ask you to sign it.  Then they point out the donation part.  The one that was put in my hands, the entire column was filled with 20 Euro in the column.  I laughed.  I signed it anyway, and offered the girl 0.10 euro.  She didn’t take it and walked away. ha.  Failure #1:  If you’re pretending to be deaf/mute, don’t walk up to me and ask if I speak English.  Failure #2:  Do a little better at forging the paper before showing it to me.  Failure #3:  Don’t ask an American from the city, we’re used to it.  You want me to give you money, play some music.  I throw large bills at struggling musicians who are out on the streets playing for money—if they’re good.  And I have twice so far on this trip.  I’m a sucker for the accordian and trumpet duo.

More on Day 2, coming up next! 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Back in the saddle again…

Well, it’s been quite a while since my last blog post, but as usual a trip has inspired me to start it up for another brief time.  This time it’s another trip to Sweden for a short week of work, but following that is a week of vacation with adventures in Paris and London, which should definitely be something to look forward to. 

Except the French… I’m terrified of the French.  I don’t speak a lick of French, beyond the pleasantries of the occasional bonjour, merci, and the always useful “je ne parle pas francais.”  But what’s the worst that could happen?  eh?  When I claim to be from Canada to avoid their dislike of Americans, I’ll just make sure to clarify that I’m from the west coast of Canada, where they don’t speak as much French. :)

This is now my 4th adventure to Sweden for work, and I’ve learned a few tricks to help get me through the massive time change.  First, stop trying to fight it – it only makes you frustrated and hating the world.  So I  determine that I’ll let the daylight guide me, and take a nap when I get tired, but try to keep myself up long enough today until I finally get to the hotel and at some point sleep forever.  As it is now, I’m trapped in Amsterdam on another painfully long layover of something like 7 hours.  I had originally thought about going into the city for the day since I was here so long, but when we arrived it was pouring down rain in buckets, and I decided to just relax around the airport. 

Watched a couple of good movies on the plane ride over.  Fortunately, they had several that I had meant to see but never got around to, so I watched the new Mission Impossible movie.  Actually not too bad of a movie I have to say.  Though it ended with a scene supposedly in Seattle, and I immediately was distracted by the fact that a)  it looked nothing like Seattle, well, maybe what people who don’t live in Seattle think Seattle looks like, but nothing like the Seattle that I call home.  And b) the scene was at night, and the brilliant filmmakers decided to emphasize that fact by having the sound of crickets chirping in the background.  Newsflash, we don’t have crickets in Seattle… the best sounds you’re gonna find at night might be somewhere between crashing waves on the waterfront, and the unmistakable sound of cars driving down the freeway.  Bah!  Ruined the whole movie for me. 

Did I mention I’ve been awake for… about 19 hours at this point?  I am not responsible for the rants which my fingers are compelled to type out here. 

Oh yeah, the other movie I watched was Hugo, which stole a ton of Oscars last year.  I now see why, because the movie is about movies.  As much as The Artist was a giant love-fest of the history of motion picture, so is Hugo, but with a different twist.  I liked the movie, don’t get me wrong… but there wasn’t anything that screamed Oscar there for me.

What else?  I’ve managed to find every quiet corner of this airport at this point.  Fortunately, there are lots of quiet corners.  I think next I will head up to the Airport Park --  the astroturf-laden area where they pump in the sounds of birds chirping, in order to make you feel like you’re outside in the park on a sunny day.  May be time to take a nap.  It’s only 3am Seattle time, but noon here.  Tick tock. 

So the flight was pretty uneventful.  Despite the 9 hours, I think I only got out of my seat once.  Sitting in front of me was this guy who looked like Anderson Cooper.  An older, fatter Anderson Cooper, but still.  The problem was that he was the type that slams his seat back cutting off any sense of personal space I had.  Then he kept getting up, and then sitting back down with a thud that slammed his seat back into me.  At least the flight went by quickly.  I may have taken a half hour nap at some point. 

OK, I’ll try to stay awake for another 6 or 7 hours.  More to come in the next few days.