December 17, 2007

Frohliche Weinachten from Lufthansa and United! or 36 Hours to Washington

Posted in Air Travel tagged , , , , , , , , at 5:45 am by Lauren

Air travel is much less aggravating when you have all the time in the world to arrive at your destination…which is why I can’t imagine how I would have survived my return flight(s) to DC if I were actually on a deadline.

At 7:30 am on Friday, December 7, I left my apartment, caught a train, and arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport with time to spare. As I checked in, the cheery man behind the counter let me know that Frankfurt was having awful weather (particularly the wind), but that everything was currently running on time. I enjoyed my conversation with him – and I should have, as it was the last good news I’d hear for the day.

At 11:30 am, my flight to Frankfurt departed, and the flight attendants assured us that though we were delayed, everything leaving Frankfurt would be too. We arrived in Frankfurt two hours later to clear, sunny skies; simultaneously, my flight to Washington departed on schedule. 

Soon, I was the proud new owner of boarding passes to Chicago O’Hare and then to Dulles. A Lufthansa representative also gave me a voucher for lunch. My new flight wouldn’t board until 4:15 pm, and with the additional time of flying to DC from Chicago,  I’d arrive at midnight. My itinerary would now include an additional 8 hours of travelling (from 14 hours to 22).

At 6 pm, after another delay to allow other passengers to arrive, connect, and catch the last flight to the US for the day, our plane finally took off. As we flew across the Atlantic, I forced myself to stay awake by reading, doing logic puzzles, and watching No Reservations. I allowed myself one hour of sleep as the flight nears Chicago, proud of my resolve to limit sleep to combat jet lag.

At 8:45 pm Chicago time, my flight to DC started boarding, and I was still waiting for my luggage so that I could go through customs. I arrived at the correct terminal as my flight was lifting off. I was now 20 hours into my travel.

The woman at the United desk told me there were no more flights for the night. Unfortunately, she said, United would not be able to provide me with hotel accomodations. Lack of sleep makes me emotional, so I burst into tears. This outburst scored me a 40% off voucher for a hotel stay. Miserably, I insisted that the United representative put me on the 11 am flight instead of the 6 am flight. If I was going to sleep in Chicago, then sleep I would! I had no intention of waking up again at 4 am to go to the airport. 

At the Holiday Inn Select O’Hare, a luxurious king bed awaited me, and I slept a full eight hours. I woke up much refreshed on Saturday morning, harboring illusions that my final flight would be more pleasant. But again, United Airlines surpassed all my expectations.

I was directed to the electronic ticketing area, where I struggled to find information on my faux boarding pass that I could enter in to retrieve my flight information. (Each time I was put on a new flight, I was provided with a more counterfeit-looking boarding pass, often with only my name, the flight number, and the boarding time. Why would I actually need to know the take-off or landing times?) The sticker needed to check my baggage refused to print, and three United employees couldn’t seem to provide me with any help. (One said she couldn’t help me until the sticker printed though I’d been standing there 10 minutes already, another had to go ask another person to help me and then go stand around helping no one, and a third (the one the second asked to help) needed to help two others who intercepted her on her way to me and then only sent me to the ticketing agents.) Finally the sticker was manually reprinted by a ticketing agent (after I stood in line a second time).

In the security queue, another surprise lurked! I had been specially chosen by security for a full search of my carry-on luggage. The results? One confiscated jar of foie gras, on the grounds that it is or in some way could be a liquid, and two confiscated (but small enough to mail to myself) Lush solid perfumes also determined to be liquids. And one argument with a security team member about the name of candlesticks. She “corrected” me so we’d be on the same page: candlesticks are actually “candle stick holders,” while taper candles are “candle sticks.” She also decided to add insult to injury when she took the foie gras by asking, “Is this even legal to do to a bird anymore?” I pointed out that while we may take offense to their force-feeding birds, the French in turn are hardly pleased that we still execute people.

Finally, at 2:30 pm EST, I left the Dulles airport with Ryan. For all of those who asked if I was excited to be returning to the States – I certainly was excited when I finally reached home.

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December 6, 2007

Auberge Schmanzien

Posted in Exploring, Visitors tagged , , , , , , at 11:45 am by Lauren

Our closet apartment turned into a hostel this past week as no fewer than three visitors arrived to welcome December to Paris. Every day we saw a new face, as Cheryl arrived on Thursday, then Elizabeth on Friday, and finally Sara on Saturday. Phew! Our tiny floor disappeared under the air mattresses and luggage. On Saturday morning before Sara arrived, Elizabeth, Allen, Cheryl, and I went on a shopping expedition to Lush and Le Bon Marche for solid perfumes and Christmas ornaments respectively. Since Cheryl was buying ornaments, I determined that I also was allowed to buy small, fragile blown bits of glass that would crumble in my return suitcase. Hooray! I allowed myself four, but I make no promises of restraint in the after-Christmas sales.

We arrived home in plenty of time to teach Cheryl to play Peanuts before Sara’s arrival. When Sara did finally get to our apartment, we could hardly interrupt our game to answer the door, but eventually we decided that we shouldn’t leave her outside on her birthday. We all bundled off to Montmartre, getting a bit too familiar with our “new friends” in the packed metro trains, and then panting up the stairs of Sacre Coeur. (An aside: There was an interesting new money-making scheme at Sacre Coeur, which I could not figure out. At least 20 Africans were chasing after tourists with what looked like a friendship bracelet, encouraging them to put their finger through the loop at the end so that the African could continue making the bracelet. What was the purpose? I wanted to ask what the catch was that convinced the tourists to hand over the change.) After following the stream of people through the basilica, we headed to a nearby overlook for more picture-taking and then up to Place du Tertre to gaze at the displayed paintings.

Dark was falling as we led the group to the metro and took a convoluted three-transfer route to a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower. It was the same view we’d seen from Trocadero the weekend before when we’d been Christmas shopping, and we pretended “it’s got to be just around a corner here” as we walked up on the vista. The Eiffel Tower suddenly appears, lit-up and twinkling! So, another round of picture-taking ensued, with everyone trying to hold their cameras still for the night shots.

Then came the forced march, in which Allen and I ensured that everyone would sleep very, very well that night. By the time we arrived at L’Epicerie Fuxia, our favorite little Italian place, everyone was tired and hungry. (Success!) Sara and Cheryl had the stuffed eggplant, Allen ordered his usual lasagna, Elizabeth had a pasta dish that I don’t remember (but that looked mouth-watering), and I enjoyed a fusilli with fresh artichokes and sauteed peppers in a lemony sauce. Afterwards we gleefully forced ourselves to share two large pieces of tiramisu, which were just as amazing as I’d hoped they would be! (I’d seen the tiramisu once before, and it looked exactly as perfect tiramisu should look.) Though it was only 9:30 when we left the restaurant, we were all happy to turn in early in anticipation of the next day’s free museum rush.

We woke up early on Sunday morning – the first Sunday of the month, otherwise known as a journee de patrimoine, which roughly translated means free museums all day! Sara and Elizabeth overslept at the hostel (the real one, not our apartment), and we didn’t get to the towers of Notre Dame until about 10 am. We had an hour before Sara needed to get herself to the train to the airport. Sunday was a dreary, gray, rainy day, and we stood under soggy umbrellas as we waited for admission to the towers. We only waited about half an hour though, and then we climbed the hundreds of steps to the top. The towers of Notre Dame are very much worth a visitor’s time, if for nothing but the gargoyles. Too soon though, we were rushing to get Sara’s luggage and get her on her way.

Next stop was the Musee d’Orsay, where we found a line snaking around the plaza so many times we couldn’t see much of it through the mass of people. It took less than a minute to abandon that for easier pursuits: the Musee Rodin. There, we found no line and the most atrocious mullet I have ever seen in my life. (The front of her hair was cut as if she had a short haircut, poufed up a little on the front and the sides, and then the back was shiny, straight, fine hair hanging past her rear. Amazing. Efforts to capture this on film were unsuccessful.)

After a short lunch out of the rain, we beelined to a metro and got back home around 3 pm, determined to dry out. We only came out again at dinner for some mediocre crepes at a nearby restaurant, and then we returned again for more Phase 10 and Peanuts.

Monday morning, Cheryl left before we rose, and Elizabeth and I did a bit of shopping both Monday and Tuesday before her train. That would have been my cue to then return home and start packing my bags for my flight to the U.S. on Friday (tomorrow), but that’s exactly what I’m procrastinating from doing right now!

Christmas shopping weekend

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 11:22 am by Lauren

I am desparate to share the genius ideas Allen and I had while Christmas shopping this weekend and the brilliant places we found gifts, but I’m afraid that would ruin all the fun for those receiving the gifts. Suffice it to say that we are brilliant geniuses (did I mention that?), and that if you don’t like your gifts, please return them to us so that we can continue to enjoy our genius ourselves.

This weekend also included a blast-from-the-past reunion of sorts, with a visit from Aysha, my freshman roommate in college. From staying in touch with my good friend Catherine, I reunited with Ann here. Ann’s getting her MBA right outside of Paris, and we used to swing dance together. Ann has kept in touch with Aysha and also with Eugenia, another friend from my swing-dancing sophomore year. It turns out that Eugenia is also studying in Paris, and the four of us plus Allen had lunch together on Saturday at a very good Thai restaurant in the 3rd arrondissement. It was nice to see them again, and I guess it just goes to show that you never know who you’ll reconnect with in your lifetime.

After that, we went to a secret location in Paris where Dick Cheney is hidden. Just kidding, it’s where we did some shopping. We got closer to the Eiffel Tower than I’ve been since arriving, and I was reminded of what an impressive site it really is. Allen and I had a laugh because we’d forgotten the camera at lunch time, and now we wished we’d had it even more.

On Sunday (Nov 25), we came up with an even more brilliant idea of where to shop for gifts, particularly because it was open on Sundays! We then went and found something for everyone remaining on our list! It was very satisfying, as I’m sure you can glean from my tone. (Glean? I am hammering it into you!)

When we got home, Allen turned on the football game (the Redskins were a disaster), and I peeled the “Made in China” stickers off all our purchases. A successful weekend, indeed.

Unemployed in Paris?

Posted in Babysitting tagged at 11:22 am by Lauren

I thought I was unemployed, but this week has left me heartily confused. Between Sunday, November 16 and Friday, November 23, I worked no fewer than 37 hours between babysitting and English lessons. The difficult part was that more than half of those hours were on two days, Wednesday and Friday. Friday, with 14 hours and 6.5 miles of walking, just about ruined me. (Yes, on each of the weekdays, I also walked at least 4.5 miles in addition to the babysitting.)

I haven’t updated my babysitting situation on this blog since I lost the other job, so I suppose you’ll all now see that it worked out just fine. I have four jobs that are fairly regular now, and between them, I’m sure to work at least 20 hours a week. That works for me!

The first job is the delightful evening position with a one- and three-year-old. Michael, the three-year-old, has really warmed up to us, and particularly to Allen. He’s a crack-up because he’s going to a French school now so his English and French are getting all mixed up to the point of incomprehensibility sometimes. When his parents left last Friday night to go out, Michael pointed at Allen and said to his parents something like, “You go, I stay with ca?” (“Ca” means “that” in French!) Katharine, the 1-year-old, has started toddling all over the place and loves playing with grown-ups, so I fly her around the room “attacking” Michael, Allen, and her parents. (This is probably unwise since I see her right after her dinner. As long as her face isn’t pointed at me though!)

The other job that I’ve been doing since the beginning of October is the English lessons. Adrienne and Natsumi are both 7, French, and full of mischief. Most of the time, I like it! We’ve had our ups and downs as I try to discipline them only in English (while they speak no English but what I’ve taught them), but they are definitely learning and retaining everything I’m bringing to the table, which makes me proud. Allen and I also had the pleasure of joining Adrienne and her family for dinner Friday before last, and that was really nice. (It also gave me an opportunity to speak with Adrienne in French, and I teased her a little for not asking more questions of me the one time I could answer in French!) For dessert, Adrienne decorated the cake with a chocolate drizzle that spelled out, “Hello.”

I picked up the next job after my firing in early November. I work for two mothers who need time to work and do other things during the day a few days a week. They both have one-year-olds, so I’m in charge of two one-year-old girls, Roxanne and Sunniva. They are really fun to watch play with each other. I watch them three hours at a time on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. The girls are full of funny surprises, always want to play with each other’s toys, and the one who’s eating always has to have the other in her sight. It can be tiring to watch two babies at once, but the three hours are broken up by feeding schedules, which makes it a little easier.

My newest job is only two weeks old now. This American mother needed someone to watch her two-year-old during the strike when her normal babysitter couldn’t come. Though the strike is over, she’s still calling on me, which is fine because her little boy Noah is adorable. I make no secret of the fact that I love two-year-olds. What a great age! (The mothers in the audience are probably shaking their heads at me right now, but I assure you that I have dealt with more than my share, as a childless woman, of vomit, diapers, and tantrums. I still think two-year-olds can be quite charming.) I don’t have a set schedule for watching Noah, which is okay with me at this point.

So, there’s the full update of an unemployed American in Paris. Now, back to twiddling my thumbs.

The Greve, Take Two!

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:21 am by Lauren

It’s well beyond us now, but Allen and I (and the rest of Paris and even France) enjoyed another transportation strike for nine days in November. Some highlights included riot police on my walk to work, several loud demonstrations (involving flares) on Boulevard du Montparnasse, and high schoolers marching in protest of whatever was causing them angst at that moment in their teenage lives. Fortunately for Allen, he was able to work from home four or five days, which was a nice bonus for both of us.

Last hours of Scotland

Posted in Exploring tagged , , , at 11:18 am by Lauren

Never ones to waste a moment, Mary and Iain had us touring again on Saturday morning, and we happily piled into the car to head to Pollok County Park, an expansive parkland in the middle of Glasgow. We saw some “hairy coos,” Highland cattle, marvelled at the fall colors, and visited a Clydesdale stables. (Did you know Clydesdales are native to that area? I never really thought about it. The river Clyde runs through Glasgow – and now you know.) We then toured Pollok House, which has an interesting collection of El Greco paintings, and moved on to the Burrell Collection, specifically the tapestries (of which my favorite was the thistles in blue and white). We ate at the museum; I had a baked potato with “tuna and sweet corn mayonnaise,” which is in fact tuna salad with corn, and chocolate caramel squares for dessert. At lunch we overhead and approached a man who’d been a child during World War II and who’d seen the American soldiers camped out on the field the cafeteria overlooked.

After lunch, we headed straight to the airport, but realizing we were running ahead of schedule we took a detour to Troon, a seaside village that’s becoming a popular golf resort town. Standing by the sea taking in the salty air was a wonderful way to end our trip to Scotland, and we’ve been promised “Highlands and islands” by Mary and Iain if we’d only return in better weather.

The longest mile in Europe

Posted in Exploring tagged , , , at 11:09 am by Lauren

I have so many things to say about Scotland – a trip we took a full month ago – that I’ve let myself get caught up in writing it in pieces and as a result let everything else fall to the wayside. We may have just lost a month of my life… 

So, here’s the quickie update on Friday, November 2 in Scotland. Allen and I took the bus to Edinburgh, hiked straight to the castle and looked at everything (yes, everything), especially the view. We then walked the Royal Mile, peering down the tiny alleyways called closes, eyeing the tartans in the tourist shops, and stopping at notable sites (according to the guide book). We wandered the graveyard at Cannongate Church, tiptoed around the cathedral, gazed through the gates of Holyrood Palace (only one highly expensive tourist attraction – the castle – in one day), and splurged on a Starbucks coffee. (That last bit is a little embarrassing. However, we have already been punished by Starbucks itself because the prices in pounds looked a little too close to prices in dollars for our ultimate comfort.) Walking the Royal Mile took most of the day, but when we were done, we went over to Princes Street, Rose Street, and Georges Street and walked up and down looking in shop windows. I indulged in some Christmas cards from Paperchase and a Cadbury Flake Bar (a favorite since we lived in Turkey).

Back in Glasgow, we picked up fish and chips for dinner. The whole meal was covered in vinegar and melted away in your mouth. I could eat that every day! I got a laugh when Allen ordered the “fish suppers,” and the woman just looked at him, presumably surprised by his American accent. Fortunately, it didn’t stop us from getting and digging in to the fried and vinegar goodness!