The Grand Tour, Part 5: The South of France

Welcome to Nice! The red roof Mediterranean look is classic for a reason – it’s really how most buildings are capped. The beaches here are mostly stone, which makes for an interesting visit. It’s best not to leave your possessions unattended, either.

We got to take in some nature and archeology climbing the largest hill near the harbor. That’s where we spotted this lovely waterfall, and got to see some fancy pigeons, too.

While exploring the center city, we saw some capoeiristas showing off their skills at multiple tourist spots for tips. I’d learned a little bit in college, so it was fun to see again.

We stumbled upon a graffiti artist with very interesting technique! He made a lot of use of circular items to create the appropriate borders for the base layer. He’d manipulate the spray paint with brushes, too. We bought a fantasy scene of elephants and baobabs.

That same evening, we saw lots of vendors with more or less the same kitsch for sale. Possibly our favorite story of the trip centers on the one who claimed his wares were hand-carved from real ebony, and I think there was a sob story about how his family needs the income, too? Anyway, I was pretty uncomfortable with the hard sell but Jeff knew what was going on and decided to buy a mass produced turtle carving anyway, saying the amount we were overcharged was for the guy’s time really selling it without giving any hint that it was bogus.

Also we tried a McDonald’s smoothie to see how it was different there!

The next day we took a bus out to the next town east. It’s one of the few sandier beaches in the vicinity, by which mostly I mean better pulverized stone. We had several floral flavors of gelato, and assembled lunch from the village grocery.

For dinner – another favorite story – we had a very intriguing visit to a cafe that made an “American” sandwich – burger chopped up, put in a wrap with lettuce, tomato and Big Mac sauce, and then panini pressed. Their “pizza” was interesting too. Note we were very close to Italy. It was more like bruschetta I think? In either case both were delicious if not exactly what was advertised. We decided to stop while we were ahead, though, and NOT try the tacos and burritos you could order with the meats chicken tenders and chicken fingers if you wanted…

We finished out the evening with sunset on the beach, then hurried back to the bus stop. We were a little worried we were too late, as was the family waiting with us, but luckily there was indeed at least one more bus that came for us all.

Thanks to my cousin who booked the trip for us, we added an overnight in Carcassone. That’s right, I get nerd points for staying in a town that inspired a board game. The castle was cool, the couple cosplaying even cooler.

Jeff, of course, was a big fan of the fountain in the town that lights up at night. There was some great statuary there, and we were a little disappointed we didn’t have time to see the art museum that bordered the square.

As we got ready to head back to the hotel, we could see that when you look back across the river, the whole castle and walled city lit up. A great view for a great end of the night!

The Grand Tour, Part 4: A Little More Paris, Versailles and Giverny

Having completed our two full day trips, we decided to slow down a little. First of all, we were exhausted. Second of all, we needed to take a laundry day in the middle of the trip. We got to explore our immediate neighborhood, trying out the patisserie.

Better rested, we ventured out once more. The portal in the first picture above was one of the inventions displayed in a metro station; the whole look was very nearly steampunk. Here, I think we are looking at the Hotel du Ville?

At picture, place or both, we saw an exhibit on the history of Paris, its public services, etc. It was clearly for Parisians, all in French with very complex grammar. In comparison, the newspaper announcement they displayed from the 1800s explaining every person had a right to vote was much easier to comprehend!

Needing some greenery, we visited the Bois du Boulogne and met this muskrat!

Our first half day trip was the obligatory Versailles. We only got to see the palace itself, no time for the gardens. This was my second viewing, and with another decade and a half of theatre under my belt, the false marble painted in the restored rooms was much easier to spot!

Later in the evening, we checked out the Paris Plage. That’s the beach, folks. Now it’s not natural, they cart a bunch of sand to one of the Seine’s canals. It was quite the attraction! Zip lines, bumper boats, sunbathing, bars.

There were also three levels of French as a second language class for immigrants! One group was drilling colors, one was doing something with verb tenses, and the third was practicing writing letters.

Our other half day trip was to Giverny, and Monet’s gardens. They were beautiful! It was really interesting to go inside and see some of the replica paintings – having seen the original just a few days before, we could tell the difference!

It’s possible we were homesick for our chickens, because Jeff couldn’t help but snap a photo of this confident bird. We rounded out this part of the voyage by buying a little modern impressionist piece from an artist in the village.

The Grand Tour, Part 3: Mont St Michel and the Loire Valley

Remember how I mentioned fleeing to the country? Granted it was planned ahead of time, since we signed up for a few day trips to see some key places outside of Paris, but this first stop was it:

Mont St Michel was fascinating. An island only intermittently connected to the maintain. World Heritage site. Monastery. Little village souvenir shops. An art exhibit juxtaposing medieval architecture and modern art. Er… is that right?

Definitely modern art, at least. Click to embiggen the birds. We had lunch on the way up with the bus. Sat with a family from…somewhere else. Drank some scumble. No that’s the Pratchett name. Norman apple liquor. Calvados. We bought a tiny bottle to share with Jeff’s mom.

Exiting through the gift shop (and walking back to the bus) entailed walking past some painted cow statues reminiscent of a campaign I saw in Chicago growing up. I’ve always like world maps, so of course I’m featuring this one.

And now for documentary evidence of the aforementioned fireworks. I think that’s really all there is else to say.

Our next day trip was an outing to three Loire Valley castles. Amboise first, where da Vinci stayed before his death. The park there includes several of his machines. Fascinating! And an adorable turtle sculpture in a fountain as we returned to the bus.

Of course, we were able to get sorbet, too, which was lovely. Especially when served two flavored in the shape of a flower!

Stop two, Chenonceau. The estate includes two beautiful gardens. The arches over the river were right on the line between Vichy France and occupied territory. It allowed for movement by both refugees and the French resistance!

Finally, Chambord. Architecturally ridiculous, but home of the famous eponymous raspberry liqueur, which is delicious. The modern art displayed inside was interesting, too. All in all a good day.

The Grand Tour, Part 2: A Whirlwind in Paris

Oh hello, has it been almost three years? And now I have three trips to type up? Good grief. Jeff has been begging for me to finish recounting these stories, or at least this one in particular, and since I got started storytelling something else but this feels easier to pick up than moving to the second installment of the next, let’s give it a shot.

In Paris, of course, one must see the major landmarks. We perhaps started our first half day off with a wander? At some point we started our four day Paris Pass – with only a three day window in which to use it. I was determined to get the maximum possible value out of it. Thus began the death march of art.

Our first act upon redeeming the Paris Pass (which I recall being annoyingly difficult) was to take the bus around the major landmarks. Here, of course, the Arc de Triomph, where some few days later our erstwhile President followed us (oh the joys of a military parade) and we fled the City for a peaceful day in the countryside. Admittedly we returned to the riverside for the Bastille Day fireworks.

One of our favorite finds proved to be the Petit Palais, which houses a lovely art collection, a cafe and a central courtyard. The back portion was challenging to navigate, though, with enticing staircases that may have drawn me out of bounds. Across the way, we visited a science museum and the aquarium. I enjoyed finding hands on exhibits to share with my sister.

We finished the evening with a cruise on the Seine, taking sunset photos of Notre Dame and coming back to find the Tour Eiffel lit up (and blinking?). We saw some of the ubiquitous merchandise vendors flying light up toys to entice buyers as well, but demurred and returned – via metro, of course – to our lovely hotel handily close to grocery stores, cafes, patisseries, and a laundromat.

The next day was truly a slog, and the death march of art resumed in earnest. We began at L’Orangerie, where we saw the enormous and rightly famous Monet waterlilies, as well as a mesmerizing temporary exhibit.

Across the river, security theatre was in full force at the Musee D’Orsay. I was entranced by the scale models of the Opera sets. We accidentally went through the Impressionist exhibit backwards – we wondered why the paintings got worse!

We took a well-deserved break and attempted to learn about wine. We didn’t finish any of the offerings, but the final dark vintage with a mushroom aftertaste was definitely the loser of the bunch. Then we dashed back for one more museum as fast as we could… and I biffed it on the sidewalk. Just full on sprawled, lengthwise on the sidewalk. Someone kindly asked (in French) if I was alright. I was!

Our final museum for the night was, you guessed it, the Louvre. Despite it being their late night, the glass pyramid entrance was nearly deserted. I loved seeing the excavations of the oldest layer of the castle.

We bustled through as many sections as we could. Luckily, it was less our era than the other two museums we’d visited. Still, this painting of the life of Jesus caught our eyes – it was weird enough we practically expected to be a Bosch!

But we weren’t truly done yet! We headed south to the Tour Montparnasse and enjoyed a wide view of the lit up city at night, the boulevards creating rivers of light.

We resumed our trek rejuvenated the next morning at the Rodin museum. The man truly understood the human form. There was a study of hips and legs in a dance pose there that was amazingly athletic. I wished I could take it home.

We joined a tour of the Paris Opera House – where the Phantom of the Opera is set. I didn’t particularly care for the new ceiling fresco (just not my style) but we got some shots for my mother. The costumes archived in niches of the lobby were more to my taste. It’s funny but now I don’t remember what language we chose for the tour. Probably English, though.

We hit a couple more places with the Paris Pass – the Wax Museum (where I sparred with Jackie Chan) and the Chocolate Museum. You actually get to sample different types of chocolate as you go. These are chocolate statues!


The Grand Tour, Part 1: Amsterdam

Last summer, Jeff and I took a trip to Europe. Three weeks, three countries…though really we only spent a couple of nights each in two of them. We both studied French and therefore chose to keep most of the trip in France, including nearly half based out of Paris. Since I’m writing this just after returning from our second major trip of the year, I thought it would be a good idea to finish paring down the old photos for the blog before we start on the new set. We (mostly Jeff) took about 4000 pictures in Europe. Thank goodness for digital cameras! We got it down to roughly 250 for general family and friends viewing. And it looks like I will be able to tell our story here using about 50 of those.

Note that third button on the left!

So let’s take a metaphorical journey back to July, where we started off with a very long journey: an attempted four hour train ride to Chicago – blocked by downed trees – replaced with a shared Uber ride, followed by a couple hours of down time and a seven or eight hour flight. We arrived in the Netherlands shortly after the crack of dawn, and were delighted to find that the Amsterdam airport had a beautiful shortcut for buying a train ticket into town. Unfortunately, we were so exhausted that we forgot upon arrival at the train station that we meant to take additional public transit to our hotel, so dragged ourselves and our luggage on a meandering yet beautiful walking trip through the central city.

I love the northern European port architectural style of tall, narrow buildings. Some of them still have hooks at the top for using ropes (and pulleys?) to bring loads of supplies upstairs. Amsterdam’s canal layout makes it easier to tell where you are, too. While I liked the city’s bike lanes in principle, I found that my instinctual way of crossing streets wasn’t compatible with the new traffic pattern. It would have taken maybe a week or two to adjust my movement habits, but we only had two days in town. We found an outdoor market and a hole-in-the-wall cafe with delicious food on our way to the hotel, then I succumbed to a nap while Jeff went out hunting for a European sim card. He ultimately got one, but was never successful in getting it to work.

We spent the majority of our time in town wandering and eating, not entering any of the major attractions. We stumbled into a free organ concert in a local cathedral (Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals may never be the same again). We perused two separate outdoor markets – one food, one art. We tried a cone of Belgian fries and ate waffles with ice cream. Come evening, we sought out a restaurant whose discount card was stocked at our hotel for rijsttafel – essentially Indonesian tapas, which I finally picked up enough Dutch to translate as “rice table”. We strolled past many of the notable landmarks (even hearing some street musicians in the amazing acoustics central tunnel of the Rijksmuseum), and breezed past the many outdoor shops (finding the fish mosaic pictured above).

We learned that the train station (left) was built as the East India Trading Company’s headquarters. The next day, we walked around part of the exterior of the zoo, had more food and art adventures, discovered that tulip bulbs souvenirs destined for the US have to be specially certified and can only be purchased at the flower market or the airport. We got a bit lost past the red light district trying to find local art galleries.

We don’t normally do food pictures, but our last dinner in town was translated as “beef stew” and served with a wedge of the local sausage on top.  Although it was delicious, we felt there was something off about the label. See if you agree – it’s pictured on the left. We also don’t tend to drink very much, but there again we felt it was worth doing something special in each European country, so we tried some stroopwafel liqueur  – it was nicely smooth and sweet.

Craft Area: Sitting Room

Don’t you just want to wedge yourself in that chair and stay forever?!

And now we get fancy! Along with more serious work and tips: Like many of my projects, I went to the big box store with only some idea of what I was doing. We were covering a stairwell, which I don’t particularly want forming a chimney of fire, so I figured I wanted the fire resistant drywall. The guy on the sales floor made sure I didn’t buy stuff that was way too thick, and helped cut it down to the very weird measurements we needed. (And Jeff and I bribed a theatre friend with dinner to transport it all to our house in his truck.)

Jeff and I adhered the drywall many weeks later with Liquid Nails (cutting out an awkward corner where there’s brick sticking out of the floor, and squaring up the far left hand vertical). Then he informed me about the need for mud and tape. What? I just want things to look pretty! So back to the hardware store again…

And finally this fall I got out the wallpaper I’d tested at the work station only to discover pre-pasted is insufficient to secure it to the wall. Cue the  recurring theme: to the hardware store! I used another internet tutorial, and let me tell you, I don’t have a work table big enough for pasting wallpaper, and that’s okay! I just laid it down on the floor…got a little paste on the carpet…bookended it, shuffled it over, finished pasting, and hung it. I think it looks pretty good for a first try. My corners could be better, and it could be less wrinkled, but it’s not completely sideways and the pattern’s lined up well.

As for the decor: the table and crystal basket are more family pieces, the globe and flower prints are thrifted, and the armchair (which someday I might try reupholstering) is from Craigslist.

Craft Area: Display Area

Don’t look too high up – you’ll see over the curtain into the storage area!

Ah, there’s that Cersei progress shot again, taken by pure serendipity. Here is where I can finally share more cleverness and methodology: I didn’t want to have to deal with the City’s permit process and inspections to add a real wall, I just wanted the appearance of one (there’s a support beam and then the furnace and water heater right behind here). So I bought some brown bedsheets at the thrift store, got a giant tension rod, and hung the sheet up as a curtain – cutting a small hole in it to hang the oriental print on a nail already in the support beam.

Fun thrifted items here include: a telescope with wooden base (I thought about painting the tube bronze, too, but couldn’t do it), a former library art piece (of the check out-able variety!), and an old timey map of the world (you know, the kind where coastlines aren’t quite right). And we got the rug on Craigslist!

Craft Area: Natural Light

Giant window ledges may also be known as cat perches…above which looms the one piece of ductwork I forgot to spray bronze with rustoleum.

Turn to your left away from the work station, and you finally get some natural light…well, during the daytime of course! There’s another window just out of frame to the right. Both are curtained with some handy dandy thrift store finds, with cozy butterfly pillows made from vintage prints and backing from the stash (and can I add that I was too lazy to hand sew them shut? I just jammed the stuffing down, tucked the flap under, and ran it through the machine one more time). Still on the list of things to do is acquiring some trim to make especially the top of the window more formal looking.

You can’t see it very well, but the brighter picture has a crowd in Victorian clothing gathered below several hot air balloons – yet another thrift store item, and perfectly suited to the steampunk theme!

Craft Area: The Work Station

Where my sewing machine should be! Some day my electricity will come…

Let’s start off with a picture again, shall we?  The desk and clock were really at the heart of the whole plan – old family pieces that my dad wanted to be sure had a home, at least for a while. They didn’t really fit upstairs anymore after moving things around yet again, but I like old things, and I like crafting, and I like steampunk, so the steampunk craft area concept was born.

The shelves of the grandmother clock hold some old family glassware as well as knick-knacks I just like the look of. The lamp came as a bonus with a couple of happy lights, and I sprayed it with more bronze rustoleum to fit the theme. I also sprayed the edges of an old bulletin board (not that you can really tell, it sucks in the moisture like crazy!) and covered the  board itself with a sample of the wallpaper for the stairwell to help decide on orientation. Jeff came to the rescue with fishing line to hang the board up. I have this theory that someday I’ll use it to pin up sewing pattern instructions.

The big thing still missing here is electricity. The lamp needs to plug in and so will the sewing machine when it moves down. Though I kind of hate the idea of taking up the rest of the desk space with it…

Anyway, the last thing you need to know is that the print on the desk is from a surprisingly versatile New Orleans artist. Go see it in more detail and check out their other work! (We have a print of this one, too, and don’t know where to put it…)

Craft Area: The Entry

Your first view of the basement craft area from the bottom of the stairwell. Complete with chicken supplies.

Let’s start off with pretty pictures, shall we? Say you’re coming down the stairs into the basement, and ta da! A nicely plastered and painted fieldstone wall, with bronzed plastic pipe and some art hung up with fishing line. And yes, it’s a bit crowded with chicken coop supplies…loppers to cut raspberry cane, epoxy shield, gravity feeder, feed scoops, a stray CO detector… Moving on… How did we get here?

The fun, easy part was spray painting the pipe. Rustoleum is your friend. They make an antique bronze finish that is just lovely. Although possibly I should have dusted the tops of the pipes first…

The wall was a slog! First the research. I can’t even begin to recreate the rabbit hole of finding out that field stone basements should be coated with lime plaster and how to make it. I think the reasoning had something to do with drawing the moisture through the wall to react with the lime instead of decomposing the stones? And most of the formulas are proprietary. Looking back, though, I can crib from Wikipedia for the basics:

Lime plaster is a type of plaster composed of sand, water, and lime, usually non-hydraulic hydrated lime (also known as slaked lime, high calcium lime or air lime).

I can also tell you that I ended up working with a proportion of 3 parts sand to 1 part lime (by volume), and then adding enough water to make a nice slurry. You have to be careful both sourcing the lime (you want something like this product, not the type of lime used to fertilize lawns – it’s a different chemical compound) and mixing it (powdered lime is hazardous, so you should wear a breath mask until it has reacted with the water).

I used a big plastic tote to mix my plaster in – and with a lid, it stays usable for over a year! I started out using an extra garden stake to do the stirring which was both very silly and very hard. My uncle recommended a power driven mixer attachment, which was a godsend. You just stick it into your screw gun like any other bit, and use it like you would use an automatic mixer for batter in the kitchen.

Given my general impatience and penchant for skipping steps, it may astonish you to know that I did indeed scrape the old plaster before apply new, and waited several days for the plaster to dry before painting the wall (with one of several cans of antique white I picked up on sale years ago. Yes, there’s a hardware/home goods stash, too).

Oh, and in case you’re curious about the art: the piece on the left was a framed-tile thrift store find, and the banner (supposedly a scarf?) was a present from my dad – it commemorates the new Japanese garden at the local botanical institute/sculpture park.