Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Things I Learned in London

I was in London for a brief 3 day trip last week. The weather was actually quite cooperative and I even saw the sun emerge for a few minutes one afternoon. I stayed at my favorite hotel, the Churchill in Portman Square - it used to be an Intercontinental and is now a Hyatt Regency. They just redid their rooms last year (while we were there on holiday, as a matter of fact). Anyway, the location is the big plus for me - plus the Montagu, their lobby restaurant is really nice. I can get to M&S and Selfridges within minutes as they're just 2 blocks away.

I managed to dine at my favorite restaurant, Nobu and also tried out MintLeaf, a nouveau Indian restaurant on Haymarket. And had afternoon tea one day at Liberty's little tea shop, imaginatively called "Tea". They served their tea in beautiful Burleigh Black Willow teapots with scones (choice of fruit or plain) with organic strawberry preserves and Devonshire clotted cream. I was in heaven! I eyed their large meringues but managed to restrain myself.

All the Christmas decorations were up along Oxford St and Regent St, and major shopping was taking place all around me - they were shutting the street to make it a pedestrian-only shopping zone on Dec 1.

My big learnings from this trip are that:
1) United won't officially allow you to check Christmas crackers in checked baggage. BUT if you just go ahead and check them, they don't seem to notice.
2) The one carry-on bag rule is strictly enforced at Heathrow - witness the scores of passengers trying to repack their things by the security queue.
3) There is a separate shoe scanner that you go through after the main security line which is thoroughly confusing for many.
4) Things cost WAAAY more in London, especially with the horrible dollar exchange rate.


Friday, October 12, 2007

This Started Out As A Good Trip But Then...

I spent the past few days in Paris, a trip that started out quite well. It wasn't a perfect trip by any means - I had been hoping to stay in the center of Paris, preferably at my favorite hotel next to the Tuileries, which used to be an Intercontinental but now has turned into a Westin. Alas, the quoted rate was 700 euros - a little too rich for my blood and not likely to be approved through the corporate travel dept.

So instead, I stayed at the lovely Hilton La Defense, which was incredibly convenient for the office and conference I was attending, but which had the charm of a gnat. La Defense was built 40 years ago as the "Manhattan" of Paris - a ghetto of high-rise office blocks and a large, sterile convention center. The hallmark of La Defense is La Grande Arche, built on the same grand axis as L'Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées.

However, it is a convenient RER A ride to the center of Paris. So on the day I arrived, I decided to power through my jetlag by shopping in town (of course!). I took the train to Les Halles, and proceeded to have a big wander of many miles back over to the Arc de Triomphe. I stopped at E. Dehillerin along the way - a cookware store whose reputation is legendary, but which is a far cry of the stylings of a Williams Sonoma or Sur La Table. This was more like a hardware store for cooks, with opinionated sales people who have an elaborate routine for paying and wrapping your goods. I bought a lovely copper saute pan from the south of France, made by Mauviel - copper lined with stainless steel, which apparently is amazing to cook with. Those of you who know me may well ask why on earth I would need such a spectacular saute pan - well, it's very pretty too. And I've since checked the prices - even though it seemed rather expensive in Paris, it's probably twice as pricey here in the US.

I strolled for a while, stopping for a quick sandwich at Paul, at Michel Cluizel to pick up some chocolates and of course the obligatory stop at Mariage Frere for more tea that I can't quite drink up in time.

I ended up having a rather big lunch at Dalloyau - I intended on having a little Croque Monsieur, but saw a wonderful Filet de Beouf avec des Pommes Pont Neufs go by to another table, and picked that instead. It was an excellent steak and the potatoes (glorified poufy french fries) were nice. To feel virtuous, I ate the little side salad first. I finished with a nice pot of Earl Grey and a little Tarte Citron.

I had to rush back to the hotel for a conference call but after that, visited the large mall in La Defense known as Les Quatre Temps (Four Seasons). Very efficient mall, but like the rest of La Defense, with the charm of a gnat.

So you may ask, after all that shopping and eating, why would this not be classified as a great trip? Because I'm currently sitting in the lounge at Frankfurt Airport, having missed various direct flights and currently booked on a multi-stop itinerary that, if all goes well, will get me home 12 hours after originally planned. Let's just say that both United and Lufthansa will be receiving some scathing survey feedback shortly.

Update - I arrived home at 3:30 am, approximately 11 hours after my scheduled arrival...such is the glamour of international business travel :-)

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Balanced Life

Last weekend, 7 girlfriends and I made our way to Tucson for a long-awaited weekend at Miraval. I had been fortunate enough to have made the journey with my mother and sister in April, and had taken pains to request particular rooms for this Sept trip.

It did not bode well when all records of my room request vanished into thin air - not exactly the way I had hoped to kick off the weekend. I'll leave the unsavory details from sullying this blog but suffice to say, the GM has received a detailed 3 page letter from me on the subject :)

Overall the trip was wonderful but then again, we were determined to have fun, no matter what. Miraval is a great resort for a group with varying interests. At any hour of the day, there are probably 6-8 activities to choose from - including hikes, exercise classes, yoga, spa treatments and the always popular "lounging by the pool". Our group would split up for active and not-so-active pursuits, always meeting up in sub-groups for meals and as a full group for dinner every night. And the meals were excellent - you will not starve at this particular spa resort!

I had probably the best massage of my life with Heather on this trip - a hot stone massage but since she usually specialized in deep tissue, it turned out to be a combo of the two. Despite my best efforts to book another treatment with her during the rest of my stay, I was unsuccessful :(

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

No Travels, Just Food - Miette in SF

Alas, I haven't been anywhere of note in the month since our return to the Bay Area, so I'm going to focus on my other big love - food!

Since my sister moved to SF, I've had the excuse of going up there every weekend and indulging in dive-y ethnic joints for dinner. However, we also went to the new (since Jan 2007) Miette Confiserie in Hayes Valley last weekend.

Miette is a bakery located at the Ferry Plaza but they opened this candy store on the Green in Hayes Valley, across from a very cool play structure that the girls just loved.

They made cotton candy to order and the flavor of the day was "Rose Geranium" - the girls were a little dubious, but the very nice lady assured them that the flavor was very mild. It was a pale yellow color and not quite as sweet as commercial cotton candy. We also bought some fleur de sel chocolate caramels, a really good chocolate truffle tart, some fresh taffy (peach and chocolate), Turkish Delight plus some excellent chocolate chip cookies.

With all the lovely decorations and overall pinkness of the place, the girls and I enjoyed ourselves immensely :)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Teeny Tiny Pastries and Donuts

One day last week, on one of our many wanders, we discovered an area in CentralWorld (yet another large shopping complex in central Bangkok) with lots of miniature dioramas, with a special focus on teeny tiny food items. Cute miniature food?? We were sold!

We returned over the weekend for the girls to take a course on making mini bakery items with the talented teachers from MiniThai. Although you can buy all sorts of premade foods and other miniature items (including some very yummy looking cakes), the girls wanted to learn how to make their own out of clay.

It was quite a delicate and time-consuming process that entailed making various components from different colored clay (imported from Japan, I was told!), dying the clay to the right color, assembling the finished pieces using glue and painting the bread so it was nicely browned.

The girls made sausage rolls, hamburgers, donuts, cupcakes, lollipops, fruit and little animals. They filled up a whole bakery display case with all their baked goods - artfully displayed in various mini jars, plates and trays. We were there for over 7 hours, with a short break for lunch (at Triple O, which I've since learned is a Canadian burger chain - will wonders never cease?!)

Besides the mini food items, they also had a number of large and small dioramas on display - typically of Thai village life, but to an amazing level of detail. One of the teachers told me that the larger dioramas sell for thousands of dollars and were special orders that were often shipped to other countries.

We came home with the bakery case full of items, plus a array of tropical fruit, a complete set of mini dim-sum and various small serving utensils and silverware. Our Polly Pockets and American Girls are going to have a big feast when we get home!

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Our Tourist-y Day

Even though we come to Bangkok almost every year, we typically don't do very touristy things. Amara had been touring around 7 years ago but Mei had never been to see any of the major sights. So we decided to go visit the Grand Palace complex and Wat Po one day - the top destination for any tourist visiting Thailand.

We took the Skytrain down to Saphan Taksin, by the Chao Phraya river. Then we hired a long-tail boat to take us on a tour of the klongs (canals), finally dropping us off at Ta Chang, the main pier by the Grand Palace complex. It was a fun tour and an opportunity to see how people live on the river - we saw kids swimming in the water, ladies doing laundry and a lot of people fishing (some of them had caught very big fish as well).

We wandered around in the Grand Palace complex for a little while - spending most of our time around the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the most important, highest temple in Thailand, where the King worships. It was very hot, so the girls started wilting a little - but beautiful nonetheless. Gold gleamed everywhere, with glittering mosaics reflecting the sunshine.

We took a little Tuk Tuk to lunch at a lovely restaurant on the river, with a beautiful view of Wat Arun across the river. It was called The Deck and was located in a little boutique hotel called the Arun Residence. The restaurant served an eclectic menu of Thai and Western dishes, but it's most redeeming feature was very good air conditioning!

After lunch, we walked across the street to Wat Po, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. The main temple was covered by scaffolding but the statue was as beautiful as ever. The girls made merit by dropping small coins in a row of baht, or Thai monk bowls. One coin in every bowl.

We finally took the Chao Phraya Express boat - a boat-bus service - back to the Sathorn stop, and took the Skytrain back home.

Mechanics Alive!

We decided to watch another movie the other day, looked up the movie times in the newspaper that morning, and took the lift downstairs at the appropriate time. It turns out the movie time in the newspaper was wrong and the movie had already started. The helpful ticket seller told me that the movie times in the paper were never right anyway - I should check the web or call for the exact times. This seemed somewhat absurd - however, we took the extra time before the next showing to wander next door to the Thailand Creative & Design Centre.

Thailand has become quite the center for innovative design and this center was opened a few years ago - it consists of gallery space for exhibitions, an auditorium and a large design library. One of their current exhibits turned out to be wonderful for the kids - Mechanics Alive! It was an exhibition of automata - or mechanical sculptures and scenes, on loan from the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in the U.K.

We spent a happy 90+ minutes playing around with the sculptures - the last part of the exhibition was an area where we could build our own automata, which the girls enjoyed immensely.

And then we walked 10 steps back to the movie theatre to watch "Hairspray" (in the regular theatre, not a super VIP version).

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Ultimate Movie Experience

We went to the movies last night - but oh, what an understatement that is! We actually went to the latest and greatest Cineplex in Bangkok, located in a gargantuan luxury shopping complex called Siam Paragon.

We were there to see the Harry Potter movie - Sean and Amara had already seen it once in the U.S. but it would be the first time for Mei and me.

The cineplex was located on the top floor of the complex, next to a very high tech-looking bowling alley. There were 10 regular screens, 3 Ultra Screens and an IMAX theatre, plus a Starbucks among all the refreshment choices.

We went to the Ultra Screen of course. The ticket price for this VIP experience was 600 baht each (~$18) as opposed to the regular theatre price of around 140 baht ($4). We were led into the Ultra Lounge, a very hip area with a full bar and low, modern seating all in a rich red tone. With our tickets, there was a selection of complimentary soft drinks and cookies. Many of the tables were filled with various moviegoers enjoying a pre-show drink.

After hanging out for some time, ushers started leading guests one table at a time into the theatre. We were shown to our seats, given a demonstration of the seat features, and our drink orders were taken at the seat. Now these seats were leather and resembled really nice lazy boy recliners. You could recline them to an almost flat angle, and they came with pillows and a comfy blanket. If I were a little sleepy, this would have been the perfect (albeit pricey) nap location.

It was quite the movie experience - the kids are now completely spoiled!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Monsoon Season in Bangkok

It's monsoon season right now - that means it rains at some point almost every day and the sky is often overcast. This is not as bad as it sounds - first of all, the rain really cleanses the city and the overcast sky keeps the temperature just hot, as opposed to unbearably hot.

This morning, we awoke to some of the loudest thunder that I've ever heard. It might be due to the fact that we're on the 30th floor of our building. It was a huge storm, with sheets of rain pouring down. It was over within 10 mins.

And we saw the most perfect rainbow over the Bangkok skyline.

Hua Hin & Barai Spa

We're in Thailand right now and just returned from a lovely break at the beach. Many people have asked me about the various beach resorts in Thailand - firstly, they're all wonderful and beat the pants off any resort in the US (with the exception of a few in Hawaii). The most well-known resorts are in Phuket and Samui - both of which entail a flight from Bangkok. We've spent time down there, but our favorite resorts are within driving distance of Bangkok. Pattaya is also quite well-known and about 2 hours away from Bangkok but is not as much of a family-oriented resort as Hua Hin.

Getting to Hua Hin takes a little longer than Pattaya - around a 2 hr 45 min drive. It's a big resort for Thai families and traditionally was where the Royal family would take their breaks. The King has a large palace there.

We've been going to Hua Hin regularly for the past 7 years or so, and have always stayed at the Hyatt there. It's a nice resort where everyone recognizes us, and is great for the kids. We've met some Thai families there, other Asian families and a lot of Europeans (primarily German and Dutch on this trip). The only Americans we've ever seen there are expats who are based somewhere in Asia.

The Hyatt opened up a new spa last year - it's quite well-designed although is based on ancient Khmer architecture, as opposed to a more Thai look. Spa-going is big business in Thailand now, with fancy new spas springing up everywhere. The Barai had quite a lot of focus on the "spa experience" - using words like "journey", "serenity" and "sanctuary" throughout - I'm a sucker for good marketing so I was sold!

When you go to a nice spa in the US, you have a large locker room to change, which is usually attached to some nice communal facilities like a sauna, jacuzzi, area to relax etc. And you are led to a small treatment room nearby when it's time for your treatment. In Thailand, there are treatment suites - self-contained large suites with dressing areas, shower etc. It's much less of a communal experience. I'd highly recommend a Thai luxury spa stop for everyone I know. Not only does it seem even more indulgent than the usual experience, the service just seems more serene and graceful.

The treatment suites in the Barai were magnificent with a private outdoor bath area and an outdoor rain shower. I had a few treatments that were very nice. After the treatments, you're led through a maze of beautiful corridors to McFarland House - a large open building right on the edge of the ocean, where you can relax and have a drink.

I also took a nice outdoor yoga class in the Tranquillity Court one morning - trying (unsuccessfully, I might add) to balance the effects of my continuous eating on the trip!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

HP#7 - Here at last!

Last night, we went to the Kepler's midnight release party for the last book in the Harry Potter series. It was extraordinarily packed, with lots of activities for the HP fans. I enjoyed sitting back and observing all the little witches and wizards roaming around in a state of excitement - not to mention the many adults dressed up as Dementors, various Hogwarts Professors and numerous other characters from the books.

It was all a little bittersweet, we had gone to the same release party 2 years ago - it was sad to think this was the last time we'd have the chance to participate in this particular phenomenon. After some inspiring performances in the HP Trivia Contest (those questions were HARD!), the witching hour came at 12:01 am. By this time, there was a line of several hundred people, holding their golden tickets in hand, waiting to exchange them for the huge 759-page volume.

We finally got ours and headed home - where Amara proceeded to stay up til 5 am reading it. Just like her mom ;)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Shibuya, Hands and Loft

I had a spare 90 mins before I needed to take the Airport Limousine bus to Narita for my flight, and never one to miss an opportunity to wander around, I buzzed over to Shibuya for a quick tour.

Why Shibuya? Because it's the site of the huge, often photographed intersection teeming with masses of people (the Tokyo equivalent of Times Square if you will), and because 2 of my favorite stores are located there - Tokyu Hands and Seibu Loft. I emerged from the Metro station to a cacophony of Japanese rap, huge flashing billboards everywhere and the biggest Harry Potter movie poster I have ever seen. Other than the usual set of people waiting to meet their friends at the Hachiko statue, it was all relatively calm because it was still early in the day.

I took a quick photo of the ideally located 2 story Starbucks, with upstairs seating with a fabulous view of the whole intersection. But no time to stop, I was on a mission.

I walked over to Tokyu Hands, arriving just as the store was opening. It was quite the experience to walk into the store and walk through a gauntlet of store employees, all of whom are bowing and wishing you a good morning.

Tokyu Hands is billed as a "Creative Life Store" - it has hobby and craft items, home improvement stuff and just a whole lot of other random but very fun things. I spent an inordinate time on the various floors devoted to stationery alone - presentation is such an important part of the culture here, and stationery (as well as housewares) is a perfect representation.

I didn't really have time to do justice to Loft (although the displays looked a lot more appealing there than at Hands) before I had to head back to catch my airport bus. When it left the hotel, 8 hotel employees stood in a line and waved us away :)

All in all, a very short, but satisfying sojourn in Tokyo.

Final note - for the first time in 15+ years, they searched my bag at Customs coming back into the US. I attribute it to the grumpy DHS immigration agent who actually asked me what my SSN was. A definite first!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Present-giving Etiquette

I met a long-time Japanese colleague for breakfast today at my favorite breakfast spot in the New Otani, the Garden Lounge. It overlooks the hotel's 400 year old Japanese garden and is a beautiful spot to start your day.

I had worked closely with this colleague about 12 years ago and we've stayed in touch through the years - he's just recently returned to Oracle after almost 10 years away. After a nice chat to catch up, he proceeds to gift me with 4 presents - one for me, and one each for my daughters and husband. Yes, not just for me but for my entire family. I opened mine right away and it was a lovely pink fan.

I, of course, had nothing for him. In my defense, this was a very short trip and I didn't think I'd have the time to see him. However, in our 12 year acquaintance, I believe the present count stands at around 25+ for him and 1 for me (I can't quite remember, but I'm giving myself the benefit of the doubt that I've given him at least one thing over the years!)

When will I learn to pack a few extra gifts for any trip to Japan?!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Unagi and Sicilian SeaSalt Gelato

Well I'm in Tokyo right now, for a brief 48 hours. My flight landed earlier today and after a looong 110 min airport bus ride, I finally reached the New Otani Hotel. The hotel is as lovely as I remembered, and much to my surprise, there was a mobile phone waiting for me when I checked in (since Japan does not use the GSM network). I have very considerate colleagues! Of course, all the instructions for the phone were in Japanese and I'm embarrassed to admit that it took me a good 5 mins before I could figure out how to turn the phone on!

It was fast approaching the dinner hour, so I decided to head out to a large department store. The concierge suggested that going to Shinjuku would be the fastest bet. He gave me a very brief set of instructions - either because I projected an air of familiarity and confidence with the Tokyo subway system (unintentional, of course!) or because any nervous person would have asked him 10 more questions. Either way, I was armed with a Metro map and headed out to take the Marunouchi line to Shinjuku-sanchome (a 160 yen ride). I do like taking public transport in foreign cities so enjoyed myself immensely, even the part where I had to jam myself onto a packed train as the doors practically closed on me.

I picked Isetan as my Depāto of choice and entered on the basement level. I forgot to bring my camera on this trip so I couldn't take photos of all the wonderful food in the basement food halls - that's my favorite activity in Japan, wandering through the basement food halls of the big department stores. There was a huge cakes and pastries section - where all the names of the Japanese bakeries were French, yet they far outdid the French in terms of presentation and appeal. The cooked food section was also huge. I restrained myself to buying candy and pretty packages of rice crackers.

I headed upstairs and picked up some Hello Kitty items for the kids, plus an array of Japanese Harry Potter memorabilia. Let's hope it's not all freely available in the US, since I would have lugged everything back for nothing!

I finally realized I was hungry and headed up to the 7th floor - known as "Eats Paradise". I picked the unagi restaurant and had a lovely unagi setto, with some unadon, maguro sashimi and a few other exquisite little side dishes. It was a great meal and I sat by myself at the bar. I noticed that there were quite a few unagi price points - I picked the middle set of course!

After eating everything on my tray, I headed back down to the basement and stopped at Mario Gelateria - the Japanese take on gelato. I had the Mediterranean Orange (essentially a blood orange flavor) and the Sicilian Seasalt (a creamy white gelato that was slightly salty and had little bits of almonds). I actually liked the Sicilian Seasalt better than the blood orange flavor! There was also a Blue Seasalt gelato in a lovely pale blue shade, but I just wasn't feeling that adventurous.

Finally my body started communicating to me that 24 sleepless hours was just a bit much, so I headed back to the hotel to do a little email before calling it a night.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Musings on the Trip

Well we've been back for a few days now and there's a whiff of sadness in the air that our trip is over. Of course, we seem to be taking "once-in-a-lifetime" trips every two years or so, so we're already incredibly fortunate to be able to have these experiences and share such good times with friends.

I've always been a big traveler - I get restless when I don't go anywhere for too long a period of time. And very restless when I don't leave the country periodically. My passport is about to run out of pages...

Now, the fact that I'm heading to Tokyo in 6 days, to Thailand in 12 days and my passport is currently at the Chinese Consulate waiting for a visa so I can go to Shanghai at the end of the month does mitigate any current sense of wanderlust! I anticipate remaining in a fog of jetlag for the next 4 weeks.

I'm a person who makes lists, so here's my short list of things we missed on this past trip:

Things to Do Next Time In Provence
Châteauneuf du Pape
Roussillon, Sault, Gault and more villages perchés in the Luberon
Arles and the Camargue
Saint Paul de Mausole hospital at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (Van Gogh spent a lot of time there)

Things to Do Next Time In Paris

Louvre and Musée des arts Décoratifs
Rue Mouffetard market
Pierre Herme in St. Germain
La grande épicerie at Bon Marché
Musée de l’Orangerie

It's always good to have more goals... :)

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Much Dreaded Weigh-In

After 2 weeks of at least one pain au chocolat a day, ice cream pretty much daily, 4 meals of over 5 courses and countless baguettes with high fat cheeses, plus the requisite foie gras, I was dreading the weigh-in on my regular scale.

RELIEF! I gained a mere 1.5 lbs, which as any sensible person will tell you, is hardly statistically significant.

Our Journey Home...

This is never the fun part of the trip - we were on a 7:30 am flight to Zurich so the car service picked us up at our apartment at the ungodly hour of 5 am. We arrived at Charles De Gaulle at 5:45 am. This was the first time I had flown out of CDG terminal 2 - and hopefully the last. Much to our initial confusion and later annoyance, you clear passport control BEFORE you can reach the check-in counters. So we ended up in a line for passport control with about 90 people in front of us. And ONE, yes ONE staffer to process the crowd of stressed out people. It was incredibly inefficient, with everyone trying to maneuver luggage carts through a queue and around the passport area. After waiting for about 30 mins, they finally clued in and added another person at passport control.

Then there was another slow line for checking in and finally, the last line for the security scan. Even though we arrived at the airport 1 hr 45 mins before flight time, we made it through and stepped on the plane just 15 mins before departure. Quel horreur!

Sadly, Zurich was no better. United didn't have a transfer desk, so you actually had to go to the gate to process your transfers, which didn't help since the gate area had very few amenities and no lounge. But since it would have taken another train ride back to the main area to get to anything good, we ended up just staying put.

I've saved the best for last - entering the US through Dulles is a BAD idea. I had already been told this by other friends who had gone through this process last year. So I was already expecting the worst. We landed with 90 mins for the connection - even though it was the same flight number, it was a different plane from a different terminal. Basically, if we weren't in business class and I wasn't cracking the whip in terms of getting us to move along quickly, there was no way we would have made the flight to SFO. The passport lines, customs lines, security check lines were all unbelievable. We got to the gate with 10 mins to spare.

Thankfully, all our bags made it without a hitch!

Thursday Night at Musée D'Orsay

I wanted to take the kids to Musée D'Orsay and hoped to beat the crowds by going on Thursday night, when the museum is open until 9:45 pm. Alas, like all my other schemes to beat the crowds this summer, it was not to be. We arrived at the museum at 6 pm to find a line of about 80 people waiting to go in. The line didn't end up taking too long though.

This is possibly my favorite museum in Europe, beating out even the Uffizi. This is partly due to the 19th/20th century period that it covers, and greatly due to the building itself, which used to be a train station. I find it to be light and airy, with none of the oppressiveness that you find in many old museums.

We stopped by the gift shop in the way in and picked up the children's guide to the museum - I'd highly recommend this if you're visiting with kids. It provides a map and treasure hunt for particular works of art, and includes background details that kids would find of interest. There is a similar guide for the Louvre (to be visited on our next trip). If you don't buy the guide, the 2nd best museum technique is to let the kids pick out 2-3 cards on the way in, and have them hunt for those works of art. Having a quest always keeps my kids happy.

We looked at a lot of art and I showed them my favorite painting from my childhood visits - Renoir's Jeunes Filles au Piano. I still remember seeing it for the first time when it was housed at the Jeu de Paume museum in the Tuileries (this was before D'Orsay was renovated to become a museum).

We had dinner in the cafe behind the large clock - I had told Mei about this cafe and she became somewhat fixated on eating there!

Amara decided her favorite piece was Pompon's polar bear while Mei vacillated between the Degas ballerina bronze and Jeunes Filles au Piano.

All in all, a lovely way to spend our last evening in Paris!

Thursday, July 5, 2007


On our last full day in Paris, Sean took the girls to the Palais de la Découverte, the science museum while I went shopping. You'll find this is a common occurence for our family in various parts of the world - Sean and the girls have been to a lot of different science museums, and of course, I happily power shop for a few hours. If you want to get a detailed report on the museum, you'll have to talk to my family because I'm going to talk about shopping ;)

I started out at the local tea shop around the corner from our apartment, otherwise known as Mariage Freres, the world famous tea shop. There was an impressive selection of teas there. I bought a couple of beautiful containers and asked them to fill them with 100g of any special tea that was only available here in France. The gentleman recommended a Himalayan black which smelled lovely. Much to my surprise, when he handed me the ticket, it was 120 euros for 100g. That's 1,200 euros per kilo of this tea - approx $1,600! Now, I have pretty refined tastes when it comes to tea, but this I couldn't quite stomach. I had no shame - told him it was too expensive (bear in mind, the containers were already measured and filled!), and asked for a nice Earl Grey instead. The new total for my bill was MUCH better :)

I strolled over to Du Pareil au Meme, my favorite children's clothing store in Europe. I like the Rue St. Denis location since it's a really big branch. DPAM is probably the local equivalent of GAP Kids - normal prices (not your Jacardi or fancy kids' clothing store prices) but amazing style. I had already visited their stores in Avignon and Aix last week! There was a huge sale going on the Paris store - now the store is never terribly well-organized even at the best of times, but when there's a sale going on, it's complete mayhem. I spent an inordinate amount of time picking out things, and emerged much later with a huge bag of stuff. But think of the money I SAVED!! ;)

After DPAM, I had a decision to make: stroll over to Les Halles for the French equivalent of mall shopping? Or take the Metro over to Blvd Haussmann to Galeries Lafayette for the equivalent of shopping at Bloomingdale's? It was a tough choice but GL won out - the main store has a beautiful stained glass dome that I like to admire. I decided to grab a sandwich on the go so I wouldn't waste any valuable shopping time...

GL was also complete mayhem, which was surprising. Big sales going on - huge signs said Soldissimes everywhere. I had to buy a new duffle to hold all my DPAM purchases, and also once again, picked up another handbag for myself. This was a bit of a pricey proposition in the end. (I didn't feel too guilty about it until Sean reminded me that when we bought the new house last year, I had vowed not to buy any more designer purses for at least another year. Oops!)

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Montmartre and L'Africain at Angelina

When I ventured out for our morning croissants, the sun was shining and it was almost warm. So we planned to go up to Sacre-Coeur and Montmartre today. However, when we emerged at the Abbesses Metro station, it had once again turned cloudy and was drizzling a little.

We walked over to the base of the hill and the kids found yet another carousel to ride. Then we took the Funicular up to the top. It's a pretty short ride and we took the funicular more for amusement than anything else. Luckily for us, it decided to be sunny while we were at the top, looking down at all of Paris. Which made for a nice few minutes.

After a quick tour of the church, we walked over to Place de Tetre. When Amara and I had been here about 5 years ago, we had her portrait drawn by an artist here, and it now hangs in our house. So I had been hoping to find the same artist and have a portrait done for Mei. I remembered where the artist sat, and that he was a Japanese man who's name started with an M. Alas, we could not find him. So Mei had her picture drawn by another Japanese artist whose name started with an M!

During the course of the sitting, the weather switched between heavy rain, light drizzle and sunshine about 6 times. Even the artist acknowledged that this was very unusual weather. The portrait came out great - we'll have to get it framed when we get home. We also bought a nice modern watercolor since no trip to Europe would be complete without picking up some art.

We then headed over to the Tuileries where we got in line to have tea at Angelina on the Rue de Rivoli. Again, the presence of hordes of tourists at peak season surprised me - lining up for tea was not something I had expected. The girls had their famous Chocolate Africain - a very rich and creamy hot chocolate that's more like melted chocolate, served with a big pot of whipped cream to thin it out. Plus a few of their pastries - the hands-down winner was the Tarte au Citron, or lemon tart.

I managed to squeeze in a short shopping sojourn to Dominique Picquier, a lovely design shop that I had visited some years before. I indulged in a new bag there - as many of you know, I have a bit of a weakness for purses and bags...

Later that evening, we wandered over to the Bastille to search for a restaurant that I had found in a guidebook. Sadly, it didn't seem to be there anymore. So we ended up having dinner at Hippopotamus - I would liken it to a French Outback Steakhouse :)

Finally a quick stop at Amorino for gelato topped off a full day of Parisian wanderings.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Day Trip - Disneyland Paris

We had decided on one day trip out of Paris - and despite my cultural pretensions, Disneyland Paris won out over Versailles. Who am I kidding - was it even close?! My logic is that the kids would enjoy Disneyland very much at this age - and Versailles has been there for centuries. They can wait to see it on their next trip ;)

We hopped the RER A to the park - it was all very convenient. The only mar on the day was that it was pouring. It continued to rain on and off until about 4 pm that day. We were all soaked - our shoes would squelch a little as we walked and my jeans managed to dye my shoelaces blue due to all the rain.

The park was very beautiful (even in the rain). It seemed to have more open areas built in, with wider walkways, so it never seemed to be too crowded. Sleeping Beauty's castle was gorgeous - by far the prettiest Disney castle I've ever seen.

My kids have grown up going to a Disney park at least once a year, so they're pretty familiar with everything. The Paris park was lots of fun because even though it was very similar, it was fun to spot the differences. Some of them were somewhat predictable - the food (even at fast food outlets) was excellent, service was slow and relatively indifferent, smoking was allowed in the park, beer was served everywhere. There was such a blatant disregard of the rule against flash photography in dark rides that I began to wonder if that rule was suspended in Paris.

We especially enjoyed spotting the differences in our two favorite rides: Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. The Haunted Mansion was actually known as Phantom Manor and was really very changed in terms of setting to a Western theme. Pirates was still very similar although it harkened back to the old Californian version before they changed everything to make it more PC, i.e. pirates were still chasing wenches about as opposed to everything they added in CA to soften those scenes.

It's a Small World was also quite different - the most notable in my mind was that they had a whole scene on Thailand, not just two dancers mixed up with the Indonesian and perhaps Malay dancers that they have in the US. And the carousel had the most beautifully detailed horses - with Fantasyland (my favorite) being about twice the size as all the other lands.

Overall I thought the park was very pretty and whimsical, with lots of secret places to disperse the crowds. It was clearly set up for a much larger crowd than what we experienced - there were hardly any lines for anything, and we could see that the queue areas had been designed for much longer ones. Thank goodness - after our queue experiences of the prior day!

We had a full day there, finally leaving around 8:30 pm to catch the train back to Paris.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Cold, wet, crowded with tourists - ah, must be Paris in the summer...

Well it's a lot colder here than in Provence. I think we may have a repeat of our summer trip last year where we were in Scotland (temp ~50 degrees) after going to London (temp ~60 degrees) and Denmark (temp ~80 degrees). I made the kids re-wear their jeans three days in a row because we had no other long pants. Amara still remembers that!

Of course we were in hotels that trip (see previous post on the laundromat experience in Copenhagen). This trip, our apartment has a washer/dryer combo. The washer takes 2 hrs to run and so far, the dryer has managed to achieve a damp dry after running for another 2 hrs. Now there's drying laundry attractively draped all over the apartment. One day, I will have the "doing laundry on long trips" thing completely mastered. Right now, I'm trying to figure out if my jeans will dry in 2 days.

So back to Paris - one of my favorite places in the whole world. Despite the cold, rain and general state of being overrun with clueless tourists, it's still beautiful, fascinating and a unique combination of history and modernity.

Amara and I wandered out our first morning to search for a boulangerie and a grocery store. I love our location - it seems to be in the center of everything. The boulangerie was excellent and just a few doors down from our apartment. We think they use triple the amount of butter than any other boulangerie that we've found so far - which resulted in lovely croissants, pain au chocolats and the big panier cookie that we bought.

After breakfast, we walked over to Notre Dame. The line for the tower was long and the Parvis (square in front of the church that signifies Point Zero for all of France) was packed with large throngs of tourists. A sure sign that the summer high season has begun. It took us about an hour to get into the tower, but it was well worth it for the views. The kids enjoyed discovering all the various gargoyles and Mei counted 381 steps on her way down from the top of the South Tower.

After a lunch and snack break back at our apartment, we headed out to Amorino for some gelato. We noticed rather long lines there yesterday, and when we actually went there ourselves, we understood why. They serve gelato in a cone and shape it to look like a lovely flower. Which is great but the throughput definitely suffers. Then again, no one is really in a hurry here in France.

We took the Batobus over to the Eiffel Tower. It was almost 6 pm by the time we got there. Silly me - I thought that would mean that the crowds would have thinned out. I was wrong. My old trick of bypassing the lines by getting a reservation for a meal at Altitude 95 was also a bust - they had been booked up for 2 weeks. Clearly, my travel tricks for Paris do not apply when the peak season starts.

Mei had been looking forward to visiting the Eiffel Tower for some time and she pronounced it "better than what she had thought". That's no small feat, considering we waited in line for some 90 mins to get up there. We only went up to the second level, choosing not to wait for the additional 30 mins to get up to the top level. It was very windy and our choice of wearing skirts that day did not pay off at all. After all that waiting, we spent quite a long time up there. We descended from the 2nd level to the 1st level using the stairs,which is a fun way to see the inside of the tower.

Finally, we had the requisite carousel ride, were rained on (I had inexplicably left my umbrella at home for the trip to the tower) and rode the Batobus back to the Marais. It was very late but I wanted to try out a famous falafel place around the corner from our apartment. L'As du Falafel came highly recommended and I have to admit that at 11 pm that falafel, lamb schwarma and fries hit the spot!