So, it's gray in Oslo. Again. This year, there's no escaping it, sadly. Oh, how I wish we could. Last year, we snatched up a cheap airfare deal on Norwegian and ran off to Malaga, Spain for a few days in February. Those memories are all that's sustaining me right now. Sunshine. Sea breezes. Churros dipped in chocolate. Sangria. Tapas. Flowers.

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Our first day in Málaga was sunny and bright. We walked straight to the famous Cathedral of Málaga, which we could see from our hotel room window! The Renaissance era church is decorated with detailed stonework and brightly colored mosaics.

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The cathedral is most notable for its lone bell tower, dubbed La Manquita, meaning The One-Armed Lady.

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Journal entry from 20 July 2014:

This morning the wrinkles of our sweatshirts smell like pipe smoke and DEET. We left the hytte at 20:30, slathered in bug spray so that our cheeks shone in the late sunlight. Stopping to watch fish rise in the river--just a slip of dark, shiny head above the sparkling surface, then rings expanding to the shore--we found ourselves surrounded by a cloud of insects.

They hovered and glowed in the light, whirring and bobbing. It took me a moment to realize they were mosquitos. Enormous mosquitos. Their terrifying blood-sucking apparatus long and curved and visible. They appeared more like hummingbirds than insects. Thankfully, the spray kept them at bay.

We walked on up the road to the turnoff just before Rundvatnet, then up another steep fire road to its end. There we found no trail, but our object was the North-facing ride of Ostre Omasvarri (654 m), an understated hunch of a hill in this region of sharp-peaked giants. We turned and wandered in to the forest of birch--widely set from one another and branchlessly white down low, a departure from the forests of our Sierra home--which happens to be excellent for off-trail tramping and bushwhacking. 

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Fate is nothing; fate is everything. I find it hard to believe in chaos, even when that's what whirls and crashes all around me. Probably because I'm a writer. My serendipity sensor is on overdrive. Not only do I notice the details of life--the scent of the roses, the placement of their thorns--but before my eyes, they arrange themselves in patterns. Like crop circles. Like fairy rings. 

My trip to Ireland last week was a literary one. It was my reward for winning the Irrgrønn Flash Fiction Award here in Oslo, last March. Three nights in Dublin, courtesy of Tourism Ireland. I was giddy with excitement on the plane, armed with a checklist of bookish things to do in the homeland of Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, Stoker, O'Brien and Enright. Again, what we accomplished (saw, learned, basked in, drank, explored) is far too weighty for one post. Here, I want simply to relate something fun that happened our first evening in the city.

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I'm home from a bookish, whiskey-laced, World Cup-ful week in Ireland. There are far too many wonderful bits to blog all at once. Suffice it to say, the trip ticked every box on my Perfect Vacation List. This is a list which has evolved over the years and now includes this shocking item: Finding time and space to go for a run.

You read that right. My on-again-off-again relationship with running is, well, on again.

My shins are fickle. My attachment to my couch profound. My wheezy lungs as good an excuse as any to move at a snail's pace through the majority of my life. But when I run regularly, I do enjoy it. Particularly the bit just after the initial fifteen minutes of hellish breaking-in which my body is bound to undergo every single time... and just before the devastating throb of my lazy heart as The Blerch pops up to tell me I should stop immediately and buy some ice cream instead. If I can drown out The Blerch's protestations with the help of Beyoncé or Ira Glass, I inevitably finish my run glowing (sweating, actually, but glowing just sounds less sticky, slick, and gross), breathing deeply, and proud of myself. Every time. Proof: This photo of me, post-run, posing with my favorite Georgian door in Dublin, number thirty-three, and the same shade of bright red as my poor, little, panting face.

Which is why I've signed up to run the Oslo Half Marathon in September this year, partnered with fellow American expat blogger Corinne to train for the race, and even managed to complete two training runs while on vacation!

When Jonathan and I trained for the Disneyland Half Marathon in 2008 and 2010, we did our final tapered runs in Anaheim the night before the big race. We did the same thing in Death Valley before the 30K we ran in 2009, too. But just plain going for a run while a tourist in a foreign city is something I've never tried before. It almost didn't happen, too, because when I Googled around for advice about jogging in Dublin, I saw the same thing over and over: Don't do it. Running on city streets in Dublin is, apparently, very tough to do. They're crowded. The intersections are terrible. (And if you're not a local, it's easy to forget which way to look when you cross the street, too!) Thankfully, the advice I found went further than that. If you want to run in Dublin, choose one of the many beautiful, safe little parks in the city, and do laps.

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Paris is widely acknowledged as a city for lovers, but this September I visited with my mom. She flew in from San Francisco, and I flew down from Oslo for the rendezvous. Experiencing Paris with a gal pal is vastly different from visiting the same city on the arm of your husband/boyfriend/lover anyway, but we had an added bonus. Mom and I are very much alike. (Heredity, you see.) We love architecture and landscape paintings and striped shirts and ice cream and river walks and accordion music, so you might even say we are lovers of a good French time! And when we were at our leisure to choose activities or prioritize the sights, our list immediately took on a rose-colored hue. Here are a few of the delightful things we did in Paris between the usual list of tourist check boxes:

Taking a spin on le carousel de la Tour Eiffel...

When it's hotter than Hades in Paris, you've got to make your own breeze. It didn't take much coaxing to get Mom to ride Le Carousel de la Tour Eiffel with me. I'm sure we looked a little silly, posing for photos and hanging onto our pony-and-zebra combo for dear life, but it did the trick.

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Cruising the Seine and sipping vin blanc...

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Another ploy to escape the scorching weather in the City of Light, we purchased tickets on one of the many, many, many river cruises and spent an hour on the water. As part of the package, we sipped white wine and listened to the pre-recorded tourist history of each bridge we passed beneath.

Tasting gelato in the Jardin des Tuileries...

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Slick with sweat and giddy with delight, we walked through the gardens, trying to stay in the shade. When we saw the gelato cart, we almost broke into a run. The lemon gelato I enjoyed that day, served in the shape of a rose, was only one of the many delicious desserts sampled on our Paris trip. Others included crème brûlée and chocolate éclair.

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Four and a half days. That was all. And some of that time must be spent sleeping. Sleeping instead of laughing, embracing, catching-up. Three times Audrey counted it. Four and a half days. And tomorrow her guests would arrive.

I'm being dramatic, and I'm cheating a little, too. There's nothing terrible about having one's best friends in Oslo for four and a half days, except that it's less than five and a half or six and a half days. I'm stealing O. Henry's drama to make you understand, dear reader, how much I worried that four and a half days wouldn't be enough. One hundred and eight hours. Selfishly, I wanted a full week, but four and a half days would have to do.

There was clearly nothing left to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl.

Or suck it up.

I did the latter. And then planned, planned, planned all the stuff we would do, the places we would go, and the people we would see during those 108 hours. As it turned out, I needn't have worried. Life may well be made up of "sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating," but smiles certainly held their own while Cindy and Brad were in Oslo with us.

At left, you'll see what we wound up doing for the majority of that time. Besiding. Morning, noon, night (or what passes for night during summer in Norway), we were beside one another. At meals. Playing games. Exploring the city. I could reach out and touch my friend's elbow, feel her wrap her arm around my waist. Nothing went according to anybody's real plan. Brad and Cin were nursing colds. Jonathan ordered fish on his pizza. The tourist info office moved since last summer, so I had my guests break the law by riding public transportation before we actually bought the passes to do it! But all of it was done besiding. Which made it perfect.

Don't overplan your next visit to Oslo with friends. I've got a recipe for one Basically Epic Week in Oslo:

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Though the Red Stars Hotel is more than a mile from Nevsky Prospekt and the other major tourist sights, I still recommend it to those who don't mind a little walking.

The staff spoke very competent English, a relief at the end of each long day. They ordered taxis for us on two occasions, and were able to tell us how much our trip would cost in advance, to avoid taxi scams. Before our trip, the staff were also quick to assist us with the necessary paperwork for our visa applications. We corresponded several times on that issue, and every transaction was clear and polite.

The room rate was reasonable, especially considering how clean and modern the hotel turned out to be. I loved the red tiles and heated floor in the bathroom.

The first weekend in April must be the end of St. Petersburg's off-season, because the hotel seemed almost empty. Not that we minded. We enjoyed the delicious continental breakfast each morning, and ate in the restaurant for dinner on our last night. Our waiter's name was Vladimir (of course).

And now the icing on the cake...

You won't be lonely or bored waiting for taxis in the lobby. Hanging on a wall dedicated to guest graffiti (who needs a guest book?), is the sexiest, most bizarre clock I've ever seen.


We tried to find a reference to this clock on the internet and couldn't, so I guess I should put a few of our search terms here for future Red Stars Hotel visitors. From now on, "performance artist paints clock backwards in shower video" or "crazy pink bikini girl paints shower clock video" should bring people here to me. Enjoy. She does this for 12 straight hours. I give you 51 seconds.

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Never kiss your sweetheart on a drawbridge. If the two sides can pull apart, so can the two of you. On the other hand, sharing a kiss on a solid cast bridge will give you an extra dose of luck and longevity. 

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The Potseluev Bridge in St. Petersburg spans the Moyka River. Every bar on the bridge is covered with shiny padlocks. Like diamonds or fish scales, they catch the light when the sun pushes between the clouds. Inscribed on the locks are the names of lovebirds, the dates of their unions. Declarations of everlasting love in a variety of languages.

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Driving along California's endless freeways you're bound to see a memorial. Heaps of fabric flowers, ragged under the hot sun, ragged in the windy backwash of speeding cars, clinging to chain link fences and sign posts. A simple cross. Faded plastic icons. Candles that can't hold a flame.

How long has it been there? This outpouring of love and grief.

In a moment, you're past it. Vaguely, you might think of the life or lives lost on that dusty spot, but there is no sense of eternal pain. No names. Though blood was spilled, the heat and wind make light of these things. 

Should that be?

Last month, I turned one of the ten thousand gray corners in St. Petersburg and came upon The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. A bizarre beauty, the cathedral was erected to commemorate the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. 

Under the rule of Alexander II, Russian serfdom was dissolved entirely, a progressive move that earned him the title Alexander the Liberator. But at the same time, his crackdown on the people of Poland was brutal. He began his reign with a speech in which he told Polish people across the Russian empire not to expect any freedom or equality in his eyes. This so-called "No Hope" speech fueled the fire leading to the January Uprising in 1863, ultimately suppressed by the Russian military after 18 months of fighting. The result? Hundreds of Poles were executed; thousands were exiled to Siberia. 

Yet, everything in history depends upon one's point of view. In Finland, Alexander II is still regarded as "The Good Tsar." 

On 1 March 1881, he stepped into his bullet-proof carriage, a gift from Napoleon, accompanied by an armed guard. Members of the Narodnaya Volya ("People's Will") movement waited in the crowds that lined the streets. The first bomb was tossed beneath the horses pulling the emperor's carriage. When Alexander emerged unhurt, a second bomber stepped forward and threw his package at the emperor's feet, crying out, "It is too early to thank God!"

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It took less than a minute after the plane landed on the tarmac in St. Petersburg for me to realize that this vacation was going to be drastically different than the rest. All I had to do was get through passport control. I froze. My eyes flicked wildly from wall to wall. Where were they? My beloved letters?! How could there be so many signs, but not a single recognizable word?

такси. банк. цветы. аренда автомобиля.

Until that moment, I had considered myself well-traveled. I had sixteen countries under my belt, most of them in Europe, and I was used to breezing through airports without a hiccup on my way into town. Not because I'm multilingual (far from it), but because I've got a basic hold on several languages. My years of French class in high school and college are a useful foundation, but it's simpler than that:

Take the English alphabet, throw in a couple extra letters, sprinkle a few accent marks on top, and you've got French, Italian, Spanish, German, Norwegian, and the rest of the European languages.

Except Russian, Greek, and the like. 

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Photo: St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre. Photo via RussianTourism.com.

Sometimes I'm such a girl. When Jonathan asked me what I wanted to do for my 30th birthday, I told him the truth, even though it felt like a pipe dream. I wanted to attend a ballet at St. Petersburg's legendary Mariinsky Theatre. In my imagination, nothing could be more romantic. So, we made plane reservations (Norwegian Airlines flies directly from Oslo to St. Petersburg in two hours), obtained the necessary visas, and purchased tickets to the ballet. And I held my breath.

You know how it's totally possible to look forward to something so much, to put such a great deal of pressure on a single moment, that the reality can't help but fall short of your expectation? 

Yeah, that didn't happen here.

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Det Kongelige Slott -- Oslo's Royal Palace

Oslo, Norway. My home these days, and a great place to visit! Jonathan and I vacationed here about a year before we moved over, and were dazzled by everything the country had to offer in the summertime. Since then, I've lived through (and enjoyed!) a Norwegian winter, too. I'm even looking forward to my second. 

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Bærums Verk, Norrway around Chistmastime

When Cheapflights.ca approached me about writing a travel guide to Oslo, I jumped at the chance. My city has so much fun stuff to offer all year round. Visit the Cheapflights website to read my travel guide. It includes:

  • 5 Great Restaurants in Oslo
  • 5 Bars and Taverns in Oslo
  • 5 Fun Winter Activities in Oslo
  • 5 Must-See Monuments, Museums or Galleries in Oslo
  • 5 Day-Trips Outside of Oslo

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The Freia sign on Karl Johans gate in Downtown Oslo

Cheap Flights to Oslo from Canada

Cheapflights - United Airlines Destinations and Fares from Canada

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Holmenkollen Ski Jump -- Oslo, Norway

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Plans for our first overseas vacation began in early 2007. A couple of friends offered us use of their summer home in Denmark. Understand, I had no real desire to go to Denmark; I'll even admit I wasn't certain of its geographic location at the time. (Somewhere near Finland, right?) But when you don't have a lot of money, you don't say no to free lodging. Period. We accepted.

Then we pulled out the map and I said, "What? Denmark shares a border with Germany? That's awesome. We can drive."

Jonathan agreed to this initial whim for two reasons. First, he was a die-hard United Airlines fan, and their European hub is in Frankfurt. Second, he liked the idea of being on the road in a country known for its beer and battlegrounds. We used our United miles for two Business Class tickets from SFO to FRA, then rented a car. 

Unfortunately, no one had thought to take the map away from me in the meantime. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of our living room saying things like, "Did you know that Germany is right next door to Belgium? Home of amazing chocolate?" and "If we drive straight west from Frankfurt to the Belgian border, we can't really avoid Luxembourg, and Luxembourg is tiny, and I love all tiny things!" and "Oh. My. Gosh. Wouldn't it be fun to make our way north from there through The Netherlands? Windmills! Wooden shoes! Tulips!"

Try as he might, Jonathan couldn't convince me to give up the chance to see all these countries in one swoop. I'd fixated. Even prying the map from my fingers and hiding it didn't stop me. I'd memorized the geography at that point.

"Then we can swing back through northern Germany and across the Danish border, hit the coast for a couple days, and drive across to Copenhagen."

You might be thinking this all sounds a little ambitious or obnoxious. And you're right. But then I want to remind you that I believed this trip was our once-in-a-lifetime chance to see it all. How often do people travel to Europe from California? It's far. It's expensive. To do it right requires an amount of time that's almost impossible to get off of work in any normal career. We had one shot, and I was going to pack it all in.

Jonathan put his foot down when I started looking at train tickets to Paris. We had 10 days. I'd selected 5 countries. That was that. 

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I write in the margins and on the blank pages of books authored by other writers. It's a habit. When I happen upon those scribblings later, it's always a treat. The following is an essay I penned on a trip to Northern Italy in 2009. All summer long I'd been following the Green Revolution in Iran. I'd seen the blood pool in the street beneath the body of Neda Agha-Soltan after she was gunned down during a protest in June. Her death scarred me. I wanted to know about the lives of other young women in Iran. To that end, I picked up Dr. Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran to read on our vacation...

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I am seated on a bench in the northern Italian mountains. There is a white church steeple and a brass weather vane in the shape of a rooster straining in the brisk wind.  Muddy brown sparrows hop from branch to branch in the midget pines to my right. Jonathan's head is tilted back and his eyes are closed.  We are waiting for something, breath bated, and hopeful.

Clouds engulf the head of Monte Cervino, the exotic Italian name for this side of The Matterhorn.  Even as the radiant blue sky is visible over our heads in all directions, a remarkable dome, this mysterious mountain is coy. She has wrangled her own weather this morning and wears it like a white headscarf. For an instant, she reveals her eyes. She watches me. I am yearning for more, lusting for her full, perfect face. But she is well aware of her status as a check box, one of many on this trip, and isn't about to give me the satisfaction.  That's her call.  I snort with ambivalence and, in response, she tucks even her pretty, snowcapped eyes away from us again.

While we wait, I read. Reading Lolita in Tehran has accompanied me every mile of the way on our trip through France, Monaco, and Italy. The 2003 memoir by Dr. Azar Nafisi chronicles the clandestine activities of a group of young Muslim women in the mid-1990s. In search of literary truth and personal independence, they risked their safety to congregate in the private home of their teacher.  There they could shed their heavy scarves and robes, sit in a circle, and study the great novels of history.  

A verbal scalpel slices the cover of Lolita and allows the students to see past the prose and into the heart and guts of the work, its intentions and its context.  I can recall the cover of my own copy of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece, purchased at the UC Davis bookstore at the beginning of my junior year.  It is a photo in grayscale, saddle shoes and girlish ankles.  Tiny white socks folded down in delicate cuffs.  

Reading Lolita in my Introduction to Literary Criticism class startled me. Humbert Humbert, the perverse romantic, the child rapist poet, was the first narrator to make me feel sick.  I wanted to hate the book.  I wanted to plant my feet staunchly on the moral high ground and pitch the book into the fire.

It took a good teacher to change my mind and heart.

I cannot remember his name, but his gait, crippled, lurching and rolling, is burned into my mind's eye.  He'd been in a bicycle accident as a child, shattering his fragile leg bone beyond hope of anything more than a cursory repair. Yet, thirty years after that event rendered him weak and unstable for life, he paced the breadth of his classroom at Davis without more than a nod to his disability, and he willed his classful of eager English majors to reconsider Lolita as something more than the senseless ramblings of a pedophile.

He wanted me to mine Humbert's grotesque justifications for something deeper.  Consider the author's intentions, my teacher urged me.  Nobokov was not a depraved man with a penchant for little girls. Nabokov didn't want to suck the marrow from the skeletons of their fairy tales. He was a Russian author with a genius for gaining access to another plane of thought and fancy, and he excelled at granting that access to his readers in turn.  Nobokov invented Humbert as he invented so many other protagonists. He constructed an individual dispossessed of the stranglehold of our realities and allowed that individual to run free.

Nafisi introduced this same concept to the young women who'd gathered in her cozy, curtained apartment in Tehran.  Her six students also struggled with appreciating Lolita as something other than the confessions of a sexual predator.  

"Why do we enjoy books like this?  Isn't that wrong?" they asked each other.
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"I want to repeat one word for you: Leave. Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word... Don't worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed." -- Don Miller

So we left.

Maybe it was that all of our familiar furniture was already placed in these foreign rooms, or maybe it was that sunlight streamed in through all our garret windows and made the place glow. Whatever the case, our cats had no trouble adjusting to their new surroundings. We unzipped the carriers slowly so that Disney and Crypto could ease their way out into the new space. They still wore their harnesses. Green camo for Disney and pink floral for Crypto. They'd spent the last 24 hours enclosed in the carriers, most of that time on planes between San Francisco and New York, then New York and Oslo. We'd pulled them out a few terrorizing times: going through security at SFO and then again at EWR, for a brief rest period at an airport hotel in Newark, New Jersey, and then finally at OSL where a veterinarian was on hand to examine them and grant our precious cargo official entry into Norway.
 
That was the longest day of our lives. 

Two planes, a train, a taxi. Five giant suitcases, two cat carriers, and two whining cats. Four flights of stairs. 

But as we entered the new flat, at once aware of our solitude and our togetherness, all the stress of the melted away. 

Disney found the circle window in the living room quickly. He hopped up to the sill multiple times that first day to check out the new street so far below him. Birds played in the sky at his eye-level. He purred contentedly. Crypto sprawled on the floor in one of the rectangular patches of yellow sunlight on the wooden floor. She lay there like a swimmer floating in a pool of light.

Jonathan and I stepped out on our patio and walked to the corner of it. I pushed up on the banister and leaned forward, face full into the fresh April air, pointing myself southwest where I could see, half a kilometer away, the water of the Oslofjord. Jonathan stood behind me and placed one hand on each of mine, his chest pressed warmly to my shoulder blades. 

That was exactly one year ago. And since then...

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IMG_0642.JPGAround me swirls an exotic tango of French dialogue and cigarette smoke. We approached the Café Limo on this, our final night in Paris, tentatively. We had been worried that our whim, a quick stroll for a night cap and a chance to soak up our last hours in the city, would be thwarted by lowered curtains, stacked chairs, and a sign reading Fermé.

But coming around the corner into the Place Gustave, we were shocked to see that every café on the square was ablaze with lights and abuzz with the happy, animated conversations of Parisian night owls.

This is where we sat on our first night in Paris, a Saturday, after 13 hours of plane and train travel.  Our hotel, the Hotel France Albion, is just down the street.  We went in search of a late dinner that evening.  What we found was true Paris hospitality.  Our waitress came and sat at my elbow, offering translation of their French-only menu.

Thankfully, my choice to enroll in college French classes for the last couple of semesters has prepared me for food ordering, at the very least.  I've used my "skills" at every food-related turn.  It's been fun!  And it's led to a couple of amusing mix-ups.

For example, on Sunday morning, we visited the Eiffel Tower. We had not expected the heat to be so intense in the shadow of the grand monument, but considering the thousands of people gathered there, cote a cote, as it were, Jon and I were soon very thirsty.  Before we began our climb, we decided water would be necessary.  I located a cart selling bottles of water, gelato, miniature French flags, post cards, and teeny Eiffel Tower replica key chains.

"Bonjour!" I said, greeting the proprietress of the little concessions trailer.  She was a drooping middle-aged woman with dyed hair and a James Dean tank top.

"Bonjour," she replied with a lot less enthusiasm.

"Je voudrais un boite d'eau, s'il vous plait."  I was all smiles, and suddenly, so was she.

"Un bouteille," she corrected, gently.  "Pas un boit. Un bouteille."

Blushing, I laughed at my mistake.  "Oh, oui!  Un bouteille!  Merci!"

Echoing her au revoir, I grasped the perspiring bottle of water and turned to go, grateful it was not the "box of water" I'd actually requested.
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parisatnight_byjon.jpgThough awash in the deep shadows of late evening, my face is aglow with the reflected light of a single, hearty flame rooted in the concrete before me. The flame bends and writhes in the breeze which channels between the massive stone columns to my right and my left. I am entranced, a cobra's prey, mesmerized by a dangerous waltz.

Between flickerings, I can read the French words engraved beneath the flame:

ICI
REPOSE
UN SOLDAT
FRANCAIS
MORT
POUR PATRIE

This is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to the nameless French patriots who died in World War I. It burns directly beneath, l'Arc du Triomphe, the Paris memorial to all its veterans, especially those who fought in the Napoleanic Wars in the early part of the 19th century.  I appreciate these symbols and I appreciate this light.

We took the Metro to the Franklin D. Roosevelt station which let us out onto the Champs-Élysées, that fabled avenue of restaurants and shops which I've heard about in movies and books all my life.  The street breaks at a very famous traffic circle which skirts l'Arc du Triomph.  At night, hundreds of pairs of headlights sweep across the four sides of monument, banking to the right and becoming lost in a river of red and white.  

This dazzling whirlpool of electric color is most dramatic from above and, thankfully, our Paris Museum Pass allowed us to ascend the spiral staircase concealed in one of the columns.  Inside, there is a very small set of exhibits about L'Arc du Triomphe and its conception, construction, and symbolism. But the real reason for our climb was through another dim corridor, dank with the sweat and odor of the hundreds of tourists who make this climb every day.  Up a few more stairs and out into the warm night air we realized our goal.

After dark, every hour on the hour, la Tour Eiffel is set sparkling with white lights.  Of course, it remains brightly lit all night long, a beacon of gold, a guardian, a herald.  But at each hour, someone flips a magic switch. 

Though there are technically no tripods allowed at the top of the Arc, we found a way around that prohibition by bringing our little "gorilla pod," an all-terrain tri-pod with flexible, prehensile limbs.  It was small enough not to arouse suspicion, and it allowed us to get some wonderful low light shots of this glorious city.

Paris stretches beyond the line of sight from any vantage point.  During the day, its size, when seen from above is intimidating, overwhelming, too much.  But at night, it is a veritable sea of lights, all colors, shimmering like a dream.
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DSC02450.JPGJonathan and I are in Ireland!  To see our pictures, click here.

Above the clouds, a blush rose in the cheeks of the Irish sky.  It was early.  A tailwind had pushed us almost half an hour ahead of schedule.  After eleven hours on two separate planes (and one three-hour layover in Chicago), we were finally descending. 

The vast, marshmallow bank of creamy clouds swallowed our plane and before long we'd pushed through them and could see the blue black expanse of ocean water dotted by lights from fishing boats and lighthouses.  Lower.  Lower.  Then we could see the rise  of land out of the water... Ireland.  It was bright enough to make out rolling green pastures divided by thick, dark hedgerows. 

Our plane touched down before 8:00 am.  We disembarked on the tarmac and walked into the airport.  This gave us the perfect chance to grab a photo op with our emerald Aer Lingus plane in what locals would call the wee hours of the morning.

Just inside the terminal, we stepped away from the crowd and took turns in the bathroom... changing into fresh clothes, brushing our teeth and washing our faces.  I'd been lucky enough to snag three hours of sleep on the flight over, but Jonathan hadn't been able to do the same.

Customs didn't take long, and the attendant who stamped our passports found our "quick weekend trip" idea to be cute.  He wished us luck and alerted us to the fact that this weekend is one of the Six Nations Rugby Championship weekends... and it's the BIG one: Ireland v. England.

The good news?  While we know nothing about rugby, we're quick learners.  AND, we couldn't think of any more exciting way to spend our first night in Dublin than at a raucous pub, drinking Irish beer and cheering on the guys in green along with a couple hundred excited Irish rugby fans.
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IMG_6063.JPGContinuation of She Loves the Transportation in the Jungfrauregion...

In the little hamlets of Switzerland (like Interlaken and Murren), there is no sense of hostility towards the newcomer.  The locals are used to and take advantage of the tourist trade, and they are well aware that the value of their magnificent Alpine view does not depreciate.  In fact, if anything, it is a joy doubled when shared.  We were welcomed at every turn.

Later, at a picnic table owned by the hostel in Gimmelwald (one I'd seen advertised on the internet prior to our trip and would definitely find comfortable enough to use in the future... It has a hot tub outside in view of the mountains!), I peered into the giant canyon between us and the Alps. 


The grandeur of my surroundings inspired me to sit at a picnic table near a cliff and scribble the following on a piece of paper:

The tinkling of cowbells in a hundred different tones echoes along the rolling hillside.  Between the emerald green of the meadows and fields and the cheerful geraniums in all of the window boxes, this place feels alive.  A steady line of paragliders sweeps through the sky not so far above us, but the canyon is so vast, the valley so wide, the opposite cliff so high and sheer, that soon the colorful paraglider chutes are more like tiny, earnest blossoms against a mossy, gray backdrop.

IMG_6146.JPGOf course, the real flowers growing wild in the grass, have no equal.  Sweet and delicate, they defer to the immense landscape when cameras are clicking, but bow your head closer to the soil and you'll be dazzled by the intricacy of the butter yellow petals, the milk white stamens.

Breathe in the Alpine air, so cool and refreshing you'll wish it could be bottled to be taken home.  Unfortunately, only the real thing will do.  And besides, if you did take home a bottle, you'd be unable to escape the honest, brutal comparison it would require of your City air, the real life breaths you take and forget about every day.  It is better to have this phenomenon of recognizably perfect breathing air only on vacation - otherwise, it would interfere with your workday productivity.
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IMG_5852.JPGFIRST: Congratulations Chris and Jen!  Marriage is fun!

SECOND: Happy 24th Birthday, Teddy!

Back to the blog...

During our initial planning, Saturday had been selected as the perfect time slot for a day trip away from Zurich.  Jon and I each had the chance to choose a destination elsewhere in Switzerland.  I picked Appenzell, a city on the Eastern border, which we visited on Sunday.  But Saturday was Jon's pick, and so we were off on a tremendously ambitious adventure to the Bernese Alps (the so-called Jungfrauregion) and, specifically, to a tiny town called Gimmelwald nestled high on the mountainside.

IMG_5959.JPGI call the day's plan ambitious because it included every kind of transportation:

Drove 100+ kilometers from Zurich to Interlaken
Train from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen
Gondola from Lauterbrunnen to Grutshalp
Train from Grutshalp to Winteregg
Walked from Winteregg to Murren and Gimmelwald

As of today, I am aware of no more thrilling an activity than running to catch a train.  The allure of train travel lies in its perceived antiquity, though most all commercial trains used today are quite modern.  One can easily imagine the delightful station platforms back when locomotive engines hissed and wheezed steam on entrance and exit, filling the room with white... or lips pressed to the palm of one departing and the subsequent kiss tossed to the one who remains in the station, fading smaller and smaller.
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IMG_5475.JPGOn Thursday, Jonathan and I spent the morning in Strasbourg. Our original plan had been to quickly get on the road, but there was something about that lovely city which had sway with us. After breakfast at a patisserie across the street (Michele's) where we ordered coffee and pastries, we headed to Strasbourg Cathedral to take more pictures and to pop inside for a look.

Reverence filled the expanse of the interior, emanating from the worshipers of God and Architecture. There were tour groups and classes on field trips, young couples and elderly couples and traveling buddies and girlfriends, all of whom couldn't tear their eyes from the lovely stained glass windows, the massive Bible under glass at the front. I lit a candle for our country, praying for peace and reason to prevail at this new dawn of ours... the one masquerading as a doomsday.

IMG_5496.JPGSoon enough, we were on the road to Zurich. Our lodgings at the Hotel Enginmatt are fabulous, very comfortable and stylish, but we didn't waste time in our room (even though the jet lag pit bull had me by the eyelids again and was trying to tug me into bed).  No no, we had traveled halfway around the world to see this bursting, blossoming city and couldn't wait another second.

The Bahnhoffstrasse beckoned us first; a luxury shopping strip of several kilometers, almost completely pedestrianized, running parallel to the River Limmat. Naturally the price tags were a tad over our budget (1,100 Swiss Francs for a small purse), but the looking was very fun.

Around us, night was falling and people were moving in jovial groups, communicating in a variety of languages. German, French, and Italian words skipped around us in the shadows, bouncing off the brick and stone facades of the buildings playing hide-and-seek with one another. A smattering of other languages, Swedish, Mandarin, and Spanish, joined the game, as well. I floated along on Jonathan's arm wishing with all my heart that I had the chance to dedicate myself to the study of language so that I could develop the capacity to better understand these people, men and women who share my globe. What an opportunity that would be!
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DSC00875.JPGThree weeks ago, I'd never heard of Strasbourg, France, but as of tonight, I feel like I've seen every corner of the city!

After taking the red-eye from SFO to Frankfurt, arriving this morning, Jon and I picked up our rental car (a little, black Mercedes which isn't quite as perfect as the car we rented last year... Jon's bummed that it doesn't take Diesel... but it's still darling!) and wasted no time getting on the road.

Last year we headed West to Luxembourg and Belgium, eventually heading North to Denmark.  This year, we left Frankfurt heading Southbound on A5.  Our final destination is Zurich, Switzerland!  But we decided a few weeks ago that we should swerve slightly Westward and stay the night in France, too, another country neither of us have visited before.

We crossed the Rhine River just West of Baden-Baden, Germany, and I have to say that in this part of the country, the view isn't nearly as staggering as I remember it being further North.  That being said, there was a major change in scenery as we crossed from Germany, with its lush, snarling black and green forests, into Northeastern France.  Suddenly, broad, green fields stretched between well-defined farm borders. Doe-eyed, white cows grazed in lazy groups.  Golden corn fields whipped past the windows of our car as we sped along D4.  (But the corn is shorter here... weird... and completely inadequate for any kind of corn maze!)
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little_mermaid_1.jpg Hans Christian Andersen's original Little Mermaid had no name.  Long before the folks at Disney conjured up the image of the nymphetesque Ariel, with her plume of crimson hair and ample seashells, the famed Danish storyteller described a group of sisters, daughters of the Sea King, with beautiful voices and tails like fish.  His little mermaid was "a strange child, quiet and thoughtful." 
 
Ultimately, that is my impression of Copenhagen, the city where Andersen lived and created for most of his life.  It is a strange city, quiet and thoughtful in some corridors, but brilliant and beautiful along others. 
 
Jonathan and I arrived after dark on a Friday.  A heavy mist of fog hung low over the city and, as we fought to translate street signs and road names to locate our hotel, our first reaction was something akin to disappointment.  Coming in from the west, we skirted heavy industrial complexes and passed miles and miles of concrete walls, graffiti crawling over them like many-colored mold.  We were blinded by the glare of neon signs, advertising (or should I say screaming about) the newest adult toys, videos and costumes, flagrantly displayed behind giant, plate-glass windows.
 
Anderson described the way the older mermaid sisters would occasionally rise to the surface, arms wrapped around one another in a row, and sing to sailors on passing ships who were preparing to brave an impending storm.  "They had more beautiful voices than any human being could have; and before the approach of a storm, and when they expected a ship would be lost, they swam before the vessel, and sang sweetly of the delights to be found in the depths of the sea, and begging the sailors not to fear if they sank to the bottom. But the sailors could not understand the song, they took it for the howling of the storm. And these things were never to be beautiful for them; for if the ship sank, the men were drowned, and their dead bodies alone reached the palace of the Sea King."
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IMG_1839.JPGThe Denmark border is indicated by a series of crossing kiosks which are no longer in use and by several proud, colorful flags.  The first flag is the red and white national flag of Denmark.  I love this flag.  I would have jumped out of the car, pulled it down and made it into a shirt for myself if I hadn't been afraid someone might have taken it as an act of war.

Honestly, though, I can say that I was not afraid even once in Denmark.  The Danes are wonderful people.  They smile quickly, speak English fluently and without disdain or reproach.  Had I worn their beloved flag around town, they probably would have patted me on the back and urged me to take it home.

Denmark is a lovely country.  We geocached our way north, just to be sure to find a few unique nooks and crannies.  This whole trip has been a whirlwind; more than 24 hours has been invested in the "getting there."  So much driving (I'm in the car on the way to Frankfurt right now).  Geocaching has been the perfect distraction.

On one such stop, we wound our way along dirt and gravel roads, out past dairy farms and corn fields to find a cache placed near a WWII bunker, a concrete box with two doorways.  This was used by Nazis during their occupation of Denmark (a country which remained "neutral" at that time).  The line of bunkers and manned posts stretched all the way across Jutland.  Had we not searched for this cache, we would not have had the chance to see a piece of Danish history up close.  In Jonathan's case, he got to walk all the way through it.  We left just as the dairy cows came home.

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bricks1.jpgTo begin, I'd like to mention that the title of this entry is accurate, but only to a point.  I have actually loved the bricks everywhere.  For all the talk I've ever heard about European architecture, the different styles and types and ages, I've never heard anyone reference the bricks.  This is an outrageous oversight.  Brick is beautiful, and California is sorely lacking it.  I understand that this may be due to severe building requirements, earthquake standards, etc.  But people, we're missing the sheer beauty of one of the most simple building mediums known to man. 

Every city, town, enclave... everywhere people have congregated to live together, large and small, is graced with reddish, brownish brick.  The facades of the buildings catch every ounce of sunlight and reflect it back, warm and easy on the eyes.  Post offices and hardware stores appear stately.  Homes stand like miniature castles.  White window boxes, plain in any other environment, pop against the red backdrop.

The red walls spring up like flowers amid the green fields as we drove from Hamburg, north to the border.

We swung into Rendsburg for coffee.  I hate to describe the little foreign towns as quaint.  Somehow that word has become derogatory in our culture.  Unfair.  It's the perfect word.  Synonyms include old fashioned, charming, pretty, antiquated, picturesque, appealing. 

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IMG_1592.JPG I'm behind.  I know it.  But we've been convalescing the last few days, hiding away at our friend's home in Klegod, Denmark, right on the coast.  More about that (much more) later.  First, a few words about The Netherlands...

We only drove through.

I know!  Crazy!  How could we not stop?  How could we not wander in the rolling green pastures, visit with the milkmaids, ring a few cowbells...?  The short answer is that we didn't have the time.  In fact, we were lucky that Holland, as it is apparently sometimes called, was on our way to Denmark.  After leaving Brussels, we spent a few hours on the road and swung our way up through that little northern country.

So, what was my impression?

I wanted so badly to love the windmills.  After all, isn't that what we all think of?  Holland.  Hmmmm... windmills and wooden shoes and girls named Heidi.  If you're Joey Tribbiani on FRIENDS, you think Netherlands is a "make believe place where Peter Pan and Tinkerbell live." 

I looked for cute windmills.  Mostly, though, I only saw towering, sleek ones.  Red and white.  Long, lean and powerful.  Churning the air.  Obstructing the flight paths of the birds.  Occasionally we saw trucks hauling the individual pieces.  Long, long trucks.  And each could only take a single blade or a third of the tower.  But no adorable windmills, stout and timbered.  And no milkmaids, either.  Bummer.

IMG_1614.JPG

Instead, I fell in love with the cows.  They were everywhere.  And not the forlorn crowds of stinking Manteca cows, either.  I'm talking about Holsteins.  Black and white, proportioned like the perfect animated characters in books we loved as schoolchildren.  They blink and sway when they walk.  They are milked by hand. 

They seem so happy.

We blew past most of the fields... but when we did stop to take pictures or stretch our legs, I discovered that there was nothing more peaceful than the calm calls of the cows as they ate and swayed, ate and swayed.  In fact, this is what I now believe the Christmas carol "Away In the Manger" means when it references the cattle lowing.  I'd never heard lowing before.  It's nice.

 
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IMG_1478.JPGThere is a square in Brussels which boasts being one of the top tourist destinations in the country.  As we had only a single morning to spend in the city, we opted to check out The Grand Place (as it is called) and its surroundings.  We couldn't have made a better choice. 

The square itself, centered around the Hotel de Ville, it very grand indeed.  Giant old buildings with cathedral-like facades and latticed buttresses sit along the perimeter like a group of old men chatting about the weather.  Hidden in the pockets of their old tweed coats, as any good grandchild knows, are sweets and treasures and even heirlooms to be found.  Twisting away from the square in a thousand different directions are delightful side streets peppered with shoppes, boutiques, pubs, cafes, and of course, chocolatiers.

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IMG_1340.JPGSalut!

I am writing this entry from a desk in our hotel room in Brussels, Belgium.  Today I am half a world away from the rest of my life.  And I'm ready for the break.  Already, the wonders of vacation have begun working their magic on me.

Yesterday began with a drive to San Francisco International Airport (thank you, Debbie!).  Along the way, we picked up McDonalds.  Man, that feels like a long time ago.

I was exhausted, having just returned from a three-day business trip to Chevy Chase, Maryland.  The prospect of spending 10+ hours on another plane made me want to weep.  However, this trip brought a special first for Jon and me.  We flew Business Class, thanks to the miles Jon has earned on numerous business trips over the last two years, and on a 747, the Business Class seats are on the upper deck of the plane.  This is infinitely cool.  Not only is it quieter, more spacious and more private, but we're almost three stories off the ground AND we're up near the entrance to the cockpit.

This last perk may not seem like much to most, but our journey got of to a-- er-- flying start when the First Officer just happened to notice us taking giddy, ridiculous pictures of each other while waiting in our seats, and invited us to accompany him into the cockpit to meet the Captain (a chick!) and to take pictures!  One of the crew members even tossed me his hat to wear.  Jaunty, eh?

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