In this endless winter of 2017-18, the memory of summer heat on our trip to Europe in the fall of 2016 warms me as I watch the snow fall outside my window. So I recall our journey, to honour our war dead and to visit favourite cities.
First, a plane, then a train
The flight left on time and arrived a bit early, with only a fair bout of turbulence 4 hours in. But in spite of traveling business class, I really don’t like long plane rides; this time, I got extremely gassy even though I ate little and drank mainly water (and a half glass of ginger ale + coffee in the morning), Then the EuroStar is difficult to take with more than one suitcase each because you have to lug your own baggage—oh, what I would give for a porter!
Monday, September 5th. We arrived at the Mansart about 3 in the afternoon and had a wonderful nap until 5 pm. We washed our faces, changed our clothes and walked out to dinner at Café Capucine, 5 minutes from our hotel.
Paris is Paris—lovely and old and a bit seedy. It was not at all busy; in fact, we could see that the city and the country are not flourishing: The restaurants were not full and the waiters were very welcoming, in English to accommodate or in français if I wanted to use my rusty French, trying hard to understand me—a stark contrast to when our son lived there in the 1990s and they fairly dripped with condescension every time I ventured into their langue maternelle. And my French was much better then because I was spending beaucoup d’argent et beaucoup d’heures learning the language.
Tuesday, September 6th. The air was soft and moist, and the skies overcast, the perfect day for walking. Which we did, to the Notre Dame Cathedral on the Île de la Cité. Again, the line was short and moved quickly, so we were in the church in about 5 minutes. The calm and quiet inside the church made the visit contemplative and awesome, unhurried or untouched by other tourists as one is in so many places in Europe.
Après ça, we strolled across to the Île Saint-Louis to find L’Orangerie, a petit restaurant that we had read about. It had no outside tables where we had thought it would be pleasant to dine on this fine fall day. But it was charming inside, and we had our choice of table because we were the only diners. We chose one near the window, but soon became hot and uncomfortable in the stuffy room. As we were getting up to leave, the waiter suggested he open the door and, voilà!, the place quickly cooled off and we relaxed in its charm—attentive service and tasty food on this quiet, deserted street in the middle of the island on a weekday afternoon. Just as we were finishing, a gay couple arrived for lunch, but four customers for lunch will not a profit make.
Back to the hotel by taxi for a nap (J) and rest & read (B). We sadly face the fact that we are too old to walk there and back, about 5 hours of walking. Après le nap, up we got, washed our faces, donned our clothes and exited the hotel for a stroll along Rue de la Madeleine. That’s when I spotted the cool sneakers for Béatrice; we snapped a pic, sent it to MC and received the ‘Like” and her size immediately. And that’s when a group of women beside us were looking in the shop window; one turned to me, smiled and gave me a thumbs up in approval of my stylish look—even in Paris, I said to Jack.
Revisiting a restaurant where Sandrine et al and we had dinner years ago, we snuggled in to l’Absinthe for dinner. The street is lined with restaurants and surrounded by a modern office complex, creating a buzzy enclave a scant couple blocks from our hotel. Out in the street, a group was learning how to breakdance and another was practising their rollerskating moves—the perfect place with smooth pavement and no cars.
And so to bed for a good night’s sleep before our early rising the next day.
Wednesday, September 7th. I was up at 5 am, Jack at 5:30, to be showered, dressed and in the lobby for our 6:30 pickup by Frederique. This was the reason we had come to France—a day trip to the Normandy beaches to honour the Allied soldiers who fought and died in WW II to protect our freedom. The day was glorious, filled with sunshine cooled by a sea breeze off the Channel, so peaceful and calm providing a vivid contrast to the noise and tumult of the battles fought here. Two hours after leaving Paris, our party of five Americans and two Canadians arrived at our first stop, Omaha Beach, and made our way through the immaculate grounds and row upon row of white crosses of this little plot of America.
Next stop was Juno Beach where the Canadians fought a seminal battle, with its cemetery surrounded by maple trees and row on row of slab tombstones to mark our dead. The symbolism is perfect: American grandeur and power saluting its strength and leadership; Canadian modesty and homeliness supporting the Allies above and beyond its rank in the world’s nations.
The scope of the D-Day operation was intricate and massive with many moving parts—countries, soldiers and materiel. The courage and sacrifice of so many young men who went over the top to defeat the Germans is awe-inspiring and truly humbling. In the film at the Omaha memorial, all the young soldiers looked so happy and decent—a band of brothers, indeed.
In between the beaches, Frederique took us to a charming inn in the Normandy countryside for lunch: cheese appetizer, roast chicken & veggies, sorbets & fruit for dessert—simple and delicious! The inn reminded us of the place in Brittany where Benoit & Delphine’s got married in 2002; the countryside, too, with its masses of hydrangeas lining the rural roads.
Then back to Paris at the end of a long, memorable day, we walked across the street to Les Jalles for a very late, very French dinner.
Thursday, September 8th. Exhausted we were because we slept until 9 the next morning, which is extravagantly late for us in our old age. Another beautiful fall day in the city made our walk to Chez Georges the perfect appetizer for a much-anticipated lunch. This is a bistro recommended by a well-traveled friend of our son’s, and we had eaten here a couple of times, enjoying the hearty food and convivial atmosphere. This time, not so much. We felt we were rushed through the meal, a meal that was extravagantly expensive with beef several grades below Alberta beef. ‘You can’t go home again,’ I guess.
The afternoon was spent strolling around Rue de Montorgueil and environs, a pedestrian area jammed with marchés, restaurants and shops. I bought a couple of blouses, chatting in French to the salesclerk who asked me,
“Quelle region?” about my accent. “L’Ouest du Canada,” j’ai répondu. (I told you they were friendly and welcoming, almost Italian!) In the midst of this redevelopment of what was once the storied Les Halles area of Paris, Le Jardin de Nelson Mandela is being built with La Bourse and l’Eglise Saint Eustace—Mammon and God—as neighbours.
Naturally, we stopped for drinks and people watching along the way, a Parisian habit we warmly embrace. Our final dinner in Paris was at Jacques Cagna, La Rotisserie d’en Face on the Left Bank, another old favourite of ours. The meal was excellent and the service, friendly, but many tables were empty, muting the joie de vivre of the old days when we’d dine here with Sean and Sandrine in their decade in Paris in the 1990s.
Friday, September 9th. We finally get to our hotel at about 2 pm, after arriving on the EuroStar at 11:30 am. London is full of noise and cars and activity, and it took us forever to get an Uber car to transport us from St. Pancras Station to St. Ermin’s Hotel. Sandrine came to the hotel for a quick visit, about an hour, before her flight to Cork, Ireland, for a friend’s 50th birthday weekend. Then we unpacked before going to dinner at Zia Theresa in Knightsbridge, an Italian restaurant that we’d been to before and were greeted like old friends—sort of like Buon Giorno’s in Calgary. And like Buon Giorno’s, it was packed and lively with talk and laughter!
Saturday, September 10th. I woke up feeling a little queasy, but felt a better after showering—in our tiny bathroom in our extravagantly expensive room!—and dressing. Our morning outing was to the Wallace Museum, the Wallace family’s London house bequeathed to the city; the beautiful rooms make perfect display cases for the grand art collection, giving visitors a glimpse of aristocratic life in the 1800s. Unfortunately, I had to rush to the bathroom just as we were beginning our tour, so we cut it short and opted for lunch in the courtyard before our theatre matinee.
So to The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales theatre. What a piece of trash: teenage-boy humour of tits and ass and farts, and offensive as it could be about the Mormon religion. At intermission, a
group of five sitting next to us in the $310 premier-row seats got up and never came back. We, too, should have done that, but we stayed, hoping it would get funnier and seeing it deteriorate even further into smuttiness and kneejerk antireligious posturing. Don’t go.
We stopped at Selfridge’s on the way back to the hotel, but the prices were outrageous and the store was packed. For people from the wide-open spaces of the Canadian prairies, this is a mini version of hell, so we fled back to the oasis of the hotel and put our feet up for a bit. Dinner that night was at our anniversary restaurant, Franco’s on Jermyn Street, where Jane and Tim joined us. A lively, controversial conversation ensued with Jane fully participating—a refreshing change from her oftentimes surrender to Tim’s dominance. The prime topic was Brexit, with Tim trying to convince me of the error of my support using the usual left-liberal arguments delivered from the usual we-know-better pulpit. Naturally, I would have none of it! But good friends that we are, we had marvelous evening of good food & wine enjoyed amidst good talk and lots of laughter. We certainly will do this again.
Sunday, September 11th. Our day in Greenwich, traveling there by boat to see the sights along the Thames on this magnificent fall day—summer, really, with temperatures in the mid-20s. We visited the National Marine Museum and walked up the hill to the Royal Observatory, stopping for lunch in the back courtyard of a workaday inn. The heat had us seeking shade and rest at frequent intervals, where we would sit and watch families picnicking and children frolicking in the wide-open spaces of Greenwich on the Sunday afternoon. Then back by Uber and a quiet dinner at the Blue Boar bar down the street from St. Ermin’s.
Monday, September 12th. In keeping with the war theme of this trip, our last day in London was spent at the Imperial War Museum on Lambeth Road. This is well worth the visit—to learn more about WW II for those of us who know something about it, and to learn about the valour and sacrifice of the Allied troops against the evil of Nazi fascism. Do go.
After lunch, Jack had a nap and I went on a brief shopping trip along Victoria Street in our neighbourhood. A late afternoon drink on the porch of St. Ermin’s, then dinner at the Blue Boar with Sean put the perfect finishing touches to our 10-day trip to pay tribute to the Allied warriors.