Thursday, July 30, 2009

Au Revoir France! Last Day in London...and Arrival Home in the USA

Thursday, July 30, 2009
Paris and London

Our very last day in Paris had arrived—where had our holiday gone? Awaking to a continental breakfast (cereal and French roast coffee), Llew and I set out to cover the last bits and pieces of Paris that we had not yet seen.

The Dome Church of Les Invalides:
Our first stop was the domed Church of Les Invalides where, Jack informed us, his daughter Julia had been baptized. This church is part of the much larger complex called the Musee de L’Armee and its extremely decorative dome is easily visible from many parts of the city to whose skyline it adds a definite glow. This is also the church in which Napoleon’s remains were interred after his death under exile on the island of Elba. The tomb is grand but can only be viewed with a hefty ticket which includes entrance to the vast museum complex (16 euros). Since we did not have the time for such an extensive visit, we contented ourselves with a peak into the highly ornate Baroque altar of the church, encircled the beautiful gardens outside that offered peeks of the tip of the Effiel Tower and then walked a very long walk to what Lonely Planet describes as the best chocolatier in Paris.

At Cacao et Chocolat:
The walk was just perfect and I realized afresh (as I did in London so often) that for me one of the greatest pleasures of traveling is walking through random streets of a city to absorb the daily life of the people far from the tourist hordes. As we passed by small neighborhood parks, enticing antiques shops and then the huge department store called Le Bon Marche (into which we stepped to take in its unique architecture that reminded us very much of the old Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay), we finally arrived in the area just past St. Germaine de Pres and the Latin Quarter and found Cacao et Chocolat, a very small and very exclusive artisinal boutique whose aroma was deeply appetizing.

Now Llew and I are both chocoholics; so for us arriving at this destination was a bit like arriving at the Gates of Paradise. After our long and very stimulating walk, our appetites had been whetted for some good European chocolate. I informed the very cheerful and friendly salesman that we had come in search of his shop from the recommendation in Lonely Planet. I asked him what he would recommend for seasoned chocolate lovers and he suggested a cup of their signature Hot Chocolate which we could enjoy at their tasting ‘bar’.

Yessss! This was Paradise indeed. The menu was handed over to us to peruse and I, having drunk the exquisite hot chocolate with chilli at Fassbinder and Rausch in Berlin (another great international chocolatier), decided to try the Hot Chocolate Epicee--with mixed spices (cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, among others) while Llew decided to play it safe and go for the plain version (apparently the most popular of the lot). All the while, as we sipped this elixir of the gods, the salesman kept plying us with chocolate to taste from their flavors of the past and present months to the truffles for which they are known to the tiny dark and milk chocolate Florentines that we kept popping in our mouths to attain chocolate nirvana! We walked away from the shop, a good hour later, fully fortified for some more sight seeing and with a bag of dark chocolate studded with toasted hazelnuts in our firm grip. I have discovered that in my year-long travels I have stock piled chocolate from every capital city in Europe and a large part of our baggage back home to the US will consist of these irresistible gourmet treasures that I have purchased from master chocolatiers.

Off to see the Pantheon:
Then, we were off in the metro once again, to see the Pantheon, another one of Paris’s landmarks, also characterized by a gigantic dome. We arrived at the splendid Neo-Classical structure, the great handiwork of Jacques-Germaine Sufflot, who wished to recreate the grandeur of ancient Greece and Rome through this structure that was intended originally as a shrine to Paris’ patron saint, Genevieve.

It was King Louis XV who had vowed that if he ever recovered from a debilitating illness, he would build a magnificent church to Saint Genevieve but the church soon morphed into a place of honored burial for some of France’s most revered thinkers, writers and philosophers, architects of the French Revolution and of the intellectual thought and ideas for which the city became renowned. The monuments, down in the Crypt, tell the story of the vast influence that these figures have had on the history of the city—they include such names as those of Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Jean Moulin, Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Louis Braille, Jean Jaurès and Soufflot, its architect.

Llew and I were really lucky to discover (after he bought his ticket for 6 euros as my Met ID card let me in for free) that there was a guided tour that would be starting soon. This would take us up the 268 steps to the very Dome for 360 degree views of Paris on what was a spectacular day. So, you see how we lucked out? Though I did not get up to the Tour Effiel (which would only have taken me to the first level anyway), here we were at the Pantheon able to avail of the exact same thrills—only from a different vantage point.

Of course, we joined the tour right away and began our steep ascent to the top. We stopped en route at two different levels to take in the extraordinary mosaics and the staggering dimensions of the interior—the lofty nave, the Corinthian columns, the many beautiful frescoes depicting the life of St. Genevieve that covered the walls and ceiling. It was really astounding.

And then there we were—on the roof—easily able to spot the many Parisian landmarks that we had visited ourselves over the past few days. There was Notre-Dame dominating the Ile de la Cite with the spire of Sainte Chappelle very close to it. There was the towering mountain on which stood the Church of Sacre Coeur at Montmartre. There was part of the great arch that defines the new area known as La Defense. There was the great expanse of green that singled out Pere Lachaise Cemetery which was to be the next stop on our sight seeing tour of the day. And there, of course was the Dome of Les Invalides Church and the Tour Effiel. What a fabulous time we had taking in the uniform construction of the city that grew and grew over the centuries under the loving hands of some of the world’s most talented architects. It was such a thrilling experience to see these vistas spread out before us and though we were running short of memory space in our camera, we managed to make room for a few stunning shots.

Once we got down again to base level, we began our exploration of the interior with its monumental memorials to such French sons as Diderot and then we descended into the Crypt, quite taken by the architectural elements that lay beneath holding up this colossal structure.

At Pere Lachaise Cemetery:
Then, we were off again…this time taking the metro to faraway Pere Lachaise Cemetery where so many well-known persons associated with the city lie buried. I was quite amazed by the vast size of this cemetery which continues to be used as a place of burial. Though there are detailed maps available at the entrance that lead visitors to the tomb stones of those legendary figures whose final resting places they might most wish to see, we did not have one with us and used the rather sketchy version available in my DK Eye Witness Guide Book. We also realized quickly enough that we could not afford the time to linger too long in the cemetery and would have to be choosy about which graves we would visit.

For the next hours, we climbed the many stairs that took us further and further up the hill upon which the cemetery is spread out, seeing along the way, the monuments that remember such famous French writers as Balzac and such controversial English writers as Oscar Wilde (whose tomb carries a beautiful piece of sculpture by Jacob Epstein—alas, so badly defaced by the anti-gay visitors to his grave) and the more contemporary Jim Morrison of The Doors fame whose tombstone records his full name as being James Douglas Morrison. The funerary sculpture that dates from the 1700s to the present date made very interesting viewing for it taught us a tremendous amount about changing trends in mortuary design. We did have a very interesting couple of hours in this space and were very tired when we finally decided to leave so as not to miss our Eurostar train later that evening.

Return Home to London:
We found a nice boulangerie along the way that allowed us to grab sandwiches which we then ate on the metro on our return to the Champs Elysses. There, we said our goodbyes and many Thank-yous to Julia and grabbed our bags and left for the last ride in the metro to the Gare du Nord where we were scheduled to board the 7. 19 pm train back to London.

Everything went smoothly as we passed through Customs and Immigration and boarded our train. We watched the French countryside whoosh past us as we sipped a glass of red wine and nibbled at crisps and then we were under the English Channel and emerging in Kent in England. Before we could say Eurostar, our train was pulling into St. Pancras International while there was still ample daylight left in London.

On the 63 bus heading home to Farringdon, we found it hard to believe that our dream vacation in London and France had come to an end. It would be memorable for several reasons and we were astonished when we thought about how much we had packed into it—from seeing Helen Mirren on stage to watching the birth of a new calf, from becoming acquainted with computer technology in modern dairy farming to making an emergency visit to a French hospital, from admiring the medieval ingenuity of female embroiderers at Bayeux to walking in the footsteps of unnamed American heroes on the battle-ravaged beaches of Normandy, from being dazzled by the spectacle of the Lido to sipping tea and nibbling pastries at Laduree, we had done so much on this trip.

At Sainsbury, I finally managed to top up cell phone minutes, bought milk for our last breakfast in London and then turned the key into the Farringdon loft where we ate a dinner based on leftovers in the fridge. We then turned our attention to the pressing task of concluding our packing for the USA to which, unbelievably, we would be headed the next afternoon.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Where our morning slipped to I have not a clue! All I knew was that I awoke by 6. 30 am being too keyed up to sleep any longer. It was the last time I would be awaking in London (for a very long time) and I savored the sensation for a bit before deciding I needed to get going.

Anyone seeing the state of our room that morning would never have dreamed that just a few hours later we could possibly have packed everything away and left our room and en suite bathroom in pristine condition. But bit by bit, suitcase by suitcase, weighing each item carefully as we added it to our bags and managing somehow to pack well the many breakable china and glass items I had purchased from the many charity shops and antiques stores I had scoured in the UK, we worked together to get everything in.

About half way through the morning, I realized that there was no way all my 'stuff' would fit into our four suitcase allowance. "That's it", I said to Llew. "We're going to the Post Office and mailing all this off". Thankfully, I had retained a few good boxes and I piled them with the last-minute things we had used such as our bed linen and down pillows as well as a number of books as Llew helped me tape them down. I also had the foresight to save a few of the address labels I had printed out weeks ago when I had mailed off my other stuff.

So there we were, on our hands and knees, assembling these boxes together. Meanwhile, I was juggling phone calls to the shippers to get shipping estimates, to the cab driver to order us a cab at 12. 30 and a host of other things that needed to be all tied up. We did manage to find the time to eat breakfast (toast with peanut butter and coffee). I cleaned the fridge and freezer and left notes for Loulou and Paul and then at 12. 25 pm, Llew began to stack all our baggage in the elevator to take it downstairs. What a huge help he was to me and how grateful I was to have him there to get me through the scramble at the eleventh hour to make everything fall into place. And we managed to do all this without a single impatient word to each other!!! Now that was an achievement!

In fact, what saved the day for me was that I had forgotten to put my writst watch back one hour after returning from Paris late last night. So at one point, when I thought it was 10.00 am, it was actually 9.00 am--omigawd! How thrilled I was to have that extra hour and how smoothly everything went from that point on. What an extra hour can do in a stress-fraught life, I thought!

We had a bit of a rucous with the cab, however, for the large-sized vehicle we had ordered to get all our baggage to Heathrow did not show up and when we called the cab company, it appears that there was a screw-up at the station. However, magically, another mini-cab happened to be cruising down our street (yes, just like that!)) and John, the driver, sensing our distress, stopped to inquire if he could assist. Next thing you know, he was piling our baggage into his shiny grey BMW and taking us to Heathrow by a most unusual route past Pall Mall and Buckingham Palace and then on to Kensington past the V&A and the Museum of Natural History. I cannot even begin to tell you how badly I wanted to weep for I had major withdrawal symptoms from this city that I have always loved but which, during this one unforgettable year in my life, had actually been my HOME!

Then, we were at Heathrow and being dropped off at Terminal 4 where we made the discovery that my Delta Airlines flight left from there while Llew's American Airlines flight left from Terminal 3! We said our goodbyes knowing we would next hook up at Kennedy airport and he left to take the Airtrain to his terminal.

I went through security in five mintues and then was left with three whole hours to do some duty free shopping--except that Terminal 4 has a pathetic duty free area and within ten minutes I had seen all there was to see and, feeling deeply frustrated, found a free port that allowed me to use my laptop which was in my hand baggage. So I settled myself down and began hammering away at my keyboard and got a whole lot of writing done until my gate was announced and I took off!

London was bathed in golden sunlight as I took my last airborne looks at it. Then, we were soaring higher and higher into the clouds and land became invisible. I began chatting with my companion, a student of Art History at London's Goldsmith College named Leigh, who was so excited that he was going to New York for the first time in his life. He proved to be good company through most of the flight during which I watched four movies! Yes, can you believe it?
Having watched just one movie (Slumdog Millionnaire) for the entire year that I spent in London, I saw four movies on my way out--as if making up for my long film famine--Second Chance Harvey (with Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman), Duplicity (with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts), New Girl in Town (with Rene Zellweiger and Harry Connick Jr.) and He's Just Not That Into You (with everyone in Hollywood under the age of thirty--make that forty as I heard that Jennifer Anniston just turned 40).

Well, at JFK, darkness had fallen already at 8. 30 pm (9. 30 by the time I cleared Immigration, picked up my baggage and reconnected with Llew. And yes, the Immigration Officer did actually say to me "Welcome Back!"). Llew arrived about ten minutes later to the Passenger Pick-Up area in the rented car that he had picked up a half hour earlier (as his flight had landed before mine),

And then we were on the Van Wyck Expressway headed for the Whitestone Bridge and for Connecticut--and everything looked so familiar and yet so strange. All the highways seemed to have expanded during my absence and I thought to myself, "Welcome Back to Reality, Rochelle!" So I forced myself to burst out of my British bubble and using Llew's cell phone made my first call in the USA to Chrissie--unfortunately, I only got her answer phone.

It was 10. 30 pm (exactly an hour after we set out from JFK) that we pulled into our driveway at Holly Berry House while Southport slumbered. Because we were tired and sleepy, we entered our home with only our carry-on bags, leaving the rest of the suitcases in the car to be hauled indoors in the morning.

It was about 11.00 pm when we fell off to sleep...

...and with that I had left Rochelle's Roost in London behind me and was well and truly back in Rochelle's Roost in Connecticut!

PS: A Million Thanks to all those who followed my blog faithfully through the past year. When I surface again from under all my unpacked suitcases and boxes, I shall put in a few more entries about the Highlights of my Year in the UK...

---until then, I shall say to you, in the finest traditions of the UK, CHEERS Mate!


John R Thomas said...

Hi Rochelle,

Reading your blog has opened my eyes to all the historical personalities such as Robert Adams and Launcelot Capability Brown, Nicholas Hawksmoor etc. and I find that I see my surroundings in a new (or should I say an old) light. Last weenend when I went to the ferry point at Old Isleworth, when the tide was low, I walked down to the river and had looked back at the Robert Adams designed boathouse on Syon Park (it was beautiful and painted pink). Thanks for opening my eyes to these things.


prem said...

It does not matter.Blog about anything...what you read, the films you see, your lectures, book club, gardening, cooking, people who come your way...just stay in touch with all of us who have lived a blissful year with you in England.Discover America for us