Monday, March 8, 2010

Paris with my parents

In late March, my parents came to stay with us for a week. I worked from home the day they arrived so I could go pick them up from Victoria Station. Then I actually did work while they took a little nap, and we went out for a late lunch and a stroll along the high street. The first night, they got to meet the Kiwis, who joined us for a fun Indian feast down the road.

Andrew and I both had to work the next day, so Mommy and Daddy wandered around on their own. They checked out the Tower of London, among other sites, and when I got home from work they were already making dinner for us in our kitchen! What excellent houseguests :-)

The next morning we all got up early and took a cab to St Pancras to catch the Eurostar to Paris. It was a nice trip, and we got to see a bit of the countryside. When we got closer to Paris, things got much less picturesque. There was a shanty town built right up under the train tracks at one point, and some of the buildings on the outskirts of Paris looked they hadn't been cleaned up after World War II. It actually takes a while even when you arrive in Paris to get to the nice bits, but we made our way to the hotel without too much trouble and checked in. Andrew took the lead in most of our French conversations, and the hotel concierge gave him a good-natured teasing about travelling with the mother-in-law. We all smiled and nodded, then headed up to our rooms as soon as possible. The guy was really nice, but we didn't go to Paris to joke with French people. It was a beautiful little hotel, just five minutes or so from the Arc de Triomphe. James Joyce lived right around the corner for a few years in the 1920s. It was a lovely neighborhood.

After a short rest in the hotel, we headed out for a light lunch, then started the first of many long walks over the course of the weekend. We started out by walking down the Champs Elysses, then turned at some point and walked along the river. The weather was chilly, and we got rained on a little bit, but we were able to take shelter at bus stops during the short spurts of precipitation. We made it down to the Musee d'Orsay, but it was about to close for the day, so we found a cafe and had some tea and coffee, then headed back to the hotel.

That night was our special dinner in Paris. Andrew and I wanted to take my parents out for their anniversary, and I did a ton of research to find a suitable place. Chez L'Ami Jean did not disappoint. We were overdressed for what turned out not to be a particularly posh-looking restaurant, but the food made us forget the surroundings. We were packed in like sardines, but everyone there was friendly and happy, and we were, too. It was a Basque restaurant, and we started our meal with some sweet, nutty, salty Basque ham. Beyond that, we were a bit confused by the menu. There was very little in the way of English translation, which was exciting but challenging. We all ended up going a little outside our comfort zones. It was really fun to see Mommy and Daddy trying completely new things and loving some, not liking others, but enjoying the experience. I remember my starter involved smoked salmon and lots of garnishes, like chopped egg and herbs and olives. It was all stacked up like a Napoleon, and it was delicious. My main was a white fish on the bone, prepared very simply. What other dishes can I remember? Daddy had a soup that was described pretty much as just soup, but it was the most delicious soup I have ever tasted. I will remember the taste of that soup for the rest of my life. It probably had potato and leek, some garlic, lots of bacon, some herbs, but it was all one smooth, silky texture, with a few little garnishes floating on top. It was stunning. I know Mommy had veal for her main, which she wasn't completely thrilled with, but I think she was glad she had tried something new. All the mains were pretty simple, with no sides, but they brought out three jars of mashed vegetables for us all to share. These were spectacular. When I say vegetables, I really mean butter with a little bit of vegetable added for texture. There was a jar (kind of like a giant baby food jar) of mashed potato, one of carrot and one of celeriac. We licked each one of them clean; they were that good. By the end of all that, we were all pretty full but we were not about to miss out on dessert. Daddy and I each ordered a fruit-and-cream-and-cake sort of thing, but they brought me the wrong thing, which I realized only after I'd taken a bite. I explained that it was the wrong thing and the waiter went to pick it up to take it back to the kitchen, at which point Daddy made a funny little whimpering sound that was clear in any language: hey, we were eating that! So they brought my proper dessert and we kept the reject, too. Mommy and Andrew both ordered the rice pudding, which I had heard was the best in the world. All you people who wrote on your blogs that Chez L'Ami Jean makes the best rice pudding in the world, I salute you. You were absolutely right. After the soup, the fish, the veal, the butter-vegetables, the three other beautiful, delicious desserts, the rice pudding came like a gift from the angels. And those angels were generous, too! They brought a huge bowl of rice pudding, we're talking like two-quart capacity or something, with two little bowls for Mommy and Andrew to spoon their portions into, and a little bowl of some kind of orange-marmaladey sauce and a burnt caramel sort of sauce to pour on top. I can honestly say that if I had to choose just one dish to be the last thing I ever tasted, it might very well be this rice pudding. How can I describe it? It was not too sweet, more liquid than most rice puddings, with little chewy bits of rice but with everything sticking together in one delicious mass. It had lots of vanilla in it, and it was milky and comforting and perfect. After all that, we managed to fit out the door and walk around the corner to the Eiffel Tower, which was lit up even at midnight (it was a long dinner). We walked around the base of it and got to stand in the very middle and look up, because there were very few people still wandering around. I've seen the Eiffel Tower a few times, but it is still breathtakingly beautiful each time. Mommy and Daddy were very impressed, too, even more than they thought they would be. It was a perfect way to end our special evening.

The next day we went to Sunday Mass at Notre Dame, which was inspiring but also distracting, as Mass in big cathedrals often is. They used lots of incense, which I always love. The readings were in several different languages, which was a nice touch. After Mass, we walked around inside the cathedral and out. Then we made a quick detour to Shakespeare and Company, on the other side of the river, where I was finally able to buy a copy of the book Shakespeare and Company, by my beloved Sylvia Beach. Then we took off for an afternoon at Versailles.

This is where things got, um, interesting. I will start by saying that the first part was completely my fault. There were two or three different train stations in Versailles, but they were named for the stations that their lines go into in Paris rather than their locations in Versailles. This was not very clear on the map, so I thought we just needed to go to the central Versailles station, since we didn't want to be on the Left or Right Bank; we wanted to be in Versailles. So we bought our tickets, after a long battle with several different ticket vending machines, and went down into the station to wait. And wait. And wait. For like 45 minutes. And we needed a bathroom. And there wasn't one. We held on by walking up and down the platform repeatedly, holding on for the bathroom that would surely be on the train, since it was a commuter line. Finally, the train showed up and we got on. Oh, thank goodness, there's the bathroom. Wait, why won't the door open? Why is it jammed? WHY IN GOD'S NAME IS THE DOOR JAMMED? Well, at least it's only a 30-minute ride or so, right? That's what the guide book said it should be. This was when I started to realize I'd put us on the wrong train. We were going to Versailles, all right, but we were going the looooong way. Poor Mommy and Daddy. I thought they weren't going to make it, but they were so patient. We finally got to the station and found the bathroom, but it was a pay bathroom and we were out of change, so Andrew had to find an ATM, then find a shop to buy something to break the bills. Finally, finally, Mommy got in. She came out and the door was open, so Daddy went in, thinking, why pay again if the door is open? Oh dear. This, I was not prepared for. He went in and shut the door. About 10 seconds later we heard him start shouting and banging on the door. We had to fish around for more change to put in the coin slot to get the door open to let him out again, and he was dripping wet. When the door closed behind him, the lights had gone out and the bathroom had started disinfecting itself, and Daddy along with it. What a nightmare. But at least we were in Versailles. Or a mile away from it. Apparently we were supposed to go to the Left Bank Versailles station all along. My bad. So we walked, and we walked, and we got there and stood in line and tried to fend off the other grumpy tourists, some of whom were quite aggressive queue jumpers. Daddy and I decided it might be too early to start laughing about everything, but hey, at least we had made it to the palace in one piece. Once we got in, we did enjoy walking around the gardens, even though we got lost a few times. The palace was as lovely as ever, and no one got injured this time. I even got to wander around Marie Antoinette's model farm for a while with Andrew, while Mommy and Daddy were resting on a bench by a pond in a brief spell of sunshine. We were all a little calmer after that, and we had a nice, slow stroll back through the area around Versailles to the correct train station this time, which took us back to Paris, where we walked around some more and found an Italian restaurant near our hotel for dinner. The final indignity of the day came when our waiter spilled another table's red wine all over Daddy's khakis, and they charged us for a bottle of sparkling water, which Mommy and Daddy took back to the hotel to use to try to get out the stain. The good news is, I think they did get the stain out, eventually. I think we all slept really, really well that night.

The next morning we started fresh and walked down the Champs Elysses again, looking for breakfast. I always forget the French and their fussy, narrow ideas about breakfast. If you don't want a croissant and coffee, or if you want to eat at any time past about 9:00, you're out of luck. We ended up in a Nespresso cafe, where they promised us they had yogurt, but they didn't. But we at least got to sit for a few minutes, and I had a lovely breakfast of pastries and yummy bread with fancy jam. We continued down the Champs Elysses and into the Luxembourg Gardens, where Mommy bought a pretty Parisian painting and Andrew watched some gypsies at work trying to scam tourists with a trick involving a ring that they would slyly drop behind someone, pick up and offer to them, then try to get them to pay for it. We all really enjoyed the gardens, and the sun came out more than it had in the previous days. We made our way to the Louvre, where we had some lunch and wandered around, looking at the paintings and antiquities. I forgot how big the Louvre is. It's almost obscene. We all walked around together, then split up at some point and Andrew and I went through some of the galleries we hadn't seen before. We all regrouped later on and walked back to the hotel, stopping for picnic provisions along the way. Then it was back to the train and back to London.

The next day, the last full day of their trip, Mommy wasn't feeling well, so Daddy and Andrew and I (we had both taken the day off) went to lunch and walked around in Regents Park. Then Daddy went off to see Westminster Abbey and Andrew and I bought supplies for a roast beef dinner with all the trimmings. We had a fun final evening, even though Mommy didn't get to partake in the dinner. She still sat with us as we all talked about our adventures and misadventures over the last few days. We had to say goodbye early the next morning. It all went by much too quickly. We had some close calls, some bonding experiences, and some really nice times. Paris with my parents: tres magnifique!

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