2015 plans, in brief

"Come further up, come further in!" - The Last BattleThere has been a freedom in letting my blog lie dormant. It happened not unconsciously, as I was perfectly aware of the general guilt of unfinished blog posts weighing on the back of my brain, but I’m glad I let go. I stopped posting here, stopped travel journaling, and even eschewed my other, small-scale writing and picture outlet, Instagram. And in May, June, and July of last summer, I enjoyed Freiburg. I spent countless hours swimming in the lake an playing frisbee in the park with my friends. I made a solo, 10-day circuit of Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and Vienna. I baked dozens of as many varieties of cookies as I could think of. Living life rather than documenting it while being abroad was a refreshingly novel experience for me, and I have no regrets. I would apologize to my extended family and friends, who were certainly less clued-in about my whereabouts and actives because of my sudden indifference to my blog, but I think I won’t. I can show you pictures and tell you stories the next time I see you, if you would like. I’ll always be around to see you at some point or another. As for my other random readers, the obvious remains perennially true: I’m no famous blogger; I’m just a fickle college student, who is (apparently) apt to set down even her beloved blogging hobby at a moment’s notice when she realizes that she’s missing out on interesting conversation, good food, and wonderful people. What did you expect?

My months in Freiburg danced by like so many happy butterflies. The same thing happened to 72 hours at home in Texas, three and a half days in Tennessee for the end of 20th year of Cousins’ Camp, and a week in Wilmington after eight long months away. The fall semester of my junior year was a blur of the most fascinating linguistics and language classes I ever could have dreamed up, and the spring has thus far been less interesting but more relational. If I find the perfect schoolwork-socialization balance before I graduate, it’ll be a miracle.

School will be over for me on May 1st, and I’ll leave the marvelous brick sidewalks, wide-branching oaks, and brilliant professors of Chapel Hill for the last time as an undergraduate. On May 17th I’ll depart for Germany again, and this time I will spend the summer as an intern in the communications department of an American chemicals company near Frankfurt. In September I’ll pack up my suitcase again and head over to Bilbao, Spain, where I will finish my final semester of college as a student at the Universidad de Deusto. And then, God willing, I will be finished with my undergraduate degree. There are a lot of variables, but that’s the plan.

Afterwards? Who knows. Christmas in the US, that’s for sure. And beyond that, I’m scheming up a year of teaching English somewhere else in the world, hopefully. Maybe graduate school after that? We shall see. I’m not too worried, but let me tell you: I’m excited.

I’m unsure if I will blog while I’m in Germany and Spain. I want to remember to live life – to participate and not just observe. Beyond travel, recipes and other food-focused posts don’t fit so well into the cheap and single living lifestyle. Blogging takes hours, and I may not make the time. But perhaps I will. Or maybe it’ll just be a few hastily-captioned pictures here and there. No promises. I am slightly more likely to post on Instagram, however. (Grandparents and other great-relatives: that’s a version of social media in which you share photos and captions.) You can find me here: https://instagram.com/justrclaire/

Until the next time!

Paris – day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet

paris - day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet My final day in Paris essentially consisted of one, long walk. It began at the Pont Neuf, at the end of Rick Steves’ Historic Paris Walk audio tour. There, I crossed the Seine river and momentarily wondered how one would pronounce “Pont Neuf,” before inventing my own way of saying it in my mind. I have the unfortunate habit of contriving my own pronunciations for unfamiliar words I encounter. My pronunciations often include extra consonants, spare vowels, and sometimes a bonus syllable or two. This tendency is by no means a new development; I’ve been doing it ever since I could read. (Just ask my mother.) Indeed, I suspect it may be a carry-over from learning to read – one that most people grow out of, but I never did. And while my mispronunciations often live and die in my own head without every being verbalized – since I’m usually aware of their incorrectness – on occasion, there’s no time to learn the correct pronunciation before I have to call the object or person or place in question by its proper name, aloud. All that to say, to me Caddie Woodlawn‘s first name will always be said Kuh-nay-dee, and the Pont Neuf is still Pon-Noo-ee. Proof can be heard in my video at the bottom of this post.paris - day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet Playing the audio tour backwards, I wandered through a perfect, little square planted with young trees surrounded by swept and sandy dirt. As it was just after 9:00am, the few people about were business men in suits, presumably belonging to the supreme court of France, located just beyond the quiet plaza. Down the block and around the corner from the pretty but pointless park, I found the entrance to the Sainte Chapelle, a chapel famed for its stained glass and originally constructed to house what some – to my mind – rather gullible souls believed was Jesus’ crown of thorns. Next door, I noted the words of that (in)famous French phrase, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” inscribed above the pillars of the oddly diminutive front entrance to supreme courthouse; I think it was smaller than Wilmington’s courthouse.

In accordance with my plot to avoid lengthy lines, I joined the 10 or so other people waiting outside the Sainte Chapelle entrance a few minutes before it opened at 9:30, congratulating myself on my punctuality and excellent planning for the umpteenth time. Inside, I strode the length of the dark foyer with its gilded trim and geometric ceiling paint, and then spent a good 10 whole minutes staring up at the impossibly detailed and illogically tiny, soaring stained glass windows depicting major scenes from the entirety of the Bible. And that was enough majestic, colored glass for me. I left for the next church.

The narrow sanctuary of the Sainte Chapelle had been gradually filling with people during the few minutes I spent inside it, but in comparison  the Notre Dame was an absolute zoo. Though I didn’t wait more than three minutes to step inside, I was met by the low roar of too many tourists speaking in unnecessarily loud whispers. School groups and tour groups jostled around the dark, worn columns and paused in inconvenient locations, blocking the essentially one-way path through the cathedral as they snapped photos of whatever their flag-waving guide was pointing out to them via her mic and their headphones. I took an immediate dislike to the Notre Dame, I have to admit. Its gray stone and high windows made for a deep, gloomy atmosphere. Every edge of every stone was darkened with age and hundreds of years of constant use and coupled with the irreverent noise produced by the crowds, this left the church feeling more like a shadowy cavern than the well-tended place of worship I think it’s supposed to be.paris - day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet

I made a circuit of the outer aisle, my brow frozen in a half-frown of annoyance, ready to end my visit as quickly as possible. Then, above the muted din of the tourists, the organ began to play, which I thought rather odd but very proper in that lofty, dim church. To my further surprise a youth choir began singing along with the organ. They seemed to be practicing for some future event because they frequently paused to switch tunes or adjust their sound. But their voices blended with the tones of the organ in an ethereal melody that drifted up the stoney toward the windows high above. It was incredibly beautiful. So, I found a seat in the middle of the nave and basked in the splendor of their voices for half an hour or so, as the crowds ebbed and flowed and camera shutters clicked around me. paris - day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet

Back outside I waited in line to climb to the top of the Notre Dame. The view was no better or worse than the one I’d had from the Eiffel Tower, but I was too distracted listening to a group of teenagers code-switching between Spanish and Catalan to pay much attention or to attempt to identify landmarks. But while the aerial view outside of the Notre Dame didn’t impress, the view from the side of the church certainly did. The circular patterns in the stone of the side of the cathedral facing the river and the gorgeous double-blossom cherry trees blooming beside it were captivating.

paris - day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet

On my way to the most important stop of the day, the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, I passed through a park, which was home to the oldest tree in Paris. The poor, twisted thing is covered in ivy to disguise its sad paucity of branches, trunk half-filled with cement, and wooden supports. It’s been bending over that same public space by the Seine since 1602, and it sure looks tired of observing stupid human antics playing out through history.

paris - day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet

Next to a surprisingly busy road along the stone-lined embankment of the Seine River and beyond hedge-like, rather haphazard plantings of shrubs and flowers is a wide section of sidewalk and Shakespeare and Company. When I finally rounded the corner onto the short street it shares with a cafe or two, there was a young woman singing along to the strumming of her guitar under the pale pink blossoms of young cherry trees and amidst the books that spilled out onto the sidewalk from the store. As if that wasn’t picturesque enough, the inside of the English-language bookstore was a dream: a quirky wonderland of narrow wooden staircases, reading rooms with smudged windows and battered but inviting furniture, ancient typewriters and scrap-paper notes on scratched desks, crooked bookshelves loaded down with books, books, so many books! – new books declaring their novelty in their colorful jackets and dusty old books whose deep-toned primary color bindings promised familiarity and trustworthiness. I found an old friend, The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas, and lounged on a cushioned bench in one of the upstairs reading rooms, soaking in the delicious peacefulness of being surrounded by well-loved, English books in the middle of France. Half an hour and a chapter or so later, I reluctantly tore myself away and ventured back out into the sunlight and bustle of the city to continue my exploring for the day. I could have stayed forever.

Instead I crossed back over to the Notre Dame island and moseyed down the broad walkway beside the Seine until I came to its pointy, rocky end. Then I returned to the mainland and started the trek to the Musée de l’Orangerie at the far end of the Tuileries Gardens, about a mile and a half away. The museum was the only on left on my list of potential museums to visit, and, even though my mother and the internet had informed me that it was rather Monet-centric, I figured I should pop in briefly. Plus, I had accomplished everything else.

Alas, after traveling the length of the Louvre and the gardens beyond and waiting a few minutes in a short line outside the Orangerie, I was informed that I would have to pay a €6 entry fee if I wished to tour the museum. Having absolutely no intention of relinquishing six croissants’ worth of Euros to view impressionist paintings for which I had no interest whatsoever, I turned heel and waltzed right back out the glass doors and into the dusty park again.

Having failed to find anything to eat on the hike from the Notre Dame area to the Orangerie, I crossed the river again and headed in the direction of the Orsay, hoping to come across the bakery where I’d purchased the best baguette of my life. Though I didn’t find that same bakery, I did at long last find another, where I bought an éclair au chocolat and what I thought was a roll flavored with sundried tomatoes. The latter, it turned out, was indeed a delightfully chewy roll but was stuffed with a canned tuna and tomato mixture. While not half as disgusting as it sounds, it certainly was unique. Of course, the éclair was splendid: the outer pastry was soft and cream-puff-like and the dense chocolate cream inside was cool and sweet. I feasted on my spoils in a shady, pie-piece of a park right in front of the metro entrance, which I then took advantage of in order to return to – big shock! – the Louvre. I could’ve walked, but my feet were tired, and I had a spare metro ticket to use.

paris - day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet

Back at my favorite museum,  I re-visited the Renaissance art of various countries, wandered through some Egyptian artifacts, and found a gallery of wooden sculptures, which were colorful and different than anything I’d seen elsewhere in the Louvre. By the time I left around closing time, I felt certain that I had seen most of every wing of the museum and had perused at my leisure the art that really fascinated me. I’ve never been more content with my time spent in one museum.

My final adventure in Paris was a baguette and croissant supper in the Luxembourg Gardens. And it was perfect. I chose one of the clusters of pale green chairs scattered throughout the park, propped my feet up, and brushed the croissant flakes off my lap in between travel journaling and tearing bites off of the miniature baguette. After nearly an hour of that and people-watching, I made a circuit of the gardens, observing the massive playgrounds, multiple tennis and basketball courts, acres of shaded grass and tulip beds, and, of course, the requisite fountains. Dusk was beginning to fall as I turned my aching feet towards the metro station, just before the 7:30 closing time, and returned to the apartment for the last time.

Paris treated me well.

Day 1/2
Day 1
Day 2

namely

namelyGermany is a confusing place; talking with or corresponding with new people can be daunting. Of course, the language barrier caused by my halting German is an issue, but often a more immediate problem presents itself: namely, what to call people. This particular quandary occurs when I’m sending an email to someone I’ve never met in person. He? She? Frau? Herr? Here, I’ll illustrate for you.

Let’s play “Guess the Gender of This German Name:”

Andreas?

Wrong. Male.

Luca?

Yup, male.

Frieda?

Doesn’t follow the pattern. Female.

Flo?

Nope. That’s short for Florian. Despite its reminiscent-of-flowers sound, it’s a guy’s name.

Usually I do a quick Google search before I email someone with the first name “Uwe,” for example, to ask him – that’s a masculine name, apparently – a question about housing or classes.

As if the names themselves weren’t ambiguous and befuddling enough, then there are the spellings. You can’t just hear someone’s name and then know how to spell it. Oh, no.

Lorenz  = Lawrence with the accent on the second syllable.

Marija = Maria, but my immediate reaction is, “What on earth is that J doing next to that I?!”

Niklas = Nicholas; I guess they just toss out the middle vowel.

Sure, they’re all logical, given how the letters of the alphabet are pronounced in German. But it still catches me off-guard.

It was particularly bothersome in Portuguese class on Monday when we were learning how to tell people how to spell our names. When I did the same exercise in German and Spanish in the past, it was easy, because I could guess. As my American classmates spelled “J-E-S-S-” I could anticipate “Jessica” or “Jesse.” Alternatively, if I knew that my neighbor’s name was “Andrea,” I could wait for the familiar letters with unfamiliar sounds.

But not in Germany. Nope. When Lorenz spelled his name, I naively expected “L-A-W-” et cetera. I should’ve known better. Instead, my face probably betrayed my confusion as I struggled against my intuitions and attempted to decipher the German spelling of a familiar English name recited using the Portuguese alphabet as spoken by a German.

What. have. I. done?

chocolate chip cookie baking in Germany

Yesterday, after two days of collecting ingredients from various grocery stores, I baked some chocolate chip cookies. It was quite an adventure.

Member of the millennial generation that I am, I documented the experience with my social media accounts. So, dear parents, grandparents, and friends who do not participate in Twitter and Instagram, here is what happened:

Chocolate chip cookie baking in Germany. | Step one: let the block of butter soften on a sunny windowsill.

Compare and sample the two barbaric alternatives to impossible-to-find chocolate chips. Decide they’re passable.

Throw the rest of the ingredients on the counter before you have the chance to wonder any longer if all those German words mean what you think they do.

Spend 20 minutes hacking at baking chocolate with a dull knife and muttering about chocolate chips.

At first I thought the butter was rancid. But then I looked at my innocent, little bag of sugar.

Taste the butter and sugar mixture and discover the loud, citrusy overtones of gelatin sugar for canning. Employ tablespoons of vanillin sugar as an antidote.

A bag of sugar shouldn’t have an ingredients list. This one did:
“Zucker, Geliermittel Pektine, Säuerungsmittel Citronensäure, Konservierungsstoff Sorbinsäure”

Taste the mutant, citrusy dough you’ve created. Add vanillin sugar. Repeat. Again. Don’t let the flatmates see you grimace.

CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE BAKING IN GERMANY

CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE BAKING IN GERMANY

The equivalent of several tablespoons of vanilla extract, an oven tutorial from one of the flatmates, some Celsius-to-Fahrenheit calculations, a temperature adjustment or two, and three rounds of baking later: speckled chocolate chunk cookies.

Against all odds, place a plate piled high with sweet success – baked at 185° Celsius – on the kitchen table and watch them disappear.

 

CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE BAKING IN GERMANY

They were chewy; there was not even the slightest hint of citrus tang; and they were gone in 18 hours. The end.

 

 

that freshman feeling

People kept staring at my massive, black umbrella as I walked from the tram stop to the central plaza of the university in the grey drizzle. Maybe they were awed by its span. Maybe they wished both the tops of their backpacks and the tops of their heads were dry like mine. It’s a struggle to maintain both when you have a diminutive umbrella. But all my belongings were free of moisture.

However, the downside to a venti, triple-shot, extra-special, super-sized, double-the-fun umbrella is that it holds extra water when folded up. Mine drip, drip, dripped a trail of darkened rain on four floors’ worth of average stairs, across a wide breezeway, and around and around a deep-summer-strawberry-red circular staircase to the fifth floor. The two other people there in the tower-like corridor slouched against the radiator by the window. I wandered to the end of the short hall and peeked around the corner, hoping to appear nonchalantly curious rather than lost or clueless. Then I joined them and swiped at the screen of my phone, feigning a deep interest in its display.

Between serious-looking phone-staring sessions, I alternated my furtive, upward glances between door 3501 and the spiral staircase and my watch. The time displayed on my phone didn’t register in my mind. Three minutes til class time, and still none of the three professors, who had raised my hopes with their footfalls on the staircase, had entered the appointed room. One minute more and I would have to try the door myself; I would be forced to contend with its lack of a rotating door handle; I would be required to figure out what the light switch-like button to its left meant. I would surely be foiled in my attempts to enter – as I had been with previous German doors of that nature – and would turn back to hunch over my phone in embarrassment. But, wait. Hallelujah! A fourth person emerged from the stairs! She headed straight for the terrifying door, buzzed the doorbell with all the confidence of a German accustomed to dealing with a wide variety of confusingly closed entryways, and slipped into the room – a library? – when the lock clicked open to admit her.

I quickly followed her example, and inside the – sure enough – library, we exchanged whispered inquiries:

‘You looking for Byzantine–‘

‘Yeah, Byzantine Archeology. Is there a classroom in here?’

‘Not a clue.’

Our mutual confusion was reassuring, and we padded down the faded industrial carpet side by side. An older man appeared from an office beyond the end of the bookshelves, a half-dozen yards in front of us. He cheerily beckoned us to the end of the little departmental library with the glad tidings, ‘The classroom is down here.’ Success!

My fellow loiterers from out in the hall were just seconds behind us. And soon I found myself seated in a cushy chair, surrounded by nine classmates, listening with bated breath to the professor explain Introduction to Byzantine (Art History) Archeology, waiting for the axe of daunting assignments to fall, and wishing I knew the definition of every other word he uttered. I’ve never felt so much like a freshman in my life.

creamy roasted potato salad [sans mayo!]


IMG_0369_Fotor
[Microphone crackles.]

Ahem.

We interrupt this travel-saturated blogging binge, punctuated by the occasional glutenous pastry, with a long-overdue post dedicated solely to food.

[Angels sing a heavenly chorus.]

Down to business.

The antithesis of my strong affection for mustard is my absolute hatred of mayonnaise. Sure, sure, its silky texture and satisfying fat content is nice, I suppose. But the flavor? Ew.

My unaccountable but consistent loathing for the sickly white condiment presented me with a quandary, especially growing up in the South: potato salad. Oh yes, that staple of church potlucks and homestyle diners; that ubiquitous, chunky mountain of starchy deliciousness; that best friend of juicy ribs, playmate of sliced ham, and neighbor to the greasy box of Bojangles fried chicken. That dish. I just didn’t like it. I wanted to, though. Over and over again, I sampled the savory ambrosia of the South. I tried a recipe with pickles, one with celery, some with eggs and some without, many with too much dill, and others with very little flavor at all. But each time I was repulsed by my familiar enemy: mayonnaise.

creamy roasted potato salad [sans mayo!]

So, for years I contented myself with the pure and simple potato salads favored by my mother and dressed with oil and vinegar. A version with arugula became our family favorite, and for years I was satisfied with feasting up on its peppy zing and forgot about traditional potato salad entirely.

Then recently, it hit me: mayonnaise can be circumvented. It does not own exclusive rights to creaminess! Hallelujah!

Enter plain yogurt. She and I became fast friends during the summer and part of the fall of 2013, when I breakfasted nearly exclusively on overnight oats or granola with yogurt. My mother tells me I used to eat plain yogurt like ice cream, during the first two years of my life when she fed me no sugar whatsoever. Well, those days have returned. Give me a spoon, and I’ll scoop that tangy goodness right out of the container and into my mouth.

potatosalad1

So, a few months ago in the beautiful kitchen of fairytale house in another southern state I now call home, I spooned some plain yogurt over roasted red potatoes, added a bit of this and a little of that – in accordance with my usual kitchen procedure – and at last I had my own mound of creamy, crunchy, salty potato salad. Mayo not included. Childhood saved.

I decided that, since I was going to take the time to cut potatoes into bite-sized chunks, I might as well roast them. While boiling does turn the potatoes soft and keep them moist, roasting makes everything taste better. And when you’re going to slather them in yogurt, who cares if your potatoes have a slightly lower water content? I don’t, and you shouldn’t either. Nope, flavor wins.

potatosalad3

And for more flavor, I settled on some honey to tame the tang of the yogurt,  little bits of garlic and onions for bite and pizzazz, a dollop dijon mustard – my love, my life, fair mustard! – for excitement, and a sprinkling of rosemary to tie it all together. Of course, the omnipresent twins, salt and pepper, also made their requisite appearance. The end result not have tasted exactly like those potato salads of bygone potlucks, but by golly, it tasted good to me.

potatosalad2

Creamy Roasted Potato Salad

  • 2 pounds red potatoes (or white, if you insist on being boring)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • several dashes of salt and pepper
  • 5 tablespoons minced red onion (~1/3 onion)
  • 6 tablespoons plain yogurt
  • 4 teaspoons dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
  • 3 boiled eggs, roughly chopped (optional)

Preheat your oven to 400°F. Cut the potatoes into bite-sized chunks. Toss with olive oil, sprinkle with several dashes each of salt and pepper, and roast on a baking sheet for 15 to 20 minutes, until soft but not mushy. Let cool completely.

Honestly, then I just throw everything together and mix it. But, perhaps a bit more finesse should be taken in order to insure you end up with something to your taste.

So, mix together the yogurt, mustard, honey, salt, and pepper – adding the salt slowly and tasting as you go. Adjust this combination to your taste, or blindly follow my preferences; it’s up to you. Then add the onions and garlic. Finally, place the potatoes and eggs (if you choose to include them) in a bowl, and pour the sauce over them. Stir until everything is well-coated. Taste and adjust seasonings again. And then enjoy the marvelous, mayonnaise-less mound you have made.

Paris – day 2: Versailles, Rodin, Arches

Paris, day 2: VersaillesClearly, I failed to be brief with my last post. So, no more impossible promises. This is going to be another long one, guys. I certainly won’t be offended if you just ignore all the text and simply flip through the pictures. But, by golly, I enjoyed writing it, just like the last one. Thanks for being the receiving end of my creative outlet.

On the menu for today: the palace and gardens of Versailles, the Rodin Museum, downtown Paris, and the Arc de Triomphe.3.5 days in Paris: day 2

I started my day with cornflakes.

“Everything will be closed on Sunday,” my host had said. “Nah, the museums are open,” I countered. However, I did believe that all other establishments would indeed be shuttered; Europe takes their days of rest seriously. But they take their ready access to fresh bread even more seriously than that, apparently. As soon as I rounded the corner of the apartment block, I regretted my confidence and the banana and cereal already filling my stomach. The corner bakery was open; I could have eaten a croissant instead.

But there was no time to mourn. Daylight savings time had caught me by surprise, and I was already an hour behind schedule. I could just picture the other Versailles visitors already forming lines around the entire palace as they awaited its opening and I waited for my train to the countryside. A throng of fellow tourists piled onto the train with me, and 40 minutes of travel journaling, while the Polish girl next to me on the bright vinyl bench stared over my shoulder between chatting with her mother across from me, brought me and everyone else to the end of the terminus of the train line and the “Versailles Château” platform. Paris, day 2: Versailles

For the umpteenth time of the short duration of my Paris trip, I was thankful for my naturally brisk gait. I grinned to myself as sped past nearly everyone from the train, but when I rounded the corner of a building onto a tree-lined path leading up to the chateau on the low rise ahead, my steps faltered at the sight of the mass of humanity milling around inside the gates of the palace. Stupid daylight savings time.

 

But, as usual, I needn’t have been concerned. The mass of humanity inside the golden gates wasn’t half as massive as I had suspected, and the metal detector line moved efficiently. Inside, however, was a different story. It’s a one-way street inside the palace; you just go with the flow from room to room – or in my case, shuffle along in all-too-narrow corridors, being constantly elbowed and jostled by other tourists desperate to keep up with the guides of their groups. Lacking a deep interest in French history, I stayed in the main stream of people and skipped the multiple, first-floor rooms of dioramas and historical information entirely and inched up the stairs to the suits of rooms of both the king and queen. The crowds thinned out just enough for me to whip through the overwhelmingly luxurious and gilded rooms with their painted ceilings and strangely small furniture, listening to another Rick Steves audio guide all the while. I would attempt to provide you with a more complete description of the chateau of Versailles, but it’s all a blur of crown molding, gold, and fleur de lis. I didn’t like it much. Surrounded by such excess, I find it nearly impossible to picture any real person living in quarters so absurdly sumptuous. And I’m just not a fan of battle scenes painted on ceilings. I’m sure I saw only a tiny fraction of the palace, but when Rick Steves directed me to exit to the gardens shortly after I gawked briefly at the smaller-than-I’d-imagined hall of mirrors, I readily followed his instructions.Paris, day 2: Versailles

I stumbled into the sunlight. What a relief! Space! Air! And, holy cow, the gardens. English needs a separate word to describe the arrow-straight lines of trees, perfectly symmetrical plantings, immaculately trimmed shrubs, and flawless organization of a French “garden;” the word doesn’t do it justice. Nature palace? That’s the best I can come up with.Paris, day 2: Versailles

In any case, the gardens spread out before me, straight back from the palace. My audio tour sent me down the wide boulevard – lined with massive marble urns and statues, of course – around several enormous fountain pools, past numerous alleys of trees and shrubs on either side, and up to the top of the broad, man-made canal. Besides the inevitable tourists, the gardens were alive with people who must’ve been locals, walking their dogs, biking with their kids, jogging, chatting on benches, boating, and generally enjoying the sunshine as if they were just in a giant park. Maybe that’s what the palace grounds are considered to be by the people who live nearby. Sounds fantastic to me!Paris, day 2: Versailles

I hurried on, growing ever more concerned that I would return to Paris too late to fully explore the Musée Rodin, which closed particularly early at 4:45. I couldn’t have walked even a quarter of the length of the gardens, but it took me at least 20 minutes to arrive at the Trianon Palace. But what a lovely, “little” country residence! I could much better picture the royalty of France spending their summer days sprawled across the bright-colored, velvet chairs of the airy, white rooms while their servants scurried to and fro over the squeaky, wooden floors, carrying trays of fruit sorbets and cream puffs, or perhaps strolling through the apple orchards and maze-like rose and tulip gardens just beyond the colonnade.

I didn’t venture too much further beyond the Trianon Palace, just far enough to peek into a few smaller buildings and to get a sense for the spring-time beauty that was just starting to emerge around every bend of the meandering dirt and gravel paths of the gardens. Then I turned back and made for the train station with as much haste as possible, without actually breaking into a run. Happily, a train was waiting for me, and  2:30, I was paused outside the Musée Rodin, taking a brief moment to scarf down some buttery crackers, the only thing I could find to purchase at the solitary convenience store open in the area around the museum.Paris - day 2: Rodin

The Rodin was excellent. A reasonably-sized, two-story house hosts the majority of the sculptures – all by Rodin. Outside are – wait for it – beautifully groomed gardens, which are scattered with bronzes of some of the more famous pieces, the only one of which you’re likely to have heard of being “The Thinker.”

 

Back inside. I love sculptures. During our family trip to Italy in 2012, I discovered my favorite Italian sculptor, Bernini, whose dynamic works captured my fascination in the Borghese Museum in Rome. While both Bernini and Rodin seem to have loved to sculpt freezes of figures right in the midst of movement, Rodin wins: his subjects’ limbs fly in all directions; muscles ripple; hair bounces. It’s so vibrant and alive! And the neatest aspect of the museum was being able to see his sculptures progress from rough, miniature models plasters to detailed terracotta carvings to life-sized bronzes. Pieces from every step of the process are displayed, and on some of them, you can still pick out the marks made by Rodin’s tools as he worked. It was fascinating! A large number of the pieces were featured on the audio guide I rented, but all of the descriptive title placards were translated to English – in glorious contrast with ever other museum or location I visited in Paris – so even without the audio guide’s explanation, you could have an idea of the significance of every carving. Paris - day 2: Rodin

Once I had made two circuits of the museum, I mosey through the gardens and admired the bronzes. The door, depicting scenes from Dante’s Inferno, for which “The Thinker” was originally created, was particularly impressive. Its tormented figures writhed almost in unison, like waves of suffering sweeping across and up the face of the door panels. Though I did make certain that I found and inspected each statue in the garden, I spent the majority of my time sitting on a bench overlooking a circular pool and several bronzes, brushing crumbs out of the pages of my notebook as I travel journaled and munched my way through the rest of my packet of crackers.

Thanks to that unanticipated time change, it wasn’t even close to getting dusky when I left the museum around 4:30, licking my lips parched by cracker salt. So, without even bothering to consult my metro map, I got on the ever-useful yellow line 1 and rode it to its terminus to visit the Arc de Triomphe. The list of stops along the line posted just below the ceiling of the train stated “Grand Arche” in white letters on brown highlighting, which is the way that sightseeing attractions are denoted – same for the Louvre, the Rodin, the Eiffel Tower, et cetera.Paris - day 2: Arches

But when I exited the metro and stepped above ground, I surrounded by skyscrapers. If that wasn’t unexpected enough, one of the glassy, modern buildings was shaped rather like the Arc de Triomphe – only it was huge, and, well, and office building of some kind. Weird. Besides the 20th- or 21st-centuryfied Arc replica, to my left was a giant, bronze thumb sticking up out of the ground and to my right appeared to be a massive indoor shopping mall. I was confused.Paris - day 2: Arches

Over the following two and a half hours, as I explored the Grande Arche de la Défense and its surroundings, my confusion steadily resolved itself. Far in the distance, down a long boulevard of pedestrian-only pavement dotted with little, urban parks between the towering buildings and then down a busy road – the Avenue des Champs-Elysees – was the Arc de Triomphe. The Grande Arche was a reflection of the older monument. Cool.Paris - day 2: Arches

Behind the Grande Arche I discovered a pier-like structure, that stretched out into the city, above an orderly, Secret Garden-like cemetery. People promenaded up and down the wood planks of the walkway, gazing out into the apartment buildings and countryside beyond. After traversing the length of the pier and climbing both sets of white stone steps of the Grande Arche, I returned to the main square out in front of it, which was – for a Sunday, at least – positively bustling with the activity of Parisians enjoying their evening by roller-blading, drifting here and there arm-in-arm, licking ice cream cones, and looking on as a group of people constructed an art installation that appeared to be taking the form of sparkly camping tents.

Paris - day 2: Arches

I ventured inside the mall, which was just as vast and crowded as I had suspected. Sunday must be shopping day in Paris. I found a bakery stand with a lengthy line, and purchased a beignet au chocolat – like a chocolate-filled donut, only better – which I enjoyed as I sat on the edge of a planter in an atrium, taking advantage of the free wifi, since the internet hadn’t been working at the apartment for 36 hours. Then I headed to the real Arc de Triomphe, via a long walk to the end of the pedestrian avenue between the skyscrapers and then via metro.

Since I’d already had my dessert, I felt obligated to stop at another bakery for some real food: a baguette, duh. Alas, this one’s crust was overdone and far too thick and crunchy, so I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the one from the previous day. Nevertheless, I believe I appreciated the bread more than the Arc de Triomphe. That monument is situated in the middle of a traffic circle in a busy intersection. Sure, the ornate reliefs carved on its faces are impressive, but otherwise, I didn’t find it too fascinating. So, I circled one, twice, and left. A brief jaunt down the famed and over-peopled Avenue des Champs-Elysees brought me to a metro stop. And home I went, exceedingly pleased with my accidental visit to the unique, non-touristy, and – shall I say? – authentically Parisian Grande Arche. I felt like I’d discovered the real Paris, where actual Parisians go to relax and escape the tourists. And, accurate or not, that was a happy feeling.

 

Last post in this series: Paris – day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet, the end.