Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Trip: Part deux: France

Bonjour! We made it to Paris! Home of not only toast, fries & poodles, but of our great friends, Chris & Rachel! We've been wanting to take advantage of their living situation ever since they moved there! (We've asked them to now relocate to London.) We flew in early Friday morning. Instead of renting a car & fighting traffic at a snail's pace, we decided to do the mass transportation thing. We hopped the ORLYbus to Denfert Rochereau. Then purchased metro tickets on Line 6. Headed West in the direction of Etoile. Exited Sevres Lecourbe. Walked half a mile up Avenue Breteuil, toward Les Invalides until we got to Rue Rosa Bonheur.
Much easier!
District 7 is BEAUTIFUL! A residential area, sprinkled with parks, cafes and flower shops, it's no wonder why the Paxton's landed here.
Their apartment comes equipped with quiet neighbors, fantastic views and a tiny little LIFT just big enough for two. (behind these double doors). A sweet little lady squeezed-in with Ben on the first day. Laughing and carrying on (all in French) up to the 4th floor. Ben just smiled and nodded.
Rachel, being 7 months pregnant (doesn't she look great?!), sent us out on our first day's excursions. We ate quiche, visited Napoleon's Tomb & hit the WWII museum before catching back up with them for dinner. Before calling it a night, we landed here, at The Moose. Funny how that worked out. It was probably the ONLY place in Paris that just happened to be showing the A&M vs. Utah State basketball game that night!
We truly do bleed maroon!
On Saturday, we set out towards Normandy, stopping along the way in Rouen for lunch. Rouen is known for a beautiful cathedral that Monet painted a ton of times (3o to be exact), at different times of the day, seasons, weather. You get the idea.
Monet's apartment sat on the opposite side of the plaza, making the cathedral a convenient subject. I claim he lived here. I love the big windows and the Renaissance architecture. Plus, there was a Monet banner out front.
We then headed West, to the beaches of Normandy. Our first stop (and Ben's favorite of the trip) was an area called Pointe du Hoc. It's a 30 acre stretch of land that juts out into the sea, separating the Utah and Omaha Beaches. German long-range artillery could easily fire on either beach from these cliffs, making this point a key German stronghold that the Allies had to take out. On D-Day 1944, 225 Rangers, led by Leut. Col. James E. Rudder (Aggie legend!) scaled the 100 ft cliffs and destroyed the gun batteries.
The bomb craters & German bunkers were incredible! And more so, it seemed as if nothing had changed. Barbed wire still stretched along the cliffs' edge and encircled some German barricades. It was cool to be there, but very surreal.
We then walked down along the coast of the Omaha Beach. Over 175,000 troops were deployed on these beaches, making it still the largest seaborne invasion of all time.
Perched on the bluffs, overlooking the beach, rests the American Cemetery. A wave of emotion sweeps over you as a sea of 10,000 gravestones stretch out before you. It was both beautiful and solemn.
We stayed the night in an adorable little town called Bayeux. (Rachel's reading this restaurant's menu for us.) Thank goodness she already speaks excellent French! Ben & I would give it our best shot and (for a moment) be so proud of ourselves for asking for something in French. That was until they would speak back to us in French.
"Uhhh??.. Rachel??"
The next morning, we saw the Bayeux Tapestry. It's 230 feet long, over 1000 years old and depicts the events leading up to the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Rachel (being a high school English teacher) explained to us that it's because of that invasion that our "English" today is a mix of Germanic and Romantic languages, rather than simply German. Mmm. Never knew that.
We visited 2 more towns before returning to Paris. This is Mont-Saint-Michel. Built in the 8th Century on a peninsula, it's surrounded by mud-lands and only accessible at low tide. During the Hundred Years War, the city had been attacked numerous times by the British, but because of it's impervious walls & ever-changing tides, it always persevered and thus became the symbol of France's national identity.
We made our way down (actually UP, way up) the skinny, twisty roads until we reached the church abbey. It was really nice being able to use Rachel (who's again, 7 mths prego) as an excuse to take it slow.
As grand and magnificent as the church was, I actually have more pictures of us goofing around in the abbey, than of the abbey itself. We're very mature. Here's Ben bathing in a water basin.
And me trying to pry open every door to find a secret passage way.
And unsettling proof that not everything is bigger in Texas.
Yes. We were those obnoxious American tourists.
Before further embarrassing ourselves, we headed further West and spent the night in Saint-Malo. It's an old pirate town with huge city walls that protect it at high-tide from the waves of the English Channel. About 60% of the city was destroyed in WWII but was rebuilt with its original rock & stone. It now thrives as a beach resort during the summer. At low tide, you can see miles down the beach and even walk down to an old ship port. We spent most of the day walking on the walls of the fortified city before enjoying some fresh seafood for dinner.
You don't have to speak French to know that these desserts look delicious. French crepes are FABULOUS! (Ben missed out by getting a brownie.) If you're feeling daring & want to try making your own crepes, check out Rachel's blog (The Paxton Family) to the right. Or if you just want better (more accurate) explanations of all of these French cities, she's probably your gal for that, too.
Back in Paris we strolled Rick Steve's "historical walk", taking in sites on Ile St. Louis like St. Severin, Place St. Michel & the Deportation Memorial. The most famous of the tour was of course the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Taking over 200 years to build, the real hunchbacks of Notre Dame were the peasants who did most of the labor themselves, for free. No, they did not live 200 years. It took 8 generations to complete.
The beautiful facade itself has an immense amount of historical importance, but by far my favorite, has to do with the line of guys cutting across the center of the cathedral. They are all Biblical kings. But during the French Revolution (when citizens were fed up with the royal arrogance of the Catholic hierarchy) these 27 statues were mistaken for hated French kings. People stormed the church, crying "Off with their heads!" and plop, all 27 guys were decapitated. Oops! It took decades to repair them. And as if that isn't bizarre enough, somebody collected all of the heads and buried them in their backyard, until 1977, when they were accidently unearthed. The original heads are now displayed at the Cluny Museum.
A lesser known cathedral, Sainte-Chapelle, sits right around the corner. What it lacks in fame or recognition, it makes up in awe-inspiring craftsmanship. It ranks up there with the Sistine Chapel for me. Over 1,100 Biblical scenes are represented in 6,500 sq. feet of stained glass. It's absolutely breathtaking! The pictures just don't do it justice. Louis IX commissioned the church in 1242 to house the supposed Crown of Thorns (which is now kept in the Notre Dame and only displayed a few times a year) that he had just purchased. The price of the crown greatly exceeded the cost of the Chapel, which tells me that he (at least) thought he had the real thing.
Our last day was spent on a day trip to Versailles. Again, Texas has nothing on this place. Just walking from one side of Louis XIV's "backyard" to the other, would take 40 minutes! We opted out and limited most of our time to the Chateau. Tired of living in the Louvre (the traditional royal palace in Paris), Louis XIV had this little getaway built around 1700. He hosted grand parties here, hob-knobbed with the who's who of the day & basically showed off his money and extravagant taste to the rest of Europe. The golden gates to our right lead to the main courtyard.
19 princes were born here (2 which would later become kings), all in the Queen's Bedchamber (below). Royal babies were delivered in public to prove their blue-bloodedness. You've got to be kidding me!!
The Treaty of Versailles was also signed right here in the Hall of Mirrors in 1919 by the Germans and Allies. It officially ended WWI, and some say started World War II.
The view of the gardens was stunning! The gardens, the Chateau and the town of Versailles itself is the first instance of urban planning (since the Roman Empire) and was a model for future capitals, such as Brasilia and Washington, D.C.
We wrapped up the trip with one more night with Chris & Rachel, strolling though the streets of Paris, stopping for dinner and catching one more sight of the Eiffel Tower. We had an AWESOME time!
Paxton's, we love you guys!!
Thanks for sharing your new home with us!!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Trip: Part 1: Germany

Guten tag! We had a great time in Germany! We ate currywurst, rode the u-bahn and pretty much butchered the German language with every attempt. We spent most of our time in Berlin but were able to escape to the countryside via train one day. With Germany's dark past, this post may read more like a history lesson, than a vacation. Almost every landmark landed us in the middle of WWII or the Cold War. Sometimes both. There were plenty of "Wow. I can't believe I'm standing right here" moments. Sometimes cool. Sometimes creepy.
This is the Brandenburg Gate. Over 200 year's old, the gate was badly damaged during Napoleon's conquest & WWII. Hitler gave speeches here as well as Ronald Reagan. "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Tear down this wall!". The wall stood right in front of it at the time. Obama tried to give a speech here a couple of years ago. The Germans wouldn't let him. Ha!
I'm so proud. My husband dressed as a Soviet soldier. His leather gloves, peacoat and "man's-bag" (think Joey from Friends?) seems to complete the outfit.
Holding his Starbucks (an every-morning must), Ben is standing in Bebelplatz. This is where the Nazis' book burning took place in 1933. Kind of eerie. Behind him is Humbolt Universitat, home of Albert Einstein.
I'm walking through the Holocaust Memorial, a life-sized puzzle of concrete slabs, representing both Jewish & non-Jewish victims.
This is Reichstag, Germany's parliament. Bombed in 1945 and rebuilt with a supposedly-impressive dome. Worthy of a picture. Not of a 2 hour wait.
We made a pit stop at Curry 36, very popular among the locals. Don't let the smile fool you.
The longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall (about 1/2 a mile) is now an art gallery. Artists painted whatever they wanted to on their assigned section, most of which I didn't understand. We gravitated towards the one with an American flag.
This part of the wall hadn't been altered. About 10 feet passed the wall, they're excavating buildings that the Nazis used as their central headquarters. Talk about 2 worlds colliding.
Checkpoint Charlie. This is where American forces, after registering, could cross the wall. This guy spoke broken English and charged 2 euros for a picture. Sure, why not?.
We took a day trip to Wittenburg, about an hour South of Berlin. It was a nice break from the doom & gloom of Berlin's attractions. Wittenburg is where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door, officially starting the Protestant Revolution against the Catholic church. In addition to the All-Saints church (in the background), we also toured Luther's house and University.
A close-up of "the door" which of course is not the real door, but an expensive, bronze replica with Luther's Theses engraved in it. Still very cool.
Back in Berlin, we toured a few more churches and museums. This church has no significant historical background that I know of, but was instead the church that I wondered into (and was escorted out of) by a sweet little German man explaining (in all German) that I had interrupted a Bar Mitzvah. At least that's the conclusion we came to. Oops. In English, he said "thank you. bye bye".
We were also able to see the Pergamon Alter (referred to as "Satan's Throne" by John in the book of Rev.), which was dedicated to the Greek gods in 2nd Century BC. Hitler liked the alter so much, that he had his architect use it as the model for the stage on which Hitler gave his Nazi rallies. And some would argue that Obama's acceptance speech was given from a stage that looked VERY similar. I'm just saying... Check the links if you're interested.

Germany has plenty of beer gardens. It was odd to see entire families gathering at these watering holes. While parents & grandparents relaxed and caught up, toddlers ran amok. We seemed right at home! I even had a beer. Well, it was half beer, half Sprite, but I say it counts.
On our last night, while having a glass of wine in our hotel's lounge, we noticed an all-too familiar German board game, Settlers of Catan, that we just happen to LOVE! . We're nerds, I know. It just happened to be sitting there among some other games. How random! Or maybe not? Seemed fitting to play a game. As they say "when in Rome". I mean Berlin.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Snow day!

It snowed in College Station! And you can only imagine how excited I was, since our recent ski trip was, well, somewhat lacking of snow! I bundled up the girls and we headed out into it. I thought for sure Addi would love it. I had visions of her rolling in it, eating it, making snow angels...I was mistaken! She was terrified of it! What 2 year old doesn't like snow? Through coaxing and bribing, I finally convinced her to take a step off of the concrete. I've never seen the girl so cautious!
Here's Addi moving at a snail's pace. With each step, the snow would crunch under her shoes and she'd say "oh-Oh". I'd have to clean the snow off of her shoes and begin again. Ahh. After what seemed like eternity, we had made it about 15 steps. Okay... Plan B.
The wagon! A much better option! Plus, Sydney could join us.
Doesn't she look so grown up here?
I can't believe she's already 6 months!
Where has the time gone?
Here's a good smile from Addi.
I wish I could say that she overcame her fears & ran like a wild child through the snow, but that never happened. She's only smiling because I would have to push the camera button timer & then run down the sidewalk with both of them in my arms, to what I thought was the center of the picture. Oh, the things a mom will do.