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Monday, May 31, 2010

April in Paris

One thing I will never do again?  An overnight bus ride from Amsterdam to Paris.  Em and I saved ourselves around 50 Euros, as the other option was the pricey and sleek Eurostar, but I still don't know if I can say it was worth it.  After a long day outside in the cold and rain, a hard seat and drafty window weren't appreciated.  At some point in Belgium, alternating between sleep and awake every 20 minutes, I wanted to stomp my feet.  I might have whimpered a little bit, but I can neither confirm, nor deny.

Eight hours later, as the clock struck 6 a.m., we pulled into the Paris bus station.  I was beyond drained, and it was all I could do to drag my suitcase through Paris to Emily's apartment.  But, I was there...finally in Paris!

A three hour nap makes the baddies disappear.  The Paris day was bright and Em and I walked around the Hotel de Ville plaza, enjoying the warmer winds and people-watching.  You know you're in Paris when you see lovers displaying their love among the crowds.  Parisians aren't afraid of love.  They're in love with love.  And you can't help but get swept up in the romance. 

We met Emily's friend, Awna, at Parc de Buttes Chaumont for conversation and people-watching.  It was really nice to meet Awna, as I'd heard so much about her from Emily, and she's a part of Emily's Parisian life.  Late in the afternoon, we parted ways from Awna, and Em and I went to the market and the boulangerie for supper supplies.  It was a lazy day first day in Paris, but I prefer to think of it as "slow," and keeping with the culture.

During my visit with Emily, her normal routine of work and school persisted, so I'd made plans for some day-long excursions.  Tuesday morning, I set out for the Paris Vision travel agency, as I was to spend the day visiting Monet's house in Giverny and the Chateau de Versailles.  I can't speak highly enough of the Paris Vision agency.  On my last trip to Paris in 2008, we took a trip with Paris Vision to the Champagne region of France to visit various wineries and the quaint city of Reims.  Not only are their trips organized well, as to maximize the sights, but their staff is very professional and their buses are very clean.

Anyway, the bus set out of a dawning Paris, but not before a drive down the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, and a loop around the Arc de Triomphe.

The sun was full and overhead by the time we arrived in Giverny.  We were set free to explore Claude Monet's home and gardens, and the tiny, yet picturesque town of Giverny.  Monet's cottage is stately in pink stucco, with bright green trim, matching the ambling ivy gracing its walls.  Monet was a homebody, and seemed to take great pride in making his home comfortable for his guests.  I especially loved his kitchen, bordered in pastoral blue and white Delft tile, and painted a cheerful, sunny yellow.  In the middle of the spacious kitchen, a long dining room table floated between the stove, sink and fireplace.  If guests always seem to find themselves stationed in the kitchen anyway, why not seat them there as well?  I loved the coziness of it. 

I spent a little while in Monet's front yard gardens, the Clos Normand,  navigating my way around the large Asian tour group that descended upon the grounds.  Behind Monet's front yard gardens, the pond sits, a tributary diverted from the Seine.  It was easy to see why Money painted so many versions of his Waterlilies.  The garden is so quiet and serene, and there are so many angles and perspectives from which one sees the light differently.  I was at peace this morning, and while I would've loved to share the experience with someone else, it was nice to be alone with my thoughts.

Monet's House, Gardens, and chicken.   How pastoral.

After spending a good bit of time at the pond, I wandered into the sleepy town of Giverny.  Most buildings in the town are white, and it reminded me of Alys Beach on 30A in Florida, but without the ocean.  I found a small park, and settled on a bench, soaking up some vitamin D and doing a little bird watching.

My little bird friend singing at my feet in Giverny

The bus loaded up, and hungrily, we rolled into our lunchtime destination, the Moulin de Fourges.  The old restaurant features an operating water mill, rolling the River Epte through it's spokes.  I'm an adventurous eater, but on some things, I have to draw the line.  The first course was a three-fish pate, which I liken to canned cat food.  It was disgusting, and oddly enough, my tablemates practically licked their plates.  One thing I love about the French is the presence of wine at lunchtime.  My glass of rich red wine was never empty, and was a perfect compliment to the traditional French cuisine of boeuf bourguignon.  

The bus was quiet when we set off for Versailles. I tried to stay awake to the French countryside, but my eyes wanted to nap.  Awhile later, we arrived in Versailles.  The city of Versailles is pretty incredible, especially considering Louis XIV designed its avenues and architecture as rays, all pointing up to the Chateau de Versailles.  He called himself the "Sun King," respectively.

Our tour began among the other five billion people touring the Chateau that day.  Seriously, there were hoardes of people there.  And, while the French do wine well, they don't do air conditioning as well...or at all.  Man, it was stuffy in those seventeenth century rooms.  I did see some lovely textiles, ornate furniture, and haughty portraits of French royalty, including many paintings of Marie Antoinette herself.  After our tour, we were given time to explore the intricately landscaped gardens.  It's a majestic sight, for sure.  Monarchy and its extravagant opulence fascinate me.

One of the coolest places in all of French history:  The Chateau de Versailles

On the way back to Paris, we passed the Ile des Cygnes, featuring one of the Statue of Liberty monuments in Paris.  I heard of it, but never actually saw it before then.  It was nice to see a piece of Franco-American history in the city.

Six days left.  Stay tuned...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Who is Oman?!

And so it continues...

Saturday morning, April 3, I met Emily at the Amstel Station around 7 a.m., as she'd arrived on the overnight bus from Paris.  We hauled her stuff back to the hotel, and got ready for a full day in Amsterdam.

Our first stop of the morning was the Dappermarkt, Amsterdam's most famous food and flea market.  A cold front moved in that morning, and the wind bit at our faces as we shopped.  The clouds kept rolling in, and we lamented at the gloomy day.  This didn't, however, keep us from buying.  I snapped up a beautiful slate blue pashmina, a grey and black keffiyeh, and a emerald green scarf for my mom.  We walked to the end of the markt, to the canal, and saw an old windmill resting at the top of the bridge.

Cheese Shop at Dappermarkt


Em and I hopped the tram to Elandsgracht in Westermarkt to shop a little at the De Looier Antiekmarkt.  I didn't buy anything, but it's still nice to have a look at European antiques that are scarce stateside.  We were starving by the time we finished browsing, and waded through the rain to Sara's Pancake House for some authentic Dutch lunch fare.  The service was extraordinarily bad, but the pancakes were delicious.  Em and I split a proscuitto, banana, and cheese pancake, and the combo of savory and sweet was delectable.  For dessert, we shared an apple, rum and cinnamon pancake.  We left stuffed.

One great thing about Amsterdam is the convenient and fast GVB tram service.  Amsterdam is relatively small anyway, only about five miles wide and ten miles deep, and with the tram service, you can get from one side to the other quickly.  This is why it's easy to hit-up most of Amsterdam's tourist attractions and boros in one day.

So, Em and I skirted across the city to one of our most anticipated stops, The Heineken Experience, at the original Heineken Brouwery.  The Brouwery is no longer used to produce Heineken, but instead has been turned into a musuem with interactive exhibits.  And, the price of admission even gets you a few pints of the pale, golden lager.  We spent several hours exploring the museum, viewing the Shire horses, walking across the sticky beer-stained floors, and sipping some ice cold Amsterdam culture.  The fresh, free beer alone made it well-worth the price of admission.

There was still a lot of cloudy day left when we departed the Brouwery, so we headed over to Dam Square to walk around.  We were lucky enough to be present to witness a large crowd engage in a pillow fight, as afterall, it was International Pillow Fight Day.  I know, right?  The cold was really beginning to bear down at this point, so Em and I ducked into the Nieuwe Kerk.

The Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) sits in the city center of Amsterdam and has been around since the 15th century.  It's a gorgeous, Neo-Gothic building, but a bit spiritually shallow to be a once Protestant church.  Our iAmsterdam pass gained us free admission, and we began touring the exhibition, as the chuch is now a musuem.  The exhibit, titled OMAN, featured artifacts, tools, weapons, books, and even ornate burqas.  We walked through the entire exhibit, and at the exit, I paused, puzzled.  I looked at Emily, and said questioningly, "what I want to know, is who is Oman?!"  Emily stopped and stared at me, and then she burst out laughing.  "Oman is a country in the Middle East, not a person."  Oh.  Well, I wondered why this church was showing off all of his stuff.  The two of us continued to laugh about this, but somberly expressed our sadness at the irony of the exhibit in a Christian church.  So many churches in Europe are no longer churches at all, but only historical landmarks that promote a secular worldview and contribute to spiritual darkness on this continent.

Em and I emerged back into the late-afternoon, and browsed a bit at the adjacent Magna Plaza shopping center.  We were getting hungry for dinner by this time, and I was excited to take Em to my favorite Amsterdam restaurant, Ankara.  But much to my dismay, my Turkish delight turned into a tapas restaurant, and eliminated most of their menu.  We dined anyway, and the tzatziki dip redeemed the experience. 

Can you believe we packed that all into one day?  Well, I'm not done yet.  After dinner, the tram took us over to Museumplein, and we took advantage of a photo op in the rain, at the I Amsterdam sign in front of the Rijksmusuem.  Soaking wet and cold, we made our way over to the neighboring Leidsplein, to grab a comfy wingback by the fire at the Americain Cafe.  Em and I spent the last couple hours of our evening resting over tea and sympathy...and sugared confections.

Early Sunday morning, Em and I drug our luggage to Centraal Station to stowe our bags in the lockers.  The Centraal Station janitorial staff was on strike, and we were both totally grossed out by the amount of filth the train station collected.  The stench wasn't a pleasant way to begin our day...especially since it was Easter morning.

Centraal Station

The rain began again, today, a steady downpour.  We bought train tickets to Schiphol Airport, and then waited in the grey for the bus that would take us to Keukenhof Tulip Gardens.  Em and I had been looking forward to visiting fields of cascading tulips for months, and the rain only slightly dampened our spirits.  Afterall...He is Risen!

Forty-five minutes later, we arrived and began our descent into the park.  At first we were a bit puzzled.  We saw lots of greenery, lush grass and palatial trees.  But upon closer inspection, hidden among the landscape were thousands of tulip bulbs, just peeking their stark green leaves out of the ground.  My heart sank.  With the cold and wet early April weather, our arrival to Keukenhof was premature. 

We ducked out of the rain into one of the greenhouse pavilions, and were transported into a magical land of indoor tulip gardens.  Every variety of tulip known to humanity was grown under this big glass roof.  Some tulips were speckled with unique colors, and their edges were frayed like a peony.  Other tulips were so gargantuan they brushed our hips when we walked by.  It was an amazing site, and for a couple of hours, we photographed the different varieties. 

My favorite.

The rain was still strong outside, but we ventured deeper into the gardens, hoping to see multicolored rows of Holland's own flora.  The yellow tulips seemed to be the overachievers, ahead of the curve, leaving their blue and red and purple sisters sleeping in the ground.  Emily and I were so disappointed, but we tried not to be.  The sight of a proud windmill did excite, and we continued to amble along.  After a few hours, we were cold, wet, hungry, and a bit cranky.  We boarded the bus back for Amsterdam. 

Lonely, unbloomed tulip field.

Yesterday while we were exploring Westermarkt, we passed a pizzeria emitting the most wonderfully fragrant oregano and basil and garlic.  Our hunger remembered this pizzeria, and we spent long minutes on the bus ride back in anticipation of lunch. 

In an Italian-induced coma, we swam to Musuemplein, and found our place in line for the Rijksmuseum.  By that time, the cold settled over the afternoon, and we shivered in the wind.  For an hour-and-fifteen minutes, we waited, attempting to entertain ourselves.  Sometimes, it wasn't hard.  Like when we snickered at the Asian guy behind us practically making out with his hot dog.  Other times, we didn't think we'd ever enter Rijks. 

Lovely woman in the courtyard of the Rijks

We did, finally, and pored over the collection of Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen, and other artists from the Dutch Golden Age.  We were plum exhausted upon completion of the musuem, and headed uptown to find Melly's Cookie Bar near the Dam.  Realizing we had a few more hours to kill before we boarded the overnight bus (i.e. Hell on wheels) to Paris, Em and I grabbed our hot beverages to go, and we walked up to the canal belt.  Our iAmsterdam passes comped us a boat cruise through Amsterdam's historic canal system. 

Emily aptly referred to our little ship as a death trap, and right she was.  Our windows were inches from the murky water, and the wooden boat frame creaked and groaned at each sharp turn.  With no ventilation, we became a bit claustrophobic, and suffered through the rest of the ride.  This is one tourist trap that you'd be hard-pressed to get either of us to recommend.

We knew we needed dinner soon, as it would be a long bus ride without something on our stomachs.  Em and I lucked out and found a little corner cafe called Soup Kitchen.  The food was cheap, but the company warm, and we sat there for a long time talking and laughing at Amsteram as she walked by our window. 

Our time in Amsterdam came to a close, and we reluctantly found our way to the Amstel Station to route ourselves to Paris.  After inhaling a bit of second-hand doobie, we climbed into the bus and settled in for an eight-hour nap. 

That's all for now.  Next, April in Paris.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Plan B

One morning a couple of weeks ago, I walked up to our front counter at work to wash my tea mug, when something caught my eye.  It was the audio version of Pete Wilson's new book, Plan B:  What do you do when God doesn't show up the way you thought He would?  One of the perks for working in the book industry are the free promotional copies.  But, I'll be honest...if it hadn't of had Pete's name on the top, I probably would've walked right past.  Several good friends of mine are involved at Crosspoint, Pete's church, and I've enjoyed hearing him speak a few times, myself.

Anyway, I kind of half-heartedly chuckled, and rolled my eyes up at God, as I picked up the audio book and returned to my desk.  My wounds from my own Plan B experience were fresh (ok, still are), and the last thing I wanted to hear was how God's plan was better than my own.  I do believe, however, that Pete's audio book was divinely placed there, especially for me...even though I wanted to chuck it against the wall (Sorry Pete, it's me, not you). 

As I'm working through this, I'm realizing that healing and uncertainty aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.  I can accept God's sovereignty, but continue to be baffled by the reasons why.  I can bear these painful scars of hurt in my body, but still manage to find joy in my soul.  I can act by the spiritual wisdom of my mind, but cry out to God from my heart.

My beloved city is currently working through its own Plan B experience.  Despite the ugly destruction and immeasurable suffering, I continue to see and hear of sacrificial love for others.  And I have faith that God can use the bad to produce good. I believe this for Nashville. I believe this for myself.

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