Sunday, May 29, 2005

Maylin's second violin lesson

Her first lesson was actually in the States at Grandma and Grandpa's house with a musicbox that looked like a tiny violin. I taught her how to hold it on her shoulder and showed her the correct hand position. Today, for the first time, she wanted me to take out my violin. She wanted her own violin, too. I didn't use the real violin that Grandma brought a few weeks ago which my brother had used at age 4, but gave her the homemade violin that I had put together for her quite a while ago. It's made out of an old stationary box, a ruler, and some brown wrapping paper. Black paper was used to make a chin rest, tailpiece, button, and to make the ruler fingerboard more realistic. Maylin needed a review of proper posture and position, but she was very eager to start playing. I gave her a big, long paintbrush for a bow. We played several songs together, including the Winnie-the-Pooh theme song, Candle Burning Bright, Leo the Lion, and I See the Moon (the last three songs are from my master's program in music education).

Afterwards, she drew some amazing faces while sitting on my lap. I drew ovals, and then she filled in the eyes, noses, and mouths. This is the first time I saw her draw consistent perfectly placed features. I was so impressed!

We pretended we were a choo-choo train later, marching through the house. She'll hang onto my pants pockets in the back and walk. And then it was painting time! We put on her apron which I fashioned long ago with a Winnie-the-Pooh party napkin in the front, and then I let her mix her paints. Her favorite color is blue, so we start with that first. We moved on to green, pink, and finally, purple. What fun! She's now painting her nails. I've never seen that before. Is she going to be a girly-girl?

Maylin still likes to be a dog. Now, she pants, barks, and will lift her leg to pretend she's peeing.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The heat is on

With all this warm weather (mid-80's on Saturday), the dresses have come out of every female's closet in Paris. I have never seen so many dresses in my life! All the color! It's really amazing. During the winter, the color of the season was black. Black wool coats, black pants, black shoes. Now, it's summer dresses of all styles and prints. If you're female, 12 months or older, most likely, you're wearing a dress in this weather. There are a few skirts and even fewer shorts (but the shorts are only on the children, not the adults). Casual is not the norm here. I'm not totally left out in my t-shirt and jeans, but I'm starting to feel a little underdressed to go outside. But I'm also not in the mood to wear a dress. I'm taking Maylin to the park, I'm melting, and I don't want to get my nice clothes all sweaty. I'll save my two dresses for the special occasions. Hmm...there are the June sales coming up (in Paris, big sales are only allowed twice a year -- in January and June; shopping is really crazy then). Maybe I'll stock up.

It seems a little silly seeing all the dresses at the park. The girls are on their hands and knees in the sandbox making their castles and mountains...in their beautiful Parisian dresses. The boys, lucky for them, don't have to wear a shirt and tie.

Maylin had a great day at the park yesterday after school. She sat next to Mommy on the grass and had a snack of yummy raspberries (she could probably easily eat a pound of raspberries, since lately, she's been able to eat an entire melon -- don't worry, they're smaller here). Afterwards, it was time to move sand from the sandbox to other places in the park, run around on the lawn on her own, and take a wild ride on the springy chicken. A male nanny (I haven't seen any other male nannies anywhere) who I have seen before at the park introduced himself to me and we talked in French and then in English. Good practice for both of us. He's Philippino and thought I was, too. Most people will guess that I'm Philippino before their next guess, that I'm half-Asian. He's lived in Paris for ten years and seems happy here, but he complained that his current employer does not want him to declare. He probably gets more money, but since he doesn't pay taxes, he doesn't have the possibility of receiving any unemployment benefits or social security checks after he retires. Seems pretty risky.

The city works have been pretty busy in our little neighborhood. Two days ago, they put in a speedbump in front of an "ecole maternelle" (kindergarten), and yesterday, they put in some pedestrian lights at the crosswalk between the choo-choo park and the dolphin see-saw park. (This "Maylin-speak" is very succinct.) If there's work done by the city, it's quick. But if it's private construction, it can take months to years! There's scaffolding all over the neighborhood and I'm getting pretty sick of looking at it. Can you imagine looking out your window for at least a year to the view of old scaffolding? No, no, I don't personally have to deal with that, fortunately. But you know what? I hardly ever see anyone actually walking or working on that scaffolding. I can't explain it.

I'm going to try to go to bed again. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

She still thinks she's a dog

Maylin has been seen following Leo around, crawling on the floor, and barking. When we walk Leo and Leo's on his way to do his business, Maylin gets ready, too, and finds a nice grate to squat over. Cute. At home, she tries to communicate with Leo as she does with us. You know, she talks to him and uses hand gestures. Often it looks like a very serious conversation. Leo just listens politely and nods.

The weather's been absolutely gorgeous lately, so I've been taking Maylin to the park on a more regular basis. It's interesting to discover that all the nannies and parents in Paris seem to have their kids on the same schedule. The parks are packed with little people all morning. But by noon, all the parks are usually empty or nearly empty. Where did everybody go? EVERYBODY went home for lunch! I think it's around 2 pm when the kids start coming back, after eating and napping. Is this a government-mandated schedule? Are all the pediatricians telling their patients that noon is the ideal time to eat, no sooner, no later? They like their structure around here. And it seems like school is even worse. Fortunately, Maylin likes structure a lot and since she doesn't get a lot of it at home, it'll be good for her when she starts "l'ecole maternelle" in the fall. She should be able to enter even though she will not have turned three yet. As long as she's potty-trained. That's our big project these days. She likes to sit on her potty and even wipe herself, but there's nothing to wipe! Nothing happens. Oh well...it will come eventually. I'm not pressuring her.

Have a great day!

Monday, May 23, 2005

My happiest year

This thirtieth year of my life feels like it's been the best so far. I am full of confidence in myself, doing only the things that please me. I have taken control of my own life -- I'm not letting circumstances or people sway me in one direction or another. Even in my relationship with John, I had taken a backseat in the past, but now, I realize that to be truly happy in a relationship, you need to be proactive and not have unrealistic expectations of your partner. Instead of waiting for him to set up a dinner date, I do it myself. Instead of wishing for him to vacuum the apartment, I ask him directly to do so. Instead of hoping for him to start a serious conversation with me, I take the initiative. It's taken me such a long time to truly understand the fact that your man cannot read your mind! John loves me so much and is so supportive in whatever I do, but if I need something from him, I need to be direct.

I've also taken control of my social life. Instead of waiting for someone to call or e-mail me, I will set up a lunch or a dinner with friends, or an outing for our expat wives' club.

I guess it helps that I haven't been working. I have time to think, to plan, to just enjoy some quiet time by myself. Why was it that in California I said "yes" to every gig, every job, and I always ended up running myself ragged? I would be worn out, stressed, and not be able to fully enjoy everything I was doing. I guess it did feel good to be wanted by everybody, but I should've been able to find a balance for myself. I thought I was doing the right thing by always saying "yes." I also felt more financially independent by taking every job. I should've known my limits, but I was probably also trying to build up a fragile ego. After graduating from U.C. Berkeley with an economics degree, I thought I could take on the whole world -- that I would be at the top of the world. But I soon realized that the business world wasn't for me. I had been at a loss since that time. Actually, I did decide to become a singer, and went to California State University, Hayward, to study voice and choral conducting. But after I finished my studies, I got off track. I continued to be involved in music -- I did love conducting choirs and working with children, but I lost any time to pursue my solo singing. I do want to someday do some conducting again, but I'd like to see how far I can go as a solo singer. I'd like to sing mostly Mozart and Bach if possible. They are my all-time favorite composers for vocal repertoire. I hope I can stay on track and not stray again.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The kindness of strangers

I find the French very courteous people. More courteous, in general, than in the States. People watch out for each other here. At the entrance of each metro station, at the bottom of the stairs, there are about 6 swinging glass doors, and most of the time, when people go through these doors which can swing like crazy upon release and knock someone out, they hold the door for the person behind them. It's automatic for most people. They don't even have to look behind them to check if there is anyone behind them. They do it anyways. Before you can get to your platform for your train, you must put your metro ticket into a machine, go through a turnstile, and push a somewhat resistant "gate" which I think is supposed to deter the freeloaders. People almost always hold that gate for you. You definitely don't want that thing smushing your face. In my less-informed days, I would try to squeeze my stroller through the turnstile and invariably, someone who might have already passed through, would come back and help me with the gate. I did eventually figure out that there's a door to the side which the station agent will open for you so that you can pass through with a stroller, a wheelchair, or large suitcases.

When we moved here, Maylin was still in her stroller all the time when we went out. If I was ever struggling with the door to our apartment building, someone would stop and hold the door for me. Strangers would help me get onto the bus. I would be given a seat. Same thing on the metro. Our metro system is pretty old, so there aren't a lot of escalators and there are even fewer elevators. Makes it difficult for moms. But, without a word, people would come up behind me, up to three people, and silently help me take the stroller up or down the stairs, no matter which direction they were originally headed in. It was still too much of a hassle to take a stroller onto the metro, so I often took the bus back then.

Last summer, John sent me out to get the zipper of his leather jacket fixed. I went to our local leather artisan, a jolly, round fellow. He was very nice and praised me on my French (I hardly knew any French back then, but I could pronounce it really well because of my having studied French songs in the past) and tried flirting with me. Flirting merchants, I've found through experience and through stories of friends, are very common here. Anyways, I think he was joking around, but it had something to do with asking me out to a restaurant. I told him I had a husband, blah blah, and he said that he was a lucky man. It turns out that the zipper job would cost an astounding 75 euros (John only spent about 100 dollars on the jacket, which is very nice, in Korea several years ago). I knew John only wanted to spend 30 euros. I asked the nice man if I could use his phone to ask my husband if 75 euros was ok. On the phone, John asked me to try to bargain with the man. It's not what I do comfortably, but I tried. Monsieur Leather knocked off about 20 euros from the original quote only because I was cute, he said.

When we moved into the neighborhood, we introduced ourselves to the bakers in the building and these friendly people immediately gave Maylin and our dog Leo treats. They continue to do so whenever we go in -- either a piece of baguette, or a chouquette (a favorite of both Maylin and Leo -- a sugar-covered, egg-based, mostly air-filled little pastry), or a red gumdrop (this bonbon for Maylin only). John likes to walk Leo off-leash, and sometimes, Leo will get off track and run into the bakery by himself and wait for his treat.

Our dry-cleaner/tailor is a small, white-haired man with glasses whose hand shakes a little when he writes. His shop is just two doors down from us, and we've visited him several times. He's a wonderful, warm man who always has a big smile for me whenever I see him. John wanted him to fix a too-large shirt that he bought at Target in the States, but when I went to go pick it up, our friend went into a lengthy discussion about why the job couldn't be done -- too labor-intensive, too expensive. He said he could recommend someone else who could do it for less, but that we wouldn't be paying less than 50 euros. I agreed with him, that it wouldn't be worth it to fix the shirt, that John should buy shirts that fit him better. We talked a little bit about sewing since I knew a thing about it, thanks to my sewing teacher/friend from the States. I told him about how I had to hem all my pants since I'm so short, and he offered to do all my hemming for me for free. What a sweet guy. I love the French.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Disappearing act

(NOTE: I've finally finished the entry about my parents' visit to Paris and beyond. See May 13 posting.)

In December, we discovered an awesome service that we never saw in the States. Video kiosks! Purchase a card good for 60 euros worth of video rentals, stick the card into any number of neighborhood kiosks, select your title, and out pops a DVD! I think it costs about 3 euros per rental, but if you return the DVD to the same kiosk within four hours, you only have to pay 1 euro, 50 centimes (cents)! Of course, we took advantage of the deal since we lived so close to both kiosks in the neighborhood (one being a 20 second walk away, or less, for John). Unfortunately, one time, John left the card inside the machine and didn't realize it for months, thinking we had just lost it in the apartment somewhere. After the sad discovery, I went to the neighborhood video service shopfront which is usually unattended and read the sign saying it was closed and would not reopen for a few weeks. John went over after those weeks passed and found that the company had been replaced by another one. He assumed that the new company had purchased the old and would honor the cards of the clients from the previous company. Again, the shopfront was unattended, and the sign said to call a certain number to inquire about lost cards, etc. He made me call since my French is better, but when I did, they just told me to return to the shopfront, look at the new sign to find out when a real person would man the store, and talk to that person. I went and looked at the 8x14 piece of paper Scotch-taped to the wall. Lucky us. That very day, someone would be there between 6:30 and 8:30 pm. I told John to go there after work to straighten things out. He went, and found that the new company had nothing to do with old and that we had just lost over 50 euros in video rental. Great. John tried to locate the company that gipped us, that did not notify us of a closure, a bankruptcy, or anything, but he was unsuccessful. The sneaky enterprise seemed to have just disappeared without a trace. This would be something to report to the Better Business Bureau, right? But I don't think it exists in France, and it's not worth it to us to find out. And that's probably how a lot of the French deal with things like this. Welcome to France. Despite stupid stuff like this, I still like living here.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Caroline sings June 26th!

The director of the Mozart opera group I've been singing in has finally announced a concert that will be open to the public, and I think it might be really good! She's assembled the best singers of her two opera ensembles to perform excerpts of Mozart's The Magic Flute in German. Costumes will fortunately be updated (I would've looked really fat in a yellow satin Cinderalla-type of dress -- yuck!) and I will get to wear two, as I will be performing the roles of the First Lady (no, not the wife of the President) and Papagena who magically appears in the finale to be a romantic partner for Papageno. We will be acting out our pieces, so it'll be lots of fun. Now that I've memorized the music, I'm free to be creative with my acting. The director thought I had some good ideas. Phew, I fortunately have not lost the ability to act. It has been 5 years since my last opera performance.

This week, I started taking voice lessons again, after 5 years of no real study. I've learned a different technique for breathing that makes a lot of sense to me. In California, I had taught all my choirs how to breathe, with an expansion in the abdomen, ribs, and back. But now, I've learned that the real expansion should only happen in the lungs, where the air is coming in. Duh. The abdomen stays supple during inhalation while the ribs and back expand. During exhalation, the abdomen engages, helping to keep the ribs stay open. This will be a difficult habit to change, but I've already been working on it everyday. Also, I was reminded that high notes do not require more air, just a good control of the air pressure. Things that I learned in the past are making more sense to me now. I also learned that vowel modification should only be reserved for the uppermost part of my range. Vowels should stay pure throughout most of my range -- which is great for the audience, so they can understand my words better. I almost forgot to say that my entire lesson was taught in French. Some parts of the lessons were difficult to understand, but I got the gist of things. I have a whole new vocabulary of physiology and vocal technique to learn. I was very impressed by my teacher, who is a very warm, encouraging person and is obviously very knowledgeable. I hope I will continue to be impressed. She also happens to be the most affordable voice teacher around. I feel like I'm getting an incredibly good deal. She's probably able to keep the price down because she has a huge studio, supposedly. Always in demand. I'm so glad she took me in.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

I've graduated to the park bench

I've been taking Maylin to the park after "school" since the weather's been nicer lately, and she has finally given me permission to sit on the park bench! Now I can be like the other moms and nannies. Normally, she wants me to either sit on the toy train with her (amazing that my butt can actually fit on those little seats), sit beside her in the sandbox (and risk having a kid throw sand in my eyes), or even share a teeny-tiny seat on the springy cow, rooster, or birdie. She's so fun to watch when she's on those springy characters, propelling herself fowards and backwards quite vigorously -- nearly giving herself whiplash. There's the small danger of bonking her head on the crown of the rooster, but it's a small price to pay for so much fun.

Yesterday, Maylin experienced the rare feeling of jealousy as I held a friend's baby in my arms. She was in so much anguish that it eventually escalated to crying. Her crying prompted the baby to cry, so they cried together. A couple of times, they would stop their crying, look at each other in a bit of wonderment, face-to-face, just inches apart, and then start crying again. My friend and I had to hide our chuckles. It was really a comical moment.

I am so lucky to be the one who gets to hear Maylin tell me about her school day, or an evening with Daddy, or an outing with Daddy. This little girl, who is usually pretty quiet around others, even her Daddy, will run to me when she sees me come home, give me a precious hug, and start talking like a little chatterbox! This little remarkable person is my baby, my daughter! Her voice is full of so much joy when she tells me about the chocolate birthday cake she ate at school, or the fish painted on her face, or how she played with her best friend Ruben.

With Ruben, she is all smiles and giggles. They are quite a pair. They hug and hold hands -- it's almost too cute.

Maylin is a very loving child. She is full of kisses, hugs, and cuddles. I'm trying to enjoy it all while it lasts. Even when Maylin was a wee baby, she would sometimes put her arms around my neck and squeeze. I'm in heaven whenever she squeezes me. I usually have to put in a request for a kiss, but when she gets started, our kissing session can go on for awhile. I don't even mind the juicy kisses. We always cuddle as she's going to sleep and when she wakes up in the morning. What a wonderful way to begin and end a night of blissful sleep. She kisses anything that looks like a boo-boo, like the little moles on our faces and hands. And she pets Leo with such love and gentleness, not like the usual terrible-two.

I think I'll keep her.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The best guests in the world (final version)

My parents will be flying out of Paris to return home in the States in about ten hours. They arrived on May 2nd, and they were just the best. Very easy-going, and not a complaint. I am very lucky.

Here are the chronicles of their first visit to Paris (and Europe).

Monday, May 2

They arrived at the hotel I booked for them in our neighborhood (a block and a half away from our apartment) a little later than expected, because my dad took a few too many sleeping pills on the plane. My mom practically had to drag him around the airport, drop him into the taxi, and maneuver him up to the hotel room. Maylin and I went to see Grandma and Grandpa at their hotel and found Grandpa totally passed out. Very cute lying on the bed, totally out. We made as much noise as we wanted and he didn't ever flinch. The weather was sunny and warm. We took Grandma to the apartment and then went out to buy groceries for dinner. I made some pretty good fried rice (bacon will always do the trick) and some egg drop (aka egg flower) soup, too.

Tuesday, May 3

Grandma and Grandpa buzzed our apartment at an incredibly early 7:50 am (they were up since 4 am). We crawled out of bed and enjoyed the breakfast they had bought at the bakery downstairs (croissants, pains aux chocolat, flan tarte, quiche). G and G helped accompany Maylin to school and then we headed towards the Arc de Triomphe on another gorgeous day. It was about a 15 minute walk, uphill for the last several blocks, but my parents did a great job (they're not accustomed to a lot of physical activity). Took some nice pictures, and then they surprised me by saying they were willing to walk to the Eiffel Tower, which was another 20 minute or so walk. They had no problem. We crossed the River Seine and sat down for a bit while Grandpa had some ice cream. Afterwards, we walked to the foot of the Eiffel Tower and admired the monument from below (they weren't interested in going up). Grandpa loves Chinese food above all other foods, so we had to satisfy him by finding a Chinese restaurant. I had already warned him of the difficulty of finding decent Chinese food, but we actually found a nice Chinese/Thai place near the Tower. The proprietor happily talked to my parents in Chinese for our entire meal (I guess she doesn't meet a lot of Chinese people in her neighborhood). She recommended the Bateaux Mouches after I mentioned that we were thinking of taking a river cruise after lunch. The cruise was the perfect thing to do on such a beautiful afternoon. Only 7 euros for an hour-long romantic boat ride with commentary in French, English, Chinese, Korean, and a couple other European languages. I think I'll have a party on one of the boats sometime. It was a great way to see some of the most attractive and notable parts of Paris without moving a muscle. Notre Dame and the Musee d'Orsay were especially beautiful by boat.

We made it back in time to pick up Maylin from school, rested, were surprised by the sudden downpour of rain after so much sun, and made dinner at home again.

Wednesday, May 4

Grandma and Grandpa brought us breakfast again, but not so early this time. It was a yucky, rainy day, so we decided on a trip to the Louvre to see that Italian girl we know and love, Mona Lisa. It was crowded in the Louvre as I expected, so we didn't get to see her up close, but now that she's in a bigger room, more people can see her better. I also wanted to see the Vermeers so we headed towards the other wing. I was disappointed to find only one of two of his paintings normally on display, but c'est la vie.

Again, Grandpa had a hankering for Chinese food again, so we took a 35-minute metro ride to Belleville, the neighborhood in the 11th arrondissement that I consider the real Chinatown. I think, officially, the 13th is Chinatown, but that place is way too clean to be Chinatown. And there aren't enough shops and restaurants crowded together. We ducked into a small Chinese restaurant and narrowly escaped another downpour. The food was actually pretty good there, and very reasonably priced. It took almost an hour to get back home with Maylin and the stroller, so we were exhausted afterwards.

Grandma was happy to be useful and cooked dinner that evening, heating up the roast duck we bought in Belleville, and making some delicious and creative veggie dishes with the remaining odds and ends in my fridge.

I called my brother Chris to wish him a happy birthday!

Thursday, May 5 (Ascension -- national holiday)

As I still was suffering from the bug I got the previous week, I decided to take the day off to stay home and rest (and do a little grocery shopping). John was good enough to take everyone, including Maylin, to the Musee d'Orsay. It was supposed to be another rainy day, so I thought they should make it a museum day, but it turned out to be nice again, until they returned home. G and G saw the works of Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Pisarro, and many more, and lunched behind one of the gigantic clock faces in the museum (this fabulous building was formerly a train station).

That evening, Grandma cooked us a wonderful dinner of beef curry over rice. Yum!

Friday, May 6

John got the car, we loaded our luggage, our dog Leo, Maylin, and ourselves, and made our way towards the Alsace region (known for its white wines and choucroute -- meats, potatoes, and sauerkraut, this eastern part of France used to belong to Germany). First, we drove through the beautiful Champagne region (you know what comes from there), and then the Lorraine region (where the quiche of the same name comes from). After a three-hour drive, we had a lunch of tartines (big pieces of bread with different toppings, toasted) in the delightful city of Metz. John had the best tartine -- it had tomato, goat cheese (chevre), honey, and fresh thyme! Metz had a large canal (river? I'll have to check) running though it. We walked along it and said hello to the numerous swans and little duckies. The swans were friendly towards us, coming to greet us, but towards each other, that was a different story. Lots of chasing and biting going on, to our surprise.

Another 2.5-3 hours of driving, with the last half hour going through charming villages, we finally arrived in our hotel on the edge of Colmar. It was a wonderful setting -- on one side of the highway, there were acres and acres of green meadow (and a small airport), bounded by lush green moutains. We were all wiped out after all the driving, so we made the easy mistake of eating at the hotel restaurant. It's so disappointing when your own cooking tastes much better than what you just paid too much money for.

We had a large hotel room that could sleep four, and we sneaked Leo in with no problem.

Saturday, May 7

We started our trip on the famous Wine Route today, but it got off on a rocky start. I didn't have an actual map of the wine route. I assumed we'd find some signs, like our guidebook said. We wandered around by car, and stumbled upon the cutest little town ever with its half-timbered houses, streams, and continuously running old fountains. I sent John into the only bakery in town to ask for some help. He came out to tell us that there was supposedly a tourist office straight down the street. It was a pleasant enough walk in the drizzle, but when we couldn't find the office after 15-20 minutes, we headed back to the bakery for clarification. I talked to the "boulangere," and she said that there wasn't a tourist office in town. It was straight down the street several kilometers into Munster. Oops. Back into the car. In our driving, we still didn't run into any "Route du Vins" signs, but we did find Munster and its information office. It was nearly noon and the only woman working at the desk was on the phone for 5-10 minutes. She answered questions for the people in front of us in line, and then had to hurry off to lunch. Welcome to France. Fortunately, she still had a moment to give us some maps and an invitation to a wine tasting in Wir-au-Val. We were about to head back to the car, but we found the weekend market open at the church square just around the corner. Maylin made me buy some fuji apples, and my mom found a cool sling bag. John pointed out the amazing storks and their nests on top of the cathedral. They were huge birds -- they still looked big even though they were about 30 feet high. We were all getting hungry, so we started hunting for a restaurant. My parents wanted to try the brasserie right off the square, but I talked them out of it. Brasseries are great places for beers or a coffee, and they just happen to serve food. But the food isn't always so great. We walked down the main street of the town and came upon a great pizzeria called, La Dolce Vita. We had our bellies stuffed, and then went off to find that winery in Wir-au-Val.

Keep in mind that we encountered rain whenever we got back into the car. It certainly wasn't the best weather for visiting the Alsace, a region full of flowers, rolling pastures, truly happy cows (I disagree with the California cheese advertisement that touts the idea that happy cows live in California -- these Alsatian cows have never seen an antibiotic or steroid or food other than good old grass in their lives), equally happy sheep, and vineyards galore.

We found the winery of Schoenheitz in Wir-au-Val without a problem. There wasn't a car in sight in the small parking lot. The buildings surrounding the lot were charming and seemingly uninhabited. I read the sign to ring the bell "insistently." I rang for a second, waited a minute, thought that that didn't really sound insistent enough, and rang with more gusto the second time. In the middle of my ringing, I heard the sound of a lock being undone. Oops.

The owner of the winery was a gracious host, offering a list of exquisite wines to taste without limit. She was very informative (and spoke English as well for the many tourists who come by) and I learned that the the family winery had four different vineyards on various hillsides in the Munster Valley, each producing different wines, despite the use of some of the same grapes. I fell in love with their Muscat, which is dryer than the Muscats produced in Southern France. They achieve this by fermenting the grapes until all the sugar has disappeared. Their Gewurztraminer wines from the hillside of Linsenberg were exquisite, too. All the wines were extraordinary, but I had these two favorites. The latter tasting of lychee, my all-time favorite exotic fruit. My dad thought they added lychee flavoring, but no, it was the character of the wine itself. I don't think my dad is all too accustomed to wine tasting, but I didn't realize this until he said halfway through the tasting that he was done. He had nearly chugged all his wine, while I carefully sipped and dumped any remainder into the jug. The prices of the wines were excellent, half of what you'd expect to pay at a wine boutique in Paris, so we purchased around twenty bottles. We didn't have too much room in the back of our van with Leo, Leos' gear, the luggage, the stroller, our jackets, and travel food, so the purchase was a bit risky. After that, poor Leo had to dodge falling items whenever we took a corner. I was afraid he'd get hurt, but even when a heavy suitcase came towards him, he came out okay.

It was mid-afternoon when we headed towards the city of Colmar. Of course, we only wanted to visit the Old Town, so that's where we went. It was so romantic with its cobblestone, pedestrian-only streets. Tourists were everywhere. Several tour groups of white-haired travelers congregated around important markers, including a door with a plaque stating that Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, and, as I recall, poets and other notables, had frequented this residence, as there was a great admirer of the arts who hosted them there. The half-timbered houses were fantastically old and some almost lopsided, but they were all well-maintained. I think Alsace must have the highest consumption of house paint in all of France. Every town in Alsace, including the teeny-tiny ones, seemed to have a new coat of paint of either beige, pink, peach, pale yellow, or Crayola seagreen, on all the homes. After roaming around, we started walking back towards the car, and realized after a couple minutes of walking that we had lost Leo. A swarm of thoughts came into my head like, "why didn't John put him on a leash," or "I was stupid to think of taking him along -- now he's lost forever." While I was brooding, John quickly went off to find him. It didn't take him long to discover Leo, who had very intelligently stayed put when he realized he had completely lost us in the crowd. He was just sitting patiently, waiting for us to get him. What a dog.

We had been fortunate to avoid rain during our walk through the old town of Colmar, but it started sprinkling as we reached the car. John spotted a merry-go-round in one of the more modern city squares, and we took Maylin over for a ride. Afterwards, my parents made a beeline for the public restroom while the rest of us went to the car. It started pouring! Fortunately, my mom carried her trusty seven-euro umbrella which she had purchased at our neighborhood supermarket.

More driving in the rain. After much navigational difficulty, we finally found Eguisheim, who someone had raved about on an online forum hosted by Fodor's. It was cute, but cute like every other little village. We spotted some castles up on the hill, and we decided to check them out. My parents stayed in the car as John, Maylin, and I made the trek up a very muddy and rocky slope to see some ruined 11th and 12th century chateaus. The wind and drizzle and cold was brutal, but when we got to the top, the weather cleared for us. It was a great view from the top of this hill, but the three brick castles were in almost complete ruin. Maylin was very scared when we made her join us inside a very dark tower which was remarkably intact. She said, "no cave." (I guess she remembered the trip to the Lavabed Monument in way northern California with her Uncle Chris, summer of 2003. Lots of awesome caves there.) Leo could not be convinced to enter. He cried at the entrance. This would've been a good place to film a sequel to "The Blair Witch Project."

We went back to Colmar to eat dinner at one of the two Chinese restaurants that my parents had quickly spotted earlier that day, but we were unlucky. Most of the restaurants in Colmar were "complet" (full). John scurried around to find the Jules Restaurant, which, I would say, is not highly recommended. Although the standard Alsatian fare of choucroute (sausage, ham, potatoes, sauerkraut) was safe, the over-priced Asian fusion appetizers and fish dishes were a disappointment in this rather classy restaurant (better suited for dates than your parents or in-laws). I ordered "les filets de boeuf" (beef) with mashed potatoes and fresh basil. THAT was really good, but dinner was was ruined with the poor service. How could they forget to bring us our bottle of wine??? There must have been some misunderstanding because after a very long wait, our appetizers were served with our main course!!! Actually, the final waiter was great, but it was obvious that the host/server who seated us and took our order to begin with wanted to forget about us.

We got back to the hotel afterwards and collapsed.

Sunday, May 8

After a buffet breakfast at the hotel restaurant, we drove towards Strasbourg. On the way, we saw a cool castle on top of a mountain, guessed it was the Chateau de Haut-Koenigsburg, and immediately headed for it. We were right. This 12th-century chateau was burned in the Thirty Years War and abandoned for centuries after. Restoration begain in 1900, directed by architect Bodo Ebhardt. I just love his first name. He did a fantastic job. For the most part, it did look and feel medieval. My favorite room was the arms room where dozens of swords (some taller than me and hopefully heavier than me), crossbows, and spears/bayonets (unfortunately, they looked like they were used successfully) neatly displayed alongside armor. The view from the hill was awesome. It again started to drizzle as we were leaving, so we waited at the souvenir/snack shop for John to bring the car around. You won't believe how many cheap-looking stuffed stork toys were hanging around, waiting for a silly tourist to buy this Alsatian symbol. We ate some snacks in the car, foregoing the too well-advertised chateau restaurant for tourists, and went back on the trail for the Alsace. John and my parents walked around another charming village -- Ribeauville -- in the hopes of finding a restroom. They found one, but not to my mom's liking. I stayed in the car with Maylin, my sleeping princess.

How did Maylin manage during this driving- and walking-intensive trip, you say? Maylin is a kid who eats all day, so having snacks and fruit available at all times was our salvation. When we weren't eating in restaurants, she was munching on pretzels, peanuts, crackers, cereal, and fruit. I always had her little toys on hand, too. Don't leave home without 'em.

We arrived in Strasbourg, saw the grand Notre Dame Cathedral there (it might actually outdo the Paris one), walked a little bit, and had a pizza lunch in a brasserie-type place. The food was actually pretty good with my mom and John both getting the winning pizza of arugula, parma ham, and tomato, and the service was excellent. The waiter let us change Maylin's diaper in a booth seat on the unused second floor. We were too tired to do much exploring in Strasbourg, unfortunately, and we did have a three hour drive ahead of us to our hotel in Bastogne. Away we went. Of course, we encountered road construction and a major detour that would take us away from passing through Luxembourg. Bummer. We went around it and by luck, took the right exit to the hotel. We wouldn't have found the hotel if it wasn't for the huge neon sign at the top of a tall building in the town square. Its happy arrow pointed us in the right direction. We were happy to find big rooms with sofabeds and a mini-bar. The sofabed was great, but the screw-top wine that John got out of the mini-bar reeked. I think it was way past its prime. I don't know why he drank that. We had plenty of good wine in the car.

The Armitages slept rather well that night.

Monday, May 9

In the morning, we went to the Bastogne Memorial and Historical Center. We, for once, had some sun to ponder the unfathomable courage and sacrifice of around 80,000 men for our freedom after the Battle of the Bulge in this very region during WWII. After the moving visit, we went back to the town center for Chinese food, of course, which wasn't too bad. John sneaked Leo underneath the table. He didn't make a peep. Then, we were off to the town of La Roche for another Battle of the Bulge museum. We got a little lost and found ourselves crossing the border briefly into Luxembourg and back out again. At least we can say we were in Luxembourg. Eventually, we found La Roche, but were disappointed to find the museum closed and the cool-looking castle just closed. The only thing left to do was to go get some ice cream. At the bottom of the long ramp up to the castle, we encountered a group of over-the-hillers in purple capes and rather fake-looking medallions around their necks. They looked like they were going to have a serious seance at the castle. We were about to tell them that it was already closed, but we thought otherwise. They probably had special permission to enter. Who knows. Anyways, at the nearby snack shop, we waited a long time to be helped, but we finally got our soft-serve, just in time for the rain to start and ruin the meal of the large family that had ordered their food before us. John, who had gone to find a restroom and went to the car directly, fortunately read our minds and came by to pick us up. He found us eating our ice cream under the store awning, pondering the idea of walking back to the car in the heavy rain.

We had a long drive back to Paris, which included a potty-break at a McDonald's (not too common in France) which turned into "dinner." Maylin ate four chicken nuggets there, and three more in the car (because it takes a long time for her to eat her nuggets). I think McDonald's appeals to Maylin mainly because she gets to watch other kids as she eats.

Got back to Paris without a problem.

Tuesday, May 10

Yay! A sunny, beautiful day! A little crisp, but perfect for some hill-climbing in the area of Montmartre. I showed my parents the famous Moulin Rouge, Place du Tertre (very touristy, full of artists selling their portrayals of famous Parisian sights and portrait artists -- my mom made me sit for one, but the drawing of the girl, although nice and refined, didn't look like me at all, but could look like Maylin in ten years or so), Sacre Coeur, a huge white Catholic Church (which actually reminds me of the Taj Mahal) overlooking the city, the Bateau Lavoir, a former residence of famous turn-of-the-century writers and poets, including Picasso and Renoir, and the Moulin de la Galette, which inspired a famous painting by Renoir. We had a struggle finding a Chinese restaurant for my dad again, and had to settle for Italian. The proprietor was impressed by my French. I have to say that my fluency in speaking French dramatically improved after speaking for my parents during their stay at restaurants, hotels, stores, etc. I'm great at ordering food, but ask me to discuss French politics and I'm at a loss.

We had a little bit of time to visit the Opera House to take some pictures (it's such a grand area) and buy some cheap stuff. My mom bought a black quilted jacket for only 10 euros! She got me a silk scarf for 5 euros and Maylin an electric toy car and track with Parisian landmarks for 10 euros. We didn't have time to visit the Grands Magasins (big department stores) like Printemps and Galerie Lafayette because we had to rush back to pick up Maylin at school at 4:30 pm.

What happened afterward? I have no memory.

Wednesday, May 11

The previous night, I did a whole bunch of research so we could optimize our visit to Versailles. On Wednesday morning, armed with my information, snacks, and Maylin, we set off for Versailles, not as early as I would have liked. But it didn't matter. When we arrived at around 11 am, I was expecting huge lines near entrance A (the main entrance), but we were heading towards entrance C (for the smarter visiters, just kidding). When we got to the door, it was locked. I was completely bewildered. We walked further towards the garden entry gate and lined up like everybody else. I had no idea what was going on. I told my parents to stay in line as I inquired. I found out that the employees of the chateau were starting their strike that day and that we wouldn't be able to get inside the palace until 2 pm! What now? They let us into the garden for free! It was absolutely breathtaking with its beautiful statues, pools, perfectly manicured bushes and trees, and a seemingly endless canal. All this in perfect symmetry. We roamed for a bit and finally found the restroom after getting lost in a maze of hedges (France is notorious for not having enough signs posted or for having them posted in awkward places where you can't see them easily). We kept walking and saw the rowboats that you could take out onto the Grand Canal. I wanted to rent a boat so badly, but my parents could not be convinced. I know if we had John with us, I would've had a better chance. Instead, we went on to have lunch at La Flotille Restaurant -- a rather mediocre meal, but at least we were eating outside under the glorious sun and the waiters were very good-looking.

The gardens of Versailles are huge -- several kilometers long, so instead of walking, we let the Petit Train take us around to the Queen's Hamlet, where Marie Antoinette was rumored to fulfill her fantasy of being a milkmaid (more informed historians say this rumor began from her love of playing the shepherdess instead of the queen in the court theatrical productions -- she did not like the idea of milking cows), the Petit Trianon, which became a women's only retreat for Queen Marie, and the Grand Trianon, where the king could escape from the rest of the court. The train took us back up to the chateau, just in time for the visit of the state apartments. We walked through a small picket line, read a sheet about why the employees were striking, went through security, and bought our tickets. Guess what? No line. As I walked through the castle, I realized firsthand why the strike had to happen. This wasn't the glorious place I had imagined. From a distance, it was impressive, but upon closer inspection, I only experienced disappointment. The once marble walls were faux, some walls were obviously in need of refinishing and repainting, most of the famous Hall of Mirrors was hidden because it was undergoing restoration, the Hall of Battles was closed (and has been closed for a very long time)...at least I found joy in imagining what it must have been like for Marie Antoinette, husband Louis XVI, and the children to live here. We walked through her bedroom and saw the door through which she escaped an assasination attempt. Scary times.

The chateau's exterior is very striking, very grand. When we first came upon it, I was blown away. It's still the grandest palace in France, the one which everyone else tried to imitate.

We got back home without a problem and had time to rest before we went out to dinner. My parents, of course, had a hankering for Chinese food again and we decided to brave the neighborhood Chinese restaurant. I was surprised to find that it was actually a decent place, but that after 8 years being there, it was going to change hands in a month and most likely turn into a Japanese restaurant. I hope it'll be good.

Thursday, May 12

My parents' final day in Paris. We slept in so had a late start, but found yet another Chinese retaurant about 10-15 minutes away from my place by foot. And it was really good! And really affordable! That's going to be where I go for Chinese food from now on when I don't feel like cooking it myself. No need to go all the way to Chinatown. We got there right when they opened at noon, and it was packed in about half an hour. 12 euros got me an appetizer of four Vietnamese egg rolls (yummy), a main course of filet of sole with ginger and chives, steamed rice, and fruit salad for dessert. That's a steal in Paris.

With our happy tummies, we took off for Notre Dame. We got off the metro a little early so we could walk along the Seine and see the flower market. Notre Dame was beautiful, but we couldn't help thinking that the Notre Dame in Strasbourg may have been quite a bit more glamorous. After my miscalculation, we walked for a very, very long time towards the Musee Rodin and had to take a taxi for the last little bit because my dad's feet were in pain. Sorry, Daddy. We just had enough time to see the gardens at the museum (which I think is the best part anyways), which have the larger and more famous bronze sculptures, like the Thinker, Balzac, the Three Shades, the Gates of Hell, and the Burghers of Calais. We rushed back on the metro so we could pick up Maylin from school at a reasonable time.

We got some groceries, and then Grandma and Grandpa had a good play session with Maylin as we waited for John to come home. Again, we headed out to another Chinese restaurant, a 20-minute walk away. It wasn't bad, but I think I prefer the other place. Maylin performed a drum solo with her chopsticks, and went over to rub the belly of the Buddha statue several times (for good luck) after Grandpa's prompting.

When we got home, I could barely hold my head up -- I was so tired! G and G hung out with us for a little bit and then we said our goodbyes. I'll miss them so much. They made these past two weeks so enjoyable! It was a joy to be a tour guide for them. I'd be happy to do it again.

Am I stupid or something?

Another thing about the dynamic, vibrant city of London. It does a good job of being condescending with its signage, in general, and other public announcements. With the PA announcements in the tube, you will often hear things repeated that are so blatantly obvious, like "mind the gap." I don't know how many times I heard that. Of course, when you step off the train you're going to look down before you make that step onto the platform. We don't seem to need this reminder in France. The gaps are much wider on the RER trains in and out of Paris, and there's no sign or announcement about that. You just look and consciously decide not to fall down into the gap.

In the tube stations, you might come down one of the neverending escalators, seeming to descend into Hades, and find yourself welcomed by a huge sign in capital letters, FEMALE TOILETS. Oh, I see. That's my next destination. There seems to be a fascination with signs in all caps. Upon entering our hotel, we were greeted by large glass doors with two large red signs that said PULL. And of course, most of the people pushed the doors instead.

I do have to say that there were some useful notes, like LOOK TO YOUR RIGHT or LOOK TO YOUR LEFT on the road off the curb at each crosswalk. Jaywalking is commonplace in Europe, but if you're not accustomed to the cars being on the wrong, I mean, left side of the road, you could become a pancake.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

London Bridge isn't falling down anymore

Cheerio! I'm feeling a bit better today, though I'm still congested and have a sore throat. I also have a minor sinus headache and not too much energy, but the sun is shining, and I feel happy! My parents are coming to visit tomorrow and we're so looking forward to it!

After carefully picking a weekend to avoid any bad weather, I somehow chose probably the wettest weekend in April to visit London. We took advantage of our only sunny day to take an open top bus tour. I felt very regal riding on the top of the double decker bus, practiced my royal wave and everything. In a few hours, we saw most of the highlights of London, including Tower Bridge (this beautiful bridge is often mistaken for London Bridge, which is rather unattractive in all its concrete and has had many incarnations) and Big Ben (another misconception: Big Ben is actually the name given to the bell inside the clock tower, not the tower itself).

We got a free river cruise tossed in the package, which was probably the most exciting thing about the trip. Maylin loved it, along with the lollipop that kept her in her seat. We saw all the beautiful, ugly, and odd buildings of London along the River Thames. My favorite sight, by far, was the very romantic Tower Bridge which seemed to come right out of a fairytale. The recorded commentary pointed out the new Tate Modern museum, a former factory building, as a very ugly sight indeed. A later visit to this building proved the commentary right. I was surprised to find that half of the building wasn't even utilized -- there was a 2-3 story open, industrial-looking space, surrounded by I-beam-laden walls, with nothing remarkable about it. I'm sure the artwork inside would've redeemed the building, but Maylin wasn't up to it so we had to leave.

From the boat, we could clearly see the London Eye, a huge, ferris-wheel like contraption with 32 glass pods that each hold 25 people captive for half an hour so that they can see London from great heights. I probably missed an awesome view, but I'm sure I didn't miss the claustrophobia or any horrible body odor encounters. When John, Maylin, and I went up to the top of the Eiffel Tower last year, I was uncomfortably trapped underneath someone's unappealing, odoriferous armpit for the duration of the elevator ride.

The Houses of Parliament are quite a work of neo-Gothic art. They will never cease to amaze me. Nearby is Westminster Abbey where numerous luminaries are buried or memorialized. I was excited to find a memorial to George Frederic Handel, a well-known Baroque composer, and a tile on the floor devoted to Clementi, a Classical composer of piano music. Unfortunately, we didn't make it inside St. Paul's Cathedral because I wanted to wait until the weather cleared and Maylin was awake from her nap. But once we got there, it was closed to tourists! 4 pm on a Tuesday. Who knew.

We met with a former colleague of John's and his family at Hyde Park, the "Central Park" of London. Their three and a half year-old daughter and Maylin had a blast at the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground. Those in charge of collecting donations for Princess Di's memorial felt that Diana would appreciate a memorial that could be utilized by many instead of a monument to her memory. And what a magnificent playground. The grandest I've ever seen. There was a cafe/restaurant that served lots of yummy things, a restroom with kid-sized facilities, many swings, several raised log cabins accessible by little ladders, a stationary wooden car, wooden boats, a gigantic pirate ship for kids to climb all over, a soft, sandy "beach," and a large water fountain area for kids to climb around (not activated when we were there). Maylin spent most of her time in the sand, then climbed the cabins, waited unsuccessfully for a seat in the wooden car, sang "Row, Row Your Boat" with Mommy in one of the boats, and was "queen" of the hill for quite some time as she monopolized this huge rock in the middle of the fountain area. There was a carved out area on one side of the rock which Maylin stayed happily in, her position preventing other kids from climbing the rock easily. Eventually, all the kids left the rock and Maylin looked quite happy!

The Prince Albert Memorial on one side of Hyde Park was the most colorful monument I'd ever seen. I imagine the buildings in Ancient Greece were just as colorfully embellished. Albert Hall, across the street from the memorial, is a beautiful rotunda used for musical performances. I'll make it a point to attend a concert there next time I visit.

We stayed at a "hotel" in Picadilly Circus, the densest, most touristy part of London. It was an exciting area, but incredibly noisy, so we didn't sleep well the entire trip. The first night we were there, it looked like half of a high school was partying there after school. One of the parties was right across from our room, so that was the worst night for us. The other nights, we enjoyed the incessant ringing of an alarm in a nearby building, which I think brought about a fire truck one time, but the alarm did not stop after its visit. We had to wait until 8 am. I don't consider it a real hotel because I think most rooms shared bathrooms at the ends of the hallways. We had our own bathroom, fortunately, but the room was, in fact, just kind of gross. We had paint peeling off the ceiling and falling onto our clothes in large flakes, a nasty, stained carpet, and a nasty, stained roll-away bed. The linens were clean, though. And no rats in sight. This place was actually recommended by one of John's colleagues -- a friend? I'll never know.

We enjoyed a couple great dinners in London that probably each cost a small fortune. Eating in nice restaurants is actually more affordable in Paris. My cousin, Tim, who lives in London took us to a great Chinese restaurant -- we hadn't had good Chinese food in a long while, as it's difficult to come by in Paris. We also went to a wonderful Italian restaurant with a very good friend of mine from high school and her husband. Despite the abundance of tasty fish and pasta, Maylin rejected it all for the long, thin packaged breadsticks.

Here's a Maylin update:

Maylin is very polite now. She has been saying "thank you" and "you're welcome," but now she also says "excuse me" after she burps!

Today, she dirtied her hands on the window ledge and took herself to the bathroom to wash her hands. I was at the computer and John was reading on the couch when we thought we heard water being splashed onto the floor. I went to investigate, and it looked like our hunch was right. Maylin had turned on the water full blast and put her hand right underneath the stream, causing water to jump out onto the floor. I cleaned up the mess and compromised with her. I filled the sink with a little water and soap to play in, but no more splashing! I checked in later after Maylin happily said, "bubbles!" and found the sink about to overflow with water and soap bubbles. Oh, the joys of toddlerhood.

She's really good at pushing chairs around the apartment so she can get things down from the shelves and counters, whether it be movies, toys, or bananas. Maylin can quickly maneuver around her small purple IKEA chairs, but she's also managed to haul around our large dining chairs, too. She's strong!

Last night, I was talking to a friend on the phone, when I heard some strange sounds on the line. Eventually, I heard a little Maylin voice blabbing on the other side. She had taken the other phone, pressed the "talk" button, and proceeded to talk, oblivious to the fact that I was on the phone and talking, too! She did it twice. It was so funny.

When I was a kid, I loved scary things. Maylin is the same way. She loves ghosts and monsters -- like those on Scooby-Do (we get it in English here). She likes to pretend she's scared, too. We pretend to be scared of Leo when he comes into her room in the morning. We hide under the covers and hold each other tight, saying "oh no." If we're watching a movie and I try to shield her eyes from a particularly dark moment, she gets really mad and starts screaming. Does she really want to have nightmares?

We have to get ready for a visit from Grandma and Grandpa tomorrow! Yay!