Memorial Day in Normandy (Day 5)


At 5:30 AM the alarm went off, we checked out of our Paris hotel, and we kicked the vacation into overdrive. We were headed for Normandy to stay for one night only in the Chateau de Pont-Rilly. In hindsight, we did this part all wrong. We should have left Paris Sunday afternoon and headed for Normandy then, allowing two nights to really enjoy the beautiful chateau.

But we didn’t. C’est la vie! That’s right, I said it. Anyway, Memorial Day was an adventure from the jump. We took the metro to the SNCF train station and hopped a train that was a 2-hour ride direct to Caen. In Caen, we rented a car from Avis (sorry Shawn). This was not a fun experience. The staff were perfectly courteous and pleasant, so I can’t complain about them, but the car was a long walk from the actual rental agency, difficult to find, not easy to operate, and it was so old that it started with an error code right out of the gate. Also, when we arrived, a couple from Canada were inside the office blustering about getting a flat after being given a car with an error code in Paris, so I was terrified that we were going to break down/blow a tire/run over a goat and land in a ditch in the middle of nowhere in the French countryside.

Damian, not so much. He was looking forward to driving stick around a new place, and I think he was envisioning adventure while I was envisioning all four wheels flying off. Regardless, we broke out my Uncle Bruce’s GPS, entered the coordinates for Arromanches, and lit off into the French countryside. And by “lit off” I mean puttered onto the highway, because this car had barely more horsepower than a mule.

Our plan was to visit the Normandy sites memorializing the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II. What better way to honor the brave men and women who served our country, and who continue to serve, than by paying tribute to key battlegrounds on Memorial Day? A lot of other Americans had the same idea. Before I continue, here is a very brief (don’t yell at me, history buffs – I’m going barebones here) snapshot of the history courtesy of our guide book. This is a countdown to D-Day, when the Allied Forces launched Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944.

1939 – September 1st. Hitler and his fascist followers invade The Free City of Danzig, starting WWII.

1940 – Germany’s Blitzkrieg overtakes France, dividing the country in half. Nearly the whole continent is suddenly fascist.

1941 – Japan (ally to Germany) bombs the US naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7; the US enters enters the war, joining the Allied forces.

1942 – German and Japanese forces are weakened by 3 key battles at Stalingrad, El-Alamein, and Guadalcanal.

1943 – George Patton and Bernard Montgomery command nearly 150,000 American & British troops who land in Sicily and work their way north through Italy.

1944 – June 6. D-Day. Allied Forces launch Operation Overlord. On June 5, 150,000 troops board ships and planes. They do not know their destination, as it is top secret, until they are underway. At 6:30 AM on June 6, Americans spill from troop transports into the cold, rough sea waters of code-named Omaha Beach amid bad weather and following a failed prep bombing. Despite extremely heavy casualties from the German defenders, by day’s end the Allies have taken several beaches along the Normandy coastline. It is a victory, but one with a very heavy price.

1945 – The British and American troops finally cross the Rhine in the spring while the Soviets take Berlin. Hitler shoots himself, and Europe is free following 6 years of war.

We began our exploration of the historical sites in Normandy by visiting the cliffs and gun batteries near Arromanches. The massive guns that still sit high up on the hillsides were terrifying to behold. They’re old and rusted now, but the thought of the level of destruction wrought by these beasts was really disturbing. I stood close to one and wondered what it would have felt like if the giant gun was trained at me. It blows my mind that our troops faced down those monsters and won.

Wildflowers grow around them now, and the greenery is lush. The juxtaposition of such beauty and such horror was disconcerting.

We moved on to the American Cemetery. It was closed to walk-ons, but we could see the never-ending fields of white gravestones. Hearing the numbers of casualties was mind-blowing, but seeing the gravestones stretching on endlessly really drove the point home. Omaha Beach was close by, and we walked down the side of the cliff along a steep path to reach the beach itself. There were no sunbathers, no boardwalk, no typical beach revelers. This is a historic site, and instead we met travelers like us with thoughts turned to the invasion and the men who lost their lives.

We took a break from our reverie to find lunch at a local restaurant called La Trinquette. We decided to make this our big meal of the day, hoping to relax and enjoy the chateau later rather than heading back out for a big dinner. Le menu offered fish soup for me, salad for Damian, followed by the catch of the day, which was a buttery fresh fish served in a beurre blanc with vegetables. For dessert, Damian enjoyed a creme brulee with coffee, I enjoyed a plate of fromage and coffee. It was a nice respite.

Afterward we headed for La Pointe du Hoc. Here we experienced the German bunkers, built of solid concrete and surrounded by barbed wire, dark and foreboding and sunk underground for defense. We explored them, and frankly, they gave me the creeps. Everywhere we looked we saw massive indentations in the ground where bombs had exploded. To remind us of the importance of this site, the holes have not been repaired, although grass and small bushes do grow in them now. Some were large enough that, if you stood in the middle, you would find the hole taller than you.

Plaques with information about the battleground were everywhere. We read them all. I learned much, including the fact that our troops used rocket-launched ropes to scale the cliffs. When I first saw the cliffs, I wondered how they managed to scale them. The Germans never expected an invasion on this front, because they felt the cliffs were steep enough to be impregnable. They certainly appeared to be. But the rocket-launched ropes allowed the invaders to climb.

A staggering 50,000 American troops were killed in this offensive.

After Pointe du Hoc, we made our way to Sainte-Mère-Église. Many paratroopers landed here – one American paratrooper landed and dangled from the town’s church steeple for more than two hours. There is a replica of this paratrooper hanging from the steeple today. We visited this 700-year-old medieval church. Inside we discovered two modern stained-glass windows which were made in remembrance of the war.

Exhausted from the travel and the emotionally-draining experiences of the day, we found a little market where we bought fruit and cheese, then we found a bakery to buy bread and sweets, and we struck out to find the Chateau de Pont-Rilly and stay put for the night.

Getting to the chateau proved to be a challenge. The GPS took us down several dirt roads, and I was certain we were going to blow a tire in the middle of the woods. Finally, we drove past the back entrance to the chateau. We turned around, and I held my breath as we made our way back down all those dirt roads in search of the front entrance. We finally found it, and the drive up to the chateau was spectacular. The place is enormous, with rich history, and the owners have 10 male peacocks (who strutted their stuff for us) and a black swan as well as various other animals.

We met the owners, and the lady led us to our room. This room was the most gorgeous historical bedroom we’ve ever stayed in. 12-foot ceilings, marble fireplace, beautiful high windows overlooking the lush landscape, not to mention the biggest bathroom I’d ever seen. When I saw it, I vowed to take a relaxing soak in the massive tub.

The owner was nice enough to offer us some plates and wine glasses to borrow, and we sat at the room’s table near the windows to enjoy some red Côtes du Rhône wine we’d brought from Paris along with our fruit, cheese and bread. I’m glad we stayed in – it gave us a little time to enjoy the spectacular chateau.

Because the next day we were up before the rest of the house. We skipped the breakfast (sigh) and scarfed down some protein bars on our way to the high-speed train and our next stop: Provence….


Mass in Notre Dame, Anyone? (Day 4)


When we planned our trip to France/Switzerland, we intended to incorporate lots of time for relaxing, soaking in the culture, and taking in the scenery – put simply, time to stop and smell the roses. But then we went crazy and decided to do everything we could in “OMG, what if we’re never here again and this is our ONLY chance to do x, y, z?!” fashion.

Except for Sunday morning in Paris. On our fourth day, May 25th, we literally strolled around the streets and, when there were chairs, we sat in them. The rest of the time we acted like chairs were radioactive bombs to be avoided at all costs, but not that morning.

We started our day in a different breakfast cafe, and this meal would offer our only real brush with anti-Americanism (or perhaps just anti-foreigner mentality – it’s hard to say). We sat at a table and the server approached. When Damian began with a smile and, “Bonjour Monsieur. Parles vous anglais?” he fired back with “Parles vous francais?” in a tone which unmistakably said, “You’re in my country, jerk – speak my language.”

So I tried. I’d read the menu, I know how to count to 10 and order coffee, so I said, “Deux le continental, un café au lait, un café allonge, s’il vous plait.” There was a lot of pointing involved in this exercise, and I can’t imagine how bad the grammar was in all of that (because I’m an anglophone!), but it worked and we got what we wanted. He also brought us a basket of pain (bread), but we didn’t want it, and when he arched and eyebrow and inquired “Pain?” and I said, “No,” he literally took the basket off of our table and put it on the table next to ours! Cracked us up.

After that, we strolled. When we first visited the Louvre, we didn’t stop to appreciate the gardens. We had time to remedy that mistake Sunday morning, so we wandered around, looking at the gorgeous predominantly lavender and violet flowers, snapping pictures and enjoying the cool but (for once) clear weather. When we found some chairs overlooking the gardens, we bought some coffee and sat down to savor it while taking in the beauty around us. We also bought some artwork from a street vendor (yay! paintings done by a French local!), and we visited the famous lock bridge. We did not buy a lock to add, though.

The fancy meal we planned for the day was lunch at L’Atelier Joël Robuchon. Joël Robuchon also has a pricey place in Las Vegas, Joël Robuchon Restaurant in the MGM Grand, which we’d heard of but never visited. So we thought, why not experience the French chef’s haute cuisine in Paris? We arrived at 2:00 PM for our reservation.

The restaurant is located just off the Champs Elysees, but to get to it, you have to enter through a drug store. Very odd. We walked past convenience store items to the back of the store, where a set of beautiful dark steps suddenly appeared as if by magic to lead us down into the mysterious underground space. The hostess materialized as we hit the ground floor, and she led us to our space at the counter (you can see the counter where we sat if you click on the first restaurant link above). For the 2:00 PM seating, we were (once again) the first dorks to arrive. (sigh)

Le menu at Joël Robuchon included three courses, and we chose the wine pairing option. From our vantage point at the counter, we could see the food preparation. I had the clearest view of the guy whose job it is to plate the food (just like in Spring) and the saucier, the person in charge of making the sauces. Interestingly, I noticed that most of the sauces were put into white squeeze bottles, making it simpler for the plater to create the fancy sauce designs on each dish.

We began the meal by asking the waiter to surprise us. He seemed a little nervous about this idea, not knowing us and our adventurous tastes, but we assured him that we would eat anything he put in front of us and love it, so he nodded assent, poured us a crisp savignon blanc, and set about to make the magic happen.

First, we were served a shot glass filled with fois gras and parmesan cream. When we lifted it as if to drink it, we were instructed to eat it with a spoon. It was rich and velvety – a combination of flavors I wouldn’t have thought to put together. Probably why I’m not the wealthy Paris chef, but that’s just a guess.

The second items (technically the first course) were a cold seafood salad, shaped and perfectly garnished, or an egg artistically nestled in an edible nest of some sort of fine crispy beige fronds. Both were beautiful as well as delectable. Course two offered perfectly grilled beef with marsala sauce with bright-colored peas and carrots, or buttery sea bass over chopped herbs. We enjoyed these dishes with a deep red burgundy wine. To end the meal, what could be better than a plate of fromage? A selection of bleu, brie, and goat cheeses arrived arranged perfectly to be enjoyed with a final glass of crisp white wine.

Nap time!

Following our afternoon food coma, we decided to spend our last evening in Paris visiting Notre Dame again. Before I talk about that, however, I realized that I forgot to mention our visit to another beautiful Paris Cathedral, Sainte Chapelle. We toured this cathedral after Notre Dame, and the stained glass depicting stories from the bible was jaw-dropping. Anyway, on that last night in Paris, I felt the need to visit Notre Dame one last time.

We arrived to find Sunday evening mass had begun, so we walked in and found seats near the back to appreciate the service. The cathedral was lit for the evening, with chandeliers and candles everywhere. The ambiance was otherworldly. Although the service was all in French and Latin, I felt familiar enough with mass to understand some of what was going on. “Peace be with you, and also with you,” receiving the host, etc. The pipe organ and the singing were absolutely gorgeous, and just the feeling of “this is mass in Notre Dame!” made the crush of the crowds worth it.

A couple of rows in front of us sat an interesting fellow. He appeared to be a homeless Frenchman. This man took it upon himself to police the tourists. He ushered people to different seats. He firmly told them “no” when they tried to take video or pictures. If anyone spoke out of turn, he shot them the evil eye. The man clearly had no official affiliation with the church, but he successfully cowed everyone around us into being the respectful church-goers we ought to have been from the beginning. I agreed with him in that sense – it’s a religious service; show some respect for God and the people around you. Still, he had no real authority, except in his mind. I suppose man needs purpose, and this was his purpose. We nicknamed him “The Enforcer.” I wonder if he’s there every Sunday evening?

We didn’t need much dinner after our enormous lunch, so we found a crepe stand and bought a Nutella/strawberry/banana crepe with whipped cream and ate it on a picnic blanket under the Eiffel Tower. Observing the crepe preparation was entertaining. We watched a man expertly ladle a precise amount of batter on three flat round crepe cookers. He flipped them, then spread on the Nutella, sliced the banana, added strawberries and whipped cream, and handed it over – fresh and fragrant. Yummy.

We crashed hard, as always, and woke the next day for our trek to Normandy on Memorial Day….

Versailles! (Day 3)


We woke on Saturday, May 24th in Paris, but we spent most of the day in beautiful Versailles. We’d purchased the train tickets to Versailles the night before, so we only needed to catch the metro and the SNCF trains to get there. Our regular breakfast cafe was closed, so we went across the street to a similar cafe and had bleu fromage quiche and coffee.

After breakfast, we walked to the metro station, where we discovered that the usual metro line to Versailles was closed for some reason (explained clearly in French). We looked around for a person at a ticket counter to help us. Guess who was on strike again that day? I’ll give you a hint: not the Germans. Determined to find our way to Versailles, we looked at the train map to try and find an alternate route. At this point we met a couple from Minnesota and a French couple who were all also trying to get to Versailles, and between the six of us, we found another route.

With the other couples, we took a metro train to the SNCF station, and, after some confusion, we realized that the SNCF train we wanted for Versailles was leaving in just three minutes. The race was on! We played a game of follow-the-French-guy and literally ran through the train station, weaving in between other patrons, and managed to hop on the last car of the train moments before the doors shut and it took off. Whew!

Damian and I were both on board, luckily, before the doors closed. Had we been separated, that could have been dicey – I didn’t have a phone with me. We’d actually witnessed a similar situation earlier that morning. A single girl got separated from her group as the first few girls hopped on the metro and watched in horror as the doors closed on their friend. Panic attack, anyone? That girl wasn’t dumb enough to be running around France without a phone, though, so I’m sure they found her.

We were on our way to visit the Chateau de Versailles, home to King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette! Since our original train was not available, we weren’t sure exactly how far away from the chateau we would land. Would we be able to walk? Would we need to find a bus? Our guide book said the walk was 25 minutes from the train station. It wasn’t. It was only 15 minutes, and it was a lovely walk through a part of Versailles that we would have otherwise missed. We arrived at the chateau, and it was breathtaking to view the enormity of the place as we approached.

The museum passes allowed us to bypass the long ticket lines again (woo hoo!), but we still had to wait in a long line to pass through security. The sheer volume of people visiting the chateau was crushing and fairly overwhelming, but we skipped the audio-tour line and opted to just walk through the palace on our own. On our first pass through, we familiarized ourselves with the rooms. We would later walk through again (after touring the palace gardens) – the second pass allowed us to stop and take in the details of the rooms we liked.

The size and opulence of the chateau were mesmerizing. Impossibly high ceilings, gold carvings, master paintings, marble fireplaces holding logs that were the size of half a tree, beds with canopies stretching to the ceilings, ornate furniture, precious rugs, a hall  of mirrors nearly the size of a football field, and, as if all of that intricacy wasn’t enough, most of the ceilings were completely painted in heavenly works of art. I could have spent a full day in each room and never been able to appreciate all the details.

The bedrooms were particularly fascinating and beautiful. On the first pass, King Louis XIV’s room was open to the sunlight streaming in from enormous windows. On the second pass, the floor-to-ceiling heavy red drapes had been closed to mimic nighttime, and chandeliers and candles were lit to give the room a soft glow. The queen, Marie Antoinette, had her own separate room, decorated in a much more floral and feminine manor than the king’s. We were amused by the room located directly off the king’s room, the purpose of which was to hold ladies who might join him in the boudoir. Apparently this chamber was designed to hold up to six ladies at one time. I guess King Louis XIV was a busy guy.

We strolled through the massive gardens next. Much like the chateau, the gardens were absolutely enormous. Greenery as far as the eye could see, topiary, ponds, and little theaters-in-the-round built specifically to allow painters to work in an outdoor setting. It was raining a bit, so we found a little snack shack hidden among some trees (probably done to avoid ruining the beauty/experience of the gardens) where we bought salads, a dark chocolate crepe, and coffees. We enjoyed this at a little outdoor table covered from the rain by a canopy of trees. It was a fun little adventure.

Afterward, we found our way back to Paris, changed clothes, and headed out for our next fancy dinner at a tiny gem of a place called Mariette. I wore black pants this time, but I wore my ballroom-dancing heels again, since they’d served me so well the night before.

We were the first to arrive, right on time for our reservation. Several other couples arrived later in the evening, exclaiming, “We’re very late – so sorry!” Punctuality in France is not necessarily a good thing. But! Since we arrived early, we were able to choose our table, and we chose the most private table, near the stairs. Restaurant Mariette is run by a husband/wife team. He is the chef and does all the cooking. She is the hostess and the only server. She takes the orders to her husband, and then he sends the food upstairs via dumbwaiter.

I liked her immediately. She was very welcoming and friendly, and she poured us full glasses of champagne to start our evening. In France, we learned that the coffee cups are small and never full, and the wine glasses are not filled more than a quarter of the way. So we were pleasantly surprised to receive a full glass of champagne. We toasted to our anniversary, ordered a bottle of Côtes du Rhône red for the meal, and perused the menu.

The pace of the meal was wonderfully slow and enjoyable, allowing us to savor every bite. We both started with fois gras wrapped in impossibly-thin slices of sweet potato in an orange sauce. The combination of sweetness and richness was perfection, and it was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. For the main course, Damian had prime rib, and I had a buttery turbo served over a bed of asparagus. For dessert, we savored apple crumble and strawberries & cream. Cognac to finish. The dinner took three hours, and it was fabulous.

We strolled out, content and ready to turn in for the evening, to find that darkness had fallen and the Eiffel Tower was lit! It’s only lit with the flashing lights for five minutes per hour, so we literally ran down the Paris streets to get a photo of it through the trees. Damian managed to snap the shot moments before the lights turned off. And I managed to run in my heels. I’m telling you – ballroom dance shoes. That’s where it’s at.

We crashed after a full and wonderful day. The next morning we would spend time slowing our pace and enjoying the Louvre gardens…

Vive La France! (Day 2)


On Friday morning, May 23rd, we woke up in Paris. Let me just say that again: we woke up in Paris. Pinch me! This can’t be real. It was 7:50 AM, and though our bodies thought it was the middle of the night, we couldn’t wait to go explore the city and visit the Louvre Museum.

First stop – breakfast. We chose a cafe on our hotel’s side street, mostly because it was close and open. Inside it looked like a standard cafe – black tables and chairs, food and coffee on display, large windows to allow the sunshine in and patrons to view the streets of Paris. It was nice. We approached the lady at the counter and began with “Bonjour Madame!” Even though I’m pretty sure our attire screamed “We’re American tourists!” she spoke to us in French, and we made an attempt to muddle through with her. Muddling involved a lot of pointing and butchering of the French language (sorry Mom), but we ended up with a café au lait, a café allongé (espresso with added water), a gaufe (think waffle, no syrup), a salade nicoise, and 2 bottles of water. Success!

We strolled the Champs Elysees in the opposite direction of the previous day, away from the Arc de Triomphe and toward the Louvre Museum. We’d purchased a museum pass the day before in a convenience store, so we did not have to wait in the ticket lines. I’d like to take a moment to thank my brilliant husband for finding out about this pass beforehand, because it saved us many hours of precious time that otherwise would have been burned waiting in long ticket lines. Thank you, brilliant husband.

When we got to the Louvre, it was about 9:15, and that is apparently THE TIME to go, because there were very few people. By the time we left, the tour buses packed with people coming from outside Paris had arrived to storm the place, so it was packed. But when we first arrived, it was fairly quiet. Which was nice – always easier to enjoy art when you aren’t trying to elbow your way through a crowd. Anxious to get into the museum proper, we did not stop to enjoy the gardens.

You may be shocked to hear that we saw the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. Who knew those two pieces of art were in the Louvre? The funny part is, even though there were signs pointing toward the Mona Lisa everywhere, the Louvre is so ginormous that we got lost trying to find her and Venus. Yes we did. But! Getting lost turned out to be a good thing, because we discovered some art in the quieter areas of the museum that we both really enjoyed. Giovanni Paolo Pannini (I will not make a sandwich joke), Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Four Seasons, and Napoleon’s Coronation by David were wonderful. The painting by David was wonderful enough to inspire my husband to buy a 1,000 piece puzzle of it. You too can bring a piece of the Louvre home for 20 euros!

We found the crowds when we finally found the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. Mona was underwhelming in size, and there were barriers to keep the crowds from getting anywhere near her. Venus was also roped off. But we came, we saw, and we took a selfie.

Next stop, the Musée d’Orsay. Once again, we bypassed the long ticket lines, flashed our museum passes, went through security, and visited with Monet, Manet, Degas, and Renoir. This museum was decidedly less mobbed, so I felt comfortable spending a little more time standing in front of the paintings that struck me. Damian enjoys the French impressionist painters, so he appreciated this museum as well.

We sought out a street cafe/brasserie for lunch, off the beaten path, and sat at a cute little table outside, right on the sidewalk, watching the people go by. We shared a fromage plate – our first experience with fine French cheese! – and a sandwich while listening to the people around us laugh and fire rapid-French phrases at one another. That was fun, but just a bit disconcerting, because we figured everyone around us could likely understand us, even though we couldn’t understand them. I refrained from saying things like, “Egads! Look at that lady’s horrible shoes!” though, and the other tables pretty much ignored us.

After lunch we visited the Notre Dame Cathedral. Though it was packed with people, it was spectacular. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of walking into a building that old, with ceilings so impossibly high, filled with detailed carvings and stained glass, knowing it was all made by humans without the benefit of modern machinery. I loved the place so much that we came back again another day.

Afterward, we wandered the streets for a bit, snapping pictures and enjoying the scenery, made our way back to the hotel, cleaned up, and headed out for the event of the evening: dinner at Spring. I brought a dress and a pair of high-heeled ballroom dance shoes for the occasion. The dance shoes, I figured, are built to withstand major impact, so I thought I’d be able to walk around Paris without killing my feet in such shoes. We did metro over, but there was still a lot of walking involved. You’ll be happy to know that, because of those shoes, I did not die.

Our reservation was for 7:30. Since 8:00 – 8:30 is really when most people begin their evening meal in Paris, we were worried we’d be the only dorks there. We weren’t. Other dorks had arrived before us, most likely at 7:00. Spring is a small restaurant, and they appear to do a seating at 7:00/7:30 and another at 9:00/9:30. The reason being that everyone in the restaurant is served the same meal, so they do two rounds. The entire dinner is a chef’s tasting/wine pairing event with no menu. You just walk in, sit down, and prepare to eat whatever the chef decides to throw at you.

Being adventurous eaters, and not being able to read French menus, we were excited about this concept. And the chef did not disappoint.

The first course was a creamy cold pea soup, frogs legs (served fried, tasted a bit like rich dark meat turkey), finely sliced cucumbers in a tangy dressing, and champagne. Delicious. The second course was white and green asparagus with ahi tuna and smoked butter served with a Pouilly Fuissé white wine – mouth-watering and perfectly paired by the friendly sommelier. The third course featured red snapper with the skin on in a light crispy fashion, served with Swiss chard, caramelized onions and a frothy wine/stock reduction and paired with a Côtes du Rhône crispy chardonnay. The fourth course was tender lamb with roasted carrots, shitake mushrooms and a marsala wine glaze, served with a deep red wine (I don’t recall the specifics of this wine – can’t imagine why).

Finally, as we were about to start waving our white flag of surrender, dessert arrived. I learned that, while I don’t tolerate sugar well in general, I was able to eat desserts in France with little trouble. Nothing we had was particularly sweet, which was perfect for my palate. Dessert consisted of four tiny little dishes: a lemon meringue, a lemon sorbet, a raspberry cheesecake, and a blackberry mousse, all paired with a light dessert wine. It was one of the best meals of our lives, and I’m glad to be able to say that, because it was nearly $450.00, making it THE most expensive meal of our lives.

Another interesting tidbit about this meal: I could see the kitchen from our table, so I was able to watch the wild food preparation while we ate. Closest to me was the guy whose sole purpose was to plate the food in an artistic manner. This guy had a look of intense concentration on his face as he chose various items and garnishes to place on all of the dishes in front of him. A coin-thin piece of toast here, a swirled squirt of sauce there – it was entertaining as well as delectable.

We stumbled home afterward and slept our way to our next day, a visit to Versailles…..


10 Days in France/Switzerland, Day 1



To celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, Damian and I visited France and Switzerland. There aren’t adequate adjectives in English to describe how incredible this trip was. Maybe in French, but not in English. Alas, je ne parles pas francais (save a few key phrases), so I’m going to muddle through in English and try to do justice to our experiences. (Note: no we did not take the kids. They were in the capable hands of their wonderful grandparents, whom we are eternally grateful for.) I’m going to talk about the trip one day at a time.

We flew from BWI to Charlotte, NC and then over the pond to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris on Wednesday, May 21st. It was a red eye, so we landed in Paris at around 7 AM on Thursday, 5/22. We found our bags without much ado, which was fortunate because we were pretty delirious from the flight. Passports in hand, we took our bags and prepared to deal with French customs.

This is where I got my first lesson on the French. I’m used to US customs where you are required to complete paperwork, go through several checkpoints and answer multiple questions before they’ll let you into our country. The French, not so much. I was all prepared to smile and assure whomever was helping me that my reasons for entering the country were all on the up and up, but the guy didn’t even look at me, or my passport, as he flipped to a random page and stamped me right on into his country. Next! Any Dick or Jane can just stroll on into France, I guess.

Our next challenge was figuring out the French train system. We had no Euros at this point, and to purchase train tickets you need either a human at a ticket counter or Euro coins to buy the tickets from the automated machines (or a chip & pin credit card, which we don’t have). No problem – we’ll just break out our two key phrases of “Bonjour Madame!” followed by “Parles vous anglais?” and get some train tickets to our hotel. Seems reasonable, right?

Wrong. Here’s where I got lesson two on the French. They go on strike all the time. Guess which day they decided to strike? That’s right! The day we arrived.

So we’re in France, we’re delirious, we don’t speak French, we’ve got no human and no coins with which to purchase train tickets. We can’t walk from Charles de Gaulle to our hotel, which is steps off of the Champs Elysees.


I felt like we were in an episode of The Amazing Race. Luckily we didn’t panic. I think we were too tired to panic, really. We eventually found a ticket counter on the lower level of the train station with a human (and a huge long line of tourists like us trying to buy train tickets). The signs were in French, but we managed to get in the right line, buy tickets, and take the SNCF train (which was bigger than the metro trains, but not as big as the high speed trains) about 30 minutes to the Paris metro.

Let me just say, thank God we know how to ride the DC/New York metros, because obviously all the maps were in French, but once you’ve ridden a metro, you can figure it out anywhere. And we did. We found our destination, found our metro trains, lugged our luggage on board, and zipped off around the Paris underground to the Franklin Roosevelt exit on the Champs Elysees. Which we almost missed, because “Franklin Roosevelt” pronounced with a heavy French accent sounds like “Fronk-Lynne-Rose-Felt” – what? Who’s that?

Fortunately our hotel, the Elysees Mermoz Hotel, which is literally steps off of the Champs Elysees, was not hard to find. Unfortunately check in was not until 2 PM, so our ideas of a snack and nap went to hell in a handbasket. We were able to check our bags with the friendly receptionist, though, and we struck out to wander the streets of Paris in our semi-delirious state.

We meandered up the Champs Elysees all the way to the Arc De Triomphe, which we had seen in movies and many times while watching the Tour de France. It was fairly quiet that morning, perhaps because it was chilly and rainy (or maybe it was just early), so we were able to pause and really take it in without being mobbed by other tourists. Seeing the street paved with cobblestones and looking at the shop windows along the Champs Elysees gave me my first real feeling of “we’re in Paris!” We were so in awe of our surroundings that we just wandered around, soaking in the feel of the place.

Eventually we decided we were hungry, and though we knew the food would be overpriced on the Champs Elysees, we decided to stop at a brasserie/café right on the street and people watch while we ate. We wanted the experience, and it was worth it. I whipped out the other key phrase I know in French, “Un cafe au lait, s’il vous plait,” and was rewarded with a delicious, if itty bitty, cup of coffee. Damian enjoyed his first crepe and a 14-euro coffee/liqueur drink with whipped cream in a fancy glass. And, like we love to do in Las Vegas, we watched the people stroll by.

We saw a lot of high-heeled shoes on the ladies. Bright colors, from teal to yellow, regardless of the color of the rest of the attire. Even the sneakers had high-heeled wedges. Lots of black tights with black shoes as well, which was the one in-fashion way that we seem to line up with the French at the moment. The French businessmen wore suits which were short and tight. An interesting look, if you can pull it off.

Two o’clock finally arrived, and we checked in at our hotel. The Elysees Mermoz Hotel is a boutique hotel, with only 20 rooms, decorated with colorful modern art by local artists. Our room was small but very nice, and the location was unbeatable. We had a king-sized bed and lovely windows that opened up to the street. I enjoyed sticking my head out of that window and just looking up and down the street, watching the people bustling by.

We had tickets to go up the Eiffel Tower at 4 o’clock, which Damian pre-purchased back in the US to save us two hours in the ticket line (he had to get up a 2:30 AM to buy them, because they sell a limited amount, and they go on sale at 8:30 AM in France, selling out within minutes). We zipped past the ticket line and got in line for the elevator ride up. We did wait for a bit on the second tier of the tower, but that was nothing, and the views from the top were everything we hoped for. Beginning the trip with a spectacular panorama of the city we were visiting for the first time was breathtaking and informative. Nothing like a bird’s eye view.

When we hit the street again we found a stand selling wine and bought some to enjoy in the gardens at the base of the Eiffel Tower. Sitting down in a little rose garden area and looking up at the tower while sipping a glass of French red wine was a beautiful moment in the day. We slowed our pace to relax and appreciate the beauty around us.

Afterward we found a local dinner place called Le Royal off a side street that offered a prix fixe menu for only 13 euros that included an appetizer, an entree, dessert and wine! It was delicious and the by far the best value we found anywhere on our trip. I had foie gras, chicken and rice, and a small chocolate/orange mousse, and we shared two carafes of red/white wine.

After that, we crashed for 10 hours into a world of oblivion. The next day we moved on to tour the Louvre……

I Bet You Didn’t Get An Old Brick For Mother’s Day




My babies made these sweet cards for me to wish me a “Happy Mother’s Day.” Corey’s said, “I am so lucky to have you as a mother. Without you my life would be ruined.” Wow. Ruined? Thanks kid. No pressure or anything. Mason drew a picture of me wearing high-heeled purple boots – seriously fashion forward – and made sure I knew that, should it come to a choice between me and his American Girl Doll, he’d pick me. I’m not sure what happens to the one of us who doesn’t get chosen in this scenario, but I’m guessing it’s nothing good. We’ve recently read about Whoville being boiled in hot beezlenut oil in Horton Hears a Who, so maybe that’s a possibility in his mind.

To celebrate Mother’s Day, we took the boys to Fort Smallwood, which is a lovely park located on the water in Pasadena. The park features a path along the water, tiny beaches, a nice playground, picnic areas, fishing opportunities, and a bunker. So of course the boys climbed the bunker and tried unsuccessfully to break some bones and land us in the ER. And they were less interested in the beautiful scenery than they were in digging up bricks that had been buried in the sand on the small beaches. That’s the memento we brought home for the day. An old brick.

We also put together a 400-piece puzzle as a family. Corey was actually really good at the puzzle, though Mason was just in the way in true little brother fashion. Corey made up a song about him at one point that included lines like this, sung in his sweetest little voice, “Little brothers, I wish they’d go play in traffic.” I’m happy to report that nobody was hit by a car during the puzzle construction, and we were able to successfully complete it. Now Corey has moved on to a 1000-piece puzzle, because what the hell? Go big or go home.

We capped the day by watching Glenn Close play Cruella DeVille in “101 Dalmatians.” The kids loved it. I loved the peace of family movie afternoon. We ate dinner on the deck and enjoyed the gorgeous weather, put the boys to bed, and watched zombies try to eat people. I like zombies. They’re single-minded and predictable. I’ve found that it’s hard to eat a sundae while watching a zombie show, but not harder than refereeing my two wonderful children.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Corey’s 5th Fontanniversary



The heart child hit a huge milestone on 4/21/14. The date marked the 5th anniversary of his last open-heart surgery, the Fontan. Five years since he faced down his CHD as a four-year-old child. It was a big day for our family. Perhaps akin to celebrating five years of being cancer free for a survivor.

Given that it was a date to celebrate, we did just that. We got jumbo crabs, because they’re Corey’s favorite food. I ate four and thought I might explode. He ate three. And three ears of corn. And a giant piece of cake that sported the phrase “Happy 5th Fontanniversary Corey!” in bright red icing (CHD survivor’s color choice – matched fabulously with the sunny yellow & green flowers on the cake). He’s come so far since the days when he would literally eat two bites of hot dog and four green beans for his dinner.

Since that day, he has learned to solve the Rubik’s cube. Both the three by three and the two by two. If you ask him to show you, he’ll offer you the cube and ask you to “mess it up” before he shows off his cube-solving prowess. Go ahead and bet him that he can’t do it, but be prepared to part with your money, because he solves it every time.

The picture above is him showing off his zipper scar. It’s faded to a fine white line with time, but he still wears it proudly. His badge of courage. And he still wins all the “biggest scar” contests. That’s my smart, amazing, awesome, brazen, funny heart child. I can’t imagine life without him.


It’s Lose-a-Toe Monday

     This morning has been all drama all the time. It’s spring break, and the boys are home from school. I take them to the grocery store, and I am not exaggerating when I say they are so insane that they don’t even notice when I buy the Easter candy right in front of their faces. The Easter Bunny hops on by and they are oblivious. At least I can check that item off my list. After we get home, the boys don their swimsuits and head for the backyard to play in the sprinkler while I put the groceries away. After that, I give them instructions to bathe themselves (they’ve learned how to give themselves a bath, which is great – moving toward independence!) and jump on the bike.
     Well, just as I’m finishing up with my workout, I hear screaming from the upstairs bathroom. I mean, wild banshee screaming. I think somebody has lost a limb for sure. Surely there is blood spurting everywhere. I think I might find a dying child up there.  I fly up the stairs at my-child-is-in-mortal-danger speed. When I get up there, I discover that both boys are in full-on panic mode. Yelling their heads off. The first thing I note is the utter lack of blood anywhere. Check one. The next thing I note is that Mason is naked on the bathroom floor, and his foot appears to be stuck under the sink cabinet.
     I somehow manage to stop everyone from screaming so that I can assess the situation by asking some questions. Corey has gone to his room and is not coming back at this point. He’s just scared out of his mind and hiding under his blankets. It’s better if he stays away, because there’s no chance Mason will calm down while his brother’s mad banshee wales continue. And at this point, I need some answers.
     Mason stops wailing, and, breathing hard but calming down, says, “I slipped in the water and my toe got stuck and I can’t get it out.” Thanks for being concise, kid. So I get down on the floor in my sweaty workout clothes and try to determine exactly how stuck his toe is while not slipping on the floor myself. The answer is not good. His toe is completely and utterly stuck. I realize that I will never be able to pull his toe out without severely damaging it. The force of the fall has completely wedged Mason’s big toe into the cabinet molding. I nail a smile on my face, and I tell Mason that everything is going to be okay. I then say a brief prayer that I have not just lied to my child and that he is not in fact going to come out of this without a toe. Then I consider my options.
     1) I can call Damian and have him come home and unstick Mason’s toe. But that will take at least 45 minutes, during which I will have a naked frightened child on the bathroom floor. That’s a no go.
     2) I can call 911 and have the EMTs or the fire department come and free his toe. This seems like a better/faster option, but this will still require Mason to wait, and the big loud fire trucks will probably scare both of my traumatized children even more.
     3) I can rip the front of the cabinet off myself. This seems like the best option, only I don’t have a crowbar.
     But Mason is starting to tune up again, so I choose option three. I decide to just Hulk it out and rip it off with my bare hands. This takes all my strength and three heaving pulls – no doubt due to the adrenaline rush brought on by my screaming banshee offspring – but I manage to pull it off and free Mason’s toe, which looks smashed and bloody. Mason looks at the ripped apart sink and says, “What if it never gets fixed?” I say, “I don’t care about the sink. I care about you.” Then I pick my shaking little boy up off of the bathroom floor, carry him to his room, set him on his bed, and get him a drink and his giant pink bunny for company while I examine/bandage his toe.
     The good news is, I think his toe is fine. He can bend it, he can walk on it, and all it really needed was some Neosporin and a bandage. But now I’m thinking this should be margarita Monday.

And the Great Agent Search is……

Over. No dice. I did not find an agent for my book. Which is okay. I knew it was a long shot. I need to remind myself that this rejection is not a reflection of my work. It’s a reflection of the book’s marketability. I heard, over and over, that while this work is important, it’s too niche of a market. Still, I’m glad that I tried this route first.

What’s next? I will try approaching small publishers directly. I think I have a better shot at that. But, if that doesn’t pan out, I will self publish. In that case, I think the people who need the book will find it, and that’s really the most important thing to me. I wrote the book that I wanted when Corey was diagnosed with tricuspid atresia. But let’s face it, Corey has a rare defect, and (thankfully) there aren’t a lot of people walking in my shoes.

However, having said all of that, I still feel that CHD awareness is important. Extremely important. There are so many people who have no idea what it means to have a child with CHD. If you say, “My child has cancer,” everyone understands you immediately. If you say, “My child has a congenital heart defect,” many people look at you like you’ve got three heads.

So I thought about ways in which I might reach a wider audience. And I think I’ve found a solution. Fiction! I’m writing a novel about a woman with a heart child. I’m about 2/3 of the way finished, and I’m hoping that, if it’s good enough, it will reach that wider audience that I am striving for.

Wish me luck….

Time Machine

If you had a time machine, where would you go? Or should I say “when” would you go? People are fascinated by the concept of manipulating time. It’s a common theme in pop culture, splattered throughout literature and the movies. From a Wrinkle in Time to “Back to the Future” – who hasn’t thought about the idea that time is linear? 

This week’s WordPress writing challenge is about this very concept. If you had a time machine, what would you do with it? Personally the biggest temptation would be going back in time to “fix” moments of regret. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty – who doesn’t think, “If I had to do it all over again, I’d do X, Y and Z differently?” But that’s a dangerous road to take.

I think about the idea that, had I waited for one more month before trying to conceive Corey, I might not have a heart child. I might not have had to live through the hell that is the early life of a child with tricuspid atresia. He wouldn’t have been forced to suffer through it either. Maybe my first child would have been healthy. That’s a tempting thought, if I am honest. The child would not have been Corey, though – he or she would have been a different person entirely.

And of course I love Corey with all of me. I can’t imagine a life that doesn’t include him. Getting to know him, getting to know myself through him, has been a privilege. No matter how much time I have with him, I know it is a gift. And at my core, I believe that I am meant to be Corey’s mother – it’s my path to walk in life. In which case perhaps the time machine wouldn’t make any difference.

There’s also the idea that, should you alter one regrettable part of your past, you will also inevitably alter many more aspects of your present and your future. If there was no Corey, there would be no Mason either. Mason was conceived at a time that worked between Corey’s surgeries. No heart child, no surgical timeline, and suddenly there is no Mason. He (or she) is someone else entirely. Or perhaps there would be no second child at all.

Think about all the hundreds of important decisions you’ve made in your life. All of them led, in one way or another, to where you are right now. Right this moment. Alter any of them, and perhaps you are in a completely different place, married to a different person, living in a different state or country, doing a different job with a different boss. Instead of Grace the cat you’ve got Fido the dog, because your new spouse in this different reality is allergic to cats.

It’s wild to contemplate. So I think I know exactly what I’m going to do with my time machine. I’m going to borrow some TNT from my son’s Minecraft game and blow it to smithereens. Then I’m going to cook dinner for this family that I love in this house that I love in this town that I love.