Friday, March 28, 2008

Downhill slide begins...T minus 19

Folks, I do believe the descent into vacation mode has begun. We are officially under twenty days from departure (dear sister, time to start looking, it’s coming whether you want to get on that plane or not!) and this morning, I can just feel it. That anticipation is building, my heart skips a beat as I practice my French podcasts on the way to work.

The signs at work are starting to pop up like crocuses at the spring thaw: I can actually count down that I only have two more Thursdays and Fridays at work, I’m scheduling meetings for after I get back, I’m pushing off deadlines until May. And I’m really starting to lose interest in my projects. I mean, how am I expected to care about any one of these projects when there’s the Louvre, a stack of Vermeers (well, three), the Orangerie, omelettes, wienerschintzel and Louis Vuitton waiting for us on the other side??? How cool is this? IT’S COMING!

I think as an adult, there is very little you can get all wired up and excited about like you did in the lead up to Christmas when you were 10. Sure, Broadway shows and concerts are fun, to some of us spinning conferences can fill the void, but for me, there’s nothing like stepping out of the airport and into a taxi in one of my favorite cities.

I think too, beneath her brave exterior, my sister is feeling it too. Last night we talked and I said, “Three weeks from right now, it’ll be 1 a.m. on our first night in Paris.” And aside from a few curse words and “Oh my god” she also said: “And we’ll just be coming in from late night at the Louvre and Moulin Rouge”….despite having had no sleep for the prior 36 hours!

Here it comes, Little Sister!

[Special thoughts to Dear Sister, who is currently battling flu-monia...we're expecting she'll be fully recovered to romp through the City of Lights, but I'm prepared to carry an IV pole and respirator if not...]

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The way it should be

I've been watching HBO's series John Adams and I am hooked. In a big way. As in, this may be one of the best things I've watched this year. It's not too late to get in on it, as all of the three previous episodes are on HBO On Demand too.

But just a point...(because you know I have to make one). It is interesting to see these Fathers of Our Country portrayed and see how little ego was involved in a lot of their decisions. Indeed, when the Continental Congress was urging George Washington to step up to be president, he hemmed and hawed and tried to back down, thinking he wasn't the best man for the job. Ultimately he agreed, saying "But I will do it if that is what is best for the colonies." I'd be lying if I didn't say that a statement like that was refreshingly surprising. Then I realized, wait a minute, that's the way it's supposed to be.

I think today's politicians need to take some time out and watch this. Take note, take heed. For the good of the country, that's what it's all about. Not the special interests, not the corporations or nations bankrolling you, and certainly not YOU. Certainly, definitely not you.

Last steps before heading out

There are a handful of things I do at home before I leave on a trip just to make life easier and to launch a pre-emptive strike against near disaster. I offer these up as helpful hints. The “why” part might help you decide if you need to do them too.

1) Keep a copy of your passport in your luggage and at home.
Why? If on the odd chance you lose your passport, I have heard that it is infinitely faster to get the passport replaced with a copy rather than the Embassy having to research your data.

2) Call the credit cards you’ll be using on vacation and alert them; don’t talk to the first person to answer the phone, ask for the fraud department. Tell them where you’re going, where you may be passing through along the way and for how long. Tell them you expect to be shopping and charging hotel stays. Ask them to confirm the collect number on the back of the card in case you need to call them from your destination. Then, write your account numbers and that phone number down on a copy of your passport that you leave at home so someone could get it to you in the event you need it. Pack another copy of your passport and credit card collect phone number in your carry-on luggage.
Why? My first stop on one trip to Florence was to buy a leather jacket and briefcase. I hadn’t let the credit card company know about my trip and they shut my card down for suspicious/unusual activity. When I tried to call the collect phone number on the card from Italy (remember 800-numbers don’t work outside the US), it was out of service.

3) If you’ll be using an ATM card, get your daily withdrawal limit increased.
Why? If it’s set at $200, that’s roughly 120 euro now, which is about enough to eat for a day. Let the bank know the same thing I just wrote in #2 above. Then switch it back when you get home.

4) Cancel the newspapers, get someone to gather your mail, make provisions for the cat.
Why? Kind of obvious, Pookie needs to eat!

5) Confirm all your hotel reservations and flights.
Why? Please tell me I don’t have to explain...

6) Do the bulk of your packing the weekend before, especially if leaving mid-week.
Why? I usually work right up until about 4 hours before departure, so being able to go home, grab my bag and leave for the airport, without a last minute rush, is key to starting off relaxed and ready. Plus I’m less flustered/nervous/excited on the weekend, so I am thinking more clearly about what’s going in the bag.

Overall, just stop your planning and start to get into vacation mode about a week before. If you haven’t read it, planned it or booked it a week before you go, chances are it wasn’t high on your priority list. Learn to do what you can do with the time you have. Just go and enjoy!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

It's enough to just go and "be"

It occurred to me last night as I talked to my sister about our upcoming trip to Paris and Vienna that I may be a bit spoiled. When I admitted to her that I hadn’t done any reading to prepare for the trip and she responded with a pregnant pause, I said to her “it’s like when you go to New York City, you just go and 'be' there, you don’t even think about it anymore.” And I realized that on this, my fifth trip to Paris, that is exactly what I was planning to do: go, be and enjoy, with the added benefit of seeing Paris through my sister’s eyes. This will be her first trip to the City of Lights. So with that in mind I tried to remember when I was first in Paris and what it was like for me. And this led me to wonder whether she might find it the same or different than I did.

In 1999, my mother and I spent a week in London. For both of us, it was our first trip together and for me, it was my first trip to someplace that was not Ireland or Scotland. So London itself wasn’t much of a stretch for me (Mom had been to Ireland and Scotland years before). Most of the UK and Ireland, at least the city parts of it, are pretty reminiscent of Boston and everyone speaks English and the food is pretty common with maybe a few things with different local naming conventions. So a week in London wasn’t too taxing on our minds. But a day trip to Paris, via the Eurostar train through the Channel Tunnel would be all the jolt that our systems needed to fuel future travel dreams.

We left London on the train and whisked our way to Paris, losing an hour on the way due to the GMT vs CET timezones. We arrived at Gare du Nord and made our way to the metro. Our first metro ride was memorable in that a homeless bum proceeded to urinate on to the floor in front of us all (a half-packed subway car) and then fall back to sleep. Somehow, working in Boston steeled me for things like this, but both of us, I’m sure, wondered if this is what the rest of our day had in store for us.

With only about 8 hours on the ground before our return to London, we had to prioritize our sightseeing. And in that time, we decided to visit the Louvre, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysees, all of which were clustered somewhat close together, at least in theory. The day was a gloriously warm sunny spring day in March, (especially as compared to dark, damp and ultimately flu-inviting London) and we were blessed to be walking the Champs Elysees and seeing the Arc de Triomphe in all of its blinding white concrete splendor. The brighter the sun, the brighter the Arc shone. As we passed sidewalk cafes and noticed French people with little dogs on their laps, in their handbags and pooping all over the sidewalks (a unique feature that still exists today), we were instantly enamoured. We both had a vision of what Paris was, and here, on one of the most famous commercial and stereotypically Parisian boulevards in the world, we lived out that vision.

It was also here that we found a pressed sandwich that fueled us for the rest of our afternoon. A street vendor used a hot press to grill a long skinny loaf of bread filled with jambon et fromage (ham and cheese) and wrapped it in napkins for us to eat as we walked. We may have managed to find a rare empty spot on a bench and enjoy what was certainly to be one of the best sandwiches we ever had.

Moving on to the Louvre, we navigated our way through the throngs (it was a free Sunday at the Louvre, as I recall, so crowding was worse than usual) to find the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and Winged Victory. Unlike other travelers, we were impressed with all three, not finding Mona disappointing or Venus and Victory over-estimated. Not knowing any better, however, we left the Louvre after seeing the Big Three and not enjoying any of the other masterpieces therein. Time was wasting and we had an itinerary to get to. Getting out of the Louvre was another thing in itself. I recall being cramped into a small elevator with several other people and the doors kept opening on to the same floor. We could not, it seemed, make our way to where we came in using this elevator. My Type A personality and a case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has erased how we eventually exited the museum.

From the Louvre, we walked along the Seine toward Notre Dame, marveling at the outdoor bird and domestic animal markets. How unique and interesting that in the late 90s, people still bought pets (and books, and art, and food) in street markets. We visited Notre Dame and admired it both inside and out (although it is gorgeous, we’d just seen Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, so comparatively speaking it was not the highlight of the day) and headed back to find some dinner before returning to the train.

It was here, along the Seine, heading back toward the Louvre, that I caught my one and only glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. It was only the top half of the structure and it was a silhouette only due to the haze and bright sun, but I saw it off in the distance and right then I knew, I’d be back. How can you not love all this? How can you not admire the height and beauty of the buildings (all significantly lower than the Eiffel Tower), the treasure trove of art, churches, culture, statues, history just sitting here waiting to be seen? It may seem criminal not to have experienced the Eiffel Tower from anything other than miles away, but the day wasn’t long enough and our priorities were otherwise. Oh, we’d be back, next year for sure (and the year after…). We had a case of "je ne c'est quoi" that only complete, weeks-long immersion was going to cure.

We wandered back along the Seine and found what I’m sure is the most touristy restaurant around, where we ordered something French that we recognized immediately on the menu. I have no recollection of what my meal was, but Mom had beef Bourguignon, which she loved.

Other than ordering food (and we took the safe route with instantly recognizable plates) we didn’t suffer much from the language barrier until it came time to buy cookies. We found a bakery across from the Louvre that had cookies sold by weight. My mother picked some out by pointing through the glass case and the cashier told her, in French, what the bill was. I had already headed toward the door, but I heard my mother say, “Just take what you need,” and I looked back to see her holding out all her change for the cashier. I intervened, and we enjoyed some really good butter cookies on the way back to London.

As we made the journey back to England, gaining back our hour lost that morning, we both knew we’d been bitten and were now officially smitten with Paris. I’ve seen it in other people who have made the same one-day journey. It’s as if they’ve cut their European Travel teeth in the UK and take the next logical baby step and then they are head over heels. On future trips we'd eat much better (yes, better than the pressed sandwich), give proper attention to the art, see the hidden gems we'd passed on that one-day journey, take daytrips to the surrounding areas, but we'd never, ever lose the magic that causes that intake of breath like it did when I spotted Le Tour Eiffel off in the distance. For me, it stays magical, but just more familiar with time, like returning to visit an old friend. Reliably the same, reliably beautiful, reliably magical.

So while I’m looking forward to whatever new adventures lie ahead in Paris in three weeks’ time (Auvers, L’Orangerie, etc.), I am more curious to watch my sister and see if she falls in love too. I know Amsterdam will be a hard act to follow and it will always be her first love, but I think it’s safe to say that this is one instance in life where you can indeed fall in love more than once.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I have jetlag and I haven't left home

I don't know exactly why this has happened, but after the earlier-than usual switch to Daylight Savings (damn you once and for all, W!), I am left with the lingering effects of jetlag. Yes, jetlag I said!

All was well and good on Sunday, because, well, it was Sunday, and I could sleep until 8 or 9 and not feel the effects. I should have known it would be bad when I looked to my soundly sleeping cat at 5:00 p.m., the time when ordinarily he'd be steamrolling over me to have his dinner, and asked him "Do you want supper?" and he raised and lowered his head, heaved a sigh and went back to sleep. Little did I know that that would be me the next morning.

So when the alarm goes off now at 6:10 it's pitch black again. It had taken a couple months to working back to hearing birds and seeing some sun as I got out of bed. Now it's pitch black and my body wants to heave a sigh and roll back over. Even the cat looks at me from his 3/4 of the bed and says "What-choo-talking about Willis?" when I go to get up. Even to him, the most nocturnal of animals, this is nonsense.

And don't try to counter with the argument that the daylight at the end of the day is better. I haven't found that yet. Last night I went to teach my spinning class and staggered across the parking lot in a sleep-deprived haze. It's the same feeling I have after a 7 hour overnight flight and then the fight to make it through my first full day without sleep. A dull ache in the temples, nothing but fog behind my eyes. And yes, I led a class of 17 through some sort of aerobic workout last night, but not without stammering all over myself and suffering some lack of coordination moves.

So maybe the earlier change will save on heat and electricity in the long run, but until I adjust to this new time zone, I'm entitled to be miserable.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Movies You Just Can’t Turn Off

In light of the recent news about Patrick Swayze’s illness, I though it apropros to blog (finally!) about those certain works of screen and film that, no matter how hard you try or realize that you really do have better things to, you can’t turn off. It’s not that they are actually good. It’s just that they are fluff-full entertainment that is addicting. So imagine yourself channel hopping and coming across any one of the movies I list below. Once you hit any one of these, your night is over, your quest has ended. You have found your television entertainment for the next 90 minutes.

My Top 10, in order:

1. Dirty Dancing. No one puts Baby in the corner. This #1 rating is completely unrelated to Swayze’s current health crisis. This movie has everything: music, dancing, love story and touchy subject matter (abortion, lies, cheating). Here we see Patrick Swayze at his brazen best, Jennifer Grey pre-nose job (which renders her completely unrecognizable) and Jerry Orbach as the softie in a hard shell. Remember, a good man can always admit when he’s wrong.

2. Certain of the 80s Brat Pack Movies. Whenever I’m surfing and come across one of these 80s classics, I secretly jump for joy. Although I would probably prioritize them like this if I was forced to: Sixteen Candles, Pretty In Pink, The Breakfast Club. The common link here is Molly Ringwald, which, in and of itself is nothing spectacular but is actually rather strange. With these movies, you can relive some of your worst teenage nightmares. Or not.

3. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It was cool when I was a senior in high school to think that Ferris did what we all hoped to do on Senior Skip Day. Now it’s cool to see that Ferris did what we all wish we could do when we “bang out” occasionally from the real world.

4. That Thing You Do. Watch this at your own risk, because you will be relegated to singing that damn theme song for the next 70 days. Not that that’s a bad thing, but just that it’ll happen. Liv Tyler and Tom Hanks shine in this movie. If you haven’t seen it, do so, and then see how quickly it climbs into your top 10.

5. Top Gun. Granted, it is hard now to overlook the fact that Tom Cruise is a psycho. But then, he wasn’t, the blinding white smile worked for us and Goose was cooler then than he ever was as Dr. Green. And who wouldn’t want IceMan as their wingman? There’s action, music and predictable drama (which is still suspenseful even on the 10,000th viewing), which makes this a great sofa-warming activity, particularly on a rainy/snowy/sick day.

6. Father of the Bride. I’m not a huge Steve Martin fan, but he delivers well here as the poor Dad who is forced through the wedding planning while dragging his heels about letting his little girl go. I would imagine that if I were a normal girl (which I’m not), I’d want to be as idealistic as Annie, without the richie rich fiancĂ©. Deep down, I’m just looking to dance with my Dad at my wedding, which she doesn’t get to do either, so maybe that’s why I relate to this one so well. Martin Short wins huge points as the wedding planner. Note that Father of the Bride II does not make this list. And for good reason.

7. What About Bob. This movie wouldn’t make most lists, but it makes mine. As a hypochondriac, I can relate and Bill Murray is the best at over the top hypochondria. The fact that Dr. Marvin’s family doesn’t see how insane Bob is, and actually adopts him, makes this storyline hilarious in a totally unrealistic way. I laugh at the same points each time.

8. Better Off Dead. Of all of John Cusack's movies, I think this is probably the best. Well, maybe tied with Say Anything, but really the only good point of Say Anything is the "In Your Eyes" driveway moment. But what makes this one brilliant is Lane’s quest for the hot French chick who really understands English and his pal Miles who forces him to ski crazy-ass trails to win her over.

9. An Officer and a Gentleman. Ok, who hasn’t dreamt of your hot boyfriend coming into your dreadful place of employment in dress whites and (literally) sweeping you out of there once and for all. C’mon, admit it. And if that’s not why you watch it, you watch it to hear Lou Gossett say “Mayo-NAISE.”

10. War Games. I was toying with Rain Man and Risky Business, but just couldn’t stomach another Tom Cruise movie. For the computer geeks among us, especially those of us who were computer geeks with our Dads and our Commodore 64s, this movie rules forever. Forget that we’re now beyond the DOS screen and telephone handset modems. Forget that a national security computer will never call you in this day and age (or will it? One can only hope…) But Matthew Broderick is excellent as David, running the emotional acting gamut with aplomb: from cocksure teen changing his calculus grade to scared little shit running from the Feds. Dabney Coleman is only marginally scary. The big scary guy here is NORAD, the nuclear weapons launching system. Yikes! “Do you want to play a game?”

Monday, March 3, 2008

Yes, I'm a woman...

Yes, I'm a woman and No, I don't feel particularly compelled to vote for Hillary Clinton for that reason alone. And let me tell you why. (I know you didn't ask but this is going to make me feel better.)

First, I just don't trust her. No one loved the Clinton years more than I did (Bill had, for me, that certain je ne c'est quoi) but towards the end of Bill's tenure, it became startlingly clear to me that there was more going on in the White House than was on the up and up. I was nuts then to overlook Whitewater, Vince Foster, pardoning the Riches, etc. And since then Bill has had the opportunity to hook up with various other elements, tasteful and not, for various personal business dealings that may (or may not) be conflicts of interest in the future should he be back in Washington's inner circle. Of course, we may not know for certain if HRC never releases any tax returns, but that's a story for another day. (But really, what's she hiding that she can't release them now?)

Second, Hillary is running, and I resent the fact that she gave her campaign a boost by making it the Bill and Hillary show. Granted that has been tamed down since Bill started to go all scary multi-personality out on the stump, but I still think we'd be electing a pair to office, and Bill is so 90s. It's a new milennium with new issues and I'm not sure the Old Way is the Best Way going forward.

Third, I've seen too many faces of Hillary on this campaign. As Bill Maher said, it's like watching a guy fighting with his girlfriend: there's the tears, then the loving "I'm honored to be sitting here by you", then the rage for no apparent reason ("Shame on you Barack Obama"), then the sarcasm ("The heavens will open..."), then the woman card, then the fear-mongering. Look, pick a persona and stick with it. You're changing your personality along with your suits. One thing I like about Barack Obama is that he's been reassuringly consistent. No matter when I watch and listen, I get the same person: measured, reassuring and calm. Hillary is teetering on schizophrenia and it makes me nervous. When that phone rings in the White House at 3 a.m., which Hillary will we get?

Lastly, I don't get the "experience" thing. She has one more term than Obama and little more in the way of accomplishments. Where has she dealt with "crisis"? How does serving on the Arms Services Committee qualify as "crisis"? Get it? I knew you would.

So no, I don't feel as if I'm turning my back on my gender by not voting for her. I'm still in this to vote for the person I feel is best for the job. And from what I've seen in this campaign (and with the lack of compelling network tv, that's more viewing than I care to admit), I just don't think that's Hillary Clinton.

Where the hell is spring?

I've officially changed the season to spring. I've had enough with shoveling, heating the apartment and lamenting winter. This coming weekend we "spring ahead" with the time change, which means it'll be pitch black (again) when I wake up at 6 a.m., but lighter at night as I head to the gym.

So today I bought daffodils which are wrapped up tight as if they too are in denial about this whole winter thing lingering on. I'm wearing a cotton sweater and lighter jacket today, as if I actually believe the weatherman when he says it'll be 50 by lunch. I can only hope that for once, he is accurate. Otherwise, it'll be a chilly day for me all the way around. But for the sand and salt pileups on the side of the roads, and the cavernous potholes, is outdoor biking season finally approaching?

(Trip countdown alert Dear Sister, don't read this) So we are now 44 days away from April in Paris (and Vienna) and we have booked the airport shuttles and nailed down a comfortable (with room still left) itinerary in Paris. The problem is how we sort out our activities with a mere 29 hours in Vienna. I figure we'll be at our hotel at noon on Tuesday and leaving for the airport around 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday. Our To Do list is longer than I anticipated and may require some tweaking to get it down to manageable but not utterly exhausting. The goal is not to have to return to Vienna. Ever. But I said that once before.