1. Maid in France
April 1-5, 2002I am now on my fifth day as a highly paid (I eat a lot) consultant for an antiques dealer in Paris.I’m staying in the guest room of Marc and Daisy’s 300 year old home just outside of Paris. I know Marc and Daisy (proprietors of Marc Maison Antiquities) through my mom’s antiques business. They offered me room & board in exchange for helping them with their web site.Having just finished 12 years at an Internet start-up, I had nothing better to do. So here I am.My bathroom features a gold gilt sink.Should you ever find yourself using someone else’s gold gilt sink, make sure not to leave the soap in the sink overnight. It results in less gold gilt on the sink and more on on the soap. And, in my case, more guilt in general.

I love breakfasts here at the house. We slurp coffee out of bowls.

I’ve been working each day at Marc & Daisy’s warehouse near their shop in the Paris Flea Market. This market, known by its denizens as “Les Puces”, features 2,500 antique dealers located back-to-back throughout a maze-like neighborhood on the edge of Paris.

Pierre and Richard have a warehouse around the corner. Pierre and Richard are two antique dealing brothers that I first met 25 years ago when they were selling antiques out of a barn in Normandy. They are good friends of Marc and Daisy, and the five of us usually have lunch together. They tease each other, and often me, using words I do not understand.

Adding to the mix is Pierre’s 20-something year old son, Alban, who also has a shop in Les Puces. Alban sells 20th Century decorative arts. 20th Century decorative arts are in fashion. As is Alban.

Our gang of antiquaires has been busy preparing for this weekend’s trilogy of antique shows (3 shows in 3 cities in 3 days) in the south of France. Marc, Daisy, Pierre, Richard, and I will be flying down. David and Christophe, who work for Marc Maison, will be driving the truck with the antiques to sell. And Alban will be taking the train with his girlfriend. We leave tomorrow.

But today is my day off, and I’m home alone.

Just me and a real-life French maid …

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2. No Bull
April 6-10, 2002Nothing happened with the French maid.But since you’re here …Pierre spent the night at the house so we could leave for the south of France first thing in the morning. By 5:30 a.m., Marc, Pierre and I were on the road. Normal people would have left at 7. But these are antique dealers.And we were not going straight to the airport. We first went into Paris where merchants were setting up their stands for an antiques & collectibles street fair.  I followed Marc and Pierre around through the cold and dark as they joked with the dealers and inspected items with flashlights. Marc bought a lamp and a table which just barely fit into his station wagon. THEN we went to the airport.

Here was our itinerary:

Saturday — fly in to Montpelier, drive to Béziers and set up

Sunday — do the Béziers fair, then drive to Avignon

Monday — do the Avignon fair, then drive to Montpelier

Tuesday — do the Montpelier fair, then fly back to Paris

As per the above, we drove from the airport to the show in Béziers. It was set-up day, which, as we learned this morning, is prime time for dealers to buy from each other. So Marc went off in search of architectural artifacts, while Pierre took me around in search of green pots.

I was looking for green pots for my mom. She wanted me purchase some antiques while I was in France, so she would have a head-start on her next buying trip. But I am not qualified to buy anything important. So she asked me to buy confit pots. Other than grape harvester’s baskets, confit pots are the least expensive things she sells.

“But I have plenty of yellow pots,” she clarified, “so just get green ones.”

Okay, got it. Green pots.

“Oh, and see if you can find a well-priced grape harvester’s basket.”

With Pierre’s help, I did acquire two green confit pots. I saw only one grape harvester’s basket, but it was falling apart, so I left it in France.

David and Christophe were late with the truck of antiques, so we missed set-up and would have to set-up first thing in the morning. David and Christophe had several reasons why they were late – none of which Marc found acceptable.

Daisy, Richard, Didier, Alban, and Fronce (that’s what her name sounds like, but I have no idea how to spell it) arrived that evening and met us at the hotel. Two of those names are new: Didier is yet another antique dealer friend, and Fronce is Alban’s girlfriend, a Parisian fashion designer 20 years older than Alban. Their relationship seemed to be troubling for the rest of the group, but the snide remarks were too French for me to understand.

We went to the fair at 6:30am. Despite being the south of France, it was a cold and rainy day. And very few people were shopping. After a miserable 5 hours, the fair ended, and we headed to Avignon.

Where things got better.

Our hotel was in a wonderful, little medieval town. At the center of the town was a hill with a church and a small castle. Surrounding the town were vineyards. It was a story-book setting. When we arrived, everyone took a nap. Except me. I went for a walk – looking for a story.

No story, but a really nice walk.

When nap time was over, it was dinner time. Our big group walked around this little town, but it was Sunday, and no restaurants were open. The lack of Ouvert restaurants troubled me for three reasons: 1) I was pretty darn hungry, 2) good meals are generally important to me, and 3) we were in the French countryside, where one is inclined to be optimistic about a good meal.

Sadly, most of our group just gave up and returned to their rooms without dinner.

Happily, Alban and Fronce did not. Instead, Fronce, 10 years my senior, and Alban, 10 years my junior, started making calls.

Age has its advantages, and Fronce came through. An old friend of hers was the owner and chef of a restaurant in a nearby town. She was closed, but she had opened for another group of friends, so she said to come on by.

We sped over, and Fronce’s friend greeted us enthusiastically. She said she would bring us a sampling of seafood-related salads, to be followed by a main course of bull, where the bull has been cooked for 12 hours. But we never got to the bull dish – we were too full, having been overwhelmed by “salads”: a potato salad with smoked salmon, a fish salad with marinated red peppers, a fish and basil salad, something wonderful she called fish caviar, and mussels with couscous.

It was one of the best meals of my life.

No bull.

The next day’s fair at Avignon was much better than Béziers . The weather was South-of-France-like, and our group managed to sell quite a bit of stuff. I bought 5 more green pots, but still no grape harvester’s baskets.

Next stop: Montpelier. After checking into our hotel, Daisy and I walked around the old part of town dedicated to shoppers and tourists – no cars allowed. It was like the French quarter in Disneyland. (How’s that for travel commentary?) Then it was on to the Medical School. It’s the oldest school in France, and they have a museum of anatomy with severed heads and stuff. Daisy opted out.

Our group re-converged for dinner, after which Alban and I went to a bar for a drink.  David and Christophe happened to be there playing pool, so we joined them. I learned that the way you say “nice shot” in French is: “Jolie coup!”. It’s an expression that I think should be used anywhere and everywhere.

The next day’s fair in Montpelier also went well. Marc bought a pair of stone lions from the 17th Century. The statues, which attracted attention from the neighboring dealers, are worth tens of thousands of dollars.

But more importantly, I bought a well-priced grape harvester’s basket.

Jolie coup!

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3. Home with HungariansApril 11-17, 2002Marc and Daisy are going all-out on this house remodel. They’ve hired three Hungarian craftsmen: Gabor, Laslo, and Laslo.Gabor is an artist painting an intricate mural on the ceiling of the dining room. It’s like the Sistine Chapel, sort of, but if you look closely you can see Marc, Daisy, and various other people that I’ve told you about. Oh, and Pam Pam, the family poodle, is up there too.

Laslo and Laslo are both sculptors. They are working work off-site, and I don’t know exactly what they are doing. But they are named Laslo and Laslo, which I humbly put forth as reason enough to mention them.

Work on the web site is progressing well. Daisy and I met with Regis, the programmer they hired. Regis is gay – which is good because if this journal is to ever become a screenplay, it needs a gay guy. A French maid alone is not enough anymore. Anyway, Regis is very nice and, despite the fact that he has really rosy cheeks and/or wears too much rouge, he seems to know his stuff.

But back to the house …

While Marc and Daisy are passionate about their antique business, they are considerably less so about things like … dinner. When I offered to cook the other day, Daisy was so happy she nearly teared up.

I’m not particularly good in the kitchen, but I feel comfortable winging it by using lots of garlic.

I told Daisy that I’d like to make spaghetti with a tomato sauce and a vinaigrette salad. She thought that was great and enthusiastically brought me to the door and pointed the way to the market. As I was walking away, she said something horrible to me in French:

“Oh … I don’t like garlic.”

Not knowing what to say, I just smiled, nodded, and kept walking. I struggled with my dilemma for the two minutes it took to walk to the store, then decided that I must have misunderstood her.

The meal had mixed results. Marc seemed to eat a little more than usual. Daisy seemed to talk a little less than usual.

I went for a run this week. Our 16th Century village has a 16th Century palace (which was the chateau for prime minister during the reign of Francois I, 1515-1547). The palace is now a museum, and the grounds include gardens and a forest with trails! I ran through the village, to the palace, around the gardens, and into the woods. As I entered the woods, I was struck by the beauty of the purple flowers that completely blanketed the ground between the trees. And I was greeted by a large rabbit that hopped along the path in front of me.

If that wasn’t surreal enough …

That night I went into Paris to meet Alban and his friend, Irise, to see an exposition on Surrealism. After the exhibit we had dinner overlooking Paris at night during a lightning storm. I ordered “Gateau de Tomates et Chevre Frais,” which was herbed goat cheese covered by chilled roasted tomatoes, followed by “Le tigre qui pleure” (“The tiger that cries”) which was a steak with cognac sauce served with rice and cilantro.

Another fantastic meal with Alban and his femme du jour.

Matt and Felix have left to spend their spring vacation in Cannes. Marc and Daisy have gone to Brussels to visit Daisy’s mom, Madame Deloue. So I was home alone again.

Just me and Gabor the Hungarian.

Alban and Irise were going to come over tonight for pizza, but Alban called to say that they would not be able to make it. The reason: his car had been towed because he parked in front of a church. It’s a new law.

So instead of pizza with Parisians, I did this: From the house I walked 50 yards to a bar and had a petit café, then crossed the street to the market and bought some tomatoes for a salad, then went next door to the Boucherie for a piece of meat, then walked around the corner to the Patisserie and bought a baguette and a pastry, then walked 50 yards back home.

Where I used up the remaining garlic.

I kinda like it here.

But I’m going to leave. For a few days. A friend of mine from California is in Britanny for a business conference and I’m going to go visit her. Daisy said I could use her car.

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4. Road Tripe
April 18-21, 2002

I left Paris late morning. Two hours into my drive, I stopped at a roadside café for lunch. Against my better judgement, I ordered sausage. Tripe sausage. It had been years since last having tripe, and I was hoping that, somehow, it would be less repugnant.
Naive I am.

Five hours of aftertaste later, I reached my destination: an obscure town on the Atlantic coast of Brittany hosting an obscure Oceanography conference. While waiting for Laura, I stopped into a quaint restaurant for dinner. I ordered Soupe de Poisson (Fish Soup) to be followed by some sort of fish with some sort of butter sauce. The soup was good, although I should confess that I’ve never met a Soupe de Poisson that I didn’t like. I especially love the tray with croutons, shredded cheese, and mustard sauce that you get to throw willy-nilly into your soup.

I finished my soup and waited for my entrée. When I eat in a restaurant alone, I feel like everyone is looking at me. Which is why I was glad to be accompanied by Les Trois Mousquetaires.

… Cardinal Richelieu has arranged for his agent, Milady, to steal the necklace that the Queen of France has recently given as a keepsake to her lover, the Duke of Buckingham. At the same time, the King of France, at the Cardinal’s uncoincidental suggestion, has just asked the Queen to wear that very same necklace at the upcoming ball. So now, in order to keep her love affair unproven, the Queen must get the necklace back from the Duke of Buckingham before Milady can steal it from him. But the Duke is already well on on his way back to England! Clearly the Queen needs the help of a dashing and enthusiastic young hero …

My fish arrived. I put my book down, exposing myself to public view, and took a look at my plate. Everyone watching saw my expression change from anticipation to befuddlement. You see, my fish was rolled up in tin foil.

I had two choices: I could unwrap the foil or I could cut it away. Cutting the foil seemed like the wrong approach because of the risk of creating annoying little bits of tin foil. So I went with the unwrapping method.

After burning my fingertips, I gave the foil a minute to cool down and myself a minute to figure out a better approach. (“Foil me once …”)

I didn’t figure out a better approach, so I began again to unwrap my fish. This process involved picking up the fish and turning it over while unfolding the foil. To add to the difficulty, there was an abundance of fish juice that very much wanted to run down the tin foil onto the tablecloth.

I was expecting that it would only take few turns to get through the foil to the fish. But no. It was unbelievable, bordering on silly, how much tin foil someone felt was necessary to wrap around six ounces of seafood. By the time I was done, my entire table was covered by the tin foil extending out from under my little fish. I was sure that I was the victim of some cruel, but admirably creative, joke.

Now that I’d made my way to the actual fish, I was faced with a new decision. I could eat the fish where it was, resting on its silver seabed. Or I could go for the advanced maneuver and lift the fish up with my fork and slide the tin foil out from under it – while trying not to spill the pool of fish juice on the tablecloth or my lap. I went for the advanced move because it was the only way I could get to the butter sauce that was on my plate but under the tin foil. And, in my humble opinion, I executed the move brilliantly. I finished by pouring the fish juice back onto the fish where it belonged, then crumpled the foil into a tight ball which I put on the table as far away as possible.

The fish was absolutely wonderful and almost worth the effort.

Halfway through dessert, Laura called. I told her where I was, and she walked across the street and joined me. (Small town.) I offered her some of my dessert, but she declined, saying that she ate something horrible at lunch and hadn’t had an appetite since.

“I’m sorry. What did you eat?”

“Crêpe. Tripe crêpe.”

Laura does the sales and marketing for CODAR Ocean Sensors. For those of you that live in a cave, CODAR makes devices that use High Frequency Radar to track and record ocean currents. You plop one of these babies somewhere on the coast, and, whamo, you get to know exactly where the water’s going. Kudos to Laura for finding a job that requires her to explore the coastlines of the world.

After dessert we went to the bar next door and met up with Laura’s co-workers and conference buddies, a run-of-the-mill group of Oceanologists and HF-Radarologists. We chatted, drank beer, played pinball, and watched drunk scientists dance.

The conference ended the next morning, and seven of us in two cars began a road trip to Paris. The group consisted of Laura and me, plus Chad, a field engineer for CODAR, and a friendly group of esteemed oceanologists named Josh, Hank, Jeff, and Cal.

Our first stop was St. Malo, a walled city on the northern coast. From there we walked out to a little island only accessible during low tide. On this island is the tomb of Chateaubriand, whose nominal fame as an author has been replaced by his universal fame as a large piece of steak.

The highpoint of St. Malo occured when we were standing on Chateaubriand’s island and witnessed a brilliant rainbow that started exactly at the steeple of St. Malo’s cathedral and arched over the town and down all the way into the water 40 yards from where we were standing.

The lowpoint of St. Malo occured at the hotel when we witnessed Cal discovering that the memory card on his digital camera had malfunctioned, thus destroying all evidence of the aforementioned rainbow.

Two other things happened that night that struck me as funny. At dinner, all 7 of us ordered Chateaubriands. And after dinner, we went to an Irish Pub named “Le O’Flattery’s.”

The next day was a whirlwind:

First stop: Mont St. Michel, a magnificent old abbey built on a large hill on a small island just offshore. From the mainland, it looks like a castle in the sky, but on the water.

Next stop: The beaches of the Normandy invasion. There are still big craters in the beach, over 10 feet deep.

Last stop: The city of Rouen, which is home to a cathedral known in particular for two things: 1) it contains the tomb of Richard the Lionheart and 2) its immense steeple is made of steel (several prior steeples were made of wood, but kept breaking off and falling into the pews – fortunately never piercing Richard the Lionheart).

In Rouen our group had its last dinner together. Once again, all seven of us ordered the same meal: this time hamburgers with Roquefort. It was an embarassing display of being American tourists. But at least we did not end our trip with tripe.

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5. Coiffed
April 22 – May 2, 2002

Let me tell you about five events from the last two weeks, in ascending order of goodness:
I went to a massive electronics store in Paris. I went twice: once with Daisy to buy a memory card for a digital camera, and once by myself to return the memory card because it didn’t work. My story is about the second visit. I started at the Information Counter, where I told them I wanted to exchange memory cards. They told me to go back outside, turn left, and enter the next building. I did, and found myself in the store’s business offices. I gave them the bad memory card, and they gave me a voucher. I went back to the Information Counter, handed over the voucher, and was given a store credit coupon. I went to the digital camera counter and told the guy what memory card I wanted. The guys said okay, but, instead of giving it to me, gave me a sales tag of some sort to take to a cashier. I went to a cashier, gave her the tag and my coupon, and she gave me a receipt. I went back to the digital camera counter, gave the guy my receipt, and he gave me the memory card, plus a different receipt. Before exiting the store, I gave this last receipt to the security card, who stamped it, and then let me go. Two hours, one voucher, one coupon, one tag, and two receipts later, I had the new memory card. It helps that I could tell someone.

It was election night – the first round of the presidential election, where candidates from 16 parties would be narrowed down to just two. They have an interesting way of voting here in France. You go to a table where there is a pile of envelopes next to 16 stacks of paper slips, each with the name of one of the candidates. You take an envelope and one of each slip, go into a booth, but the slip representing your candidate into the envelope, then turn in the envelope. It looked liked fun – and much easier than the last process I described – but they didn’t give me a turn.Marc and Daisy went to vote, and they took me with them. After voting, Marc and Daisy took me to the headquarters of the candidate they just voted for, Alain Madelin, where there was an election night party. TV’s were everywhere, and whenever something important was being said on TV, the people watching TV would go, “Shhhhh” and the rooms of people talking would become quiet – until someone came to the conclusion that what was being said on TV was less important than his own conversation, at which point that person would start talking, causing a chain reaction of renewed conversations. Our guy, Alain Madelin, ended up with about 4% of the vote, putting him 10th out of 16. And he walked right by me.

Daisy took me to the nearby town of Chantilly – which is the home of Chantilly. I wanted to say the home of “Chantilly whipped cream”, but I’m not supposed to say that because it would be like saying “Champagne sparkling wine.” Daisy went to conduct art research at the library in the Chateau de Chantilly, while I checked out the museum and the stables. I use the word “stables” only because that’s what they are, not because they are anything like stables. Rather, imagine an immense Baroque cathedral 200 yards long, but where the ornate carvings are of horses rather than saints. Apparently a local prince, (Louis Henri, Duc de Bourbon) was under the strong impression that he would be reincarnated as a horse, so in 1719 he commissioned the building of The Great Stables. There are still horses being kept in the stables, although there is no indication of which one is the prince. When Daisy finished her research, we walked into the chateau’s woods to an 18th century cottage where crème de Chantilly was invented and is still being made. And they serve desserts. I had berries and sorbet with crème de Chantilly, then spice cake with crème de Chantilly, then just a big bowl of crème de Chantilly. I’m sorry, but I have to report the facts as they come in.

It was the French version of Labor Day, and we were getting ready for a picnic here at the house. Daisy asked if I would slice the ham. I said yes. She then asked if I was sure. I said yes again. She asked me if I was really sure, and if I had done this before. I said, uhhh, yes. She then said, no, you don’t want to do this. I said yes I do, and told her to give me the ham. So she did. But what she gave me was not just a ham. It was the entire leg of a pig – hoof and all. Much of the meat had already been cut away, which was odd because I’d been here a month and couldn’t recall having had any ham. Anyway, I began slicing the ham. I thought it would be easy. But it was hard. I mean the ham was hard. So hard that it was difficult to tell the difference between the meat and the bone. After 15 minutes of struggle, I was visibly sweating and had very little sliced ham to show for it. My mood was becoming poor, I was having serious doubts about the edibility of this “ham”, and I found myself wondering how far I could hurl it – the hoof would have made a great hand-hold. A while later Daisy said that that was enough, and we could give the rest to the dog. She then casually said that the ham was a gift, and that it was actually a wild boar from Spain which eats oak tree roots (or something like that), giving it a special flavor and making them highly sought-after. So I reached down and tried a piece. Oh my – it was so good! it was like eating beef jerky but twenty times better. I told Daisy, “the dog isn’t getting this!” and I spent another half hour carving off every last ounce of meat. By the end I had a nice pile of gourmet boar jerky, and was quite proud of myself. Pam Pam got the bone and didn’t complain.

And lastly, there was my visit to the barbershop. This would be my first time to the barber in several years, since I started shaving my head myself with an electric trimmer. But I didn’t bring my trimmer to France, and I’m afraid of putting a razor blade anywhere I can’t see it, so I asked Daisy about getting a haircut. She told me where to go and that her mother, Madame Deloue, would make an appointment for me. (Madame Deloue has been staying at the house, helping out by cooking dinner and making hair appointments for house guests.) I arrived at the barbershop at 5:00pm, where I learned that I was not going to a barber shop. I was going to the exact opposite of a barbershop – a coiffure. I took a deep breath and entered. An attractive young woman greeted me, and I told her that I had an appointment scheduled by Madame Deloue. Some awkward confusion followed because, unbeknownst to me, Madame Deloue had also made a manicure appointment for herself at 5:30. After I frantically made it clear that I was there for a haircut, not a manicure, she took me to a chair and sink and shampooed my hair. Because I have so little hair, I always skip the shampoo and just use soap. I thus found it ironic that the first time the hairs on my head were ever being shampooed was just before they were about to be cut off. It was like they were being granted their final wish. After my hair was shampooed for the first and last time, I was led to a different chair where a second attractive woman proceeded to cut my hair. (She insisted on trimming my eyebrows as well, which was a bit disconcerting.) Not far into the haircut, she asked if I would like a cup of coffee. I was stupefied, but managed to say yes. And so a third attractive woman brought me a cup of coffee and placed it on the counter in front of me. I sat there staring at the coffee, trying to decide if I was actually expected to drink it while my hair was being cut. I decided against it – it would be too silly, and potentially too difficult. When my pretty barber was finished, she told me to relax and enjoy my coffee. From the way she smiled, I sensed that I should have been drinking it all along. I drank the coffee, but I didn’t relax. You try and relax while staring at yourself in a mirror drinking coffee in barber’s chair, surrounded by pretty French coiffurists. When I was done, I paid my bill, and said hello to Madame Deloue who was just arriving. As I was walking out, there was an angelic chorus of “Bonsoir, monsieur” from the three women who had just washed my hair, cut my hair, and served me coffee. I think I turned a shade of red for each of them.

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6. The Week of Day 41
May 11, 2002

I spent last weekend visiting Marc-Antoine in Les Landes, a region in the southwest of France. To get there I took the train. I should be more specific: I took the TGV. TGV stands for “Train Goes Veryfast”. I love the TGV. There’s no place I know where it’s easier to feel like you’re in both a James Bond movie and an Agatha Christie book at the same time. Standing in the restaurant car, sipping un café, watching the French countryside zoom by, you can’t help but feel cool … unless you order chicken wings and get sauce all over your hands. I passed on the chicken wings on the return trip.

Les Landes lies on the Atlantic coast, just above Basque country and the Pyrenees mountains. The region is known as “the California of France” because of the climate. Something like 90% of the region is forest. The area used to be all swampland until Napoleon III (“the other Napoleon”) told people they could have land there for free if they planted lots of trees. Well they did, and now it’s the biggest forest in France. There’s also great surfing, so interspersed among the pine trees are surfers and surf-shops.

Marc-Antoine picked me up at the train station. I knew Marc-Antoine fairly well from when he visited San Francisco 10 years ago. From the train station we went to a museum, then we picked up his children, Victor and Louise. Victor (pronounced like “Vick tore”) is an affectionate 3 year old who quickly became a leg ornament. Louise is a 5 year old young lady who has an endearing way of ending her sentences with “et voila!” We went home, and I met Marc-Antoine’s very nice wife, Agnes (pronounced “Ahn-yes”). After dinner, I subjected yet another family to pogo.com. Victor and Louise loved Poppit, but it was Marc-Antoine and Agnes who I think really got hooked, even though Victor scolded his father because he was “too old to play Poppit.”

The next day we went to the city of Biarritz. In the mid-to-late 19th Century, Biarritz was THE place to go if you were rich and famous and wanted to hang out at the beach. Many of the ornate buildings from “La Belle Epoque” are still there, making Biarritz very elegant, or “shee shee” as the French would say. However the town is now more popular with surfers than with the rich and famous. On the day I visited, though, there wasn’t much surfing going on because the waves were small. There was, however, a guy out there trying to kite surf.

Kite surfing is like water-skiing on a surf board, but instead of being towed by a boat, you’re being towed by a really big kite that you’re flying. Anyway, something had gone terribly wrong because this poor guy was no longer on his surfboard, nor was he even in the water. Instead, he was being dragged back and forth along the beach by his kite. Every time he got control of the kite, the kite would change and start dragging him in a different direction. He eventually got control, got onto his surfboard, and began to kite surf correctly on the water … which was far less entertaining.

While in Biarritz we went to the “Musee de la Mer.” It had ocean-related exhibits as well as a little aquarium. The best part for me was the intimate few moments I spent gazing into the eyes of a squid. I really think we connected.

The next day Marc-Antoine, Agnes, Louise, Victor and I walked through a town called St. Jean de Luz. It was beautiful, with lots of Basque style buildings. The typical Basque houses are white with painted wood beams visible on the front of the house. The highlight was stopping at a patisserie and eating a “Gateau Basque”. I chose one made with pistachios and black cherries. After one bite, I knew why the Basque people decided to put their name on this pastry.

On Monday Marc-Antoine drove me to the train station, ending my short but pleasant trip to French Basque Country.

Later this week, back in Paris …

I was driving home, trying to decide what I would do for dinner (Marc and Daisy were out of town for a couple days). I was thinking that I’d make some pasta with olive oil and garlic, in order to get in a good dose of garlic while Daisy was away, when suddenly something caught my eye. I turned to see a white building with huge neon sign on the roof that read, “The Buffalo Grill.” As I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed that the neon letters G and R on the word “GRILL” had burned out, but it was too late to turn back now. I walked passed the totem pole, climbed the steps under the “Saloon” sign”, pulled the buffalo horn shaped door-handle, and moseyed on in. The inside looked like a cross between an old saloon and Chili’s. I sat down and tried to imagine that I was in the old west. It was difficult because the little white poodle under the table next to me kept yapping. (The fact that the waitress had a bottle opener in her holster didn’t help either.) I ordered a “Desperados” beer which, it turns out, is flavoured with tequila. For dinner I ordered a steak called “La Piece du Sheriff” (don’t ask me). While waiting for my piece of the sheriff, I went to the washroom. A country-western song was playing called “Loving you is like living in Las Vegas, it’s round-the-clock outrageous.” It was a catchy tune, and I found myself dancing while I washed my hands (the tequila in the beer apparently worked fast). I went back to my table, ate my steak, then looked at the dessert menu. There was a section called “Coupes Prohibition” which had various ice creams matched up with various liquors. I chose the “Tennessee.” It was a scoop of caramel ice cream served in a glass of whisky … a fitting end to my trip to The Buffalo Grill.

I went for another run in the woods. I wanted to find the bunny. I didn’t find the bunny. But I did find a fenced off area with a sign that read, “Do No Enter; Danger of Death.” I wondered what in this little forest could be so deadly. Then, remembering I was in France, which is close to England, I thought of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, and the vorpal bunny. I decided to run somewhere else. Nice bunny.

On Thursday, Ecouen (the village where I’m living with Marc, Daisy, Matt, and Felix) had its big fair. There had been signs for it for weeks, and I was looking forward to going. The signs had said “Brocantes”, which typically means antique dealers, but it turned out that it was just a big flea market with people pedalling junk. It was in a residential area, and it literally looked like several blocks of door-to-door garage sales. For some reason, I was thinking that everything that’s old in France is a valuable antique. So the fair left me disillusioned … they have junk here in France too. Disappointed, I walked back to the center of town and stopped at a Greek sandwich place. I ordered a sliced pork sandwich. The guy asked if I wanted fries with that, and I said yes. He then proceeded to fill my sandwich with french fries. I took my sandwhich/fries and walked up towards the 16th century Chateau. I found a spot on a rolling lawn just outside the chateau wall. I sat on the edge of a 16th century basin next to a 16th century well and ate my sandwich, looking up at the chateau rooftop behind the wall while listening to the sound of birds chirping.

And yesterday, Day 41 of my stay in Paris, it finally happened. I stepped in dog merde.

I did in fact get some reading done on the train (if there’s one thing that’s more cool than James Bond and Agatha Christie, it’s The Three Musketeers). So King Louis XIII asks Queen Anne to wear her diamond necklace to the ball next week. The Queen asks, “why do you care?” The King says, “I don’t, but Cardinal Richelieu wanted me to ask.” So now the Queen knows that the Cardinal knows and the King does not know, but the King *would* know if she didn’t get the necklace back from you-know-who before the ball. (You-know-who, in case you don’t, is the Duke of Buckingham). So the Queen does what we all do during a crisis, she turns to her handmaiden. Her handmaiden, Madame Bonacieux, says, “No problem!” and then goes home and asks her husband to take care of it. Well it turns out that her husband is a real jerk, not to mention way older than she is, and he’s in allegiance with the Cardinal … so not only does he refuse to help, but he runs off to go tell on his wife. Fortunately D’Artagnan was eavesdropping, and, seeing an opportunity to score points with Madame Bonacieux, he volunteers his services. At this point, things really start to move fast. D’Artagnan rounds up the three musketeers, and they take off for England on horseback. Along the way Porthos, Aramis, and Athos are each waylaid for various silly reasons, but D’Artagnan makes it to London, finds the Duke, and delivers the message from the Queen. The Duke gets the necklace, sees that two diamonds have been stolen, forges two replacements, and sends D’Artagnan back to Paris with the necklace. D’Artagnan arrives to the ball in time to save the Queen from turning into a pumpkin, errr, I mean, to save her reputation. It’s about now that D’Artagnan thinks to try to find the three musketeers, each of whom was in a life-threatening situation when he last saw them. But before doing that he hangs around Paris for a day because he has a big date with Madame Bonacieux the next night. But she stands him up – either that, or she was kidnapped, at this point we aren’t quite sure. Since D’Artagnan no longer has a date, he goes to look for his three friends. He finds Porthos wounded and out of money, Aramis lovesick and ready to become a priest, and Athos locked in a cellar drinking wine. I love those guys.

C’est tout. A bientot.

–Alex

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7. Didier’s House
May 18-23, 2002

This week marked the end of The Great X-Box Debate. For as long as I’ve been here, Felix has been on a campaign to get Marc and Daisy to allow him to buy an X-Box game machine. Each night at dinner, Felix would explain how he would be much more motivated in his studies if he had X-Box time to look forward to. Each week he’d bring home new X-Box magazines, strategically leaving them in visible places. And it was not uncommon for Daisy to find her computer screen background changed to X-Box propaganda.

Felix’s persistence paid off, and last week Marc and Daisy began discussing the conditions on which having an X-Box in the house would be acceptable. Once the deal terms had been agreed to, Felix would have to write up them up and get Marc, Daisy, Matt, and me to sign it. (I’m not sure if my signature was actually needed, but, after not being allowed to vote in the French presidential election, I appreciated being included.) And so, after several days of heated negotiations, on Felix’s 13th birthday, all signatures were obtained. Now, once Felix has saved up enough money, he can buy an X-Box. But he can only play one hour per day, and only if he also reads for an hour. And if he ever talks about the X-Box during dinner again, the agreement is void.

(I really like this family.)

On Tuesday I left for a quick visit to Le Havre, on the coast of Normandy, where Pierre-Yves and Richard live. I took the train. It was very picturesque countryside, with lots of cows roaming around. They looked content. My opinion is that, although California cows have better marketing, Normandy cows are in fact happier.

Marc-Antoine picked me up from the train station. (You should now be thinking, “Didn’t Marc-Antoine pick up Alex at the train station in the south of France? Hundreds of miles away from Normandy? Well, yes, but Marc-Antoine came for the week to work on fixing up a house he bought here in Normandy. And to pick me up from the train station.)  We went to Pierre’s house and had dinner with Pierre and his wife, Joelle. During dinner, Marc-Antoine’s wife Agnes called. Victor and Louise are doing fine, and Agnes says to say Hi.

The next day Joelle took me to see the distillery for Benedictine, an internationally popular liqueur made with 16 different spices. The recipe was created hundreds of years ago by Benedictine monks, and the distillery is located at the site of a Benedictine abbey. The label on a Benedictine has the letters D.O.M., which stand for Deo Optimo Maximo — “To God, the best and greatest.” With branding like that, no wonder the stuff is still around.

After having our free sample of the Benedictine elixir, we went to a museum in Le Havre. The collection impressionist art (many famous impressionist painters are fromNormandy) was phenomenal. Tucked away in a corner of the museum was the Wall ‘o Cows, featuring about a hundred paintings of cows painted by one guy with way too much time on his hands.

After that I went over to Marc-Antoine’s job site and helped on the house. My job was to hammer & chisel out square holes in a big beam so that other smaller beams could beams could be fit into the big beam. I hope I did it okay. The house is 150 years old. After all that time, I’d hate for it to fall down because of me.

That night I went out to dinner with Marc-Antoine, Pierre and Joelle, Richard and his wife Agnes, and two of their friends, Marie and Valerie. We went to a German restaurant established in 1584. We ate choucroute (sauerkraut) with various sausages and really thick bacon, and we drank beer. It was a fun group. When Pierre told everyone about my journal, Marie laughed and announced that my entry for that night should read: “I had dinner with a blond (Joelle), two brunettes (Agnes & Valerie), and a red-head (Marie). Vive La France! Vive La France!”

She makes a good point.

The next day I drove back to Paris with Pierre and Richard. That night I went with them to Didier’s house for dinner. (Didier – pronounced deed-yay – is an antique dealer friend, mentioned briefly in “Part II: The Field Trip”.) Didier’s house is beyond my ability to do justice, but I’ll try …

Thirty kilometres north of Paris lies Didier’s house. It is built on top of a 12th century donjon (a stone fort in the form of a circular tower).

You see, about 900 years ago, someone decided that this site was of tactical importance, so a tall donjon was built on a hill top. From the top of the tower one could see far off into the distance and watch for attacking Englishmen. A stone wall rampart was also built, enclosing the area around the donjon. Over the years that followed, several structures were built within the confines of the wall, including barracks, prison cells, an escape tunnel, a crypt, and pigeonnere. (Important medieval homes had pigeonneres, which were large, circular structures that contained lots and lots of pigeons that were used for hunting, sending messages, and, often, dinner.) Way later, in the 19th century, some guy (the French doctor who invented neurology) built a house on TOP of the donjon. The house was eventually abandoned, but a few years ago Didier bought the property and restored the house and grounds.

Didier gave us the tour. We walked up to the top of a remaining section of rampart wall. On top of the wall there was something of a patio – that’s how thick the wall was – which on the inside overlooked the pool, donjon/house, and gardens and on the outside overlooked miles of green countryside. We then walked down into the gardens, past an old well covered with ivy, to the prison cells which are now used to store tools. Below the cells were the barracks and the escape tunnel. From there we walked to the crypt. Steps led down into the gloom, but Didier said something I didn’t understand, and we didn’t get to go down. We then entered the donjon itself. The inside was a lot smaller than the outside, on account of the exterior walls being 10 feet think, but there was still enough space for several rooms. We walked to the center, where steps led up. Way up. We didn’t take the steps, though, because this 12th Century Donjon now had an elevator. We rode the elevator up through the donjon, through the house, and up to the roof of the house. From there we enjoyed the spectacular vantage point which French sentries had used throughout the first half of the last millennium. We then went down and toured the house. The kids’ rooms were in the donjon itself (I was so jealous), with their bathrooms carved out of the exterior wall. The tour concluded at the pigeonnere, which is now a guest house.

While we were taking the tour, Didier’s wife Agnes (yes, the third wife named Agnes in this entry) was preparing dinner in the pool-side kitchenette which is built into the base of the rampart wall. We joined Agnes for drinks and an appetizer. I’m not sure what to call the appetizer, but I’d be happy to describe it. It was boar meat from a boar which Didier shot in the south of France near Biarritz … perhaps related to the Spanish boars which eat oak roots. The boar was shredded, or pounded, or something, because it was really soft (the exact opposite of my last boar experience). And it was spiced with Picante peppers. We ate it by spreading it onto french bread. It was outstanding. After dinner we went up, way up, to the house, and Didier served some exceptional Calvados … an appropriate ending.

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8. French Notes
May 12 -23, 2002

It was my day out with the boys: Marc Maison and his sons, Matterand and Felix. We would be spending the day in Paris. We could go anywhere we wanted. And we all wanted to go to the same two places:

The Catacombs and the Sewers.

I was particularly excited about the Catacombs. By the end of the 18th Century, the cemeteries of Paris were overflowing. So they decided to move all the bones to quarries under the city. You can now visit the bones by walking through a mile of Catacombs. But on this particular day the Catacombs were closed because of some obscure holiday.

My disappointment ran deep.

But the Sewers were open – so the day did not go to waste.

A few days later, I went into Paris alone. I had a French lesson. Before coming toFrance I had found a tutor on the Internet. Her name was Isabelle. A Parisian French tutor named Isabelle –  my imagination had been running wild.

Every good writer knows (I’m guessing here) that anticipation us key. That’s why I’m writing this paragraph. I’m letting you, the reader, wallow in suspense so that even if Isabelle didn’t turn out to be as cute as I was hoping, you’d at least have been able to savor the anticipation.

I hope you enjoyed it.

I left the lesson with several sheets of paper on which Isabelle had written down notes of all the mistakes I had made while reading a story out-loud in “French”. I walked across the street into the “Jardin des Plantes” (“Garden of Plants” – kinda redundant, if you ask me). I followed a sign that read “Labyrinth”, expecting to find one of those mazes made with hedges.

It wasn’t a hedge maze. It was a hedge spiral. The long spiral led to the top of a hill where there was a gazebo overlooking the gardens. It was a romantic spot, and I sat down on a bench to spend a few quiet moments alone with Isabelle’s notes. After a few minutes, a young couple holding hands emerged from the maze. So now it was me and two lovers in a gazebo on a hill.

I hastily put my notes away and spiralled out of sight.

I walked a few blocks to Place de Bastille. The Bastille prison isn’t there anymore on account of it being burned down on July 14th, 1789, but there’s a cool looking monument in its place, and the area has become a trendy night spot. I had dinner at a sushi bar where I worked on the journal entry you are now reading. I didn’t have anything else to write on, so my French lesson notes are now obscured by journal notes. Appropriate.

The sushi wasn’t nearly as good as it was expensive, so I ate small and left in search of dessert. I found a place that had a Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Sundae on the menu. That sounded really good, so even though it was 7.50 Euros ($6.75), I went in. But then I thought, “This is dumb, I’m in Paris, and I shouldn’t be ordering Ben & Jerry’s.” So I left and found a patisserie.

I bought a Madagascar (several forms of chocolate in a square, covered by a raspberry sauce) AND an Isle Flotante (liquidy custard covered by an egg white foam). The total was 5,90 Euros, so even with two extravagant desserts, I came in well under budget. I didn’t have any utensils, so I asked the cashier for a plastic spoon. He gave me two – what a waste. I walked a ways further and found a bar that wasn’t too crowded and sat down at a table. I ordered a Calvados from the pretty barkeep and ate my Madagascar. In my exuberance, I broke my plastic spoon on the second bite. Fortunately I had a spare. After finishing the Madagascar I ordered another Calvados and ate my Isle Flotante (which posed far less of a threat to my spoon). The bar had a good atmosphere, with nice music, and I enjoyed my treats while imagining that the pretty barkeep and I lived happily ever after.

I leave tomorrow for Budapest to meet Mike and Sara. I’m going to join them at Mike’s brother’s wedding, then we’re travelling by van to Prague and Vienna. So I’m thinking there could be lots of good journal material ahead.

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9. A Wedding In Budapest
May 24-25, April 2002

It was Friday in Budapest, and I needed to buy shoes.

But first, let me introduce this week’s cast:

Mike – A close friend.
Sara – A close friend. Mike’s wife.
Pete – Mike’s dad.
Judy – Mike’s mom.
Tim – Mike’s brother
Ted – Mike’s brother. The groom.
Dora – The bride, originally from Budapest.

Mike and Sara would be arriving the next morning with my suit, so all I needed for the wedding was a pair of dress shoes. The mall was half way across town, but I had all day, so I decided to walk.

I soon reached a big park where there was a chateau surrounded by a moat. Anything with a moat is worth a visit, so I went inside and found myself in the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture. Okay, not my first choice, but when it comes to museums I’ve learned to love the one you’re with. So I paid my 50 cents and went in. There were lots of life-sized displays of farming scenes with people wearing traditional Hungarian garb. I walked through the museum without breaking stride, then continued on my way.

My next stop was to peek into one of Budapest’s many public baths. It looked like a big indoor public swimming pool you might see in America. The difference is that the Budapest baths use hot water from thermal springs, the same springs Romans used for their baths when they lived there 2000 years ago.

A bit further down the road was a playground. Here I learned that, even in a place where the language is completely different, the sound of many children playing is exactly the same. There was one little girl wearing a red woven skirt like the ones I’d just seen in the museum. I was thinking how nice it was that the old traditions were continuing with the children, when suddenly the girl pulled up her skirt and began prancing around, proudly displaying her underwear.

As it was no longer appropriate for me to be watching the children, I moved on. A few blocks later I stopped to get my hair cut. It was good, but nothing to write home about.

I got to the mall and bought the cheapest shoes that fit.
The next morning I left my little hotel on the outskirts of Pest and went to the hills ofBuda. (Budapest is divided by the Danube river, with Pest on one side and Buda on the other.) I met up with Mike and Sara at the Hilton, where we’d be sharing a room.
I’ve known Mike and Sara for about 12 years, ever since John, my brother, became friends with Mike in college. Mike and Sara, both as individuals and as a couple, are wonderfully generous, easy-going, and fun. And so I was greatly looking forward to the upcoming week, not just because it would be my first time exploring Eastern Europe, but because it would be a week spent with Mike and Sara.

We had a few hours till the wedding, so Mike & Sara, Pete & Judy, Tim, and I went for a walk in the nearby, very cheesy,  underground “Labyrinth” which featured mood music, odd-looking statues, and a fountain spewing out wine. After that Mike and Sara went back to the room for a quick nap, while Pete, Judy and I went to lunch at a pastry shop/cafe. We ate cake  and coffee, then Pete and Judy went back to the hotel. I stayed for another round of cake and coffee, then went back to the room.

The marriage took place in the hotel courtyard which was framed by the ruins of an old church. Mike, Sara, and I were a bit late in arriving to the ceremony. And Sara had the giggles.

45 minutes earlier … I got back to the hotel room after lunch, and found Sara in a panic. “Alex, help me!” she said, “Where is your power adaptor?” Apparently Sara’s bangs were completely out of control, and she needed her curling iron to put them back in place. I had brought a power adaptor (which reduces the high voltage of European outlets down to the American standard) to use for Mike’s digital camera. So I grabbed the adaptor from my bag, happy to so easily be a hero.

A little later I again heard, “Alex, help me!” Sara then told me that the adaptor did not fit in the outlet. I tried myself. She was right. It didn’t fit. Not quite.

There’s a certain energy when you’re getting ready for a wedding. There’s also a certain motivational effect when a woman says, “Help me!” Please consider those two things before passing judgement on what I did next. Also consider that I had just had a lunch consisting of two pieces of cake and two cups of coffee.

The adaptor didn’t fit … so I made it fit. With a significant bit of force and a little twist, the adaptor popped into the outlet. Sara was now able to use the curling iron, and I regained my hero status.

All was good until the tip of the curling iron melted off.

And so Sara was not able to finish fixing her hair. A little later, while I was in the bathroom hiding in shame, I heard a funny smacking sound, followed by Sara yelling, “Ouch!” You know the antenna thingy on ironing boards? Well Sara was putting away the ironing board and the antenna got caught and pulled back, then released and slapped her on the face, leaving a nice mark.

After we were dressed and ready, and after Mike finally was able to pry the power adaptor out of the socket, we left the room and headed down the hall. It was then that we realized that Sara smelled like burnt hair. So Sara had run-away bangs, a welt on her face, and she smelled like my cousin and I did after we ran out of lighter fluid and used gasoline on the barbecue.
But did any of this dampen Sara’s spirits?  Not at all. But she got the giggles. That’s Sara.

The wedding reception took place up the street in an old ballroom. We ate lots of traditional food and drank lots of local wine. Pete, father of the groom, gave a long toast in Hungarian. This was impressive mostly because he didn’t speak a word of Hungarian. He had written the toast in English, then asked someone to translate it for him and teach him how to read it. His reading was clearly a struggle, but it won the hearts of the Hungarian crowd, especially the father of the bride.

Mike, Sara, Tim, and I sat at a table with Dora’ brother, Attila (lots of people over here are named Attila) and two of Dora’s friends, Dori and Noemi (pronounced No Amy). “No Amy” was the most beautiful girl in the world that I’ve ever sat at a table with. Mike and I were finding it difficult not to stare. And it didn’t help that Sara would lean over and whisper stuff like, “She’s SO cute.”

There was dancing after dinner. As is usual for me after I’ve been drinking, I had happy feet. I danced a lot with Elizabeth (blond, petite, pretty blue eyes, writes for Associated Press, and lives in London). When she told me her name was Elizabeth, she followed up by listing a dozen other ways to say Elizabeth (Liz, Beth, Betsy, and so on), pointing out that her favorite was Lizzy.

We had been talking for a while, when Sara came up to the two of us. Sara, who is always looking out for me, must have seen that things were going well and decided to come help me keep up the momentum.

So I introduced Sara to …

It wasn’t that I had forgotten her name.  It was that I had forgotten she had even told me her name. (Did I mention that I had drunk a lot of local wine?) And so I turned to Elizabeth and asked, “What’s your name?”

In the split second it took for her face to become one of utter horror, I remembered the whole “Elizabeth” conversation. So as she was turning to walk away, I grabbed her arm and said, “Sara, this is Elizabeth, but she prefers Lizzy.” And so I got to spend more time with Lizzy.

Lizzy and I were getting along splendidly when, completely out of nowhere, she hits me with, “You like me, but you don’t even know me.” She then waited for my response. I had no idea whether this was a question or a statement, so I just said, “Yes. And Yes.”  She seemed to like that answer, and so I got to spend more time with Lizzy.

Things were continuing to go well when, again completely out of the blue, she asked me, “Why should I like you?” As with the prior comment, it wasn’t exactly obvious what she was getting at. But I suspected that she meant, “I’m starting to like you, but what would be the point?” So I asked her, “When are you going back to London?” She said, “In 8 hours.”

I ended up giving some feeble answer to the “Why should I like you?” question … something about just liking her company. But at this point, the only really meaningful thing I could have said would have been: “I’d like to visit you in London.” But I didn’t say it. And so I didn’t get to spend more time with Lizzy.

But I enjoyed the time that I did spend with her. And I enjoyed sitting at the same table as No Amy. And I enjoyed listening to Pete trying to speak Hungarian. And I enjoyed the pre-wedding fiascoes leading up to Sara’s giggles. So although I didn’t give Lizzy a good reason to like me, all-in-all, it was a wonderful day.

Hey Alex,

I’m sorry I’ve been so bad about writing, but thanks for keeping me up to date on your adventures  — I love it!  I found chapter 9 especially powerful; I was laughing and crying by turns.  I must admit that the encounter with Lizzy had me more than a little outraged:  requiring you to justify your charms indeed!  She’s a fool, and the sad thing is she probably doesn’t realize that she’s a fool (in fact, a just published psychological study from Cornell confirms the fact:  fools don’t know they’re fools!).

A quick query with other recipients of your journal confirmed my suspicion:  Lizzy is a fool and your friends think you’re the coolest.  We also agreed that should you ever find yourself in the similarly awkward position of having to prove your worth, you should be armed with evidence.  So on rather short notice we’ve put together the following “Lizzy-List” for you.  It’s hardly complete, but on the other hand, it’s clearly more than any sane woman would need.

With no further ado, your friends, family, and random admirers present to you the Lizzy-List:
(you are, btw, expected to share this on your ‘following-Alex’ site)

Kevin

”Lizzy, you fool”

by the friends and family
of Alex Beltramo

Alex is:

Adventurous:  Alex snuck into a trout farm at 2 am to retrieve live fish for a high school prank

Babe magnet:  He wore down the carpet pacing, pacing, pacing holding our (slightly fussy) newborn daughter.  How endearing is that? (Women really dig that stuff.)

Brave:  Not everyone will wear a huge green M&M costume for Halloween.

Bravo!:  the 2+ qualities about Alex that stand out the most for me (and, damn well, should be appreciated by that wench Lizzy!) are the following:  his incredible generosity (in all ways, Alex ‘just keeps giving’) and his gentleness and his wonderful, big smile.

Caring:  Even after the company that he started grew well beyond a start up, Alex continued the tradition of personally cooking a pasta dinner for the company once a month.

Caring:  Flew across the country for my wedding!

Chef:  When Alex can get a girl a home cooked meal, he’ll have her at “mmm!”

Compadre: The setting is California, in some jeeps, the jeepers jamboree has just started, and the axle just fell out of my jeep. John and I set off in his jeep with the broken parts from my jeep in the back, leaving our passengers alone in the middle of the woods.  We return many hours later expecting a passenger revolt and find Alex reading stories to our happy passengers around what appears to be a camp fire (the camp fire turns out to be a mountain of shiny Coors lite cans).  Once again, in time of need, Alex has turned a potential volatile situation into a joyous event.

Compassionate:  Alex typed my first term paper in high school twice (once after the computer crashed) and taught me how to use a word processor.

Creative:  We all know finding a creative Halloween costume is a tough thing to  do, especially as an adult.  Well this year, Alex topped us all,  magically appearing at our front door in full Peet’s God regalia.  Now  if you don’t know what the Peet’s god looks like, ask Alex, he’ll show  you (or email us, we have a photo) and he might even have some of those  chocolate covered coffee beans left over to share!

Creative:  I’ve seen women run off the dance floor saying “he’s dancing with a bottle of salad dressing…and a curtain!”  “I know, isn’t it great” and his partners have found him again…

Creative: For my birthday one year, Alex sat me in front of a computer and told me that my gift was sort of like a game show.  He told me to be ready to think quick and logged on to Amazon.com and told me that my birthday present was whatever I could put in the shopping basket within 3 minutes.  GO!!

Dancer:   Alex has been described by professional entertainers as having “more moves then Spiderman” when speaking of his dancing prowess.

Fascinating:  I’ve never seen anyone pull up a chair to watch the meringue bake on a pie…until Alex.

Fun:  We had several friends read passages at our wedding, and once again  Alex stole the show.  Others read Shakespeare, Corinthians, and the  typical wedding fare.  Alex selected a passage from Winnie the Pooh,  about how two is better than one. Playful and sincere, wonderful qualities in a man!

Funny:  Just read his French adventure journal

Generous:  During tough times when we couldn’t afford to have a company party, Alex  and his parents treated the whole company to a party at their home.  They have graciously donated 4 parties to the company over the years.

Generous:  He’ll give you his last earplugs at 4 in the morning and say that he has some to use also…and when busted at 5 with no earplugs when he rises to the window to watch a woman singing down the street, he takes one back and we each have one the rest of the morning…

Generous: Alex has always volunteered his time to help his family out ranging from business to personal issues.

Giving: Alex has taken significant time to chronicle his adventures in France and post them on a website for the entertainment of his friends

Grace under pressure: in spite of his complete starstruckness in meeting his childhood idol, Julie Andrews, Alex was truly gentlemanly.

Gregarious: Even after the company that he started grew well beyond a start up, Alex continued the tradition of hosting a company summer party at his parent’s house.

Hospitality:  In the mid to late nineties, every Wednesday night, Alex would cook  dinner for everyone in the company who was working late.  This was often  20-30 people.

Humble:  The whole wedding incident about not being able to say why Lizzy should like him is a case in point.

Indescribable:  I could give you at least 100 adjectives (all positive) that describe Alex…

Leadership:  The setting is Mexico, in a boat, a bunch of people getting seasick and the motor just broke.  As John and I attempt the repairs, Alex takes charge of the potential mutiny situation and starts a game of charades.  What could have been a miserable seasick experience turns out to be a wonderful one hour moonlit round of charades on the high sea.

Practical Joker:  Alex can take ‘em as well as dish ‘em out.

Rugged: Alex can run up and down hills without throwing up.

Spontaneous:  More than once he’s been at an airport ready to fly somewhere and from a simple request or idea from a friend, he’s changed plans and plane tickets, just like that…

Tough:  I’ve seen Alex encircled by cactus and crawl through them.

Note from Alex: Thank you, Kevin and all. I wish everyone was lucky enough to have a Lizzy List!

⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯

10. Helga
May 26-29, 2002

We checked out of the Budapest hotel room.  I no longer needed my dress shoes, so I left them for the maid with a note that read, “New shoes for you.”

We were going to Vienna.  Pete had rented a big blue van, and Mike, Sara, Pete, Judy, Tim and I piled in.  Our first stop would be to visit Pete’s 78 year-old cousin, Helga.

A little ways into Austria, we stopped for lunch at a sidewalk café. About a dozen Austrians were at the other tables watching us settle in. A few seconds after I sat down, I began to have the distinct feeling that I was slowly falling backwards.

If you feel like your chair is falling backwards, just go ahead and assume that it is. Don’t sit there and tell yourself, “Surely my chair isn’t falling backwards,” because, for example, one of your chair legs may be sliding into a storm drain, and you may be in the process of really embarrassing yourself and your country.

Along the way to Helga’s, we drove through beautiful, green, pastoral countryside. We didn’t see any cows, though. We didn’t see them because in Austria, according to Judy, the cows are kept in barns. The Austrians find it more efficient to bring the hay to the cows than to let them tromp around. Because I couldn’t see the Austrian cows, I don’t know if they looked happy. But I think it’s a fair guess that they are less happy than their French brethren who get to tromp.

We arrived at Helga’s. She scolded us for being late. I immediately liked her.

While Helga was preparing coffee and pastries, we poked around her house. As we looked at old pictures, Pete told us that Helga, after her father died, married her father’s business partner. Because her husband was so much older, she became a widow early in life. Her mother died about 15 years ago, and since then, despite Helga’s osteoporosis, she has been living alone.

We sat down to coffee and pastries. The pastries were frosted balls of cake the size of grapefruit. (She called them something which sounded like Wolf Balls, a name which none of us approved of.)

Helga’s English was nearly fluent. She was a delight to talk to, especially when she would tease Pete.

After we all had a pastry ball, there was still one left. No one was taking it. So Helga told us the story of the 12 Austrians and the plate of 13 schnitzels. No one was eating the one remaining schnitzel. Then the lights went out, followed by a sudden scream. The lights went back on to reveal an outstretched hand with 11 forks stuck in it.

Helga told us how she and her parents moved to America when she was a girl. After 12 years they moved back to Austria. Helga and her mother had always missed America, and when her father died they made plans to return. But they never returned because Helga got married instead. Helga said that she had no regrets because she had a happy marriage.

She reflected, then said, “You never know what turns life will take.” I thought she was referring to her decision to marry rather than return to America. But that wasn’t it.

After a long pause, she continued, “During the war, on that day … that day …”

She couldn’t come up with the word she was looking for. As she struggled to recall it, her eyes were welling with tears. I was thinking, “Does she mean D-Day?”  In 1944 she would have been 20 years old and living in America.

Finally someone said, “The Invasion of Normandy?”

Helga nodded. “Yes, the invasion.” She continued, “On that day, I lost my fiancée.”

It took me a minute to put it together. Helga was born in 1922. On D-Day, she would have been 20 years old, and living in America. So her life went like this: she was born in German-speaking Austria but grew up in America, where she fell in love and got engaged. She lost her fiancée to the war, then her father brought her family back toAustria. She then married a man her father’s age and took care of him. He died, and she took care of her mother. Her mother died, and she has been living alone until now.

Helga composed herself. She went on to explain that whenever the subject of the war comes up here in Austria, she has to say, “I can’t talk with you about that. I was on the other side.”

She certainly was.

It didn’t take long for Helga to get back to being her cheery, feisty self, and we all left in a good mood. After kissing her goodbye, I told her that I had a feeling that she would be my favorite part of Austria.

From there we drove to Vienna, where we had a late dinner and ate Wiener Schnitzel. This is where I have to admit that I thought that Wiener Schnitzels would be something like hot dogs. When I found that they were in fact breaded veal filets, I was pleasantly surprised.

The next morning Pete, Judy, and Tim returned the blue van and flew to Istanbul. Mike and Sara were sleeping in, and I thus had an hour with nothing to do. But the hotel had an Internet connection, and so, on the morning of June 4, 2002,www.followingalex.com was born.

That afternoon Mike, Sara, and I walked through the old part of Vienna, former home of the Hapsburgs. You remember the Hapsburgs. They’re the local dynasty that ruled over here for 500 years till Francis Ferdinand was assassinated, somehow starting World War I. Anyway, they built some seriously large, palatial buildings in Vienna and lots of statues of naked guys.

That night we fled the excesses of the Hapsburgs and went up to Grinzing, a little town in the hills outside Vienna. The town is wall-to-wall pubs which look like typical German haufbraus, but instead of serving beer they serve un-aged wine. At the place we ate, there was a musician who went from table to table finding volunteers to sing. It was nice until some American woman started singing horribly. As I watched the Austrians cringing, I wished that there was a storm drain my chair could fall into.

The musician was about to approach our table … so we left.  We walked along a dark, narrow, country road that led up a hill. We were in the middle of nowhere when we suddenly happened upon a secluded restaurant with a view of all of Vienna at night. We stopped to soak in the view, and some beer, then made our way back to the hotel.

The next day the three of us would be taking the train to Prague. We enjoyed Austria, but I had been right …

Helga was my favorite part.

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11. Prague and Back
May 30 – June 5, 2002

Before leaving Vienna, we had a problem with our laundry. The problem was the obscene amount of money we were charged to do it. But at least the clothes came back in a sturdy plastic bag. And a good plastic bag can be invaluable when travelling.

Prague is in The Czech Republic, which is the left half of what used to beCzechoslovakia. The right half is now called Slovakia. All geopolitical restructuring should be this straightforward.

The train ride to Prague took us through the Bohemian countryside. (I had always wondered where those Bohemians lived.) There were lots of forested hills and small streams. Very pretty.

At the Prague train station, we needed coins in order to get subway tickets from the ticket-dispensing machine. So we went to the McDonalds across the street, where Mike, Sara, and I split a Big Mac Value Meal.

Once in town, we found a hotel, walked around, had dinner, and went back to our room. Before going to bed, I opened my sampler bottle of Benedictine liqueur. (see Part VII: “From the Warehouse to the Donjon”.)  We poured the liqueur into one of the bathroom glasses and all took sips. Mike and Sara seemed to be genuinely excited about sharing in the product of a past journal entry.

We spent the next day touring Prague.

Like most big European cities, Prague has a river running through it. The majesticCharles Bridge spans this river and connects the main part of the city with the walled Castle district. The bridge is about 800 years old.

At the foot of the bridge is a large guard tower. Inside we were surprised to find a display of musical instruments. It turns out that, in the old days, musicians would play in the top room of the guard tower. The acoustics of the high tower were such that the music could be heard throughout town.

We crossed the bridge and joined thousands of other tourists exploring Prague’s Castle district.

Throughout the week, when walking through Budapest, Vienna, and now Prague, Sara and I would tend to walk faster than Mike. Now, as we were walking past a Gothic cathedral, Mike said, “You know, we have different approaches to this. You two like to walk fast to see as much as possible, while I like to go slow and take in the details. At some point, I’d like to just stop and stare at this cathedral for 10 minutes.”

So we stopped and stood there, looking up at the outside of the cathedral, with all its statues, gargoyles, flying buttresses, etc. And guess what. Ten minutes wasn’t enough. We stood there for about half an hour looking at the details of the cathedral, asking ourselves various questions and guessing at the answers. We ended up seeing a lot more by standing still.

At the end of the day, on our way out of the Castle district, we saw a sign that said “Bludiste.” The sign included a picture of what looked like a maze. We decided to postpone dinner and go check it out. We followed the signs several hundred yards up a tall hill overlooking Prague. We were sure that after coming all this way, escaping all the tourists below, we were in store for some unique medieval experience. As we approached the Bludiste, we could barely contain our excitement. What would it be?

It was a House of Mirrors.

It was okay, but nothing worth reflecting upon.

We walked back down the hill and stopped for dinner.

You know how sometimes you get carried away and order more courses than you should? Well, that’s what happened here. And you know how sometimes a restaurant will serve absurdly large portions? Well, that happened here too. The result was way, way, way too much food. We had so much food that random waiters were coming up to our table just to see how we were doing. In our defence, we had asked our waitress if we were ordering too much, and she had said, “No.” Later on, pointing to the piles of food on our table, we told her, “You said we didn’t order too much!” She laughed and said that it was only her second day.

We were determined to eat all of our meal. When visiting waiters would stop by, we would show no fear. But we never had a chance. With about a pound of sausages to go, we finally gave up.

But we didn’t want the restaurant staff to know that we had failed, so we decided to secretly smuggle out the remaining sausages. Fortunately we had a sturdy, plastic bag.  Sara placed the bag on her lap. Every few minutes she would discreetly drop a sausage into the bag, until they were all gone.

Unbelievably, she did this without getting the giggles.

After dinner we walked back to the hotel. As we were crossing the Charles Bridge, around midnight, I found myself imagining the historic battles that had taken place on the bridge. What would they have been like? Suddenly, ahead on the bridge, we saw about 20 men running towards us at full speed. They were yelling at the top of their lungs.

Was the castle under attack?

Probably not. These men were naked.

A bunch of what were probably college students had decided to streak the CharlesBridge. History was again in the making. And we were there.

We got back to our hotel room, which overlooked a busy pedestrian thoroughfare. At first the noise from people outside was not bad, and I fell right asleep. But on this night,Prague was home to, of all things, an Ozzy Osborne concert. Apparently after the concert everyone went out to the bars. And apparently the bars close at 4am, because that’s when I awoke to the sound of a steady stream of very drunk, very loud Ozzy fans.

After lying awake for a while, I remembered that I had a pair of earplugs in my bag. So I quietly rummaged through my stuff in the dark and found them.

It then occurred to me that Sara, who is a light sleeper, must surely be awake too. If I were to keep the ear plugs for myself, I knew that I would just lie awake in bed, wondering how much louder it was for Sara than for me. So I whispered to see if Sara was awake. She was, and I gave her the earplugs. Sara being Sara, she asked, “Do you have any others for yourself?” It was 4:30 in the morning, and I really didn’t want to get in an argument over who should use the earplugs, so I lied and said, “Yes.”

I went back to bed, but I couldn’t sleep, partly because of the noise, and partly because I kept thinking that any second I would hear Sara say, “Show me those other ear plugs, Alex.”

After another 20 minutes listening to passing drunks, I heard the approaching sound of a woman singing. Unlike the others singing in the street that night, she actually sang quite nicely. As she neared, I was tormented by a desire to get up and look out the window. I wanted to see if she looked as attractive as she sounded. I was hesitating, though, because I did not want to wake up Sara. (I wasn’t so worried about Mike, who had been snoring this entire time.) When the singing girl was just outside our room, I gave in to my baser instincts. I got out of bed, opened the window, and leaned outside. Sadly I couldn’t lean far enough over the ledge to see her. But as I was there, in my boxer shorts, leaning out the window, I heard Sara say, “So … is she cute?”

Embarrassed, I crawled back into bed. That’s when I heard Sara say, “Show me those ear plugs, Alex.”

The next day we’d be taking the train back to Budapest. We started the morning with a delicious breakfast of sausages eaten directly out of our plastic bag.

It was a warm day, so I was wearing my shorts. I hate my shorts. I hate them because the openings to the pockets are too small. To take out my wallet, I need to wiggle my hand into the pocket and slowly slide the wallet out. The shorts are good for travelling, though, because it would be nearly impossible for someone to pick the pockets.

To get to the train station, we took the subway. I love the subway. One time, in French class in college, we read a passage about riding the Paris Metro. Our professor asked us to give reasons why the author of the passage liked the Metro. Other students said things like: it’s inexpensive, you don’t have to park, it’s environmentally conscious, etc. But there was another response that the professor was looking for. Finally I said, “L’humanité.” (That’s French for “Oh, the humanity.”) “Oui!” she said enthusiastically, and she went on about the sights, smells, and physical human contact that are unique to a crowded subway.

Our subway car to the Prague train station was indeed crowded. I was surrounded by three big guys. They would occasionally all push against me at the same time. It was rather odd.

When we got off the subway car, I realized that my wallet had been stolen.

Oh, the humanity.

I still love the subway, but I’m throwing out my shorts.

We caught our train and made it back to Budapest without any more nudity or larceny.

The next morning Mike and Sara flew back home to the states, and I flew back to Paris.

Then back home.

END OF PART 1

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