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Monday, November 21, 2011

MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH PARIS



With only 24 short hours to be in Paris, I was happy to continue the long distance love affair this past weekend. I was able to go through Paris on my way back from Copenhagen for the same exact price and jumped at the chance. And although 24 hours is oh so short a time to be in the beautiful city of lights, I tried to make the most of it.

My adventure began by meeting up with my friend, Stephanie, a cousin in the home-stay family that I lived with 12 1/2 years ago (wow...has it been that long???!!!) We had a nice dinner while sitting outside by Rue Mouffetard, in the 5th arrondissement. Ahhhh, Rue Mouffetard. With your cobblestone quaintness and wafting perfumes of fondue and crepes, I'm a sucker for you every time. (I'm sorry to report to all you Midd Paris Kids that our favorite Crepe guy at the very top of the Mouffe is no longer there! I mean, really, it's only been a dozen years...what nerve!)



We then walked by Paris III, where I used to study in College, and down to Place d'Italie. We jumped on the metro and headed over to...le Tour Eiffel, bien sur! Oh, and she is just as belle as she has ever been. (am I allowed to give a blatant phallic symbol a new female identity?) We crossed the Seine and climbed the stairs up to the Trocadero and just waited for midnight. And anyone who has ever loved and experienced Paris in the last decade knows the magic that can come alive at midnight. The Eiffel Tower, already lit up like a Christmas tree, begins to sparkle and explode with light, like fire crackers or fire works, for a good 5 minutes. And in that moment, there's nothing more beautiful in the world then standing next to 100 other mystified onlookers, all standing in a reverent hushed silence, as they breathe in the amazing light show.




After sharing in the joy that is a Parisian crepe and spending 4 wonderful hours catching up on every detail of life, Stephanie and I finally said adieu. I then headed towards the street that never sleeps: the Champs Elysee. Oh, Champs Elysee, Oh Champs Elysee, au soleil, sous la pluie, a midi, ou a minuit, il y a tout ce que vous voulez, aux Champs Elysee. I just couldn't help singing the song to myself over and over again as I strolled down the Champs, alive with people (including families pushing babies in strollers) at 1am in the morning. With the Arc de Triomphe standing proudly to the West, the grand, lit-up ferris wheel near the place de Concord to the East, and the trees lining the boulevard dangling crystal discs that catch and reflect the colors and lights of the street, the Champs sparkled and pulsed with electric energy. I walked and walked, soaking in the people of all ages and backgrounds, dressed to the nine's and heading in all directions. Finally, when the ferris wheel lights in the approaching distance turned off, I knew that it was a sign for me to head home. I jumped on the metro and got off near l'Opera, just a few blocks from the apartment in the chic 2nd arrondissment neighborhood where I stayed. Slowly coming down from my Paris high, I finally drifted to sleep around 3am, with visions of nutella crepes dancing in my head.



The next morning, being the over achiever who thinks that she can do it all that I am, I rushed up to one of my favorite neighborhoods, Montmartre, before my 11am brunch with my home-stay sisters. It was a gorgeous, sunny Sunday morning, with Parisians happily strolling the streets of this hilly neighborhood, picking up their baguettes and pain au chocolats from the local Boulanger/Patisserie, oranges and apples from the neighborhood epicerie and well chosen cheeses from the fromagerie. I popped into a Boulanger and ordered a simple croissant and tempting pain au chocolat for breakfast #1. And then, with horrible American manners, and due to my very short time window to see my favorite city view, I ate these delicious treasures as I walked towards the Sacre Coeur Cathedral. (My home-stay family would be horrified! No respectable Parisian would ever eat while walking...croissants and pain au chocolats are to be savored at outside cafe tables with a friend and a small cup of strong, perfect coffee.)



As I weaved in and out of the small neighborhood streets, lines overhead with dangling pieces of sun drying laundry and each apartment window box full of brightly colored flowers, I saw the Cathedral peaking through in the distance. I've always had a special affinity for the Sacre Coeur (though, I guess in truth, just about everyone who sees it does.) I slowly began the climb up the grassy area below the great Montmartre temple, stopping along the way to take a picture of a beloved sign: "La pelouse repose...the grass is sleeping." (This one's for you, Jen!) As I made it to the top, I turned to catch my breath, from both the steep climb and gorgeous view of the city. And there it was, Paris laid out in early morning light...the Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle, where I and my beloved home-stay mother, Martine (may she rest in peace), home-stay sister, Natalie, and fellow Midd friends all witnessed an amazing orchestra concert 13 years ago, as we reveled in the murals and majesty of our surroundings. The Pont Alexandre, where I met friends for countless late-night strolls along the Seine when I was a student, discussing the meaning of life and where Senior year and beyond would take us. The Louvre, which has always been as beautiful on the outside as the famous works within it, and which was always a sign to me during my year abroad that I was getting close to home, in the 8th arrondissment.





Unfortunately, I had no time to explore the terribly touristy and yet somehow still charming streets of Montmartre, or to even go inside the Sacre Coeur itself. So, I just waved to the city, nodded appreciatively to the great church, and headed down the winding, narrow streets towards the Chateau Rouge metro stop. 30 minutes later, I was meeting my French home-stay sisters, Natalie and Marianne, by the fountain in the middle of my favorite garden: le Luxembourg. Not surprisingly, I was quite late, but they forgave me right away and after taking a few commemorative photos, we headed off for a proper French meal. This took us back to Place de la Contrescarpe, at the top of Rue Mouffetard, for an outside brunch by the lovely square's fountain.


It was so wonderful to catch up with these two women...hear their stories of their young children and families, where jobs and travel and overall life have taken them the last several years. We reminisced about Natalie's amazing, simple wedding 6 1/2 years ago, in the Alps. I remember picking flowers in the mountain fields that morning for Natalie's bouquet, with Martine and Marianne, and being in true awe of my surroundings. I remember seeing Martine for the very last time a few days later, on Bastille Day...seeing her face light up with joy as we sat on a gorgeous Paris rooftop only a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower, watching fireworks explode. She was so beautiful that night...so happy. That is the way I always like to remember her.

After lunch, Natalie and Marianne appeased my desire to walk through the Latin Quarter and head to my last major conquest of the trip: the Notre Dame, Seine and Louvre. We stopped along the way at one of the best frommageries in the city, we sampled a few delicious morsels and I finally chose and had vacuum sealed a beautiful Camembert and additional assortment of wonderfully odorous French cheeses for Mark. As we came to Place St. Michel, we looked up at the great Notre-Dame. After years of preservation and cleanings, the old Dame now gleams like new...quite a lovely surprise. We crossed the road and followed the crowds inside, enjoying a few quiet moments in that sacred space, while listening to the morning mass choir.




Next, we headed west on the Seine, enjoying the warmth and brightness of the day and sharing story upon story. We arrived at our final destination and took in the great Louvre palace. Even Marianne and Natalie admitted that it never ceases to amaze them, after all these years, how beautiful this space is. We lingered a moment, took pictures and just enjoyed the surroundings. Yet, my flight back to America was calling, and we had to jump on a bus to make it back in time to pick up my belongings. Marianne and I bid adieu and Natalie accompanied me to the airport, for another wonderful hour of sharing and tearful goodbye. As I sat in my windowseat on the plane, and looked out at the great city below me, disappearing in the distance, I said a special prayer. God, please bless these women and their families until next we meet. Please pave the way for Mark and family members to share in this magic with me one day. And please bless this amazing city and country, until we are reunited again.



Wednesday, November 16, 2011

IN COPENHAGEN, BIKES RULE

To say that Danes like to bike would be a gross understatement. In Copenhagen, bikes literally rule the roads and way of life. Biking paths make up half to two thirds of almost all streets. More people seem to be biking to work than driving. It's incredible! AND, bicyclists (as well as pedestrians,) obey all the traffic laws. I attempted to jay walk the other day when I saw that no cars were coming and both the fellow pedestrians and bicyclists standing next to me, waiting for the light, looked at me in a somewhat horrified manner. The simple truth is that people wait for the traffic light here, they signal before they turn on their bike and they're courteous to one another and the pedestrians around them.


It also helps that biking is such a high national priority and receives incredible support from both citizens and the State. This fact is evidenced by the great myriad of groups organized to protect biking rights and infrastructure: Denmark's Cycle Union, the Cycling Embassy of Denmark and the Cycling Secretariat within the government's Traffic Department. This last one has a goal of supporting a 50% biking commuter rate within the city of Copenhagen. Imagine the environmental impact of such a policy in Washington, DC, Chicago or New York City!

What I love most about the biking culture in Copenhagen is the overall personal enthusiasm. People seem like they're just really having fun, even as they head to work. And all ages are joining in the fun. And for children who are too young to do commuter biking, they get to ride in everything from nifty looking horse like carts to designer children seats and carriages. In this way, Danes have taken the art of biking to a whole new level. One of my fellow ActionAid colleagues in the Denmark office explained to me that she can technically fit 5 people in her bike chariot (my word, not hers.) Herself, a child in back and an adult and two small children in the cart in front...the entire family!



The enthusiasm is further felt through the great eclectic assortment of bicycles and their accouterments. Old time classics with wide handle bars and large wicker baskets seem to be one of the favorites. Large attached carts that can carry everything from children to furniture, designer weather-proof, tented carriages, bikes decorated with ribbons or fake flowers. You name it!




















Here are a few other fun Copenhagen bike facts to give us some fuel for thought back in the States. Traffic lights include a special signal for bicyclists. People rarely, rarely lock up their bikes, but rather leave them outside of their office or apartment, on the street. Danish adults rarely wear helmets in Copenhagen (don't worry, Mom, I promise to not follow their example;), yet have one of the lowest rates of bicycling related accidents, including head injuries. The city helps track how many bikers ride over certain bridges per day with sensors that display the numbers for all to see.


Yes, it's clear that bicycles are the norm in Copenhagen and that Danes and those living in the city are the happier and healthier for it. It's just a small, yet important detail of this incredibly health-conscious culture that highly values simple living. It's an inspiring example of how the power of people, innovative thinking and political will can converge to create a more holistic, environmentally friendly city. Hopefully cities in the U.S. can learn the lesson as well.



Sunday, November 13, 2011

MUSINGS TODAY FROM COPENHAGEN

Copenhagen


I arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark this morning to participate in an ActionAid training on our Human Rights Based Approach to Development model that starts tomorrow morning. I've never experienced Denmark before. So, after a 4 hour nap at my hotel, I hit the streets eager to explore. What a great first day. I walked over 7 miles by the end of it! Copenhagen is a beautiful city, with a myriad of public parks, water front walk ways and an incredible melding of old and new worlds.


I started off walking down Frederiksborggade and into a new gourmet indoor food market called Torvehallerne...what a wonderful overwhelm for the senses! Tons of cured meats and fish, fresh fruits and veggies, pastries (including danishes or 'weinerbrods';) galore, the most beautiful chocolates dyed exotic blues and purples and multi layer chocolate pastries like castles or modern art pieces. I sampled a fish cake...delicious! And some chocolate hazelnut dipped almonds. Yummy. I should have had a danish right there, but didn't want to spoil my appetite for a famous bakery that I had read about and had my sights on. (but which I never ended up finding! Oh well, I still have 6 more days for danishes;)




The gourmet indoor 'Torvehallerne' food market near my hotel


Then, I walked through the older part of the city and saw the beautiful university and those narrowly winding, picture perfect streets I had heard about. I popped into a cafe for a legitimate Danish sandwich on their famous rye bread. (I actually liked it! very surprising. Not as sour as I thought it would be. Very full, hearty taste) and a warm chai tea. I consider myself somewhat of a chai connoisseur. This was one of the yummiest, warmest, most frothy, delicious chai's that I've ever had. And with a consistent low 40's temperature and chill in the air coming from the harbor, it hit the proverbial spot.






Next, I headed to the Rosenburg royal gardens. Beautiful! A renaissance castle built in 1604 by Christian IV as a summerhouse, but later inhabited all year round due to the King's love for it, it is a good reminder that the monarchy is still alive and well in Denmark. The castle sits on a lush, green, open park with large, full branched trees and beautiful trellises with cascading greenery and red fruit.. The castle is at the center of it all, surrounded by a small moat. After meandering for a while through the small gardens and looking on at a reenactment of a court knight dueling for a young group of children, I headed across the street to another public park, with a beautiful river-creek that ran through it. The late day, misty, shady with dappled sunlight weather filled the park, water and trees with this ethereal and mystical glow. 

Rosenborg Castle and the Royal Gardens
Then I headed north to the Kastellet...another public park. It's a huge ancient fort surrounded by two moats in the shape of a star. A prominent historical site where Copenhagen defended itself during the Napoleonic wars, it also fell into the hands of the Nazis during WWII. You can climb up high on the ridge once you cross the bridge into the fort and get a great view of the city. It's next to the harbor on one side, so you can see the massive, old ships coming in. And on the other side you can see the castle and cathedrals. I was sitting down on a bench next to a preserved cannon, soaking in a magnificent sunset. There's this cold, strange sense in the city at that time of day...half way between feeling slighted haunted and slightly mystical...and very Scandinavian. Just then, a huge explosion across the harbor shook me from my revelry. A reenactment of some kind is what a local explained. Sitting next to the cannon, it felt surprisingly real indeed!


An aerial view of Kastellet
I then headed down south along the harbor as the rosy sunset colors faded, and had a spectacular view of the royal opera house...a modern, beautiful, larger-than-life building that almost looks as if it's sitting on the water . I ducked into a free little sculpture exhibit of replicas of some of the most famous pieces. Then, I continued by the Queen's castle and courtyard, saw the guards outside changing positions, and down to the royal theater and walked through an exhibit on innovations in the world of development and social change. Last, but not least, I headed up the Nyhavn or 'New Harbor,' a long, romantic quay along a water canal that goes inland. It was decorated to the nine's at dark,with holiday lights and plenty of intoxicating smells to peak your interest: outside vendors selling waffles, chocolate, fried dough balls and glog (rum spiced cider, I believe. Lots of outside cafe's, pubs and restaurants with heaters and people heartily eating...outside vendors selling christmas gifts, winter wear, Danish goods and the famous Danish pulsers or 'sausages.' I had a sausage with the works, which consisted of pickled herring, sweet pickles, mustard, ketchup and fried onions. I loved it, even with all of the interesting toppings! Then, I had a waffle with bananas and chocolate for dessert (bananas make it healthy, right?;)

Copenhagen Opera House

Pleasantly content eating my bohemian meal at the end of the quai and start of the colorful, lit up public square, I paused for a moment and tried to ignore the fact that the temperature was going down. Finally, the chill got the best of me and I headed back along a pedestrian only road, filled with colorful store front windows. I bought some warmer gloves at perhaps the only Copenhagen store actually open on Sunday nights, realizing the ones I had were just not going to suffice. I picked up a few essentials at a local grocery store (including more rye bread...will wonders never cease) on the way back to the hotel. And now, I'm ready to plop into bed and try to trick my brain that it really can go to sleep at 10pm, even if my body technically thinks that it's only 4pm. Hopefully those 7 miles of walking will have worked their magic.


New Harbor (Nyhavn) in Copenhagen at Night

In closing, I want to leave you with just a few fun, though rather surface level observations about Copenhagen, after only having spent about 5 hours exploring it. EVERYONE bikes here. Almost half of every single road is made up of huge biking lanes, with some people slowly meandering by with multiple children attached to the back or whipping by quickly on their way somewhere. (I learned the lesson real quick after almost being clobbered by an oncoming bike twice that you DON'T walk in the bike lane and you definitely look twice before even thinking of crossing it.) Sunday seems to be a day where almost every store is closed except for farmers' markets and grocery stores and pubs and cafes. Everyone has these modern old school strollers...like moving cribs that look ergonomically modernly enhanced, that they push babies and multiple kids around in. People love coffee! At least two thirds of the population is blond (felt very at home;) People of color and immigrants are scarce (at least in the city center.) Families love to spend time in the parks on Sundays...even if it's cold...and just seem to dress their children up in uber parkas. And last, but most importantly, Danes seem to LOVE pastries and overall sweets, as evidenced by a vast array of bakeries and restaurant dessert signs. God Bless them!