Our flight to Paris was short and no frills. The seats were cramped and they charged for all food, even soft drinks (Aer Lingus). We ended up in mysterious Terminal 1 to pick up our bags. I’d seen the round terminal from the plane and wondered what it was–as no planes were parked against it. That Star Wars plane is just passing by.
Turns out it’s a doughnut, with the hole in the middle filled with escalators!
Inside of Terminal 1 is open to the sky and full of escalators. R. gets the photo credit.
We took the RER to Chatelet les Halles, and hard a hard time getting a cab but then – straight down rue du Rivoli! Paris!! I felt so happy to be back. No offense to Dublin, but it ain’t no Paris!
This isn’t a great photo, but the point is, even a crappy view from a cab (with the driver’s hairy elbow) includes the Eiffel Tower, an obelisk, a fountain, a metro sign, the Grand Palais, cool streetlights, a statue of a lion, and SO MUCH PARIS.
Our apartment was on a street with fancy, high-end stores and a $$$$$ hotel, but the building itself was pretty run down. The inner ground-floor door had badly cracked glass and was permanently unlocked. The elevator barely fit two people so the rental agent took our bags up and we went up after. When he moved our bags to open the front door, a piece of baseboard fell off. The wall outside the apartment was patched and stained.
Inside, the apartment was fine. Spacious as promised, with furnishings in good repair, original if slightly sad art on the walls, and a kitchen with all the basics as well as a dishwasher and washer and dryer.
I worked at the desk there in the back all week. It was a good setup.
The bathroom was a student art project gone wrong, with mirrors on all 4 walls including the inside of the shower, and the whole place stank of mildew. Seriously, when you are in Paris eating croissants you do not need to see your belly reflected into infinity in the shower.
Unfortunately the master bed really was a double. Truth be told, I had a hard time finding an apartment (at the last minute) and I looked at so many and all had weird beds – like you could tell they pushed two twins together. I ended up looking for two bedrooms because the ones were sold out, and tried to get one with a real king but the owner didn’t respond.
So there we were with a small double. R. was not happy. I struggled all week to figure out how to sleep on it. I basically stuck to the edge and tried not to move.
I had to get to work the moment we arrived because it was Monday, and Monday was a work day. The desk was perfect, big and deep and fit my monitor…ugh. The monitor. Chagrin. I have a monitor I bring with me when I travel. It fits perfectly in my suitcase. I surround it with shoes and rolled up shirts and top it off with my pillow and…I forgot it. I had to buy another one in Dublin and have it delivered to the hotel.
I worried about how I’d deal with being in Paris and being shut in and working, but it was a relief. Being a tourist is exhausting. I was tired after Dublin. Running back and forth to the conference, fitting in sight-seeing in between panel sessions, figuring out what to see, when things are open, how to get there, etc. and then being hungry and tired and trying to find food that doesn’t suck…day after day. Also I don’t like to be gone from work so long that I lose track of what’s going on and lose my “work brain.”
I worked from 3-10 (the internet was great) and got my head around things after not checking in at all while we were in Dublin. R. ordered great Thai food and we ate and chilled at home.
Tuesday I woke and went out early for a pre-work walk – and damn I was happy to be back! Paris is so pretty and just so Paris! I hadn’t been in five years. It’s hard to remember why I like it so much when I haven’t been in so long, I just knew I did, and the moment I stepped out of the apartment it hit me all over again and I was so happy.
Filming in progress on the Pont Alexandre III just down the street from the apartment
Of course it’s the style. It fits together so harmoniously, and in large part due to the renovation by Haussmann in the mid- to late 1800’s. Previous to that, if this quote from Wikipedia is to be believed: “In 1845, the French social reformer Victor Considerant wrote: “Paris is an immense workshop of putrefaction, where misery, pestilence and sickness work in concert, where sunlight and air rarely penetrate. Paris is a terrible place where plants shrivel and perish, and where, of seven small infants, four die during the course of the year.”“
The odd thing is I wouldn’t like this style anywhere else. I don’t, in theory, like bridges with tall columns with gold deities atop them, but I like that here. I wouldn’t put a wrought iron railing on my balcony at home but in Paris I’m charmed.
What I also like is that the city is alive! Yeah, I like the unified style, but they aren’t afraid to do modern as well. Everyone seems to acknowledge that they are living with a partner with a very strong personality – and they work to incorporate the present not apologetically but boldly. (Pompidu Center, pyramid at the Louvre, new Les Halles).
I dunno why this surprised me but Paris is overrun with scooters and shared bikes, just like San Francisco. I thought the special historical bubble would mean Jump bikes weren’t laying all over the place but there they were! I’m not opposed to this as I immediately signed up for a 7 day pass to Velip, the bike service equivalent to the rental bikes I use at home. I loved biking around. It made the city so much more accessible. Plus it was hot and walking in the beating sun is no fun, but biking was great! There are a fair number of protected bike lanes and more are being built. There are also protected bus-only lanes where bikes are allowed. The oddest bike path was a half-mile (?) long former tunnel for cars that ran underground along the Louvre. Super creepy with just me riding through it.
Why I “love” Paris
How I came to love the idea of Paris is probably typical for many U.S. suburbanites who live in bland cities with little history or grandeur. In fourth grade I began French class. Previous to this, I had no concept of life as it might exist outside of California. A faraway trip was to Los Angeles or Lake Tahoe. Strangers were people in cars you weren’t supposed to talk to. When I got my French textbook, I was amazed by the black and white photos of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and people wearing berets and riding bikes with baguettes in the basket. Add to this they had a whole different language? My mind was blown.
Our French teacher, Madame Holden, was very French, with a heavy accent and a tendency to burst into tears when we were bad – which was often.
A mashup of romantic Paris scenes wormed it’s way into my head through books, movies, and art/art history. Part turn-of-the-century belle epoque drinking and dancing, part 1920’s literary cafe scene, part modern day lovers strolling the Seine with a bottle of champagne – I can’t think of any other city (even New York) that lived so actively in my imagination. I almost forgot – Babar, my favorite childhood character, lived in Paris.
After college, I saved money for a year and then went on a six-month study abroad – of course in Paris. It was my first trip to Europe, and I was beyond nervous. I remember emerging from the Metro at Châtelet Les Halles and being amazed as St. Eustace (a Gothic church built in the 1500’s) rose into view.
My time in Paris and environs was everything I dreamed it would be, but what is funny is that I barely spoke to a French person the entire time. I was terrified of being revealed to be an American. They were worldly and cool and I was not. I walked the streets day after day and soaked up the atmosphere, more ghost than person, especially given I didn’t have much money and couldn’t afford to shop or eat out (breakfast and dinner was included in our dorm lodging).
Anyhow, the point is, my love of Paris was and is aesthetic and superficial, but so what? What’s the harm in innocent enjoyment of a place? I love San Francisco, which is beautiful, but I’m also caught up in local politics, annoyed by persistent problems like disruptive construction and streets with potholes, etc. Regular day to day stuff that you don’t know about or notice as much as a tourist. Eh, except for the construction noise. Oh right, and the garbage collection. Actually Paris is pretty noisy. But you get my point. I can forgive it for a week.
How to move furniture in Paris
I don’t need to do a play by play of all the days. Monday – Friday went like this. I’d get up, shower in the hall of mirrors shower, look up “best baguette in Paris” on the internet and then walk to the place and buy one, feeling all happy and Parisian as I carried it home. Work, peer out the window at the workers from the fancy hotel smoking front of a gallery just over the property line of the hotel. Listen to sirens, motorcycles, and loud trucks picking up and dropping off laundry etc. for the hotel. Lunch, I’d usually just take a walk then make a sandwich at home when I got back. One day I had sushi. Rusty and I ate a good lunch at a cafe one day. Friday I worked straight through.
- The rental bikes!! Velip! So great!
- Baguettes! So crusty and delicious. But ugh. I ate too much bread and cheese.
- Musée D’Orsay (in a former train station). Many great works in there, including many Van Goghs. I’d never been to the second level with all the art nouveau furniture and artifacts.
- Having dinner with my friend S. twice. It was really great to catch up with him. His apartment is pretty much the same with the addition of one nice piece of art and new awnings. He invited us to stay with him (he still called the second bedroom “our room”) however I know it is hard having guests in a one-bathroom apartment, and I really wanted to have a dedicated space to work. At S.’s I would have had to take over half the dining room table. Also it was nice having our own spacious apartment to spread out in at night. There were two couches and a big TV, so when we’d get home from a late dinner we could chill and watch Netflix for an hour and take a break from being foreigners. And S’s place got pretty hot, since it is west facing.
- Beautiful forced march along the Seine at sunset with R. It really was so beautiful. It seems like there are many more food stands and restaurant boats than I remember from the last trip – granted that was in January! It was a warm night and all the places were packed and it was going on 10pm and I was ravenous. We got a great table at a place that turned out to be aggressively anti-tourist and after finally getting a menu, the waiter made a big show of accepting neither credit card nor cash so we left. We got pizza at Faust next door which was also slightly odd in that they had a huge, nice restaurant but were mostly busy doing a take out pizza business (people ordering at the bar then taking it out for a picnic on the river) so didn’t seem inclined or able to serve us. We did get food eventually and they were really nice.
- Anti-highlight: Atelier du Lumieres Van Gogh experience. We were really looking forward to what was supposed to be a projection-mapped immersion in Van Gogh. We expected something that would take advantage of props in a room to make it 3D but that was not that case. The room was large, but with support pillars throughout that were not integrated into the show. The projectors were fairly dim and did not do justice to the paintings. The whole room played essentially the same scene – stitched together – and they did some really tacky effects like separate the foreground, middle, and background to animate the painting, doing things like making boats rock on the ocean. Also, many of the images were out of focus. I don’t know if that was specific projectors being off or the resolution not being good enough. Oh god, and the music. Totally random soundtrack – a mix of different eras of music that did not play nice together and often didn’t make any sense. Classical, then opera, then a modern pop song. It was really awful. A smaller salon had a better piece, abstract space/planet/blob images with an original soundtrack. That was pretty good.
- Foundation Louis Vuitton Museum, building designed by Frank Gehry. We got there around 5:30pm, after my workday. It was funny to shuffle through the awful and ever present decomposed granite path and suddenly come upon the museum – a spaceship landed in a pine forest. Odd that forest by the way. I don’t associate pine trees with Paris. Anyhow, it’s the architecture that makes the place and is the real experience. All the curves and surfaces and light and surprises. The galleries were large and pretty and nearly all had a skylight. It was really fun to explore and since it was so late we nearly had the place to ourselves which heightened the feeling that we were on an adventure.
- Jardin d’Acclimatation, adjacent to the Foundation Louis Vuitton. This is a nicely landscaped park and small scale amusement park with little rollercoasters and a tiny train, etc. Best part was a huge tropical bird house maybe 30 feet deep and 150 feet long. I saw a red ibis for the first time in my life and wow those things are red! Also parrots, squabbling lorikeets, weird ducks, parakeets. It was great and super noisy with all the birds yelling and screaming. I’d have totally ridden the tiny rollercoaster but sadly the ticket offices were closed.
- Fancy food dinner at Limon at the hotel Marignon.
- BHV department store in the Marais. They had great furniture and kitchenware and artistic trays (?) that now I regret not buying and the basement is a hardware store. It’s odd, or okay, that I didn’t buy much on this trip. Souvenirs for my friends, but for me, only a necklace in Dublin that I’ve already broken when it got caught on my bike basket here. (I’ll get it repaired.) Ah – I also bought an old-timey key at BHV that would probably sell for 20 bucks here in SF but was only $3 in BHV because people need old-timey keys. Yet, I wanted more. Here are the things I wanted:
Lunch at BHV. Modern interior with old stuff right out the window.
- Highlight or anti-highlight? Living next door to the president. I noticed many soldiers with machine guns in the neighborhood, but chalked it up to heightened security in all of Paris due to the yellow jackets (protesters / rioters who’ve been stirring up trouble) but no, turns out the apartment is two small blocks from the equivalent of the French White House. There were bulletproof-vest-wearing soldiers throughout the neighborhood stationed in and around vans. Depending on the level of security…on light days you could walk on Rue du Faubourg st. Honore (our street) past the front of the residence built on the other side of the street and blocked off by a waist-high fence, but cars couldn’t drive there and there were guards blocking the street. On medium security days some other streets around the area were blocked for pedestrian or car traffic or both. On high security days the street in front of our house was blocked to car traffic, either completely or cars had to be searched, and people were allowed onto the street but their bags were searched. While this was interesting at first, it became kind of a pain as we had to detour often and it took longer to get home. This was definitely not a selling point for the rental apartment. Because of this, maybe, the streets immediately around the apt were not very lively. Dead actually, and there were a good number of storefronts for rent (on a street that was meant to be high-end and fancy.)
- Being across the street from the Hotel Bristol (rooms start at 1000 euros per night!). Mostly an anti-highlight, specifically because of all the noisy trucks that serviced the place. There are no back alleys on blocks like this, so 100 feet from the fancy front door where two doormen rush to either side of the Bentley or Mercedes or Lamborghini to open doors, there are 20 or so big orange bins filled with dirty laundry waiting for pickup. Which really shouldn’t be anything that should create 140 decibels–but the truck was old. Then there was the trash truck which was surprisingly small, but laborious to operate. The guy would disappear into the garage, come out with one can, load it, loudly compact it, then go back for another. We had the apartment windows open the first few nights because it was cool, but got woken up early due to the racket and had to keep them closed and use the AC from then on.
Hotel Bristol as viewed from the window by my desk
- Speaking and not speaking French. I’ve been listening to a french radio station on the internet for the past few years to try to improve my french comprehension. Toujours plus de hits – Alouette!! I hadn’t expected that THE FUTURE would have overtaken Paris and you don’t have to speak to anyone anymore because you can pay for everything with your phone. R. was really happy because he could do all the shopping with no problem, but I felt cheated. I got to speak french to a cab driver and the cashier at BHV who wanted to know if I had a rewards card. Then, FINALLY, I got to speak french for 30 solid minutes on our last day in Paris when I got a manicure. I didn’t bring nail care things on this trip so my fingernails were getting out of control after two weeks. I was riding my rental bike around and saw a a salon, stopped and asked if she had time for an express manicure. She, of course, looked at me like I’d asked for a car tire barbecued, then smiled and said yes. I docked my bike then came back. We had a really nice conversation for half an hour where we spoke nothing but french because she did not speak English and I DID IT!! I spoke French! Yes, because I was paying her she persevered. I was so happy.
This was a good trip. I’m grateful to have a job that let’s me work remotely. This is the first time we’ve stayed in an apartment instead of a hotel and I loved it. After the plane trip back home I swear I won’t travel again for months but I’m ready to go again. : )
Dublin, Ireland. August 14-19, 2019
Dublin has never been on my top ten list, but R. has always wanted to go back (it was the first European city he ever visited) and tempted me with the fact that there was a big science fiction conference happening there this summer (yes, I’m a nerd, or geek. I forget the difference). The program looked great – not only lots of writing panels but authors I know from the Bay Area would be attending, and presumably we could meet up for drinks and dinner, which would be fun.
The flight over was predictably annoying. I can’t ever sleep on planes without getting a neck ache, so I broke down and bought an inflatable neck pillow. What a joke! Fully inflated, it pushed my head too far forward. Deflated, it closed around my neck like lobster claws. I did not use it and did not sleep.
Ah…who doesn’t love the sign saying you are going to Paris? Leaving from SFO.
Unfortunately – to get the good fare – we had to go through Paris Charles De Gaulle which is always a nightmare. The airport is huge. Plus, we had a short connection –just one hour – which always stresses me out. Fortunately everything worked out perfectly. R checked on his phone when we landed to find the gate and terminal of our next flight and we rode the train over to it with enough time to spare to get a quick sandwich. Oddly, we had to ride a bus out to the middle of the tarmac to get on our plane, via stairs. I didn’t know this was still a thing in this era of super security.
Finally – Dublin! We had a super talkative cab driver who gave us an overview of Irish history, disparaged the English, caught us up on an amateur Irish sport that fills an 85k person stadium. Sadly, I didn’t catch what the sport was. I could barely hear him and had been up for I don’t even know how many hours at that point. Interestingly, every cab driver we had pointed out landmarks where the English did something horrible. I’ve never experienced this before–being in a foreign country where events from the last century were a go-to topic of conversation with strangers. Did it have anything to do with us being from the U.S. I wondered, and having had our own troubles with the British?
Old neighborhood with Google rising
We arrived at our amazing hotel in the Docklands, an area that was a scary place that our cab driver would never have visited when he was a kid. Now it’s the equivalent of Mission Bay in San Francisco, a neighborhood that sprang up out of nowhere in the last few years. Our hotel was next to a big Facebook office and Google is building just across the canal. The area is much more interesting then our Mission Bay. Way better architecture. San Francisco is way too conservative and it drives me crazy.
Theater, our hotel, apartment building, grand canal
Fortunately, a friend of ours arranged a dinner and night of Irish storytelling at a local pub, so we couldn’t nap/fall asleep for 10 hours and ruin our chances of getting onto the time zone. Still, we were a bit rough around the edges. I took a bath which helped with my sore neck and revived me. Trying to take a tram to the event did elicit new city confusion and mild arguing. “What zone are we in, what zone are we going to, how do we buy a ticket from this damn machine, are we supposed to punch our ticket when we get on the train…” ARGH. We did figure it out.
We got to the place early and ate chicken satay and sweet potato fries and regained our composure. The evening of storytelling was really nice. Food, drinks, Irish history, and good company.
Harp-shaped bridge across the river Liffey
Full disclosure. I didn’t know much Irish history before this trip. No history course I took ever touched on it. I did a crash course via a six-part BBC documentary which left my head reeling. I’m not going to summarize other than to say…many different peoples from different areas, many settlements, much fighting.
The storyteller led with, “Ireland has always been a poor country…” The funny thing was, I hadn’t yet seen that, thanks to being in our odd, new neighborhood. I saw tech companies and cranes everywhere.
View from the hotel roof
Is the tech boom helping average people in Ireland? One cab driver guess-timated that only about 30% of the employees at the tech companies are Irish. I can see why the country as a whole would be skeptical about a tech bubble, given that 150 years ago, the potato famine caused 1 million deaths and 1 million more people to leave the country – a 25% reduction in population overall. Many of the traditional stories she told weren’t morality or cautionary tales, but along the lines of “awful things happen that you have no control over so get used to it.” Yikes. I hope the current tech and building boom is a boost to Ireland in the long term.
This is not the mall street, but the Temple Bar area (much more interesting)
Thursday we took a walk around town after breakfast trying to find the shopping street R. remembered visiting as a kid. We found it – but it was no longer cobblestones and was mostly chain stores, albeit many European ones so it still felt exotic. Still, it had my kiss-of-death store, Swarovski crystal, which makes me want to turn and run.
The true crime magazine section in a bookstore was huge. I had no idea.
After that we headed back to the convention center and went to a couple panels. Bad idea – we nearly fell asleep – and even worse idea – decided to go have a pint in a pub to “wake up.” Hmm. I did have my first pint of Guinness in Ireland, and liked it. I’m not sure if it actually tasted different (the huge factory was just down the road) or I was just in the mood. I generally an not a beer person.
R. gave up and took a nap and I went to the rooftop bar of our hotel intending to start this travelogue, but it was too much of a party scene to work (it would have been weird to pull out a computer). It was a nice day with big fluffy clouds and after I got over my huff of them ignoring me for half an hour (assuming I was waiting for someone) I relaxed and enjoyed the view. I met R. downstairs for dinner when he woke up.
The convention center
Friday I went to a few panels, then forced R to go see the book of Kells at Trinity college. A visitor next to me remarked, “I didn’t mind the queue but it wasn’t worth 14 euros.” I was disappointed for not quite the same reasons. I had no queue since I bought advance tickets, but the book was a letdown, small and in a dark room and you could (obviously) see only two pages. The old library beyond was great though, and contained my initials multiple times.
There are multiple mm’s in the photo, trust me.
When attempting to leave the college grounds (there seemed to be only one way out) we were caught in a huge downpour and took refuge in the entryway to the graduate reading room. I’ve never seen rain fall in sheets before – not like this with a flat, wide viewing area. It was awesome.
The weather in Dublin is nuts. I hate to extrapolate from less than a week here, especially given we had a heat wave in San Francisco while we were gone, but, ??!!??
It’s been windy the whole time. Hair in my eyes, hold-your-hat windy. I have to think it’s often like this because when I asked the hotel staff they seemed puzzled, like, wind? What wind?
The rain. It can be warm, low 70’s and sunny and then pouring a moment later. Then sunny. Again I have to assume this happens often because I took refuge under a big tree in Merrion square park with people who clearly live here (kid, dog) and they seemed to know in five minutes it would be over and it was. I made it to a shopping street when it dumped again so I popped into a shop for a cup of tea. It cleared up but by the time I’d stood and found a place to dump my cup, it was raining again.
Anyhow, after the Book of Kells, we stopped at a pub for a late lunch. It’s so strange. It was my first time in Ireland and to me, an Irish pub has always been a Disney-esque theme bar, fake and trying too hard and I’ve never liked them. Now, I was in freaking Ireland and the pubs are just pubs and they are Irish pubs by definition! So much confusion for me to be in the real thing that looks exactly like the fake thing. I was amused by a mid-40’s couple next to me making out like high-schoolers. You go! Everyone in the place seemed legit Irish, which led me to a question I can’t answer…
What do Irish people look like? Who is Irish and who isn’t? This is part of the EU with people from all over. Is super-exaggerated make up Irish, or are those women from Russia? High heels or sneakers? What about that buffed dude with the tattoos? I hear many accents and languages and can’t guess who lives here and who doesn’t. That’s my brain, trying to figure things out, and I couldn’t.
I’m so glad I found a way to put this in the post. He must be legit Irish.
Saturday we blew off the convention entirely in favor of sight seeing. We took a regional train to Malahide, a seaside town half an hour from Dublin that was promised to be charming, and was.
I could show charming…but how about this window display instead? What is going on with these outfits? This was not a used clothing store. All brand new.
We didn’t make it all the way out to the sea, unfortunately because as we walked along the narrow bay, we saw a dark rain cloud approaching and feared a deluge like the one we experienced at Trinity college the other day where an umbrella would have been no help at all (and we only had one umbrella.) We hurried back towards town and en route hailed a cab to take us to the castle.
We didn’t tour the inside of the castle, but instead spent time on the grounds and in the pretty walled garden (which included a butterfly garden!) It was really nice to be on the great lawn, castle in view, with no other tourists in sight.
I like using portrait setting on the iphone on plants
A castle and lawn, all to ourselves
That evening we had dinner with a friend from Scotland that I ran into the day before at a panel. Finally, we managed to meet up with someone. Though there were many people we knew at the conference, they were very hard to pin down. It was tough to make plans in advance as most of us had never been to Dublin and would have no idea where to hang out until we were there, so I figured plans would happen spontaneously. That didn’t happen for the most part.
We popped back to the convention center to check out an 80’s dance party, which was a bit too well attended. The room was crowded, hot, and stinky so we called it a night.
Sci fi author John Scalzi catches my eye as he DJs during the party
Sunday I took a long morning walk, trying to get a better sense of the neighborhoods. From what I could gather, most older buildings in Dublin are one to three stories. Many places seemed to have had yards in the back in the past, but built extensions onto the houses – so no more yard.
The canal I walked along was really lovely, with locks every couple hundred feet and bridges dated from the late 1700’s. Saturday night we’d been by this same canal and seen boats, which the cab driver said took people cruising and drinking. That would be fun!
I hid out in a coffee shop during a sudden downpour, then made my way to meet R. On Grafton Street – a nice outdoor pedestrian mall area. I wanted to see St. Patricks cathedral, but it was Sunday and closed to tourists mid-day. I assume they were having services. I wasn’t crushed. I’m sure it would have been nice but I’ve seen many cathedrals and will see many more. They feel a bit obligatory vs. being my favorite type of building.
I attended a few more conference sessions in the afternoon, then we had a great pizza dinner in the neighborhood with the tiny houses near our hotel.
All in all, I can’t say I know much about Ireland after my short stay. Everyone was very nice but I mostly interacted with service people, many of whom seemed to be from Eastern Europe (heavy accents, name tags read Vladimir and the like). Conversations I overheard seemed pretty typical – people going about their business, trying to make plans, talking about work and sports and politics. I feel pretty comfortable in English-speaking countries, so I didn’t have the thrill of fear and excitement that comes with trying to do even a simple thing in a more foreign country.
Would I want to live in Dublin? Probably not, though that is based on zero information. I don’t like pubs much, or sports, though I’m sure many people who live there also don’t. If i were in Europe I’d rather be more centrally located. And the weather is pretty annoying, it’s not very warm in the summer and downright cold in the winter. The landscape is gentle rolling hills (as far as I saw) which isn’t quite jazzy enough for me. I’m glad I went…and probably won’t go back unless it is for an event. I didn’t fall in love with the city.
Swans in the grand canal at night
Tuesday September 6, London
I’m always a bit frantic on the last day of a vacation. Did I see everything? Did I do everything? Did I get everyone a souvenir? Do I need to?
I had it in my head to go to a real English hardware store. There, I’d find some amazing only-in-England thing. I didn’t know what. Maybe a keep off the grass sign, or some interesting nails. Or seeds for a flower I’d never heard of.
I found a well-rated one not too far from the hotel and headed north across Blackfriar’s bridge. I had fresh eyes after all the mud and was really appreciating London. I found a tiny, charming pedestrian alley and zig-zagged my way to my goal.
Unfortunately the hardware store was lame. Barely even a hardware store. They sold small appliances, a few pots and pans, what you’d find in the hardware section of a supermarket.
Not to worry–my next destination was a real British toy store. “More a museum” the Internet said. Well…it was in Camden Market and was about 10 feet square.
The London Transportation Museum was right across the square so I decided to go to that…and discovered it was overrun with children! While it wasn’t specifically geared towards kids they were allowed in for free and there were lots of full-size buses and trolleys and tube cars they could play on and in. No disrespect for the kids, just the atmosphere was more playground than museum.
There was a special design exhibit about signage etc. for the tube, and it was the most badly-presented thing I’d ever seen. Every sign…explained by more signs…everything on top of each other. Crazy!!
I was near the British museum so I decided to visit the Egyptian exhibits. Always great! I don’t know if this cool ceiling was there when I last visited but it is really nice.
It was getting late so I took the tube to St. Peter’s, which the nearest stop to the hotel I could get to without making a big circle and changing a bunch of times. Our hotel isn’t well-located as far as tube stops go. I peeked in the church but they were getting ready for mass so I didn’t stay long.
My cell phone was having trouble with the map (lots of high rises?). I asked for directions from some construction guys–who pointed me in the wrong direction. I walked many blocks before realizing.
That night we had a fun event. A friend of R’s is opening a vinyl-centric, audiophile bar and cafe in King’s Cross, and was having the soft opening Monday and Tuesday nights. We were really excited to be in town for this. The area is very interesting. A nearby canal, and old grain silos (?) and other buildings being redeveloped.
We got to the cafe to find that it was under construction. Nowhere near being done. Boxes everywhere, sawing and hammering, workmen screwing tabletops onto bases. No party. : (
While I wish he’d have let us know, I didn’t regret going to that area. We got dinner around the corner at a great place called Grain Store. We were seated near the open kitchen and it was like watching a reality show, the French chef yelling at the sous chefs who were frantically cooking and plating food. They did everything with their bare hands, serving and arranging the hot food. They must be permanently burned!
I went to bed tired but still worried I had more to do.
Monday, September 5, Port Meirion to London
I may have fond memories of Festival no. 6 but it won’t be for awhile. I woke to the sound of gentle rain and the squelching of boots through the mud. All I could think was, get me out of here, now. I didn’t care if I had to sit on the train platform for 5 hours.
We lugged our suitcases a quarter mile to the bus stop, carrying them over the mud, dragging them along gravel. All the while the rain fell. We lucked out that a bus for Bangor was right there, with a kind bus driver who stopped for anyone on the road with a bag to see if they needed a ride. Our friends D. and J., who were going by car to Edinburgh, had to get towed by a tractor out of the flooded parking area. (Them and hundreds of others) A man on the train next to us said the festival people told him he wouldn’t be able to get his car until Wednesday, so he headed back to Manchester and will go back to get it later.
Unfortunately, our friend’s car wouldn’t go over 50 mph without beginning to shake, so they had to take it in to a garage to get the undercarriage cleaned out (mud everywhere) and the wheels realigned, and after that, get it pressure washed to get even more mud out, and there still seems to be a problem with the brakes.
Numerous people told us this was the worst weather ever at this festival. Last year it was so nice people went to the beach and swam.
We lucked out and there was an express train to London on the platform in Bangor, and the agent said we could use our tickets even though it was 11:30 and our tickets were for the 3:45 train.
OMG the train was a huge mess as you might imagine. Everyone filthy with filthy packs and too much luggage and not enough seats. I’m not sure why they let so many people on. We had to pile bags in the vestibule which was fine for the first couple stops but then the doors opened on the other side and I heard people outside the train gasp and exclaim as they were confronted with the wall of luggage. No one could get on our car. Which was full anyway. R had to keep running back to check to make sure our bags didn’t fall out.
Finally back in London, finally in a dry hotel, finally a real shower. R found what turned out to be a really good Turkish restaurant just a few blocks from the hotel, picturesquely situated under the brick arch of a train bridge, and we over ate there and then had drinks next door.
Sunday, September 4, Festival No. 6 Port Meirion
I drank too much in the red tent last night. It wasn’t really my fault. There wasn’t anything else to do. We met up with our friends…waited for the rain to stop…and it didn’t for more than a few minutes at a time, so we stayed.
I woke late and since it was raining again, stayed in bed. Thank god for the tent and the bed. Eventually I roused myself and went to the showers since I absolutely stank. They weren’t bad. A trailer with four white plastic cubes inside and a partition that didn’t quite protect clothes from getting wet.
However–the 100 feet from our tent to the bathrooms was nothing but mud and puddles. Deep mud. Scary, shoe-sucking mud (there were actual shoes in it). The grass, which covered the ground when we arrived, had been decimated, remaining only in the spaces between the tents protected by the tent poles and ropes.
We walked through the main arena area and it was awful. Ankle deep mud and slippery (though the band played on). We made it to the village and found D. and J. in the wifi area (you can on get it if you are no more than 20 feet from the point). Even they looked discouraged which was a bad sign. They are two of the most optimistic, make-do people I know. D. wanted a shower and J. wanted a nap.
R. and I walked down to the water and got grilled cheese sandwiches and a pint. The people watching was good but my heart wasn’t in it. It was a slog just to get there. Even the paved road in the village to the waterfront was slippery. I wanted to take another walk in the beautiful woods but J. told me they, too, were pure mud. I admired the people who managed to drink and dance and yell woo in these conditions. Apparently many English festivals are like this. I just couldn’t. I like rain but all the mud made me sad.
We made our way back to the tent, stopping to watch an organized dance in the town plaza. We got a text from our friends when we stopped at the wifi point saying they’d be at the beer tent at 8pm, but I was safe and warm in bed by then. We heard later that the “gin” tent near us collapsed from the weight of water on the roof and people had to crawl out, so the leak in our floor didn’t seem quite so bad.
Saturday, September 3 – Portmeirion
The rain was supposed to start at midnight but it didn’t start until dawn. Without any cell service I was ignorant as to how long it would last. It started gently but by 10am was pouring. I enjoyed laying in the tent and listening to it (we don’t get any rain in the summer in San Francisco), but when they started the sound check at the huge stage behind us–playing 30 seconds of a random techno song–and the tent began to vibrate, I had to get out of there.
Few people were out and about. Those in the village with the same idea I had–to hide out in a cafe. The indoor cafe was packed, as was the covered champagne bar. I ended up under a big umbrella at a pizza place and got a crappy pizza and worked on this blog. The rain got harder and the steps near me turned into miniature waterfalls. At this point the festival officially closed The Woods, shutting down three venues and cancelling all the musicians that were supposed to play out there.
Fortunately, sitting under a giant umbrella at a table with dry seats meant I got to meet many people. The first of my new friends was a 40-something couple from south of London. Him with a dry sense of humor and her friendly and literal. They were camping and their air mattress had a leak. They spent the night on the ground. He said there was a “mild hurricane” warning and I couldn’t figure out if he was joking. He referenced a famously disgraced U.K. weatherman who’d said not to pay attention to the hurricane warnings, then a hurricane happened and several historical gardens were destroyed. Next, a young couple from 20 miles north of Portmeirion joined me. He said the weather is always like this and it was actually good because it wasn’t windy. (Cue the wind in an hour).
Finally, a family from Manchester sat down, all blonde and wind blown and happy to chat. Everyone said something to the effect of “Where you from, then?” The young daughters showed me the flowery hippy headdresses they’d made in a workshop there (which I couldn’t get into thanks to a long line).
Eventually it got so rainy the water was blowing in under the umbrella and I had to put away my iPad – not that I was getting any writing done with all my chatting.
When the rain lessened I made my way back to the tent, stopping on the way to get R some macaroni since I was quite sure he hadn’t been out. He hadn’t. I crawled into bed for a moment to warm up. I’d planned for weather in the high 50’s at worst but not the damp and chill wind. After I’d warmed and dried we both went out.
As did everyone else. In droves. I forgot to mention this. While the festival advertised itself as “intimate,” the place (when it wasn’t raining) was jammed. On Friday I watched endless streams of campers dragging piles of gear up the hill. I watched bus after bus deliver…people with day passes maybe? I couldn’t figure that out, other than we weren’t allowed to walk on the only clean, paved and safe surface because the huge buses filled the roads width and ran continuously.
The ground was saturated. Our tent was on a slope (as were most of the campsites) but a small pond managed to form outside the front door. A leak somewhere in the floor of the otherwise waterproof structure soaked the mat by the front, however the water didn’t travel beyond that thankfully.
The paths were soggy and slippery and extremely muddy in some places but still passable if you stuck to the edges, where the last of the grass still lived. Some of the bare-floored venues (under tents) had been transformed into covered lakes and were unusable. A worker futilely tried to sweep 6-inch deep water from the music tent near the beer tent with a push broom.
I ran into D. and J. and went to check out their campsite. That path was an oozing river of mud inches deep. I can’t imagine how they got up there in the dark.
The camping area was extremely crowded, tents only a couple feet apart. D. and J. were kept up the night before by a “party tent” next to them that went all night and mysteriously disappeared in morning, leaving only a suspicious pile of trash.
The rain started again so we hid out in the red beer tent with D. and J. and their friends and managed to get a barrel and chairs and consequently, too many drinks (because we didn’t want to leave). There was almost nowhere to sit in the whole damn festival. Even when it was not raining, the ground was too damp to sit on without a waterproof blanket, there were almost no chairs or tables in the food truck areas, none in the stage areas, and very limited seating in the village. I’m not saying this is unusual for festivals but this one went for days…and it sucks trying to eat a meal with a crappy, biodegradable spork while standing, and having to stand in the middle of a windy field to watch a band has zero appeal. I realize this is an over-40 type of complaint and I’ll own that. However, I wasn’t the only one yearning to relax given every single damn chair and low wall in the whole place was permanently occupied.
I made friends with a globe-trotting piano player and his animal-loving fiancée and chatted with a woman I met in Welsh class, but I was still a little bummed. I’d come too far and spent too much to end up in a bar. D. went out to see a band playing in the biggest tent and came back an hour later proclaiming a river ran through the center of it.
The rain did not let up. Once I was “warm” (cough) I was willing to go out there and see what was happening but R’s shoes didn’t have much of a tread and he literally could not stand in one place (nothing was level) without slowly slipping down the hill. I helped him back to our tent then went back out to find everyone and everyone was gone! For the best it turns out…
Friday September 2, Festival No. 6 in Portmeirion.
We slept well in our fancy tent, though it came complete with spiders in webs. I wondered how long ago they set them up (ha ha – the tents not the spiderwebs). We got breakfast from a food truck (good stuff – eggs on potato cakes) and tried to get our bearings. The festival was in four main areas. A huge grass area with big stages and covered stages (near our tent) and food trucks, a middle “food court” with one covered music venue, the village (which has no permanent residents, the whole thing is a spread-out hotel), which had indoor and outdoor areas, and “the woods” – stages tucked away in a gorgeous forest.
The Village (as featured in The Prisoner) was great but not in the way I expected. Not empty and pristine like it was in the show, instead full of people and pop up booths and temporary restaurants. So, despite not being what I imagined, I really liked it.
I’d downloaded the festival app while I still had internet (thank god) and had a full slate of cultural and artistic events planned.
The first was Welsh lessons. I’m terrible at languages but I did my best, and made a couple friends in the process. Next I planned to learn to make Welsh sourdough but this event, like all events in Town Hall, was too popular and had a huge line. I never did make it to any event in there!
Fortunately I ran into R. and we went down to the waterfront and had Fabulous Fish Fingers – recommended by the drunk ladies behind us on the bus. The sandwiches were pretty good but the first of many unhealthy meals. I ate little that wasn’t fried or made of bread and cheese.
Afterwards I trekked into the woods and found the floating dance floor. It was an idyllic setting but floating dance floor? As in, swaying and bouncing? I didn’t get the appeal.
I continued on…feeling very adventurous creeping around on unknown trails. I could hear music but had no idea where I was going. I came upon a DJ in an owl-looking booth, tent over him, a handful of dancers around him, kids climbing trees.
I continued on, stumbling across the dog cemetery (with full-sized grave stones) D. and J. told me about.
The sun broke through the clouds and I really wanted to get a view of the ocean that I knew was out there. When I finally got to a vista point I was astonished to discover how many people made it there carrying a pint or a glass of champagne.
It was low tide and as far as I could see was bare sand interspersed with shallow rivers, green hills beyond–a restful kind of beauty.
I wanted to get to the beach. I’d been warned it was all quicksand at low tide, but that certainly didn’t seem to be the case since there were dozens of people down there. I followed a path that headed down and ended up on top of a small ravine. The path ended with a cliff and a knotted rope tied to a tree. Hmmmm. I wasn’t totally confident of my rappelling abilities but the alternative was going back up the hill and I absolutely did not want to do that.
I made it. The sand was odd, more like snow, my feet sinking down six inches every time I took a step. It was tiring and I was already tired. I found an easier way up on the far end of the beach.
The woods were more like a botanical garden. Super lush with some clearly non-native (but thriving) plants.
Back in the village I collapsed into a chair and listened to a very good spoken word poet while I recovered. I’d been strenuously hiking for longer than I intended.
Thank god I ran into D. and J. soon after that because I’d forgotten we’d pre-booked dinner at a long table for that night. I thought it was Saturday night. I slogged all the way back to the tent (it must be at least half a mile from the village to the tent) to clean up and slogged back. Hills everywhere!
The good part of the dinner was meeting people. To the left–genuine Welsh people from just down the road who told us about a place where you can jump on trampolines underground in an old slate quarry. !!!! To the right–a woman of (presumably) Indian descent, born and raised in London, who complained that her parents moved to the country with nothing, bought a house in London, raised two kids, and she will never be able to afford to do that. London seems to be having a housing crisis in the same way San Francisco is. I heard this from many people. Several cabbies in particular. Hope I’m not repeating myself…the cabbies were both in favor of Brexit. One complaining that people from poorer countries, Poland in particular, move to London, cram many people into small apartments (which presumably makes the rental market tighter) work for a few years and save money, don’t put any money into the British economy, then move back home and buy a home there. The other complained that new housing was bought by Russians and Arabs as investment properties and left vacant until prices rise enough, and then sold. He claimed that all the units in an under-construction building we passed would never be put on the market. They’d all be pre-sold to investors, and that entire buildings sit vacant in London. Whether or not this is true I don’t know, and I’m not sure how Brexit would fix that.
By this point it had become clear that WE were exotic and foreign and actually slightly interesting because of it! I don’t know if I’ve ever been anywhere where being an American tourist was interesting to the locals. The festival was a very UK-centric event.
The bad part of the dinner was that it was a total rip off! It was supposed to be some multi-course fabulous experience by chef so in so. I assumed we’d be eating crappy food most of the time and this would be a nice break. The dinner consisted of a beet-flavored welcome cocktail (blech), a small beet salad (fine tasting but again, small), and then, confusingly, a complete leg of lamb put down between every six or so guests (people that didn’t know each other) with a knife and no instructions or assistance. Not to be helpless, but I personally don’t cook lamb and have no idea how to carve it or what the good or bad parts are. We all politely took small amounts. Accompanying the lamb was a bowl of raw peas. We thought they’d gone cold but found out later the chef thought they were so amazing they didn’t need to be cooked. Plus some good small potatoes that instantly disappeared.
Dessert was a kind of fruit cobbler (?) – cooked apples and berries with a cinnamon topping. The woman across from me laughed and said her kids make this at home.
Also, they blasted awful loud music. Like, Bon Jovi. Weird stuff with no theme and didn’t match the mood of the pretty tent. There were speakers every 10 feet. We begged them to turn it down or turn off our speaker but they didn’t.
I left hungry. Argh. I have to find a place to really review this because I don’t want anyone else to make this mistake in the future.
I dragged everyone out and down a trail to the vista point to see sunset, but we just missed it. Still, it was pretty, with the tide in and twilight. They were just shutting down the floating dance floor and we passed, and we headed to the village to see the “famous” torchlight parade. In the promo pictures, torches carried by people in costume and pretty goddess girls, in real life, the first 100 people to grab one, most of them in jeans and hiking boots.
We wandered around after that, none of the bands captivating us. I for one was dead tired, having been on my feet nearly all day and running up and down hills for most of it as well, and was happy to go to bed early (around midnight). We were directly behind the largest stage but mix of sounds that reached us (smaller stages, crowd sounds, etc.) blended into a very loud white noise that, with enough cocktails, allowed me to sleep.