Friday, April 18, 2014

Postcards from Paris: Père Lachaise

A sunny spring afternoon seemed like the perfect time to visit Père Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris, in the 20th arondissement. We hadn't been there in more than a dozen years, so we bought a map at the gate and took a long stroll. The cemetery opened in 1804 and was a a little slow to become popular. After a few famous corpses were transferred here (la Fontaine, Molière, the ill-fated 12th-century lovers Héloïse and Abelard), Père Lachaise became fashionable and has remained so, with more than a million burials (to make room, they sometimes reopen older graves to squeeze in a new coffin). 

Plots come with a 30-year renewable lease. If no one renews yours, you're out. Your bones are moved to an ossuary to make room for someone else. So people are still buried here, although the atmosphere remains deeply rooted in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And that's why we like it. There are always plenty of visitors in this strange and beautiful place. Some are visiting the family tomb, and perhaps doing some housekeeping for it, while others make pilgrimages to the famous: many French statesmen, writers, composers, artists, and other notables are here. There are also some legends from other countries who managed to die in Paris and end up here: Oscar Wilde, Frederic Chopin, Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan, and Jim Morrison are here. 

The wide avenue just inside the gate.

I have been to Père Lachaise three or four times, every time I've always been asked at least once if I know where Jim Morrison's grave is. In my 20s and 30s, I always acted completely baffled, pretending I never heard of him. ("Don't you want to visit Frederic Chopin?") But I always surrendered and spread out the map. This time, I figured that no one would ask because so much time had gone by. Who is that into The Doors these days? But sure enough, two eager American kids came up to ask us. 

The monuments vary from small markers to elaborate mausoleums. Some are kept bright and clean, while others are covered with lichens and moss.

 Héloïse and Abelard lie under this Gothic Revival monument.

A prestigious family tomb. Money talks here, as it does everywhere.

A bronze relief on the door of a family tomb.

This is the tomb of a M. Lehman, but it would also suit the Seven Dwarves.

Old stone walls and flowering shrubs are among the beauties here. 
However, one of the cemetery walls was used by a firing squad in 1871, 
to shoot 147 holdouts from the Paris Commune who were camped here. 
They were buried where they died, and a monument marks the spot.

Tomb sculptures often represent the grieving.

Many mausoleums are decaying. This one is missing its metal doors,
 although its visitors still keep it neat and bring flowers.

This one's rusted art-nouveau doors seem permanently open.

Scores of cats live in Père Lachaise but we only saw one. 
He seemed healthy and well-fed. People feed them, and they hunt, of course.

He was a friendly cat; I petted him. Most French cats have excellent manners, it seems.
The cats of Père Lachaise even have their own Facebook page.

The cat was next to Chopin's grave, which is always covered in flowers.

There are monuments for those who died in each of the Nazi concentration camps. 
Some of these are extremely moving, eloquently symbolizing the horrors of those places. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Postcards from Paris: The One that Went into the Ether

The following "Things I Didn't Eat" post is my second attempt on the subject. I completed a much livelier and funnier version a few hours ago, and hit the "Publish" button — or so I thought. When I went to review it, it had disappeared, replaced by a few notes I'd made for a future post.

I will not blame Lion, although he made a trip or two across my keyboard around the time I was finishing the post. One can't blame anybody who purrs like that for anything. Ever.

I'm still a bit jet-lagged as well as in bad shape from a head cold, too many decongestants, and lack of sleep. But it seemed to me that these issues improved my writing, unless I was hallucinating. So losing that post was a blow. It was one of my better efforts. I wish you could have read it.

Postcards from Paris: Things I Didn't Eat

I took many more photos than usual on this trip, perhaps because I spent less time eating pastry and looking at pictures of our cats on my phone. (I still spent lots of time looking at cat photos).

Before I begin with photos, here are a few statistics from our 4.5-day stay in Paris:

Miles walked:
  • 54.8 miles, or about 12 miles per day (plus 10 trips on the Metro; we took it easy this time)

Sweet things consumed:
  • Half of a vanilla eclair (husband ate the other half)
  • 1 chocolate-almond croissant
  • 1 raisin escargot, or spiral croissant
  • 1 crèpe with apricot preserves (I found some on my boot the other day....) 
  • 3 crèpes with Nutella (including one sprinkled with almonds)
  • 4 tiny pots of apricot jam with my breakfast (a "flute" of delicious, buttered bread from Paul)
  • 1 tiny apricot sorbet cone from Berthillon
  • 1 large, peculiar roll: pumpernickel with chocolate chips?
  • 1 scoop of cioccolato fondente gelato from Amorino
  • 1 molten chocolate cake with pot of crème Anglaise (part of a prix-fixe meal, so no choice)
  • 1 bizarre, round brownie at the airport because we were stuck there for several hours
  • 1 chunk of the huge Toblerone bar my husband got at the duty-free for flight home
This averages to just 2.75 desserts a day (not including jam, which is practically a vegetable).

I'm supposed to be limiting my sugar intake since I got some bad liver test results so, as you can see, I had great self-restraint on this trip. For me, that is. On previous trips to Paris, I'd begin with a couple of smallish croissants at breakfast (un pain chocolat, un escargot aux raisins) along with a tartine of bread slathered with Nutella. Then I'd sample eclairs and other pastries from the more intriguing pastry shops I encountered throughout the day. And maybe have a little gelato or sorbet. After dinner, there'd still be room for a Nutella crèpe from the little stand at the end of our street. (I heard that, in Paris, it's a crime if you don't patronize your local crèpe stand every day, so I can't be blamed for this.)

I will get back on the straight-and-narrow of avoiding sugar to save my liver soon. But first we have to finish my husband's birthday cake from That Darned Patisserie (three layers of chocolate cake with orange mousse filling and vanilla buttercream frosting). I regard it as a health measure — preventing withdrawal.

So even though I was an ascetic instead of a gourmand on this trip, I think it will be easier to show you what I didn't eat in Paris: 

Fromage! I had some, but none of these regional varieties, most of which we don't see in the US.

Chickens and ducks, still with their feathery heads and creepy feet. 
I had chicken, but mine was decapitated, etc., and roasted to perfection.

A tiny sample of the glorious vegetable display at the Galeries Lafayette. 
Much too perfect to disturb, if you ask me.

When the French have trashy food, they make it even worse than ours: "Fitness chocolate cereal"? 

This little market had more than a half-dozen chocolate cereals,  including one that appears to have
 cream-filled pieces. American cereal aisles seem wholesome by comparison.

We had breakfast every day at Paul, but I didn't have even one of their eclairs. 
I didn't have even one of the fantastic chocolate tarts I customarily buy. 
I didn't have even one of these giant macarons, which are the size of a small whoopie pie. 
(There are no whoopie pies in Paris, as far as I could see. And I looked.)

I left every single one of these pastries for someone else, I regret to say.

And I was too lazy and cheap health-conscious to wait in line for the renowned pastries 
and macarons at Ladurée, a jewel-box of a shop half a block from our hotel. 
I was positively Spartan!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Poem!

Lion's Story: 
The Doubtful Guest Who Came to Stay

When we drove up to Maine, it snowed hard all the way,
And we said that the kitten would surely not stay.
We would not be keeping him more than a day,
But more stormy weather kept Robin away.

The Guest settled in without too much alarm,
And only young Harris did him any harm.
He stole the Guest’s collar, his blanket, his mouse,
And dragged these things, growling, across the whole house.

But Toffee was friendly and gave him a bath,
And the Guest’s "Foster Mother" began doing math.
“What’s the difference from three cats to four cats — to five?
If we take in more cats, more poor strays stay alive!

The Guest soon made friends with his people and cats,
Learned to sleep on soft cushions, and purr, and chase rats.
He sat on our laptops, deleted our prose,
And kept us from sleeping by licking our nose.

He learned to mooch food from the other cats’ bowls,
And gently invaded our hearts, and our souls.
He came as our “foster” but we had to say 
We just couldn’t bear to give Lion away.

I wrote this for my husband, to accompany an iPhoto album of Lion that I made for him as a birthday present. (He'd already made me albums for all the other cats for my birthday last summer.) He asked me to post the poem here with a few illustrations. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Home from Paris

We had a great time in Paris and last night we arrived home to a welcoming committee of Possum, Harris, and Toffee. Wendy and Lion were shy and reacquainted themselves with us a little later. Lion had been wary of our cat sitter for the first few days, but she was finally able to pick him up and enjoy his silky fur. Wendy was fierce-brave and showed up for most meals.

Toffee and Harris were in and out of our suitcases as we unpacked — my husband is so disciplined that it's the first thing he does after every trip, whereas I lag somewhere behind. After we went to bed, Harris curled up between us and Possum and Lion kept visiting through the wee hours, purring loudly and head-butting our hands for more attention. It was nice to be home.

Postcards from Paris will follow... I shot so many photos that it will take a me a while to process them, and I'm too busy blowing my nose. I woke up yesterday with a cold, a souvenir I didn't expect.

* * *

It took us three phone calls to Air France (after getting nowhere on their website) and insistence and patience, but we booked "Seat Plus" premium-economy seating for both flights. We'd tried this in the past and the difference in comfort (and post-flight recovery) was amazing. This time, the seats, which are slightly wider and have more leg room, were on the upper deck of a Boeing 747. Boarding in Boston, we discovered that the upper deck was nearly empty. This seemed crazy, since the seats are only $67 more but are so much more pleasant. The upper deck tends to be pretty quiet, too. Sitting up there is worth every extra penny, if you ask me. I can only assume that people give up trying to book these seats since Air France makes it so difficult. Even after we booked ours and made the extra payments (they accidentally charged us for five seats, not four, and didn't seat us together on the first attempt...), Air France kept emailing us about checking in, and showing that we were still sitting downstairs in economy seats. At the airport, it took an extra 10 minutes for three members of the check-in crew to determine that we really did have seats upstairs.

Right before takeoff, husband and I each claimed a row of three seats, so we could lie down and sleep during the 6- or 7-hour overnight flight. While we were still on the runway, the pilot had warned us that there would be an unusual amount of turbulence. And he wasn't kidding. I gave up trying to read as soon as it began, and stretched out luxuriously across my row, hoping to sleep.

It wasn't exactly like a roller coaster, but I'd say the overall effects were similar. I'd read recently that planes can break up in severe turbulence, so that thought was in my mind, although I knew the possibility was remote. The pilot kept apologizing — his voice dipping and diving with the bucking plane — and warning us that it would be bad for a while. He must have been flustered because he forgot to speak English, only French. ("Turbulence" is the same word in both languages.) The bumps, tilts, and swoops were not nearly as steep and precipitous as a roller coaster, but then roller coaster rides don't drag on for hours, and they aren't 30,000 feet above the cold Atlantic. So, cumulatively, the thrill quotient was about the same, I'd say. I overheard yelping, gasping, and swearing from other rows as I huddled under my coat. I kept my eyes closed and found myself laughing. I can't say why I found it amusing, but I didn't question it. It was better than feeling terrified, helpless, or sick. I fell asleep.

My husband reported that he had had a terrible flight and felt awful. He'd tried to watch a movie through the turbulence, and he can't handle bumpy rides on the ground. He gets queasy on buses. By the time he realized he should lie down and close his eyes, it was too late. We took it slowly from the airport to our hotel. When he recovered, I fed him pastry.

* * *

Flying to Boston, there was a two-hour delay because the plane was taken out of service, so we were at the airport for the extra time and were already tired and uncomfortable as we boarded the plane. The replacement jet didn't have an upper deck, so we were crammed into economy, although we had tried to plead and reason our way into business class. Two handsome members of the check-in staff assured us that we'd love our seats in the 12th row, way up front.

"That's too close to the babies," I said. The front row of economy is traditionally given to people with kids, either because there are built-in changing tables or a bit more room to stand and bounce the little screamers. I always pick seats towards the back for this reason.

"No, no! No babies, I promise!" I was assured. It also appeared these were the only two empty seats next to each other left on the plane.

We sat two rows behind four very unhappy, very vocal babies. We were stuffed into tiny, hard seats in the middle of the center row of a very old plane. This is my idea of hell. I am not a large or even medium-sized person, but I could barely move my legs. I'm sore today from seven hours of feeling like I'd been crammed into a barrel.

But it won't dim the memory of the great time in Paris (more on that later).

My husband asked me this morning if I wanted to go to Milan; he must have just gotten an invitation.

I said, "NO!"

I may reconsider when I've recovered.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Oh, Noes! Possum Selfies!

We're going to leave soon. Time to finish saying goodbye to the cats and to pack the food, then call the cab. I didn't pack that long ago, but I'm not sure what's in my suitcase. I'm sure it will be fine. I think there are a mere six tees, along with other options for chilly and warm weather. 

Possum knows I am melancholy for him when I travel. I've wandered the streets of many European cities looking at photos of him on my phone. So he borrowed the phone and took a couple of selfies. 

Cat selfies are officially an Internet Thing, by the way.

Possum needs to learn about camera angles; don't we all? Click here to see the dramatic difference they make for humans.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Packing Now

Something is wrong; everything fits in my suitcase. Even Toffee fits in my suitcase.

Tomorrow, I will have second thoughts, as I always do, and an hour before we leave for the airport, I will repack with many different things (and I hope not 20 tee shirts). And then things won't fit and that will be normal.

I haven't packed my carry-on. Maybe that's where things won't fit. Yes, that seems likely.

I have EIGHT current guidebooks. Why do they always weigh twice as much as other books? I am not bringing all of them, of course, but they all have their good points. The best is Access Paris, although it is overdue for a new edition (2008). That one is stuffed full of museum maps, commercial business cards, and printed napkins from my favorite boulangeries and patisseries (Gosselin for eclairs!). I have another good one: Secret Paris, full of interesting, unusual buildings, tiny museums and oddities. Those are coming for sure.

We're bringing dinner for the plane, as always. Ironically, we are having a buttered baguette from That Darned Patisserie (theirs don't make a lot of crumbs), along with chicken salad, which I have frozen, so it will be just the right temperature by the time we are in the air. Also grapes, apples, cheese, nuts, biscuits, and big bottles of l'eau.

I miss the cats already.

Tomorrow, I have errands to run, and more packing to do, and I also have to vacuum and clean up for the cat sitter, so she doesn't realize that the last time I bothered to dust was around the last time she was here. Which was Christmas. Oh, well. The cats dust lots of surfaces with their fluffy tails. And I've been busy with my kitten.

I'm not sure when I will post again since I'm not bringing my laptop, but I might manage a few lines with my husband's laptop if he's ever not using it. I will make up for lost time with photos later.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Packing for Paris

Voilà, we are going to Paris on Tuesday for a few days. I feel sad to leave our cats, especially little Lion, who demands much attention, which I am happy to give. We have spoiled each other. But I distract myself from this worry by figuring out what to put in my suitcase.

I love Paris in the winter. I love Paris in the fall. I love Paris when it's cold and I can bring comfortable boots, sweaters, and jeans, and be all set. Paris in the springtime* is another story. Will it be warm, cool, cold, hot, rainy, sunny?

The answer is: Yes. Probably all of that. So I must pack my little 21" spinner suitcase for all possibilities. I've heard that Paris has been unusually warm and springy for weeks, but that seems to be changing, according to the long-term forecast. However, that forecast can be unreliable. Unless it isn't. So my plan is to bring a bit of everything — but not much — and wear layers with lightweight jeans and boots. Zillions of Parisians (also Londoners) dress like this into May if it's not too warm.

I think it's polite to dress like a Parisian in Paris. It's a beautiful city, so why muck it up with things like loud colors, clothing with writing, baseball caps, sweats, cargo shorts, fanny packs, and big fat athletic shoes? It's more fun to blend in and have tourists ask you for directions (the French know you are American because you seem too happy). Looking French will also get you nicer treatment in shops, restaurants, everywhere. Even if your French is abominable.

So, thinking out loud here (sort of): I'll wear my tall boots on the plane and try to enjoy holding up the security line as I take them off. I walk 10 to 12 miles a day in Europe, and find that changing footwear after several hours saves my feet. I'll pack shorter boots and some flats or sandals, too. I don't need loads of room for clothes. Skinny jeans roll up to fit in my hand, as will a pair of black J. Crew "Pixie" pants — sleek, substantial leggings, with a zipper in back.

I just splurged on two skirts at Susanna**, and one will go to Paris. It's reversible — two layers of black-and-cream rayon georgette with an elastic waist. One layer is paisley; the other is a swirly dotted print. It crumples up into a small ball for packing, and never wrinkles.

I'll also bring my usual suspects: a black cashmere cardigan, a second sweater, and tees, mostly black, white or striped. I'll try to stop at five, remembering the time I went to Italy for 10 days and found I'd brought 20 tees because they kept fitting into my suitcase. (The rolling technique works wonders.) I will also keep in mind our trip to Vermont, where I kept spilling things on myself and regretted packing light for once.

For color, I bring (and buy) scarves. Everyone wears scarves over there. For warmth, I have a "packable" trench that makes a good travel pillow. And a black knit 3/4 coat I wore constantly in London during last year's chilly spring trip. And a green field jacket from Madewell that I love. All this should fit in my bag, along with guidebooks, umbrella, and so on, but I have a Plan B. My husband's suitcase is bigger, and he usually leaves it half-empty. Since he is kind — as well as clueless about how to pack suits and sport coats so they don't wrinkle — I can trade packing expertise for a little suitcase space.

I also bring a carry-on — a medium-size Lonchamp tote that holds a smaller version folded up (my everyday bag) plus dinner, snacks, my raincoat/pillow, a pashmina (I don't touch airplane pillows, blankets, food, or drinks), jewelry, scarves, camera, and magazines to leave on the plane. And anything I'd hate to go missing from my checked suitcase... and some basics in case it gets lost.

This project is set for tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy my cats and try to figure out a few new things to do on this trip: maybe a barge ride on the Canal St. Martin and some different museums, markets, and neighborhoods. Paris, oh, boy!

* I haven't been to Paris in the summer for 25 years and I have no regrets. It can be hot and it is always full of tourists. There is not a lot of air conditioning and all you can think about is how much nicer it would be to go anywhere in the country... and so you go.

** I love Susanna, on Mass. Ave. between Porter and Harvard Squares. I always find great things I can't find anywhere else, and when I check the prices, it's usually a pleasant surprise. Their clothing is smart and wearable, but interesting, and often made in the USA. The women who work there are friendly and helpful in a low-key way. My other new skirt deserves its own post since it has a lot of personality, but here goes: It is nearly ankle-length, with many gores. The fabric is slightly puckered, with tiny black-and-white checks. Inside, at each seam are two little string ties several inches apart, so the skirt can be gathered up into a series of poufs below the knee. I've already spent a happy half-hour playing with it, trying various degrees of pouffy drama. I first saw this skirt two Christmases ago but was too cheap to get it. When I saw it again, it still delighted me, so I grabbed it. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Lion & Possum

There was a tense scene in the kitchen the other day. (Once again, I wished I had a better camera.)

Lion thought we all lived in Maine and refused to believe Possum, who tried to tell him otherwise. Lion thought Possum was joking. Possum assured Lion that he doesn't have a sense of humor, being a  Norwegian aristocrat and all.

Lion said he doesn't want to be some "sissy Bostonian" and offered to box with Possum to decide the question. Possum took umbrage. Lion retreated but only for a moment.

Possum weighs three times more than Lion, and he told him so, hoping he'd see the folly of his plan. Lion isn't good at math. He gave up trying to figure out what it all meant and decided to box with Possum anyway.

I thought Lion was fierce brave to go after Possum, who is a big guy with large teeth and a piece missing from his ear. Possum found it tiresome, but put up a show of extreme violence.

Possum told me later that he admired Lion's nerve, although he needs an education. He also said it was hard to keep a straight face as Lion tried to look big and scary. I've seen them washing each other's heads since, so I'm sure they've made up. And I haven't said anything about how they seem to be speaking the same language now.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Cat and (Turbo)Mouse

Here's a rare moment when Lion is sitting near my laptop and not trying to sit ON it. I remove him gently from my desk scores of times a day, but I do appreciate his interest in spending time with me. He often ends up purring in my lap for a while. When I deposit him on the floor to the left of my chair, he walks around behind me and immediately jumps up again. "Oh, hi! It's you!" I say for the umpteenth time as he gazes at me with his round, topaz eyes. Lion will have his way and will not be denied.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Harris Tangles with a Brush and Comb

Harris and I had a long grooming session the other day, the first in a long time since he has silky fur that rarely gets any mats. My trick was to let him bite, rub, and kick the brush or the comb while I worked on him with the other one. He loved being groomed and purred throughout... but from his sulky expressions in these photos, you'd never know it:

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Wendy imagines life behind bars.

Wendy is relieved that we've finished our taxes and paid what we owed. She worries every year, fearing the Feds and remembering what my dad always says: "Always pay your taxes. That's how they finally got Al Capone." 

Wendy is scared we'll get arrested or owe so much in taxes and fines that we'll run out of money for cat food or become homeless. She spends a lot of her free time sitting on the folder of tax records and giving us pointed, dirty looks. 

She was always suspicious when we got tax refunds so she breathed a sigh of canned-rabbit-scented relief when we learned we actually owed money this year. That's Wendy's idea of things being right with the world. 

April Fools

I toyed with my Facebook friends yesterday by posting this photo and announcing that we were going to give our cats numerical names from now on. So I said this little guy was named "Six:"

Some people knew it was a joke — the friends who watched from the sidelines or tried to help as we agonized about keeping Lion. Some figured that if we were nutty enough to have five, why not six. Some asked if I were serious in varying degrees of disbelief and alarm. And some of my very favorite people jumped right in, congratulating us and asking how everyone was getting along. 

I have to admit that, if we ever did come across a kitten like this one — with that face, those eyes, those giant ears, and that expression — we would have to adopt him. Some of my friends seemed to understand that.

This will be fun to look back on if we ever DO get a sixth cat. Just sayin'....

Besides, we already have a "Kitten Six." That was Wendy's name when she was at the rescue in Swansea. Here she is in her her crate, wearing a darling little cat food mustache that I have never seen since:

The kitten behind her is her brother, who suddenly became ill and had to be put to sleep shortly after we adopted her. I still remember him, and often think of him when I see Lion, since he's also black and white and even looks a bit like Wendy from certain angles.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Tax Day

We spent the afternoon doing our federal and Massachusetts tax returns online. We are battered and bruised but expect to recover... in time to file the Pennsylvania return, the one I fill out by hand, which might just do me in. This year, Pennsylvania never sent me any forms, which I interpret to mean that I can make one up as I go along, one a lined notepad with a crayon.

Or maybe they no longer expect me to file a return. Yes, I'm sure that's the case.

TurboTax always makes us feel like complete idiots, and this year we felt stupider than ever, going around in endless loops because we couldn't understand the questions and were equally stumped by the answers. We also managed to misplace three essential tax records we don't remember receiving in the mail.

Every year, our reward for making it through hell had been a nice, fat refund from the IRS and a payment for about $50 to the state. Not this year: we had to make unpleasantly fat payments to both. We refinanced our mortgage last year, so we're not deducting nearly as much interest, so that's part of the reason. I also sold some investments so we'd have an imaginary down payment on an imaginary condo or house, so we had capital gains to pay. And we may have jumped into a higher tax bracket.

I can't complain about any of that. We're doing fine and we are happy to pay what we owe. Taxes are indeed, "the price we pay for civilized society," as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote. By the way, he and his family once lived next door to 298 Beacon Street, which burned so fiercely last week. (Their beautiful brick townhouse was replaced by the current monstrosity in 1951.)

I'd feel even happier paying my taxes if my civilized society would fix some of the sinkhole-sized potholes around here.

And that's all I have to say about that. We are wiped out.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Recent Adorableness

Lion loves to play, and he will occasionally pause to pose for me. He may not have Harris's or Possum's professional modeling expertise but he's still photogenic:

Lion is an elegant kitten but he still has crazy-cat moments. He most entertaining when he's attacking nothing — leaping wildly in all directions in a tizzy with his ears back and silky little tail fluffed out. He's also pretty bendy:

I don't have enough good photos of him although I keep trying. I'll never be able to photograph him when he's lying in my arms purring and kneading away, sometimes reaching up to lick my nose. He's at his sweetest then, and it's probably the best thing ever.