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Posts from the ‘Europe’ Category

No. 346: The Orient Express


Only by interrogating the other passengers could I hope to see the light, but when I began to question them, the light, as Macbeth would have said, thickened.

– Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express

If you are in Paris and you haven’t yet seen the intriguing Once Upon a Time the Orient Express expo at the Institut du Monde Arabe, make your plans now. Its final departure is 31 August 2014, 19h. France’s national railway (SNCF) and the Institut du Monde Arabe worked together to bring this real-life and cinematic legend to the public. Film enthusiasts and vicarious travelers get ready for a nostalgic journey on the extravagant train line.

One of the finest exhibits I have seen, the detailed curators make it easy to imagine those first voguish passengers who boarded the luxurious liner in Paris in 1883 for their 80-hour journey to exotic Constantinople. The train oozes with the old glamor of courtesans and kings, duchesses and diplomats, spies and starlets, smugglers, tycoons, treasure hunters and rogues. It took nearly a year for SNCF to restore the 20th century locomotive used in the film “Murder on the Orient Express”, and they did not spare any expense. Visitors can marvel at the sheer opulence of the era that must have rivaled, if not surpassed, Europe’s finest hotels of the time.

The tour starts inside the Institute with vitrines filled with advertisements, travel documents, luggage and personal items and then continues with fully restored compartments and period clothing. After that you wander back outside to the Seine and board the lavish locomotive beautifully reflected in the institute’s glass-paneled walls.

It is great fun to marvel at the sumptuous wooden paneled corridors and leather-covered ceilings, rich leather armchairs, art deco bars and other early 20th century excesses. The curators have meticulously included all the details: Harry Potteresque newspapers with photographs that come alive with scenes of the time, original china, cutlery, silk sheets, velvet curtains and personal items famous travelers brought aboard.

Look for the steam and listen for the whistle, two weeks left to clamber up the stairs and catch your ride on the Orient Express!

Il était une fois l’Orient Express runs until August 31, 2014 at the Institut du Monde Arabe, 1 Rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, 75005 Paris, France.



No. 343: Papa Francesco


I have had so many remarkable experiences during my three years in France, but one of the most memorable and awe-inspiring moments happened this summer in Rome while I was serving as a short-term nanny for a dear friend’s 4-year-old daughter and I was included in a private audience with Pope Francis. I took this “job” not because of the papal possibility, mais parce que j’adore mon amie et sa fille, and I always jump at the chance to spend time with them. The prospect of meeting the Pope was appealing, but I did not actually think it would happen.

But then it did.

As you may know, I was raised in an extremely liberal Catholic church (oxymoron, yes) during Vatican II, when Catholicism was (in some ways) being rethought, rejuvenated and adapted to the modern world. There was this whole exciting movement to bring the Church back into the realm of hands-on social justice and working for peace. Of course then Ronald Reagan came to power, and the USA began our slippery slide into supposed “Christian/Focus on the Family” values and the Catholic Church did a complete three-sixty turnabout, and gave up on Vatican II.

That is when I left the Catholic Church. Which is not to say that I haven’t been to mass in 25 years. I have. Which is not to say I don’t pray. I do. Which is not to say I am not spiritual. I am. But, I have been sorely disappointed in the leadership of the Catholic Church for decades.

That was until Argentinian-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Papa Francesco on March 13, 2013. He chose Francesco/Francis to honor Saint Francis of Assisi, who describes as: “a poor little man who astounded and inspired the Church by taking the gospel literally—not in a narrow fundamentalist sense, but by actually following all that Jesus said and did, joyfully, without limit and without a mite of self-importance.


Throughout his cleric life Pope Francis, “has been distinguished for his humility, his concern for the poor, and his commitment to dialogue as a way to build bridges between people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and faiths. He is known for having a simpler and less formal approach to the papacy, most notably by choosing to reside in the Domus Sactae Marthae guesthouse rather than the papal apartments of the Apostolic Palace  used by his predecessors…and he (also) favors simpler vestments void of ornamentation…” plus he has a wonderful, genuine smile, and he loves le foot.

source: Saint John's University

source: Saint John’s University

In my opinion, this Pope has potential, and possibly lots of it. Papa Francesco is the first Pope from the Americas, the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere and the first non-European Pope since Pope Gregory III in 741—1,272 years ago! A non-Eurocentric Pope—now this I love. (Another fun fact in his favor: before starting his seminary studies, Papa Francesco worked briefly as a nightclub bouncer.)

So, by the time the hope of meeting Pope Francis became a reality, I was pretty darn excited. When the day came, we were finally forwarded all the papal protocol. What to wear? Dark colors, covered shoulders. Kiss the ring, or shake his hand? Either, although shaking his hand seemed to be his preference. Take pictures with the Swiss Guards? No, no, no. Except if you have a bambino. Does the Pope accept gifts? Yes. Many in our audience brought books, prayers, and small objects. Can a curious and precocious 4-year-old survive 4 hours of waiting, hundreds of steps through glorious rarely seen Italian galleries, and a 45-minute audience? Yes. Thank you Haribo gummy bears and good parenting from her maman.

The whole day was astonishing. From the moment we stepped into the Papal Palace and began winding our way up the marble staircases through the art filled halls, graced with gilded ceilings, mosaic floors, and Michelangelo frescos until we finally arrived in the splendid Hall of the Consistory, I felt like I was in a dream.

I also wished I was walking those stairs and hallways with my own faithful maman and my loving, no-nonsense, fierce Catholic Busha. I was deeply moved by the experience and Pope Francis’ remarks on religious freedom. I hoped these two strong women who are no longer with me were looking down from above and smiling at me. And with Francis at the helm, I ended the day with a smile and a feeling of hope about the direction that the Church may be moving.



mais parce que j’adore mon amie et sa fille: but because I love my friend and her daughter

To read more about what Papa Francesco had to say to our papal audience from Saint John’s University, click HERE.


No. 342: Arrivederci Tuscana

So long charming beauty,

cobbled streets, steep, stone stairways and solitary cypress.

À bientôt windswept hill towns,

vast valleys, medieval ramparts,

and burnt Siena edges.

Ciao for now silvered olive trees,

Romanesque chapels, streaming sunlight and painted sunsets.

Arrivederci aromatic Brunello and salacious Chianti,

already missing the rustic Italian good life and countryside pace…

No. 341: Tuscan Wines


On my short visit to Tuscany I have discovered many things to love, not the least of which are the wine, and the lovely and genuine winemakers and sellers we have had the pleasure of getting to know. I have entirely enjoyed the Chiantis and the Vino Nobile de Montepulciano. I think what makes Tuscan wine so divine for me is the whole experience: the luminous young grapes, the tidy, leafy vineyards and the rolling vistas that scatter their blues and greens like waves breaking on the sand. It is nice to take the time to really taste and chat and feel the harvest’s link with the land—to be in the moment and greet the terroir.


terroir: the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate. “Literal-minded fundamentalists love to call terroir the soil and climate of a specific vineyard, but in truth it’s about husbandry, about sensitivity to place and its careful management so that the best of things can be delivered of it.”

No. 340: Exceedingly Edible Eats in Italy

lunch_tuscany_italy_vineyard.jpgIn alphabetical order…and, a little bit obsessed with Italian pizza…






Gelato Artigianale




Olive oil




…and one rather strange one…French fry pizza?

…and one rather strange one…French fry pizza?





No. 334-339: Five + 1 Things to Love About Tuscany

I know it is another stretch of a post to add Tuscany to things I love about France, but very simply, we would not have driven to Italy if we didn’t live in France. Travelling down through the south of France, we thought, “What the heck, let’s go to Tuscany!” It has been on the bucket list forever, and there is no time like the present, non?

So far we have not been disappointed, although, I don’t know about the whole under-the-Tuscan-sun-thing. For most of the time we have been under the Tuscan clouds, but yesterday, the sun finally came out. That said, the light has been extraordinary in the clouds, mist, and sunshine, and the family time more than precious. Even for this dedicated Francophile, it has been nice to have a short break from France (although there are so many French here, some days it feels like we never left). The Italians have been gracious and gregarious (except for the Florentines, who can definitely give the Parisians a run for their money on the unpleasant and rude front) and the food, of course, has been fantastic.

Here are a few favorite things I have notice (and loved) about Tuscany on this trip:

Laughing out Loud Loudly

I had not realized how much I miss hearing other people laugh out loud loudly. It is so very rare to hear French people laughing out loud without reserve in public. In Italy it seems like a requirement to laugh out loud.

I am a big laugher, not an annoying one, but I do like to laugh, so being back in a culture where it is okay to express your happy self in public is terrific. I also love watching (and hearing) Tuscans talk to each other. At first I thought every conversation was an argument, but it seems like they are simply just very animated (loud) here. It is liberating to not feel like you have to be reserved and talk in hushed tones all the time. As much as I love the quiet restaurants in France and the French desire to keep their private lives (and observations) to themselves, it has made me quite happy to see strangers laughing it up in public and wearing their emotions on their sleeves.


The Lack of Litigiousness

Compared to the USA, both Italy and France fall in line with this lovely lack of litigiousness. We enjoy the fact that it is possible in both countries, to do and see things that in America would be a lawsuit-waiting-to-happen. In the States you can sue anyone for anything. No one takes personal responsibility for anything.


If you trip on a crack and slightly injure yourself on your neighbor’s driveway in Colorado, go ahead and sue them. The potholes are too big after a huge snowstorm and your scalding hot MacDo coffee burns your leg as you drive down the highway? Sue the city for the lack of immediate street maintenance and Mickey D’s for making their coffee too hot. In France and Italy it is the opposite. Climb a narrow winding 700-year-old staircase with your enthusiastic dog, but without railings or proper lighting to capture the perfect sunset over Siena, do it at your own risk. Ride the crazy whirly-doo at the local town fair without seatbelts and be encouraged to stand up and dance in the middle and drag a few strangers with you, bien sûr! Have as much fun as you want. Just remember, it was your decision, you are responsible for the outcome.



Italians do plazas and grand gathering spaces really, really well. As much as I love café sitting in Paris, it is just not the same as sitting in the sunshine in one of these grand piazzas and being overwhelmed by the history of those who have come before you, and those who are living the experience with you at the moment. Nothing beats an Italian Piazza for people watching.


The Italian’s answer to the French’s champagne. I love them both, but sipping Prosecco with your family and friends on your terrace overlooking Chianti is pretty darn magical.


source: wikipedia

Burnt Siena Rooftops

The rooftops in Tuscany are very different from the Paris rooftops, but equally as lovely. After spending a few weeks in Tuscany, I now understand where all those colors in the 100-pack Crayola crayons come from. The rolling waves of tiled tops make me want to paint.

Teeny Tiny Cars

As I have posted previously, I am nutty for the teeny tiny cars of France. (Remember I come from the environmentally unfriendly land of the mighty SUVs and Humvees.) So while in Italy, I have forced my family to stop every time I see an adorable mini car. Cliché moi especially loves the itty-bitty Fiat 500.


No. 333: Tuscan Sunsets