I have several trips planned. Come on along!
I’d never heard of Suze before it was suggested to our group of hikers at the hotel Manoir du Sphinx in Perros-Guirec on the Côte de Granit Rose in Brittany. Suze was listed in the drinks menu in the section devoted to Ricard and other pastis, pommeau (more about that in a minute), Campari and Pimms.
Normally I’m a pastis drinker myself, but Suze sounded interesting.
It was served chilled on the rocks (well, in France, on the rock, since they rarely give you more than one small ice cube) with a slice of lemon. The taste was bitter but light and refreshing – less cough-syrupy than a first taste of Campari, for instance. I later learned it’s distilled from gentian roots with other herbal and citrusy notes. Perfect for summer, and it was soon my before-dinner drink of preference.
Before learning about Suze, my friends and I drank a lot of pommeau, another aperitif, made only in Brittany and Normandy, composed of unfermented apple cider mixed with Calvados, the apple brandy. It’s a dark warm color, sweet but not cloying, and the Calvados gives it a bright kick. Pommeau was served chilled, neat. Calvados itself, we found, was just too strong for us.
And, of course, because we were in Brittany, we drank a good bit of cidre brut, the dry alchoholic cider made locally. The organic versions, labeled bio, had a bit too much of the barnyard still lingering on the tongue. But I liked the fizzy stuff with my galettes, the buckwheat savory crepes people eat in Brittany.
Fifteen people joined Donna Morris of Best Friend in Paris and me the last week of July. Some of us knew each other, but no one knew everyone in advance. We quickly formed a group of both shared and independent interests.
Not a single one of us had the same trip. Every day, people chose what they wanted to do…a visit to the Rodin Museum, or the Louis Vuitton/Marc Jacobs exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs? Take the train to Giverny to see Monet’s house and garden, or to Mont Valérien to see the Resistance Memorial?
Each person found the things that interested them most. Gail was delighted with the Palais Garnier and its new costume exhibit. Phyllis searched out art and architecture; Diane and Anna found jazz clubs in the evening. René and Carol went to the Sèvres museum; Ruth and Emily shopped in the enormous flea market just outside Paris. Frank and Dorothy celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary; Barbara and Kathleen ate dinners with a friend who lives in Paris. Harper couldn’t get enough of Paris; she stayed on an extra week. Stephanie went out to Versailles to see the evening show of light, music and fireworks in the gardens. Jean graciously recovered from being pickpocketed by a 12-year-old girl in a crowded Metro car.
Every evening, we gathered in the Salon Chinois at the hotel for wine and charcuterie, to tell our stories of the day and plan for our next excursions. Donna supplied restaurant recommendations and made reservations when we needed them. We ate meals at all kinds of places, from the very inventive Bar Le Passage to the traditional country cooking of Le Coin to elegant salads at the Jacquemart André and the very sophisticated MiniPalais in the Grand Palais. Much chocolat chaud africain was consumed at Angelina. We shopped in street markets and Printemps and Bon Marché, in museum gift shops and boutiques on the Ile St. Louis and in the Marais. We learned to navigate by Metro and bus, and we walked…and walked…and walked.
There are lots of photos of our trip at http://www.flickr.com/photos/scampbell-wby/. Best of all, we all made new friends…and memories we’ll enjoy for years.
It started with a phone call from Robin.
“Hey, you want to drive over to Bentonville, Arkansas to see the new Crystal Bridges art museum?”
Of course I did. We both adore road trips. Bentonville, home of Wal-Mart, was a nice long distance – about 20 hours – from Washington, DC. We could stop and see friends in St. Louis and Memphis on the way out and back.
We have some road trip traditions, Robin and I. One is that whenever we stop for gas, the person not paying for the gas buys lottery tickets. We are not the lottery-ticket-buying type normally, but on a road trip, anything can happen. When it’s my turn, I go for the MegaMillions and Powerballs so we might win big.
Robin likes the instant gratification (or, usually, the instant non-gratification) of scratch-off games. We had a big day in Bentonville, winning $10 on a scratch-off game. We have not, however, become zillionaires.
On long trips, we sometimes invent silly games: taking turns, for instance, claiming cities of the world to “own.” Not too long ago, in a sneaky move, Robin snatched Paris away from me. I should not have let her get away with that.
Another tradition: looking for local food. We try not to eat in chain restaurants, and we’re willing to saunter off the highway a good ways to eat local. This trip, we followed some signs to Funderburk’s in Pocahontas, Illinois. Frankly, when we drove up and discovered it was located in a Phillips 66 gas station/liquor store, we were doubtful. But we needed to use the bathroom anyway, and we bought a few lottery tickets for yucks. Then the woman behind the counter told us their fried chicken was hand-cooked to order, and they made the potato salad on the premises. Sold.
And that chicken was good, fried crispy and spiced with something akin to Old Bay.
Funderburk’s has a slogan: “Fill your tank and fill your belly.” We can’t vouch for the gas, but we cruised on into St. Louis on very full bellies.
We managed on this trip to avoid one of our traditions: ignoring the GPS directions and improvising from a combination of printed maps, exit signs and billboards, and personal intuition. We are easily swayed, and we generally (and inadvertently) add at least a hundred miles or so to our ride, and then swear we will never do it again.
Our most wonderful food find, though, was in Brinkley, Arkansas, not too far from the Tennessee state line. We asked at the gas station, and they directed us to Gene’s Barbecue. You can get barbecue there, but the real specialty at Gene’s is fried catfish, and we snarfed it up.
The fish was light and clean-tasting, rolled in well-seasoned cornmeal and fried – you never batter your catfish. The owner, Gene De Priest, was sitting nearby with a few of his buddies. When he heard we were from Maryland, he came over to show us pictures from his recent hunting (turkey) and fishing (rockfish) trip in our area.
Gene’s daughter, Connie, was waiting tables that day, taking some time off from her job as manager of a Wal-Mart store after some foot surgery. Somebody from a visitor’s and convention bureau should hire this woman. Hearing that we were on our way to Memphis, she told us where to eat, where to listen to music, and looked up directions from our hotel to every place we wanted to go. Then she gave us her phone number in case we needed anything while we were in Memphis. Both Gene and Connie totally embodied the idea of Southern hospitality, and we stayed a while after the catfish had disappeared from our plates.
If you’re ever there…
Gene’s Restaurant & Barbecue
1107 N. Main Street, Exit 216 off I-40
Brinkley, AR 72021
As I noted in an earlier post, my friends and I loved our trip to Ethiopia.
And although we’re all experienced travelers, we learned lots as we went. Here are some more things that might help you enjoy your time there – and do go!
1) Talk to people and ask questions.
Not only is English taught in the schools in Ethiopia, but many subjects, like math and science, are taught in English. So younger people almost all speak English (and they want to practice). Although in the countryside we met people who didn’t speak English, we were often able to chat with people in the towns.
Some of our most memorable moments occurred when we when met a priest in a church and asked him questions about his life. He sent a young boy to fetch his most prized possession to show us – an ancient book of the Gospel John handwritten on parchment in Ge-ez, the precursor language to Amharic. Then he demonstrated for us how he prays and chants.
In Lalibela, we chatted with a teacher from a secondary school, and the next thing we knew, he’d invited us in to meet the administration. They showed up their classrooms and told us about the lives of their students. We were struck by how dedicated to learning they were, while making do with the oldest of working computers and a shortage of just about everything.
In the Red Terror Museum in Addis, a staffer related his personal experiences of imprisonment and losing family and friends during the Communist rule of the Derg. The exhibits were moving, but his testimony made the horror truly come alive for us.
2) Pack your oldest shoes.
Ethiopia is a very dusty country, and outside of Addis you’ll mostly be walking on dirt roads. We weren’t hiking, so mostly wore sneakers and walking shoes every day. I wore a single pair of sneakers every day, and at the end of the trip, I left them in Lalibela, where many young students need any extra clothes or shoes you can spare.
3) Don’t expect to use your credit cards.
Outside of Addis Ababa (and even there at many places), our credit cards didn’t do us a bit of good. Everything operates on cash. But the good news is that Ethiopia is a terrifically inexpensive country. When we arrived, I took a bit over $500 worth of birr out of the airport ATM. When we left two weeks later, I still had over $100 of birr to trade back in. On the way, I’d paid for all my lunches and dinners and tips to guides and drivers, and done a tiny bit of shopping. And I still had money left over.
4) Follow your ears and your eyes.
On several mornings, we heard chanting wafting through the air, beginning as early as 3am. In Lalibela, we asked to see the source. And there, in a centuries-old church courtyard carved out of the living rock, we witnessed a religious ceremony in which priests and monks chanted hauntingly and danced carrying brightly colored spangled umbrellas (part of their ritual vestments). It was a beautiful and moving scene.
Outside of Bahir Dar, high up on a viewpoint above Lake Tana, we spotted a herd of cows down below. “Can we see the cows?” we asked. Soon we were walking in the pasture, admiring the livestock and surrounded by young people who’d been playing soccer a few minutes before. In fact, we braked for cows just about everywhere and scampered out to get a closer look.
5) If you’re going as a group, use a “mommy wallet.”
With four of us in our group, we were constantly paying for meals or tips – and usually one or more of us didn’t have the correct change. So we designated one extra wallet as the “mommy.” Each of us put $100 worth of birr into this joint wallet, and we used it to pay for anything where we all owed about the same thing. When the “mommy wallet” ran out of money, we replenished.
And at the end of the trip, we disbursed what was left four ways.
One person carried our “mommy wallet” the whole time, making it much more simple than for us to keep remembering who borrowed money from whom.
6) (For women.) Bring a scarf to cover your hair in churches.
More to come in Part III.
Ann remembers almost every year to make a pilgrimage to see the blossoms. This year, she was willing to do it again so I could go too. I left my house at 6:30 this morning, just as the sky behind the buildings was lightening to that beautiful Maxfield Parrish blue that makes everything look like a stage set. By the time I got to the Mall, the sun was an orange ball peeking around the Capitol dome.
We still had the morning light as we strolled around the Tidal Basin. Some of these pictures make it look like we were the only people around…but that’s deceiving. There was an army of photographers – people carrying cameras with long lenses and tripods, people who looked quite serious about framing their shots. I’m sure we walked into quite a few of them. Other people had brought blankets and were having breakfast picnics between the Roosevelt Memorial and the water.
By the time we finished our circuit, tourists were arriving in force. We made our getaway, serene and smiling.
We loved Ethiopia! My friends Merianne, Jean, Lisa and I spent nearly two weeks In February doing what is called the Northern Circuit. It’s composed of visits to four towns of historic significance – Bahir Dar, Gondar, Axum and Lalibela. We all agreed it was one of our best trips ever.
If you’re considering a trip here (and we really suggest you do), here are some things we learned that might be helpful to you:
1) Choose a local company for your travel arrangements.
At our age (we’re all in our 50’s and 60’s), backpacking through Africa is not an option. Instead, we used a tour company, Travel Ethiopia, to make hotel arrangements and provide a guide and driver when we needed them. It’s a locally-owned (and, yay, woman-owned) business, which meant their prices were much better than some British companies we contacted in our planning.
Although we adored our guide in Bahir Dar (see previous post), for much of the trip we were simply with a driver/guide, Asrat Eshete. Asrat not only provided all of the information we needed, but he was incredibly attentive to our interests.
When we said we’d like to see the inside of one of the farm houses outside of Gondar, he pulled off the road, loped across a field and asked a family if we could visit them. Being invited into their two-room house – one room for family, one room for storage and animals – was a highlight of our trip.
2) Spend at least two nights – preferably three – in every town.
If you look at the tour group itineraries, they move often, usually just spending one night in each town. And during that single day, they start early and end late.
To us, that’s exhausting. We took a typical two-week itinerary and stripped it down to five different places, so in a couple of places we spent three nights. It’s heaven not to be packing and unpacking.
And don’t worry; there’s always plenty to do, even if that plenty is just sitting on the back terrace of the hotel having a drink and watching the sunset.
We also specified, as we always do, that we didn’t want to stay at hotels that catered especially to Americans. We already know a lot of Americans. We were interested in staying where Africans stay. As it turned out, most of our hotels, while distinctly down-market if they were in the US, were among the best in the towns. And we rarely saw Americans there.
3) Tell your guide or driver what you’re really interested in.
Although we started with a standard itinerary of the Northern Circuit, we amended it even before we left.
And once we were there, we often ignored what the guidebooks said – and even our established itinerary. Among our group, we were interested in livestock, children and schools, women’s centers, and libraries, for instance.
As a result, in Gondar, Merianne noted that it was wedding season and wondered aloud if we could see a wedding. Soon we encountered two men on horseback, dressed in white with sashes across their breasts in the Ethiopian national colors – definitely a sign of a wedding. We followed them down the road. At the church, Asrat went in to ask if we might come in.
We missed the ceremony, but loved the singing and dancing that surrounded the wedding party as they left the church. We took lots of pictures of the bride and groom (they wore traditional silver crowns and capes) and their wedding videographer took lots of shots of us.
In Addis, we inquired about commercial greenhouses, knowing that Ethiopia is a big exporter of flowers to Europe. Sure enough, Asrat drove us out of town, through the beautiful alpine-looking Entoto mountains, to visit a collection of greenhouses.
An agronomist walked us through the growing flowers and told us all about cultivating freesia and statice for export; it was a highlight of the trip – but definitely not on any tourist itinerary.
More to come in Part 2.
My friend Merianne and I are highly opinionated about tour guides. Although we knew we’d need guides on our trip to the Northern Circuit of Ethiopia, we were also wary.
We hate being lectured to, especially when guides rattle off dates and events that sound like a 19th century history lesson. We’re much more interested in how people live their everyday lives, and we’d prefer to ask questions than listen to memorized spiels.
So we’ve been delighted here on our first few days in Ethiopia. Our guide, Yinebob Mezigebu, who we connected with through Travel Ethiopia, is our ideal. Bob, as he told us to call him (though the word sounds more like Bohb here), speaks excellent English, always a plus. But what we liked most about him was: he asked us questions before we set out.
We had a set itinerary for our two days here – the usual tourist stops. But Bob wanted to know what we were interested in. Yes, we wanted to see one of the famous 14th century monasteries on Lake Tana, but one was enough. No, we didn’t want to go to the Blue Nile Falls; they’ve been dried up by a government hydroelectric project. Yes, we’d love to see the Nile itself as it flowed out of the lake on its way to Egypt.
We love to visit schools and farms and villages, we told him, not so much monuments and museums.
Perfect. We spent our first morning with a glorious boat ride on the lake, just our group of four American women, Bob and the boat captain. He offered us a choice – there was a longer walk to see the most beautiful monastery on the Zege Peninsula, but we could also visit a nice one where we didn’t have to walk so far. We like to walk, we assured him.
When we needed to bargain with the vendors along the walk, Bob helped us make choices.
Inside the monastery church, he shared both his formal knowledge of the striking canvas murals of Christian Biblical scenes and stories unique to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, but he also told us about his own experience of Christianity.
In the afternoon, abandoning the planned agenda, we visited a school, then walked in the fields among herds of Ethiopian Baran cattle. (Show me livestock and I am a happy camper.)
In the early evening, we sat on the terrace outside our hotel, overlooking the lake, drinking wine and eating chocolate, and asked lots of questions about Ethiopian history and everyday life – the way we like to learn.
Before dawn this morning, Merianne and Jean set out with Bob to see an exorcism (yes, you read that right) at a local church – definitely not the usual thing mentioned in the guidebooks. Then the group spent the morning visiting the Grace Center Foundation, an NGO that serves 850 women and orphaned children, and this afternoon, we’re going to the food market.
When we move on to Gondar tomorrow, we’ll lose Bob. We’ll miss him. But if you come to Bahir Dar (and we really suggest you do), you can contact him at Ymezigebe@yahoo.com.
Ever since Donna Morris and I started planning a group trip to Paris for this summer, I’ve been devouring books about Paris. Here are some of my favorites:
The Hare with the Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal. A history of a wealthy Jewish family, much of the book is set in the Parc Monceau neighborhood of Paris a century ago (our neighborhood for the July Paris trip).
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David G. McCullough. The stories of many American artists, writers, architects and doctors who visited Paris in the 19th century.
Americans in Paris: Life and Death under Nazi Occupation by Charles Glass. The story of famous and not-so-famous Americans who elected to stay in Paris through the occupation.
Portraits of France by Robert Daley. A former news magazine writer explores fascinating corners of France and its history, some of it in Paris. A great read.
Parisians: an Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb. A series of true stories about important people in Paris’s history – with details you’ve never heard before.
The Hemingses of Monticello: an American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed. Although this book is primarily about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship to Sally Hemings and her family, much of it is set in Paris.
Paris under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910 by Jeffrey Jackson. If you’re interested In civil engineering and the history of city administration, this is the book for you.
Memoir and Essays
My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. Alas, we can’t visit the Paris of the ‘50s when Julia was there, but we can yearn.
The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious – and Perplexing – City by David Lebovitz. American pastry chef moves to Paris and relates his adventures. You might also want to start following his excellent food blog.
The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: a Pedestrian in Paris, by John Baxter. A literary tour guide reflects on his experiences in Paris.
A Moveable Feast: the Restored Edition by Ernest Hemingway. Sketches of Paris after World War I.
60 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France But Not the French by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow. A highly opinionated explanation of French culture.
Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris by Sarah Turnbull. A young Australian woman marries and moves to Paris – and learns how to navigate French culture.
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik. New Yorker writer lives in Paris for five years and sends back dispatches on life there.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. A WWII novel about a Hungarian-Jewish architecture student; much of the book is set in Paris.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. A contemporary woman discovers a tragic story of the Holocaust linked to her Paris apartment.
Murder in the Marais by Cara Black. This the first in her series of contemporary mysteries set in Paris.
Abundance: a Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund. Versailles was only a few miles outside of Paris, and this historical fiction is beautifully imagined.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley in the 20s.
Hungry for Paris: the Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants by Alec Lobrano. Lobrano reviews distinguished restaurants in Paris (though published in 2008). His website has lots of recent reviews.
Clotilde’s Edible Adventures in Paris by Clotilde Dusoulier. Advice on eating in Paris, from tea shops to markets and restaurants, by a French food blogger.
The Patisseries of Paris: Chocolatiers, Tea Salons, Ice Cream Parlors and More by Jamie Cahill and Alison Harris. Though published in 2008, so not the very latest info, a delicious dive into all things sweet.
Paris Patisseries: History, Shops, Recipes edited by Ghislaine Bavoillot. A gorgeous picture book with stories and recipes from some of the best-known patisseries in the city.
Marling Menu-Master for France by William E. Marling. This little book is both horribly out-of-date and extremely annoying to use, but it will help you avoid eating horse, tripe and gizzards while in Paris.
The day started simply enough, with lunch at La Tartine on the rue de Rivoli in the 4th arrondissement.
Donna Morris of Best Friend in Paris told Robin and me that they had spectacular salads; we feasted appropriately. My salade bergere featured smoked duck breast, a big slice of dried ham and goat cheese on toasted bread, all atop a heap of lettuce dressed with the ubiquitous salad cream that seems to be de rigueur at all cafés and bistros.
We’d planned to spend the day indoors at a museum, but the sunshine called us out insistently.
“Let’s go find Lafayette’s grave,” Donna suggested. Every time I visit her in Paris, she takes me off on another unexpected adventure. I’d just been reading about the Marquis de Lafayette in the book Portraits of France by Robert Daley – a book I heartily recommend.
So off we charged to the Place de la Nation, not too far away in the 11th. During the Terror following the French Revolution, residents living near the guillotine at the Place de la Concorde had complained about the stench of rotting blood, so the guillotine was moved here, further from the center of the city.
A few blocks away, at 35 rue de Picpus, is a private cemetery where the Marquis de Lafayette is buried. Lafayette was married at the age of 16 to Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles of the wealthy and influential Noailles family. He got her pregnant and promptly romped off to America for the Revolutionary War. He returned to France an immensely popular hero.
The cemetery is hard to find, and only open to the public in the afternoon, for a fee of two euros. On entering a gravel courtyard, we faced a spare church where nuns have been saying mass for the souls of the state-murdered victims for several centuries. (I wonder if they still do.) On the walls of the chapel were listed all of the victims of the Terror.
There are three mass graves in the gardens, places where beheaded bodies were tossed in – after having their clothes and other valuables stripped off and “inventoried.” They were carried in on carts after the guillotine. The state tried to keep the location where the bodies were buried a secret, but – so the story goes – a young girl followed a cart and discovered the remains.
The cemetery was begun by Lafayette’s wife. All of her relatives had been killed (crime: being aristocrats), but the people in power left her alive because of fear of popular outrage if they touched the very popular Lafayette or his wife. She and other nobles wanted to be buried near their loved ones.
And now, her grave is here, with that of Lafayette and their son George Washington Lafayette. On his last visit to the United States, Lafayette shipped back a large trunk of dirt; he wanted to be buried in American soil. An American flag flies over his grave daily, even — according to the Daley’s book – during the Nazi occupation of Paris, because they never found the place.
We walked around the grounds, down a long allée of trees. Dark yew trees, symbols of mourning, studded the lawn. Two big fig trees, bearing not-yet-ripe fruit, clustered near one of the mass graves. There were almost no other people around; the place was quiet and peaceful, as it should be.