“Cities have sexes: London is a man, Paris a woman, and New York a well-adjusted transsexual.” ― Angela Carter
I’ve been putting these posts together for a while now, and the day I was going to post the first part of the story, there was another attack in Paris. The information of this us still being pieced together.
The city of light is a resilient old girl, just as London is a crusty old guy, and both are holding it together spectacularly. And yet. It does feel like there are people who want to rip it to shreds because it’s beautiful and (at it’s best) it an be seen as a symbol of people getting along in spite of forces trying to rip it apart. Sometimes failing miserably, but still trying.
There’s a reason people fall in love with Paris. It revels in beauty and thought and language, which is dangerous to the harsh and the narrow. It’s sumptuous and gauche and luxurious and wretched all at the same time. It wears its age and its history well, and it doesn’t seem to be ashamed of even its own darker moments. It’s easy to love and so I think it must be easy to hate too.
It’s not surprising to me that Paris is considered female or feminine in its language or its characterization. It’s not safe to be beautiful, disappointing, sexy, boring, interesting, complicated, conflicted, contrary, romanticized, fetishized, put on a pedestal, found lacking, found transcendent, loved, or hated. Paris is all of these things. I’m always glad when go and I’m sorrowed that I or other people have to second guess whether or not it’s safe to right now. We need her romance and charm and pleasure and sober history more than ever.
“London is a riddle. Paris is an explanation.” ― G.K. Chesterton
Any good holiday will impart a little bit of wisdom and our half week in Paris provided plenty of teaching moments to leaven the hedonistic pleasure of good food and good company. I got to reflect a bit about the last year, what we’ve been able to do, and what we’d like to do more of in the near future. It’s been a big year–in some ways a rough one, but a good one overall. It got me thinking of what I’ve managed to do and what I want to do more of in the foreseeable future. More on this later as my thoughts coalesce into something more cohesive.
In the meantime, here’s a zero pressure bucket list I came up with for the summer, based on some of my swirling ideas
Travel more–we’re thinking Greece as a couple and I hope to have a bit of a jaunt with a friend if she’s able to make it across the pond.
Buy new glasses.
Get another piece of furniture for the house. And plants that I won’t easily kill.
Read a new heap of novels, both trashy and classy.
Finally get that call with my bank scheduled to kick off the proper investment and savings plan we’ve been talking about for months.
Do another month long blog project.
Lose some weight. I’m typically wary of goals like this, but I’ve decided to just acknowledge that I’m going to work hard on some health and fitness goals explicitly.
Catch up with some long lost pals.
Knock out my audiobook goal.
Leave the office at a sensible hour most days.
Go to more movies.
Throw some kind of party or get together.
Do any of you have a summer bucket list? If so, what’s on it?
I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. – William Wordsworth
I’ve been saying it forever, but I mean it: we do not go on enough vacations. Here in the UK, in addition to national holidays, I have about 25 days off a year as part of a typical contract–ditto Jeff. We are piss poor at using them.
We blame American work habits and norms. To this day I cringe whenever I submit a time off request, as if what I’m doing is somehow shameful or looks lazy. Over the past nearly four years that we’ve lived here, we’ve been so bad at taking holidays that Jeff has been able to sell back a few every year to get a bit of extra money…but last year we hit the limit of that and so much of his time off allocations have piled up that we have to either “use it or lose it.”
We are awful at holidays…but we are getting better.
For the April long Bank Holiday weekend, feeling absolutely stir crazy and needing to get out of the city, I booked us a few days in the Lakes District in Cumbria. Initially I had grand ambitions of trying to organize a quick mini break to Europe, but the onboarding as part of a new short term contract quickly took over most of my life and energy and before I knew it, the Bank Holiday was upon us. Jeff was deep in the bowels of tax season and working 12+ hour days meaning that while he too needed a holiday badly, I needed to plan this one. A quick burst of research and reservation making, et voila!
The Lakes District has an abundance of natural beauty and has been a popular visiting spot since the Edwardian period. In spite of being an admittedly tourist spot, it remains charming. There is a thriving but tidy local economy that makes getting around the cluster of lakes and villages that makes up the area easy and affordable, and a blend of indoor amenities like shops, B&Bs and restarants to supplement the outdoor nature of the holiday spot. It’s a famous hiking district with peaks and hills for the adventurous/fit, with lots of woodland walking trails for the more moderate/lazy. We took advantage of both the outdoors and food–copious amounts of tea were drunk and more than one excellent meal eaten in between boat rides across Lake Windemere, multi hour hikes along shorelines, walks through the villages where some of Britain’s most famous poets lived and wrote, and general meandering.
The fresh air, long walks, good food (we ate so much local cheese, guys), and time away from the city. It was exactly what we needed.
In case you are interested, we stayed at Mylne Bridge House which is a charming B&B run by a married couple who serve an absolutely scrumptious breakfast! You’re about five minutes from the high street of Windemere and a half hour leisurely walk from Bowness-on-Windemere on the lake itself. Highly recommended!
“Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” ― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
15 years ago I met a girl in an airport bathroom (a story that I wish I could say was more scandalous than this auspicious beginning implies). We were on our way to a week long political youth conference in DC and New York, along the lines of model U.N. but I maintain cooler, that turned out to be a great time and we stayed in touch afterwards. A decade and a half later, we are still in touch and make time to see each other whenever our travels take us into one another’s orbit. She’s come to London a couple of times in the last three years, including this past weekend, when she arranged a fab dinner party to introduce Jeff and I to two other couples as well as the guy she’s dating. No surprise, we loved them all.
It got me thinking about friendships, specifically friendship in adulthood.
Growing up military brat, there was always a fluid nature to many friendships. Depending on where I lived I was surrounded with and went to school with other brats and, given the nature of the work, it was likely that one of our parents would be shipped across the country or the world in less than two years from the time we met. As a result, I and many brats I know tend to be able to make friends very quickly. We are more likely and able to progress through the phases of friendship quickly–we need to! The emotional intimacy and sustaining fun of friendship is a requirement of life, but we didn’t always have time to spend years and years cultivating relationships. We tended to single out the people we would get along with quickly, join forces quickly, and stay bonded until divided by circumstance.
On the flip side, when a friendship was broken up by a government directed move, it was often the case that it simply came to a successful end and didn’t continue. There has been an uptick in thinking and writing in recent years about “friendship breakups” but I’ve not really experienced this phenomenon in a negative way. Most of the friendships I’ve had that ended came to a natural and organic close as a chapter in life (shorter than most civilians due to the nature of our parents work) ended. I grew up partially before the internet and finished university before mobile phones became the pocket sized universes of information they are now, so this undoubtedly contributed to friendships winding down too. In an age of Whatsapp I imagine things are different now; they certainly are for my siblings–my 11 years younger than me sister seems to be operating in a totally different world than I did. I dread to think of the disconnect if Jeff and I have kids!
I don’t want to suggest that I grew up with a “disposable” attitude towards people, because that’s not accurate. But I am used to the idea that not all relationships are supposed to be or need to be permanent. Sometimes you need certain people at certain times (and vice versa), the need ends, and you both move on positively.
In adulthood, however, without the crucible of adolescence, school, sports teams, or other social tools made to get people together into groups, I don’t find as many opportunities to forge new friendships. I’ve stumbled into a few incredibly rewarding ones through blogging (hi, Caitlin!), work, and travel, but it’s a rarer thing now. It takes more work and effort than it did in a Department of Defense high school scene, and of course these days I have a partner, a full time job, errands to run. So do they! Adulthood is busy, and it can be hard to find the time to grown and nurture new friendships. On the plus side there are now more tools than ever to stay in touch with the people I already have in my life–it’s a rare week that doesn’t include a transatlantic call of some type. In my childhood, that would have been an expensive and complicated thing, these days it’s the touch of a button.
Alternatively, I have a handful of friends that I made years ago that were and remain the vital relationships of my life. My two best friends I made in middle school and, scattered as we are, I plan on them being in my Girl Squad until the day I die. One has asked me to be the executor of her will, she’s also been slated as godmother to any hypothetical children since before Jeff and I got married–before you ask, he’s 100% onboard. He refers to X. as his sister-in-law because he knows she is family to me and has been since I was 12 years old. Katarina is my other squad captain. We are the guardians of one another’s secrets, mutual cheerleaders, and constructive critics. We’ve been reading each others’ writing for the better part of two decades and one of the proudest friend moments of my life was being asked to be a first reader of the manuscript that landed her an agent. I am a ridiculously fortunate woman.
But I still appreciate the opportunity to meet new people and check in with pals who may only flit in and out of my city once every few years. We may not talk every day or even every month, but we bonded for a reason and can find a lot of joy in circling back to one another.
“Cubism is a part of the daily life in Spain, it is in Spanish architecture. The architecture of other countries always follows the line of the landscape . . . but Spanish architecture always cuts the lines of the landscape.” ― Gertrude Stein, Picasso
A few final photo dumps from our trip to Barcelona because there were too many shots that didn’t fit nicely into a their own post or story, but were too beautiful not to share.
Barcelona is a city of details and there were small touches of decoration everywhere we looked–all of it personalized and unique, and very gorgeous. From carved faces poking out beneath window frames to highly patterned walls to decorative metalwork, this is a city that loves design, and it shows!
The street art.
Tiny touches of metal work.
A random bit of grating.
The first plumbing and running water in the city.n
“History is a set of lies agreed upon.” ― Napoléon Bonaparte
If you like places that wear its history on its sleeve, you’ll adore Barcelona. It’s a perfect mix of Roman, medieval, and modern and you can find traces of era all over the city.
For example, in the main square, we stumbled upon some traditional fall festivals that included large “giant” figurines that are paraded in the streets on holy and fest days (and seem to have some Celtic or pagan origins, at least according to some historians) and acrobats which seem to a Catalan tradition.
For those into conquest, trade, and epidemiology, the court where Isabella of Spain supposedly received Columbus in audience before his voyage is a nice check in.
And the architecture everywhere is fantastical…until you start to learn how much of it is a lie!
What I loved best about visiting Barcelona and hearing about its history is that the people of this city seem to have been amazingly inventive and innovative with their town. No precious nonsense about accuracy here, what they want is good show. So for instance, when there was a grand exhibition being held in Spain, they thought their cathedral was a bit drab. Romanesque architecture is by definition bulky, angular, and squat. This simply would not do. The enterprising populace decided to commission a faux gothic facade to the entrance in stead. It looks like it’s from the late medieval period, but in fact dates from the 19th century.
Glance down the side streets and you can see the original, rather less impressive and unadorned walls.
This triumphal arch is a great might-have-been because it was the original site for an edifice deemed so ugly that the people refused to allow it to be built. And so the Eiffel Tower was erected in Paris instead. Oops.
The sand was perhaps my favorite story. The Spanish coast on the Mediterranean is rocky and not particularly good for holiday postcards and so when the Olympics were held here and a great influx of tourists expected, our proactive natives again rose to the challenge. Tons of sand was imported from the Middle East and palm trees from Hawaii–none of the tropical foliage you see in the city is native to the area, according to our guides. Marine sand is also different from desert sand, with a different texture and feel due to the polishing of waves rather than wind–meaning the beaches are rather rough to walk on. Doesn’t deter people, though.
And finally, the iconic Sagrada Familia is an absolute hodge podge because the original plans by Gaudi were lost in a fire. Rather than give up, dozens of architects and artists have been involved with the project and instead of trying to replicate the style of the master, they each have left a different and unique stamp on the area of the basilica they were assigned to. Far from Gaudi’s entrance opposite to this which commemorates the birth of Christ, this doorway memorializes his death in a darkly modernist style. My impious observation was that the statues of Roman guards looked like Cylons from Battlestar Gallatica…but I stand by this observation.
“You can’t just eat good food. You’ve got to talk about it too. And you’ve got to talk about it to somebody who understands that kind of food.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird
If you’re feeling peckish but tired of the main city of Barcelona, how about–and I seldom suggest this–heading for the suburbs? Hop on a train and ride it to Sant Sadurni d’Anoia–the heart of cava country–and take the short walk into town. It’s not a large village and there are signs everywhere leading you to the most prominent sites. The fact that this restaurant is included among those sites is not an accident.
The lunch we had at Cal Ticus was easily one of the best of my life and at about 15 euro a person, a steal bordering on criminal. Don’t let the simple facade fool you.
There was a semi-set menu but we could choose between course options and there was not a single bad choice to be had. The ingredients were seasonal Catalan selections and the emphasis on cooking technique. It sounds basic but was in fact pretty mind blowing.
Mushroom soup with a slice of gooey cheese and Spanish olive oil.
Handmade pasta. Technically Jeff’s but I ate a decent bit of it…while we’re being honest.
A gorgeous slice of beef and perfectly roasted potatoes. Again, sounds basic. Again, could not further from the truth.
And finally, a traditional Catalan desert of a type of cheese covered in local honey. Its taste and texture was was similar to a less sweet and more crumbly cheesecake and it was both dense and refreshing at the same time. Paradoxical, yes, but true.
Do yourself a favor on your visit to Barcelona and swallow the train fare for the ride out, or make a day of it away from the city and take in the vineyards and olive groves. But seriously. Eat here. I mean it.