Paris – Off the Tourist Circuit

October 2018

On an ordinary day, you might see a long line of people outside this seemingly ordinary building across the street from the Pantheon and a few steps away from the church Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. This building, with names of scholars and philosophers carved into its austere façade, is the historic Bibliothèque* Sainte-Geneviève. The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève has been at the heart of French education from its beginnings, as part of the vast Abbaye de Sainte-Geneviève in the early sixth century, to its current role the main research and reference library for students of l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle. Although the library is public, to avoid tourists wandering around distracting studies, casual visitors are only allowed to visit between 9am to 10am, after which the library is open to students.

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Following the process, I emailed the library in advance and was told I could bring the LO but would have to wear her as the library is not stroller friendly. On the day, a large group of French speakers show up and the tour is conducted in French. The librarian was sweet enough to pause and repeat the main points in English for me.

St Geneviève, one of the largest and oldest abbeys in Paris, had amassed a large library by the 12th century.  The Royal Library Sainte-Genevieve was built sometime in the future to house  this collection. The French the architect Henri Labrouste was commissioned to design and oversee the construction of the modern version of this building. Labrouste’s  Bibliothèque  Nationale is widely acknowledged, but Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève came first.

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The building is famous for its use of figured cast iron, reaching up to form two soaring barrel vaults running the length the reading room. It was among the first to have iron used in such a prominent, visible way. The library was conceptualized as “a temple of knowledge and space for contemplation”. The building is a marriage of light and dark. It represents the “outside” and the “inside”; the “arts” and the “sciences”. Its genius lies in the way it switches common notions which should darkness and which light.  The movement of people from light (outside) to darkness (inside/the lobby) to light (the reading room) can be interpreted in so many metaphysical ways. The reading room door has a secret lock. If that doesn’t catch your imagination, the thousands of books that line the walls will. Labrouste insisted that the interiors of the reading room be simple and unadorned. Books should be a library’s greatest decoration. Impressed.

*Bibliothèque- Library

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Paris – A Literary Feast

October 2018

Paris is dotted with literary landmarks. When I think of Paris, I think of Voltaire and Victor Hugo; of Ernest Hemingway. I think of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, A tale of Two Cites, The Scarlet Pimpernel…and mom. When I get to The Scarlet Pimpernel, the next thing that comes to my mind is my mother. The dashing hero, hiding behind a mild, meek, ineffectual persona has inspired generations of superheroes and vigilantes – Superman, Spiderman, Batman…When I asked which book comes to you mind when you think of Paris, she answered, A tale of Two Cities and …. The Scarlet Pimpernel. It is just the kind of story she loves. Romantic, adventurous, served up with a generous helping of culture and history.

img_4228In so many ways Paris is like that too. Romantic, adventurous, filled with culture and history. If you prefer the razzle-dazzle of the modern world, Paris has plenty of that too. Our friend, RP, confessed it was his 10th visit to Paris but he usually doesn’t stay in the area we picked. I confess I picked this locality because of its proximity to two big parks. When you travel with kids, you have to think of things like that (insert eye roll). Turns out, we were just down the road from where Hemingway and his wife lived. In 1922 the Hemingway moved to 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine. Our hotel was at 75 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine. Next door..almost. They later moved to 39 rue Descartes. That’s the next street. The French poet Paul Verlaine died in that same building. Valery Larbaud lived at 71 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine. Next door – literally.  The plaque outside describes him as l’écrivain, poète, romancier, essayiste et traducteur* . Romancier is simply novelist in french, but it sounds like so much more dreamy.  Valery Larbaud was all that the plaque says and also travel writer extraordinaire. Larbaud loaned his apartment to  the Irish writer James Joyce and his family, to give Joyce the sanctuary he needed to finish his controversial book Ulysses, in which episodes of Homer‘s Odyssey are paralleled in a variety of literary styles. We were in the company of greats and barely knew it.

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Larbaud was close friends with Adrienne Monnier and Sylvia Beach. Sylvia Beach was the owner of Shakespeare & Co., a bookstore and lending library that Hemingway often visited. During the 1920s, Beach’s shop was a gathering place for many then-aspiring writers.  When Hemingway was young and broke, Beach gave him a library card (for her lending library) and told him to pay at his convenience. Shakespeare & Co was originally located at 12 Rue de l’Odéon. The iconic English-language bookstore closed during the German occupation of Paris and never reopened but… there is another bookstore called Shakespeare & Co., paying homage to the original, located on the quay across from the Notre Dame. This one was started by  the American author George Whitman. It continues to serve as a purveyor of new and second-hand books, as an antiquarian bookseller, and as a free reading library open to the public. The little bookstore also provides aspiring writers and artists a place to stay. In return the tumbleweeds, as they are called, need to help out around the store, read a book a day and write a one-page autobiography for the archives. Yes.. you can also actual sleep in the store surround by books.

* l’écrivain, poète, romancier, essayiste et traducteur – writer, poet, novelist, essayist and translator

An Averted Greek Tragedy

May 2018

We had the greatest scare of our lives a couple of days back. We were nicely holidaying in one of the islands in greece – Naxos..spent the afternoon at the beach and then swam in the hotel pool and then while we were relaxing in the evening, Reyansh (age 4) inadvertently swallowed a 10 cent coin. As a pro coin-swallower in my own childhood, I promptly fed him bananas. But when he threw up, I panicked. We rushed to a local hospital where after taking some 4 xrays they located the coin in this throat, dangerously perched at the oesophagus’ entrance. They flew us down (reya and me) to Athens and got us admitted at one of the children’s hospital here. Sam (his mother) had to come the following day by boat. Reya had the most troubled sleep that night. He had to sit upright the entire night. I, on the other hand was trying to converse with the nurses who didnt understsnd a word of English.. but they were all very kind. The doctors were great and they removed the coin yesterday and have now discharged us. We have resumed our holiday now and getting ferried to Mykonos (another island). Reyansh as usual his naughty self and behaving as if nothing happened.

– Rahul Chaudhary

London Again

July 9, 2017

Day 9

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The husband is semi-torn between the Tower of London and watching a match at the Lord’s. There are no tickets to the match, so the Tower it is. We’ll be meeting A at the Tower, where he has so kindly, arranged tickets for us. We have been told that the Kohinoor diamond and the Crown Jewels are a somewhat of a letdown. That does not deter us. I am determined to see the famous diamond and the infamous ravens.

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It takes us longer than anticipated to reach the Tower and poor A is kept waiting. An entire day on my feet in London and five days in Scotland didn’t tire me out as much as the trip from Stansted Airport to the Tower Bridge!  Once in, we see a Beefeater starting his tour and join it. He is entertaining and intriguing. We follow him, till we see the queue snaking across the courtyard to see the Crown Jewels and promptly join it. While in queue, we spot a couple of ravens hopping around looking for scraps. Did you know that the collective noun for a group of ravens is “unkindness”? Ravens are also known to be able to mimic human speech! A Royal Decree says that there must be six ravens in the Tower always. It is said, the decree was passed after a King was told that if the ravens left the Tower, the White Tower would fall and a great disaster befall the Kingdom.

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The Kohinoor is a large, colourless diamond possibly 5000 years old, but more likely from around the 13th century. Rumour has it that it first weighed 793 carats (158.6 g) uncut. The earliest well-attested weight is 186 carats (37.2 g). It was big, no doubt, but not uncommonly beautiful, so  Prince Albert decided to get it cut and polished. Thirty-eight days and 8000 pounds later the stone emerged 42 percent lighter. Today it weighs 105.6 carats (21.12 g). This is probably why people who go to see this supersized diamond are disappointed.  Within the royal family, the diamond has acquired a reputation for bringing bad luck to any man who wears it. Since arriving in the country, it has only ever been worn by female members of the family.

As we make our way through the building, we see not just the Kohinoor, but a number of other gorgeous jewels and household items as well. If you ask me, the time we spent admiring this dazzling display of wealth was completely worth every moment.

We make it to Gatwick airport well in time for our flight, only to find the flight delayed. After waiting impatiently post security and boarding pass check, we spend another four hours inside the plane, waiting to take off. The captain cooling passes the blame on to Engineering, saying they were investigating a scratch in the paint, in the hold. *Eye Roll* Thank heavens for adult coloring! The captain did try to make up time, but we still get home at two in the morning, and my legs are swollen like tree trunks. The nice part was, two people switched seats with us. We had two middle seats. A nice lady gave the husband her window in exchange for his middle, so we could sit together. Sometime after takeoff, the sleepy girl in the aisle seat changed places with me, so I could get out and walk around as much as I needed to.

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It’s been a wonderful trip. London has been marvelous and Edinburgh most charming. Every single time I got on the tube/underground in London people stood up to offer me a seat, instantly and without hesitation – men, women and children. The food was delicious. The weather has been most cooperative. Thank you everyone who took time out to meet us and show us around, got in touch with us, tried to meet us, and helped us with research. Here’s to friendship and more holidays!

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot

and never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

and days of auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear, 

for auld lang syne,

we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,

for auld lang syne.”

Robert Burns

Last Day in Scotland

July 8, 2017

Day 8

Today is our last day in Scotland. We want it to be relaxed, while we still make the most of it. We lazily roll out of bed. On the cards is a trip to Urquhart castle, a boat ride back across the Loch Ness and Inverness. From Inverness we will drive down to Glasgow to experience the nightlife and catch our flight out tomorrow.

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Once upon a time, Urquhart Castle was one of Scotland’s largest castles. Excavations have provided evidence of settlements in this area going back to as early as 2000BC. The castle is strategically located on a rocky promontory with an open view up and down Loch Ness. More than once during its troubled history the castle held out because it could be resupplied by ship. There is a miniature model of the castle in the little gallery, next to the gift shop. It’s got little bulbs that light up when you press a room/area on the legend. A super fun way to explore the castle as it once stood. There is a short video on the history of the castle which I highly recommend everyone sees before venturing out into the castle itself. It helps gain perspective. Control of the castle passed back and forth between the Scots and English during the Wars of Independence. The last of the government troops garrisoned here during the Jacobite Risings blew up the castle when they left. Today the castle stands in ruins, bits and pieces of solid wall and broken towers.  The husband correctly points out that Western Ghats of Maharashtra, India, have so much to offer in terms of both scenic beauty and history. If only we learnt the art of preservation and presentation.

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Our plan was to take the boat ride on the Loch Ness from the castle. We find this is not possible, as we need to buy tickets at another place a short distance away. Up and down the road we go, with our map insisting we go uphill to catch a ferry. Finally we identify the Visitor Centre, where we are told to buy tickets from across the road, right next to where the ferry boards. The next ferry is in ten minutes or so. The husband rushes off to park where instructed, while I make my way to the ticket booth. He manages to park and get to the jetty just as the ferry starts boarding. Loch is Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Scots for a lake or for a sea inlet. Loch Ness, immortalized by Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster is probably the most famous loch in the world. Loch Ness is a freshwater loch. It is the second largest Scottish loch by surface area, the first being Loch Lomond, but due to its great depth, it is the largest by volume in the British Isles. It is said to contain more freshwater than all the lakes in England and Wales combined. Nessie, the eponymous monster of the lake is described as an enormous green creature, with a long neck and snake like body with one or more slither humps protruding from the water. The ride around the lake is pleasant and offers a bonny view of the Urquhart castle.

IMG_0844We reach Inverness just in time for lunch. We walk around trying to decide what to eat, and shopping just a wee bit for you-know-who-is-coming-soon. I smell Chinese and it smells good. We haven’t eaten at a Chinese buffet for a couple of years now, and this seems like a good opportunity to find out what British Chinese tastes like.

IMG_0854It is raining, when we get to Glasgow. It takes us a while to locate our hotel and check-in. Having driven around the city while trying to get to our hotel, we decided to skip everything else in favor of a hot dinner and a good night’s rest. We pick an Indian restaurant, by virtue of it being open at this hour and because it’s called Usha. Both our mothers are coincidentally named Usha. Our next challenge was returning the car. The rental office is closed and won’t open until after our flight departs tomorrow. The hotel puts us in touch with the rental company’s on the road assistance team, who assure us, it would not be a problem at all. All we have to do is fill up gas and leave the keys in the drop box.

We tuck in for the night, filled with the loveliest of memories.

“Wherever I wander,

wherever I rove,

The hills of the Highlands

forever I love”

-Robert Burns

A Heartful of Skye

July 7, 2017

Day 7

At breakfast, the lady at the next table can’t stop staring at my belly. Clearly, she thinks the baby is coming tomorrow (eye roll). We exchange pleasantries and strike up a conversation. She casually mentions that we probably won’t be doing any of the hikes. We laugh and say we intend to try the easy trails.

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The hike at Old Man of Storr is easy enough, but the path is steep. I find myself stopping for breath every few turns. I stopped at point the husband says was around quarter mark, but in retrospect I think it must have been closer to three quarters. He made it all the way to the top and came down around thirty (30) to forty-five 45) minutes after I did. I was slow, but I don’t think he could do it that fast. The way down is trickier than going up. The slope is steep, ground gravelly and my protruding belly works against me. I make my way down slowly and cautiously picking my steps. I nap in the car while I wait. When the husband returns, we drive on the viewpoint Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls. The weather is cooler now, and it is starting to rain. It is easy to see how Kilt Rock gets its name. The basalt columns resting on a sandstone base gives it an appearance strikingly similar to a pleated kilt. Against this eccentric backdrop, the Mealt waterfall plummets from the top of the sea cliffs straight into the ocean below, all of which gives  it that extra “wow”.

File_009(3).jpegA bizarre landscape of cone-shaped hills dotted with ponds and scattered waterfalls greets us at the Faerie Glen of Uig. There are no stories or fairy tales associated with the glen, but it is charming and otherworldly nonetheless. We drive up and down the bumpy path and settle on a delightful spot to make some memories. A small grassy   clearing surrounded by a low stone wall, ideal for a coven, a little waterfall with its own emerald green pool to the side and a knoll to scramble behind. I want to try going up, but the rains have made the ground slippery and the husband is wearing the worst footwear possible for this. We glance at the clock and find its time to move on.

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After much debate, we pick the lovely Café Arriba for lunch, where we find onion pakoras on the menu. Everybody knows rainy days = hot hot pakoras. The weather is simply calling for it.

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The Faerie Pools of Glen Brittle were on almost every must do list I found online, naturally they were on ours too. The hike to the lower pool is really an easy walk across grass and water. Conveniently arranged rocks allow you to hop across natural streams. The turquoise waters of the pool are so clear that we can see each moss covered stone at the bottom. We stop here, as a pregnant belly and poor choice of footwear make us ill-equipped to deal with the slippery path ahead. I had planned to go “wild swimming” but I luckily, I forgot to carry swimwear. The day is too cold and the place to crowded to swim. Had the pool been truly isolated, I might have even considered skinny dipping. What made the place magical for me was the distinct difference in the colour of the grass and the shrubbery on the sunward side and mountainside – neon bright on one side and a grimmer gruff grungy green on the other.

We knew we might be running late on our packed itinerary, so we had purposely held off on booking a stay for tonight. The husband quickly did a last-minute booking at a B&B at Loch Ness and we were on our way. Not wanting to repeat last night’s experience, we stop for supper at Portree and by the time we reach our B&B it’s close to nine in the night. The doors are shut and the lady there insists she only takes care of the dogs and knows nothing about our booking. She absolutely refuses to let us in, or put us in touch with the hosts, and even threatens to call the cops on us. We don’t have a choice. We make our way down the road and check into the only room available at Hotel Drumnadrochit. The hotel looks a little rundown from the outside, but it has the biggest room we’ve had so far, with an exception of the House on the Falls. The room is clean and comfortable too. It’s a twin room, so we have the luxury of individual beds. There is still light outside, but we happily sink into the inky blackness of sleep.

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July 6, 2017

Day 6

File_006(2).jpegIt’s closing time at the Eilean Donan Castle, so we can’t go in. We walk around and admire it from the outside. There’s a bagpiper playing for a wedding there. Oh to get married in a castle! We’ve informed our B&B host we’ll be checking in late. When we get there, she has everything set out for us. There are no falls around the House on the Falls, but it is the sweetest little house in the middle of nowhere with sheep all around and wool stuck in the barbed wire. I never knew sheep shed. Most natural, now that I think.

Isle of Skye.jpgWe quickly freshen up and head out o Neist Point.  Out good host has suggested a few places we can stop at for dinner on the way. We are not hungry and decide to have dinner on the way back. I insist on driving to Neist Point. It’s a short drive, on interior roads so I can go as slow as I like. There is very limited cell phone signal in these areas, so we’ve mapped our way in advance and are following it. It takes us on narrow paths, past sheep and lambs – I gently toot the out of my way, through gates and fences. These narrow roads are single lane and have traffic going both ways. There are designated pull over spots every now and then, to allow passing. An hour later, we are nowhere close to Neist Point, and I find myself tooting the same sheep out of way again (don’t ask how we know, they really were the same sheep). We try following the road signs instead of the map, but it doesn’t help. Only when we get some signal, is the map able to re-calibrate and put us back on the right track. By now I’m done driving.

The husband gets us to Neist Point. The beauty of the place and the never ending daylight make it easy to lose track of time. Before we know it, we are late for dinner. We try a all the options suggested by our B&B host, only to find the kitchens closed. Luckily we still have some fruits, energy bars, cookies and other snacks on us. My poor baby, but it was totally worth it. Plus, breakfast was only a good sleep away.