London Calling

I often tell people I never expected to like London as much as I do.  Don’t get me wrong – I would never, ever live there – it’s too expensive, rushed, big, and dense.  But for a few days at a time, quietly sipped, it’s a wonderful retreat for a native English speaker.

For one, most of the museums are free.  Over eight or so visits I’ve gotten to see the great treasures of the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern, the Natural History Museum, as well as had the chance to venture out to Greenwich to see the marvelous nautical museums out there.

Then there’s the food.  Just saying the word “spicy” is enough to make French people reach for their throats, pre-emptively coughing.  It’s not their fault.  There’s not any native spicy food in France.  Same for the cuisines in Germany and Switzerland.  But the British palette, early on stretched by colonial ambitions, can tolerate quite a bit of spice, and so you see many more Indian and Malay restaurants here, done using authentic spice profiles.  You can find those cuisines, and dozens more, for bargain prices.  There’s also the theatre.  As a native speaker of the language I appreciate all the nuance, humo(u)r, and wordplay without the need of a translator or intermediary.

In a way, London is where I go to remind myself what it feels like to freely breathe in my native language, whereas in France, my French reading comprehension has far outpaced my speaking speed, so while I scan through Le Figaro or Le Monde at my regular English reading speed and truly understand what is written, my speed in discussing issues spoken about between those pages, or any issues in general, is slower.  I’m always a bit more cautious and held back with witticisms, jokes, or the casual jump-in of a serious conversation in my new language.

As for getting to London, having flown in and out of Luton, Gatwick, and Heathrow from Paris, I’m a very big advocate of taking the Eurostar.  If you book 6-8 weeks in advance, you can routinely pay around 50€ each way, which is not only competitive with the lowest rates you can pay to fly, but it’s one of those rare instances in which taking a train is actually faster than taking a plane.  The Eurostar is 2 hours and 20 minutes, Gare du Nord to Saint Pancras, and is city-center to city-center, connected by the Metro and Tube, respectively.  Even the fastest trip from Gare du Nord out to CDG is going to take you at least 30 minutes (slightly longer to get out to Orly), then you need to get through security, and then you need to be there at least one hour before your flight.  By the time you have done all that, you could have already been in London, and you haven’t even left Paris yet.  So, if you want to take a few days’ trip to London, you can get there and back pretty quickly, and pretty affordably.

The question might be accommodation.  And that’s a fair point.  Over the years I’ve developed a really wonderful group of friends in London and if they are in town I can often crash at their places.  But if everyone is out of town, I can find a hostel (25-35€/night) or an airbnb/hotel (55-75€/night).  Just be prepared: in London they aren’t shy about renting out spaces that would be glorified closets in America.  You can get more space, of course, if you’re willing to pay for it.

You don’t need to regularly visit, as I do.  Just go once and see how you feel.  I definitely underestimated it when I first visited as a tourist, back in 2009.  Summer, with Wimbledon and sunshine everywhere, is a great time to give it your first try.

I took the picture from Westminster Bridge on the day after the Brexit Referendum, just some minutes after I had left College Green by Parliament, where I had been doing some short informal interviews with some MPs and MEPs on their reactions to the referendum result.  The article I wrote on it is here.

Day Trips: Chantilly

I’ve always emphasized that this is a Paris blog first and foremost, but that picture of Paris is incomplete if it doesn’t include the day and weekend trips I take around this beautiful country.  I always tell Americans that France is 75% the size of Texas, which simultaneously conveys both how large France is (because Texas is BIG) while giving a sense of how small it is in comparison to the continental 48 United States.  You can get almost anywhere in France within a day’s drive.

98B92D25-EE99-4EA9-A909-95AD8292098AAs I’ve said to many, after 500,000 miles (more than 1M kilometers) driven in the US, I’m retired from driving other than when I have absolutely no choice, and weekends away are no different.  I’m almost always going to take the train where I’m going.

On the border of Ile-de-France is Oise, which has the stop Chantilly-Gouvieux within its borders.  Nine euros each way and about 45 minutes later on the train you will find yourself a 20-30 minute (scenic) walk, at a decent pace, from the stables and chateau of Chantilly.

Most of the chateau dates from after the French Revolution, as during that disgusting and disgraceful time of French history the revolutionaries burned and destroyed so many beautiful things, and murdered so many people.  And yet, the history of the grounds, chateau, and stables, for anyone who bothers to read about it, is the typical story of noblesse oblige, conservation, and heritage that made France such a jewel of Europe.

I’ve been to Chantilly three times now, and each time I’ve been joined by friends for a picnic beforehand.  I bought an Annual Pass on my first visit as I could seeB7B4BE05-7C55-4325-9649-D98D5CB0AA7D that I would need a number of visits to properly see it.  On my first visit I throughly visited the gardens, designed by Andre Le Notre, who designed, among other masterpieces, the Gardens at Versailles.  On my second visit I visited the stables and the museum of the Grand Écuries, which is adjacent to the Chateau.  I didn’t have time to go see a horse show, alas (the property famously hosts two major races each year, on par with America’s Kentucky Derby).  I also took a tour of the private apartments.  On my last visit, just this last month, I finally took in the Chateau itself, with its very fine art collection.  Indeed, there are almost as many Poussins here as in the Louvre!

And no visit to Chantilly would be complete without tasting that famous Chantilly cream, which you can eat just out of the bowl, as my friend Linda did, or if you’re feeling more traditional, with some fruit and sorbet.