Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Hat progress...

Despite being a bit busy, the little hat project is actually going very well! The hat itself is completed, and surprisingly didn't take very long. It came together over the course of two shows last Saturday, which considering there was only about 10 minutes not spent on standby in each show, is pretty impressive!

I made the hat by making a doughnut shape and circle just a bit bigger than the hole of the doughnut out of cardboard and covering both in royal blue felt. It was all going so well, until the moment I realised that making the middle part of the hat slant as I wanted to would require a) a piece of fairly flexible card (which I didn't have) and b) some overly complicated folding (that my tired brain didn't want to cope with).

I was sitting in the office between shows fretting about this when the stage management team reappeared with their coffee...

The costume-on-a-budget part of my brain kicked in and suddenly I had a centre part to my top hat. I found a spare Takeaway cup from the bar downstairs, cut it to size and started covering it with felt. By the end of Saturday, I had a completed little blue hat!

So, what remains to be done now is the fun part: decorating the hat with all the exciting things I found in john Lewis habidashery dept...continue watching this space for further hat progress (and maybe pictures...!)

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Apologies for absence...

I've been surprised and touched by the number of people who've asked me where I've been for the last couple of months and why have I stopped blogging! The short answer is, as many of you know, commuting back and forth to London. Hence lack of time for craft projects! This may now change, however since next Saturday I've been invited to afternoon tea at the Randolph Hotel...

This momentous occaision is to celebrate a friwnd of mine completing her MA after 5 years of hard work (while still working full time)! She is herself somewhat of an epic crafter, who makes bunting at a rate of notts and sews most, if not all, of her own clothes. She also has a wonderful penchant for ceremony and, hence, has decreed that everyone should dress to the nines and that hats are mandatory!

At some point when I first found out about this, I got excited and told her I'd make a hat rather than buying one. Now I have 1 very heavy work week remaining to complete this project which I have yet to start...

So, my plan is to head to john Lewis's habidashery department tomorrow before work and grab some things to create a small facinator type top hat...

Will I get it made? Watch this space...

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Post Parisian Gastronomy...

Following our lovely week in Paris, I was feeling the need to try some French cooking of my own. Having given up chocolate for lent (with less of a spiritual reason than one of willpower and weight loss) I was actually not craving it as much as I'd thought and hence, when asked by my mum and gran whether I actually wanted an Easter egg, I found myself saying no. What I was given instead was something much more rewarding: both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child which I, like I imagine many British foodies types were, was introduced to via the wonderful blog/film/book Julie and Julia. I read the book a couple of weeks ago after re-watching the film and whilst I feel no desire whatsoever to cook my way through every recipe (no offense Julie Powell, great admiration for your achievement) there are definitely quite a few in there that are worth a try. Including my chosen inaugural recipe: Boeuf Bourguignon.

If you have never looked at MtAoFC, it is worth pointing out that the recipes are very detailed sometimes to the point of feeling fussy but, as with Delia, it appears that if you follow them and possess the necessary skills (and we're mostly talking basic culinary skills) you get something truly delicious.

I ate Boeuf Bourguignon twice whilst in France because it was so delicious and vowed to cook it as soon as possible upon return. So on Monday I went forth with my shopping bag to the Covered Market and began, at about 3 o'clock, to cook...

4 hours - and quite a bit of draining, sauteing, flouring and bubbling later - we were greeted with a heavenly smell from the cassarole dish. I was extremely gratified to note that the aromas coming my way were astonishingly similar to what I'd eaten in France as was the taste which was deep and wine-y, with the lovely flavours of all the various vegetables. And, it's one of those fantastic meals that just keeps getting better and the recipe, although I altered it to feed 4 instead of 6 was still enough for supper for 4, lunch and dinner for me yesterday and, lunch today as well (which considering we seem to be experiencing a bit an epic downpour at the moment is definitely a good thing...). Well, as my mum pointed out, the recipe was written for American appetites which do have a reputation for being a tad larger than the average British one...!

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Paris day 6...travelling with a soundtrack

After visiting the boulengerie for probably the final time, we set off for Versailles. It had been recommended to us by two people who both said it was not to be missed, and they were quite right!

We got on a double decker train (I know its terribly touristy to be excited by this, like people finding London buses exciting; making the everyday functional item confusingly thrilling, but there you are) and headed out of the city towards the Palace of Versailles. I was particularly pleased not to be alone on today's adventure and sat on the train with a smile on my face at the prospect of having someone to talk to and compare hyperbole about the grandeur that awaited us. While we sat, admiring the sprawling suburbs of Paris, we were joined by a band of accordion players and, for a few stops, had a film-like Parisian soundtrack reminiscent of Amelie.

We alighted at Versailles Rive Gauche and followed the tourist information people's helpful directions, turned right then left and found ourselves looking at the 'Glory of the Sun King's Reign', as the guide book would have it. And glorious it is indeed, with a gloriously long queue alongside it. We had discovered that this was another one of the attractions that we could enter for free but, unfortunately, this did not mean that we didn't have to queue to get in. So, instead of joining the long, snaking queue, we went instead for the gardens.

The gardens were designed and laid out by Andre le Notre during the reign of Loius XIV and comprise of grottoes, lawns and, most spectacularly, fountains. On weekends, such as this one, the fountains of the gardens are given life and set to music piped in through an impressive sound system that makes you feel as if you have an orchestra narrating your visit. Some may find this a bit much but we thought it was fantastic, enjoying traversing the many groves and grottoes with music at our heels. The idea was that the fountains appeared to be dancing to the music and in one instance they did just that.

The Mirror Fountain, commissioned by Loius the XIV in 1702, is truly spectacular. Consisting of jets, spinners and sprinklers it comes alive every ten minutes to perform a dance to a piece of music. It is beautifully cued and each part of the fountain responds so well to the individual instruments of the piece that the two could actually be dancing. We sat enthralled through two sets before moving on.

We also explored the Grande and the Petit Trianons, including the 'Hamlet of the Queen' built by Marie Antoinette and containing a farm, mill and a lake full of very large, attention seeking fish. We were a bit suspicious of them as they flocked to the bridges and sides of the pond and acting very un-fishlike indeed, gasping for air (not a good idea if you're a fish...) and forming huge groups.

We eventually went into the palace itself and walked through the famous hall of mirrors and viewed the King and Queens bedrooms. There were, sadly, too many people inside making the rooms stuffy and unpleasant so once we'd seen the parts we wanted to, we slipped out into the open air and headed for home.

We are now about to enjoy our last Parisian meal consisting of savory and sweet Tartes from the same Maison des Tartes as before with a glass of red wine. Back on the coach tomorrow (or the train in some peoples cases...). I'm already planning on some French cooking on Monday night...

Friday, 13 April 2012

Paris Day the Eiffel Tour, alone

Today my plan was quite sedate: Eiffel Tower in the morning, Musee Rodin in the afternoon. I took the metro to near the tower and followed the people flocking towards the tower, cameras poised and guidebooks clutched expectantly. Upon arrival, they saw what I saw: 1 working lift and a queue of over 2 hours by the estimation of the helpful board nearby. I went for a walk around under the tower to suss out the queues, remembering from experience that you could walk up two floors ('No!!!' Scremed my calf muscles) but the stairs queue and the lift queue were in two different places so, just to make sure I had a look around. And when I was done having a look around, I walked towards the Champs Du Mars and sat on a bench to write my postcards and decide on a plan of action. Obviously I didn't want to stand around for two hours, and, it struck me, I didn't really want to go up the tower alone. Two things had suddenly occurred to me: that I didn't want to ascend alone and that I wanted to go up it at night to see the city at its romantic best (being the sort who enjoys stars and lights seen in the dark, nighttime immediately feels more romantic to me). Don't misunderstand my use of the word 'romantic', I don't mean big red hearts and slushy poems, I mean the feeling you get from seeing somewhere or something at its very best; in the case of the Eiffel Tower, this is a lot to live up to, so one might as well help it along.

I sat in the grass by the Eiffel Tower (humming an ABBA tune to myself as I did so) and wrote my postcards and, after an hour or so, got up and headed away from the great monument. One interesting fact before I move on geographically, did you know it was built to be a temporary structure? I didn't, and as I stared up at its enormous iron girders and complicated criss-crossing I think I understood why they didn't want to take it down...

I walked along the Champs du Mars and turned left, intending to check out the Rue Cler, recommended to me by a friend to be a good place for foodie types like myself. Unfortunately, given my slightly lonesome mood, I'm not sure I enjoyed it as much as I could have done but the smell of the fruit stalls and the pong of fromagerie were nice to breathe in, even in my melancholy state.

I was aiming, after Rue Cler, to go to the Musee Rodin to stroll around the garden and take in the sculptures. I also had a less artistic reason for wanting to visit it, and that was because I remembered an amusing scene from Woody Allen's latest film Midnight in Paris (have you seen it? Oh, you should! Its fantastic, I plan on renting it again when we get back...) where a know-it-all type is sprouting facts at his friends, some of whom are nodding appreciatively and one of whom, the protagonist, decides he's had enough and starts an argument with him next to The Thinker.  This museum is another that is free to the under 25s, I discovered with a smile upon arrival, so I entered my 4th complimentary tourist attraction of the week.

The garden is made up of a few tree lined alleys and a large central lawn of lush green grass with a round pond at the end. All around the garden, hiding under trees, in the middle of the pool, between hedges, are Rodin's bronze sculptures. Something that I have always liked about Rodin is that his figures seem particularly human. Obviously they are of humans but when you look at them you get the feeling of their muscles moving and the emotions that might be going through their minds. My favourite sculpture had to be the Fallen Caryatid Holding Her Stone, which shows, logically enough, a Caryatid whose building has collapsed and all that is left of it is one stone above her head which is now crushing her into an uncomfortable position as she struggles to hold it up. You can see the effort on her face and I felt that if it were possible for me to take the stone for her, I would; she looks as if the stone is the weight of a huge worry on her shoulders that nothing will ever release.

Inside the museum is just starting a refurbishment programme and will be showing the works in a different way to usual until 2014. The collection doesn't suffer for it  and I was pleasantly surprised to find among its rooms 3 Van Gogh paintings that Rodin had purchased just after the artist's death. There were also some amazing sculptures by Rodin's pupil and lover Camille Claudel including one of a wave sculpted out of semi-precious stone with 3 bronze women playing in its wake.

I went back out to the garden to do some sketching of the Caryatid and, while I sat, the sun came out in full skin-warming glory and created an environment so nice that I stayed for a couple of hours, reading and generally enjoying Rodin's garden.

I started walking back to the hotel and came accross, completely by accident, the Bon Marche which I had read in the guidebook had an incredible food hall. I am not one to ignore an incredible food hall when its nearby (or far for that matter) so I went in. Or at least I thought I had. I accidentally went into the door to the department store (not realising that the food hall was housed in a separate buliding) and spent an embarassing 20 minutes wandering with a backpack and guidebook around Paris' first, and apparently most chic, department store looking and feeling completely out of place.

Once I realised my mistake and found the food hall in the building next door I saw what the guidebook was talking about. It was a foodie's palace of bizzare and beautiful delights from around the world. It was somewhat like Fortnum and Mason's (and, indeed, sold their jam) but slightly less touristy and slightly more accepting. The best thing I found was bright blue syrup in a bottle calling itself 'Guimauve'. It seemed to be a base syrup for a cocktail...odd but wonderful (I have just looked it up and apparently its 'Marshmallow' flavoured...why is it blue?).

Back at the ranch now and off out for supper on the Rue Mouffetard once again...yum!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Paris Day 4...museums!

So, as it turns out, all museums seem to be free to under 25 residents of the European Union! I got to the Louvre this morning and went up to the pyramid to look at the prices and to find out about the museum pass and was pleasantly surprised to find a little sign somewhat like the one at Notre Dame telling me that I could get in free! Apparently, this year was a good year to come to Paris. I joined the queue to have my bag checked and was soon descending into the depths under the enormous glass pyramid that became the entrance to the museum in 1989. As a bit of information for anybody else planning to visit who is under 25, you don't need to queue for a ticket. All you have to do is show your passport to the ticket checking people when you go through into one of the wings of the museum and you're home free!

I headed off in search of the Greek sculptures, conveniently forgetting that the Venus De Milo is housed in that area. After admiring some Caryatids at the entrance, which were built to hold up the musician's gallery above, I moved into the room that turned out to contain Venus. There was the expected throng of people around her and as I observed from a distance I noticed something disturbing. Of the hundred or so people taking pictures of and with the statue not one that I could see was actually looking at her except through a lens. There was a strange parallel, I thought, to be drawn with celebrity culture. These people want to be able to say they've seen it, and to prove it to their friends with a picture, to tick it off their list, but none of them seem to want to know the sculpture. I, on the other hand, was much more interested in looking at its make up and working out what her arms might have done as well as noting the broken-looking shoulders and slightly manly figure that I had been taught about in art lessons at school. Of course, I couldn't do any of this, because of the aforementioned throng. I decided to go to the other end of the gallery via a remarkable vase that was being completely ignored by passers-by (it was enormous and relatively intact, which I thought was pretty impressive considering its age). I ended up right at the opposite end of the gallery where I found a statue of Athena. I've long held a fondness for Athena, possibly because she is a much-revered woman in mythology, possibly because she seems like somewhat of an ancient feminist icon and, probably least importantly, she is often seen with an owl, a favourite bird of mine (which does also show her wisdom so its not just an ornathological advantage). I sat on a conveniently placed seat to one side and sketched the statue enjoying the communion with it that this afforded me. I may not feel religious experiences in churches like many people but something about the longevity of art strikes a spiritual chord with me.

After I finished my sketch, I set off in search of Winged Victory, a headless statue given pride of place at the top of some stairs. It was impressive and I spent a few minutes observing it from the top of a staircase before moving off to the long gallery.

You can guess what comes next, and given my previous rant about throngs of people you can probably guess my feelings too. I went into the room containing the Mona Lisa, because really it did seem a little perverse not to since I was there. What I really wanted to see was the colours of the piece, because reproductions and photographs can never really do justice to the original. Once again, it wasn't worth trying. People, 7 or 8 deep, holding up their video cameras and SLRs and iPhones trying to capture a smile (or not...) that has been mystifying people for centuries. So observing the true colour of things was not to be and I slinked off to find some French paintings on the upper floor.

One thing that I should perhaps mention that the Louvre are now doing is audio guides on Nintendo 3DS. I have to admit it seemed like introducing technology where it wasn't really needed but it seemed like some of the children being dragged around the museum were enjoying it a little more because of it. I didn't take one in the end, although I did consider it to see what it was like. I concluded that I would rather have my own considerations about a given painting and have never felt the need for an audio guide in a gallery. I do not mean to pass judgement on those that do, of course, if it enhances your experience, who am I to judge? If you pick up a 3DS the next time you're in the Louvre and find it to be of great use please feel to tell me off.

I have to admit, that, beautiful though the museum was, I infinitely preferred my second museum of the day (also free!): the Musee D'Orsay on the left bank. I returned to the left bank, which felt much more like home than the bustling, expensive right bank after a stroll through the Tuilleries garden.

(N.B. As a slight tangent, I am insane: remember yesterday's stairs? My feet and legs do, I can tell you but instead of searching out escalators and taking metros I WALKED everywhere (including up at least 500 more stairs...yes I'm counting, yes I'm a masochist) and even walked back to the hotel at the end of the day...crazy...absolutely certifiable...anyway...)

The Musee D'Orsay is an old railway station, converted and refurbished which reopened as a museum in 1986 aiming to showcase art and design from 1848 to 1914. And very well it does it too! The space itself is breath-taking and when I turned around and saw the huge golden railway clock on the wall behind me I surprised myself by sighing at the beauty of the place. Although it was still busy, it was a more considerate crowd, for the most part, than in the Louvre which made the whole experience much more enjoyable. The style of art displayed is much more the sort of thing I like to look at, as well, so really it was bound to go well for my afternoon with the Musee D'Orsay.

I began by looking at some of Toulouse Lautrec's paintings of Parisian life from the Belle Epoque period. They were very evocative, mainly of the everyday lives of the people frequenting the streets of Montmartre. There are paintings of dancers unceremoniously tying corsets, of a woman brushing her hair and one of the tops of two peoples heads as they lie facing each other asleep in bed.

The thing I was most excited to see in the museum was its collection of Van Gogh pictures. Van Gogh has been my favourite painter since I was about 7 years old when I first saw the Sunflowers in a book. My fascination grew when I visited Montmartre for the first time in the same year and recognised the streets, or at least the ideas given by the streets, from his paintings. I moved upstairs to the room where the paintings are housed and stood in front of a starry night on the sea that took my breath away. I stood looking at it for a good five minutes, completely lost in the scene: I imagined the wind against my cheek and the smell of the sea air, I saw the stars above my head and watched the lights dance in the water. Being in this room had allowed me a glimpse, however small, into the mind of the artist and I felt utterly privileged to have experienced it, leaving the room with a smile on my face which lasted most of the rest of the afternoon.

This museum's collections are well displayed in a light and airy space and is small enough that you can look around the whole thing, if you so chose, in an afternoon. One other room I must mention is in the back left corner on the ground level and contains paintings by Courbet. I don't mention it so much for the paintings themselves, which are lovely, but to congratulate whoever it was that chose the colour for the walls. The paintings themselves are all incredibly large, spanning almost a whole wall each and are made up of muted colours such as browns and greens. They are displayed, however, on a background of deep midnight purpley-blue that makes the paintings jump off the wall in a way that they wouldn't have done on a different background. Well done whoever chose that colour.

After my walk back to the hotel (crazy, masochist...I know, we've done that bit...) I took a nap to rest my poor aching feet before thinking about dinner. I had noticed, on the rue Moufftard nearby to the hotel, that there was a shop called Maison du Tartes and quite fancied sampling their wares (before you start too, Nick has spent the ENTIRE evening since I suggested getting some tarts making bad puns and innuendos...Trust me, I have heard them all). We settled on four pieces of tart: a chocolate and pear; a frangipane and pear; a fruits of the forest and a citron. We finished off the onion soup from the other night with some cheese and bread from the local Boulangerie (I'm going to miss being able to visit a baker everyday when we go home...) and ate the tarts with a glass or two of wine. A perfect end to a very nice, if once again tiring, day. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Paris day 3...le jour d'escalier

Having observed the lunchtime queue at Notre Dame yesterday, I hatched a cunning plan to avoid it. I arrived at Notre Dame at 8.30am and breezed through the door along with the other organised types giving myself an imaginary pat on the back as I did so.

The interior of the Cathedral is immense. There is simply no other word for it, it is immense. The ceiling is a very long way away and I stood in awe at the western end wondering, as I always do in these old buildings, just how on earth people built it all those years ago without all of our fancy modern access equipment. After the obligatory photo of the view before me, I turned to my guidebook to figure out where to go first. No sooner had I stepped into the left hand aisle when something entirely expected and perhaps slightly inappropriate slipped into my head. I didn't, you'll be glad to hear, go so far as to start singing 'God Help the Outcasts' but it was playing on a loop in my mind for most of my visit, especially when I came across the statue of Mary on the South side.

I walked around the back of the chapel, noting some very beautiful painted pillars and statues and headed for the centre to admire the stained glass windows. The sheer detail within them is breathtaking, every one of the tiny sections showing people and scenes and coming together to form a beautiful rose on either side of the nave.

After wandering around a bit more, I launched the second part of my cunning plan to avoid the queues: arrive at the entrance to the towers before 10am. I went around to the entrance at half past 9 and was met with a slight flaw in the plan: there was already a queue. It was not a very long one, however, and it was there with good reason. Only 20 people are allowed up at a time to avoid crowding on the tops of the towers so I took out a book and, like a good British tourist, joined the queue. (N.B. I have noticed that the old adage that noone knows how to queue like the British is certainly true, tourists from some nations seem to just shove people and go in front. When you try to complain, they look at you in an 'I don't speak whatever language that is and I couldn't care less' fashion...well really!) The book I was reading was one I found in my local library. Its called a CityLit guide and is basically a collection of writings about a given city. This one contains writings, old and recent, translated and not, about Paris so if you happen to be standing at Notre Dame and wanting a more interesting description of the splendour around you, look up Notre Dame in the index, and Voila! Victor Hugo!

The queue moved and after about 45 minutes of waiting, I started to climb the first stairs of the day. I discovered yesterday that in a wonderful stroke of good luck, if you are a citizen of the European Union and under 25 you can climb the towers of Notre Dame for free, instead of paying the 8 Euros 50. Handy to know if you're a poor 20-something in Paris!

Being a bellringer, I am no stranger to long, stone spiral staircases that seem to go on forever so I was perhaps a tad more prepared than some for what lay in store for my calf muscles. After a surprisingly short climb I emerged, camera in hand (lens cap removed for fear of clumsy fingers) onto the Chimera Gallery (that's the Gargoyles) all of which have individual characters including a bird eating some grapes (with a friend next to it looking on jealously), a cat-like thing eating a chicken carcass (his friend looked more unwell that jealous) and a lovely stone elephant. As I looked out over the city in the sun (yes, the sun came out!) Disney popped into my conciousness again and 'Out There' became my companion for the next leg of the journey.

I headed inside to see the big bell (which for those who might be interested, is in F Sharp) and it is a VERY BIG bell. Someone clapped under it and it seemed to have a rather nice tone but there wasn't much space and I had to leave the chamber so as not to get crushed by the hoards of tourists keen to have their picture taken next to it.

The final part of the tower tour (would that be tour des tour?) is right up on the top of the South tower from which you can see everything including the fine central spire with its marching apostles. From the front of the tower, I could see Sacre Coeur towering over the hill in the distance with an ominous cloud hanging over it. I took a picture in that direction and decided that since the sun was out I would head to the area that I had most been looking forward to: Montmartre. (after climbing down some more stairs first, of course).

I took a short detour to the Jardin Du Luxembourg for lunch, eating a sandwich on the wall of the octagonal lake and watching the nation-specific little boats sail around and about the duck house, while children threw bits of spare baguette to the canards. I wandered through the gardens and out towards a Metro station, heading for Montmartre.

I was unreasonably excited about getting off at Abessess (more stairs...shake shake go my legs) station having just re-watched Amelie prior to coming here. I thought I saw a photo booth at the end of the platform and rushed over to take a photo, only to be met by a vending machine and no Frenchman on his knees looking for torn up photos...ah well. The main reason I was so excited to go to Montmartre was not to find the Moulin Rouge or to have my portrait drawn by one of the characaturists, no, it was because the first time I came to Paris, 17 years ago, I stayed with my Dad in the Timotel in Montmartre. I remember eating sticky buns in the hotel breakfast room and heading out at night to the main square up the hill and watching my Dad eat huge bowls of mussels under an awning. I remembered it being a beautiful and magical place and was so excited to return.

I climbed the hill through the park in front of Sacre Coeur completing the main part of my stair torture tour for the day with the 130 odd stairs up to the top. When I arrived, I took in the view I remembered seeing as a 7 year old and smiled to myself. I turned around and headed for the Place du Tertre to continue my reverie.

I was slightly disappointed, to tell you the truth, with how tacky bits of it are now. I didn't remember this from when I was little, all I remembered was thinking that this place was why Van Gogh painted here, this was why people loved Paris, the feeling of this part of the city, up on the hill. Hence, I quickly tired of the centre and walked away to find more inspiring views. I found the little vineyard after not much wandering and imagined the great atmosphere that there must be in October when what few grapes there are get harvested and made into wine which is sold for charity at an auction.

I think my favourite part of my visit to the top of the hill, though, has to be the windmills. Not the ugly, tacky red thing on the nasty main road, the two remaining genuine windmills of Montmartre which stand on the Rue Lepic (A street which I think could benefit from a well placed Just me with my punctuation jokes?). They are both beautiful and straight away the feeling I had for the area from all those years ago was back in an instant. I sat and drew one of them, enjoying being a small part of the artistic scene of this inspiring place, and contemplated that, to me, the romance of Paris that everyone talks about is not at the top of the Eiffel Tower or floating on the Seine, but in the simple beauty of the winding streets of Montmartre.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Paris day 2...Il Pleut...

To say that Paris is beautiful is about as original a statement as saying 'The sky is blue'...but there is a reason people say that: the sky is blue, and Paris is beautiful. The thing that strikes me about walking around the city (for, despite my carnet of metro tickets and the rain, I have spent the day walking about) is that design, and good design at that, is important to Parisiens (or so it seems to this lover of aesthetic excellence). Everything from the blue and green street signs to the art nouveau metro signs was put there to be pleasing to look at and to blend in with the beauty of the architecture nearby. Public buildings, also, which in England tend towards being somewhat separate and, in many cases, quite obvious and different, are as unnoticeable as any apartment building. Case in point, yesterday we came across a Piscine which, had we not remembered the meaning of the word from middle school french, would have been walked past without comment.

I began my morning by walking Nick to the RER station, slightly bleary-eyed on account of the time, but the promise of a fresh pastry got me out of bed and eager to go. We quickly came across an artisan boulangerie where we purchased a pain au raisin and an escargot du praline. Needless to say they were absolutely delicious...perhaps it was partially the fact that I haven't eaten real butter in a long time but the pastry tasted SO GOOD. That particular boulangerie is going to see a lot of me for the next few mornings...

After I sent Nick off to play with a LASER (or something scientific like that...) I set about planning my day. And while I did this, I took the opportunity to watch some strangely dubbed cartoons. In this instance Pokemon, which, if you've ever watched the English version, you will be as confused as I was to learn that Pikachu, who tended towards the higher registers of human hearing, appeared to be being voiced by Howell from Black Books.

I left the hotel and headed off on the walk suggested by the guidebook to take in the sights of the Jardin du Plantes area, in which we are staying, to take a look at the Roman Theatre. Now, being the daughter of a classicist I am somewhat accustomed to ancient ruins being, shall we say, slightly different to what you imagine them being but this particular one was apoligising for itself a little too much. I sure that once upon a time it was a very impressive and had the aforementioned classicist been there I'm sure he could have told me all sorts of interesting things that weren't in the guidebook, but watching 2 men fail to put up a ladder in the rain in the centre of a once-grand dusty pit was really not terribly exciting. I moved on.

Next I came across a bookshop of curiosities in which the most curious thing was a loaf of Batman White Enriched Bread, still sealed, from the 70s...I think I'll stick to boulangeries for my daily bread, thanks...

I entered the Jardin Du Plantes, as recommended by a good friend of mine who can be relied on to know about nice botanical places, and found myself staring at that most quintessentially French of Creatures...the wallaby. I was, in fact, at the entrance to the Menagerie which, much like London Zoo, has animals that you can see without entering the Zoo itself. Along with the Wallabies, I found a Red Panda enjoying a late breakfast and confused an owl by whistling at it.

I then headed, somewhat soggily, to the other side of the garden where I found the Musee de Histoire Naturale which has some fantastic stone animals as part of its architecture (and they are a tad more vicious looking than the London equivalents) as well as a couple of very cool statues at its entrance but was, like almost all Paris Museums, closed on Tuesdays. However much going into one would have been fantastic in the inclement weather, it was not to be so I headed off in search of a large, apparently famous Cathedral...

I got my first glimpse of Notre Dame in the daylight as I bumbled along the banks of the Seine, musing that if this was Britain, the banks would have high walls (or at least fences) as opposed to being completely open. One might easily find oneself going in seine...ahem...I spotted the flying buttresses and gargoyles and was about to speed up across the bridge when something odd caught my eye. The bridge I was on was covered in padlocks. Nick had mentioned seeing this prior to my arrival but even having had it described to me didn't prepare me for the shear number of appears that the idea is to write your name, the name of your significant other and the date and lock it to the bridge. There are thousands of the things, and some people seem to have resorted to bike locks to get the message across. I took an arty photo and moved on.

 The queue to get into Notre Dame, even the part that one doesn't have to pay for, was stretching all the way back to the start of the square. I made the decision at that point to check what time it opened and to come back early tomorrow morning. Since that is my plan, I shall leave my descriptions of its magnificance until tomorrow.

My final tourist stop today was somewhere that I have wanted to visit for a long time though I can't for the life of me think where I first read about/saw/heard about it. It is Shakespeare and Co., the English bookshop on the bank of the seine, gazing over at the Cathedral. After taking some pictures of the outside (with one being inhabited by a man dressed as Charles de Galle) I headed inside, abiding by the rules and putting my camera firmly in my bag as I settled in for some much needed thawing out and browsing. One of the things that most excited me about it was not the library upstairs but the fact that the tall shelves, which reach to the ceiling, were serviced by wooden ladders with hooks such as I have only previously seen in films and adverts in the Guardian weekend magazine, so that even the vertically challenged among us (ahem...) could reach the top shelves. I spent a few seconds worrying that I would be told to get off the ladder because I had not been properly trained but, blissfully, the member of staff nearby didn't bat an eyelid and let me continue with my quest.

After an hour or so of browsing, I regretfully headed back into the rain. After passing what seemed to be the comic-book nerd district (ok, I say passing, I actually mean stopping, looking around and quite enjoying) I went in the direction of the hotel stopping off at a supermarket, boulangerie and vegetable market on the way to buy cheese, bread and onions for supper. I made an onion soup which we have just devoured with a glass or two of Cotes Du Rhone and some camembert. Delicious, even if I do say so myself!

Monday, 9 April 2012

Je Suis Arrieve en Paris!

The alarm went off at 6 this morning, not a favourable hour at any time but when you've spent the last 4 days in bed with a stomach bug, getting very little sleep 6 is particularly unwelcome. While Nick had a blissfully quick journey to Paris on the Eurostar, I had ahead of me 7 hours on a coach (after an hour and half on trains to get to Victoria). It is considerably cheaper to go on the coach, though, and, favouring being able to do more once here over I opted for Eurolines £60 return option, packed some food and books and settled in for the duration.

The coach was surprisingly roomy and had much more legroom than the Oxford Tube that I am so used to which is definitely an advantage on such a long journey. There were disadvantages, however, one major one being the driver's strange taste in music. Indeed, I started the journey annoyed that the woman next to me was playing the Beatles so loudly as she slept only to realise that it was the coach's stereo system I was hearing which over the coming hours would treat me and my fellow passengers to a mixture of 70s American, Spanish Euro-pop and Carmina Burana, The couple of opportunities I had to listen to another language during the journey were not much good for French practice as the driver was Spanish (as was the coach, whose signs advised 'Salida' instead of 'Exit' or 'Sortie') but it did reassure me that my Spanish is not as rusty as I might have thought...

Anyway, the journey to the tunnel was quick and painless and, after my passport was taken by a Gendarme ('He's going to bring that back right?...RIGHT?' went the panicking part of my brain), the coach drove into a beige plastic-looking tunnel with orange lighting that it seemed to barely fit into. Now, I'm not ashamed to say that I felt a little claustrophobic at this point...and the fact that I had no idea how long we would be in the tube worried me further. Once we were in, a metal shutter came down in front of and behind us and I judged from the slight rocking movement that we were off under the water.

30 ear popping minutes later we emerged on the other side of the channel and it was...raining. Oh well, c'est la vie! After a brief stop at Cite D'Europe (a large shopping centre that looked about as much fun as a 7 hour coach journey...oh wait...) were one hapless shopper exited, we were on the way to Paree. I thought that the journey through France would be interesting, perhaps some fun sights by the side of the motorway but let me tell you right now that a motorway is a motorway is a motorway. In fact, if it wasn't for the driving on the right and the occaisional French sign, we could have been in a drizzley, grey area of Warwickshire. The highlight of the motorway was the brief sighting of a sigh for Asterix land.

At 6 in the evening, or there abouts, I finally arrived at Gallieni bus station where Nick was waiting for me. After a visit to the hotel to drop bags and change out of sweaty coach clothes (yuck...) we headed out in search of dinner. We have the fortune to be near to the Rue Mouffetard which is home to market during the day (tomorrow...!) and has lots of restuarants along it serving traditional French fayre.

And what did I have for the first time in this little eateree? I'll give you a hint, it begins with E and involves some rather strange implements to eat it...

 Yes, that's right, I had escargot. And they were very tasty! I quite enjoyed the implements (pictures to be added ASAP) and the taste was not in the least bit slimy but a little like scallops. Nick had a lovely, if a tad too filling, onion soup and a steak while I tucked into Beouf Bourginon, which I have been dying to try since finishing reading Julie and Julia a week ago. It lived upto its reputation and, after a creme caramel apiece, we headed off to walk off some of the food and wine.

We wandered about a bit and soon came to the Pantheon, whose dome is the spitting image of St Paul's in London. Upon being prompted to turn around, I caught my first glimpse of the Tour Eiffel, shining away with its nightly light show. We also took in the Sorbonne and saw Notre Dame in the distance before heading back to the hotel for a well earned sleep, which is what I'm going to do now! After all, tomorrow is another Parisian day!

Friday, 23 March 2012

Je Vais a Paris...!

In a happy twist of fate, I'm going to be off to Paris for a week in April! I'm pretty excited (as the exclamation marks might tell you...)(!) and, in order to get the most out of the trip I'd like some recommendations for what to do there. I have a few things in mind already since despite having been there a couple of times before, I've never been to the Louvre or to Notre Dame, although the latter was admittedly because the Pope was there making getting anywhere near the cathedral pretty much impossible!

So, if anyone has any suggestions of places I can't miss, please tell me! I'd also like some recommendations of Paris-based books to read whilst there (and on the 8 hour coach journey...).

Looking forward to hearing what you have to say!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Happy St Patrick's Day!

 Happy St Patrick's Day to one and all! Today is the day of the year when I most miss my homeland (Ireland, for those of you who don't know who Patrick is the patron saint of!). It conjures up visions of going to the parade in Dublin when I was little and reminds me of where I grew up. Consequently, I think of it more as a way to celebrate my roots and not, much to the confusion of many of my friends, as an excuse to drink a lot of Guinness (although that's not to say I'm not going to have one later on...) 

In any case, when we moved to England, St Patrick's day, which had been a day off each year with fun and revelry, became just another day on the calendar. To counteract this, a tradition somehow developed. I cannot for the life of me remember how or why but every year we've lived in England on St Patrick's day, we have eaten green pancakes. 

Strange perhaps, but it's a tradition now and who am I to question (especially if it means I can eat pancakes!).   
 I used Nigella's pancake recipe, which is deeply ingrained into my brain from many uses. What I did, to make them as wonderfully green as they turned out was about halfway through step 3 (before adding the wet ingredients to the dry) was add blue and yellow colouring (I use Wilton paste colourings, as they don't dilute the mixture) until I had my preferred green and then added the dry ingredients. The advantage of doing it this way seems to be that the colour isn't diluted by the flour whereas if you add the colouring after the flour etc it tends not to be so vivid.


And, fantastically, they kept their colour and even deepened a bit as they cooked! The picture is making me hungry again...where's that leftover batter...?
 We had them with maple syrup that was brought back from a recent trip to Canada which is really delicious...I think we'll all be sad when it's finished! 

So there's my crazy Paddy's day tradition for you all, give it a try!


I have, of course, been dressed in green all day and, this afternoon my mum came home and presented me with this:

 My very own shamrock! He's been put in a little green dish to continue the theme.
Happy St Patrick's day everyone!

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Eggcitement in London...

Yesterday we did the final checkout and left our flat in London. Pretty sad to be leaving, it was a lovely place to live but there are new adventures to have elsewhere! Anyhow, before cleaning and fixing on Sunday we spent some time wandering around London searching for these:

Moonbow by Richard Bull (eggciting, huh?)
Some of you will remember the wonderful Elephant Parade that happened in London in 2010 where over 250 colourful, beautiful elephants were place all over the capital and thousands of people (including yours truly) enjoyed a couple of months of fun trying to find them all whilst raising money to help save endangered Asian elephants. Well, now the lovely people over at Elephant Family have joined forces with Action For Children to give us something else to hunt for: Easter Eggs! At the end of lent, all the eggs will be auctioned off and the money will go directly to the two charities.

Having been an avid elephant collector, I obviously had to take on the challenge of finding the eggs and so far, we have found 94 of these wonderful creations. I even spent a couple of hours looking for them yesterday with an enormous Ikea bag full of the cleaning supplies we'd been using on Sunday. Some may think I'm a little crazy (and my shoulder would agree...) but I just call it dedication!

Not only does joining the egg hunt give you a great way to spend time, it also has two other MAJOR benefits. One thing that people say about London, and big cities in general, is that they are impersonal and, for the most part, people don't talk to each other. Enter the eggs! When you find fellow hunters, you compare notes, chat about your routes, share what your favourite eggs have been and generally get chatting to some very interesting people who you might never have spoken to otherwise. It's wonderful. The other main advantage, I reckon, is that you get a huge amount of exercise walking around searching and get to see all sorts of nooks and crannies of London that you miss on the regular tourist or commuter routes (that was two more benefits wasn't it...? Well, even more reason to start!)

Pretty Polly by Karen Hollis (eggceptional!)
I'm finding that there's an added quizzical element to the eggs: some of them have been painted by artists who also painted Elephants and I find myself (with my still near-encyclopedic knowledge of the Elephants, 2 years on...ahem) getting especially excited when I find an egg that matches a particular the one on the left here, which was painted as the same artist who created Just Joey! Other eggs have been found with cries of 'Bramble!' or 'No More Plundering!' (which kind of also sounds like a message to any would-be egg destroyers...)  or 'The Happy End of Nature!'. The last one was, conveniently, also the name of the egg...

Anyhow, all this eggcitement (you thought the egg puns were going to be limited to captions didn't you...well more fool you, you know I like a good pun!) has reminded me of my yearly egg-painting tradition, which is something I've done at Easter since I was little. I'll admit that some years, work has got in the way and egg-painting had gone by the wayside...but this year I have been inspired early on and am determined to have my own hand-painted miniature egg hunt! And, it true Blue Peter here's-one-I-made-earlier style, I've found a few of the eggs I've painted in the past to show you (I mean for you to eggsamine...):

I have eggscavated them from the cupboard...
I'm thinking that I might have a go at making some of the Big Egg Hunt eggs in miniature...

So, if you're in London or heading down there or like searching for things so much that you'll go there just for that take a look at this website, put on some sturdy shoes, find a buddy (or several!) and get hunting! It'll be eggstraordinary! (ok, ok, I'll stop...there's no need to get eggasperated with me...)

Monday, 12 March 2012

Knit 1, Purl 1, Purl 1...damn!

At the start of the year I, like many, made some New Year's Resolutions fully intending to do them at the time but knowing that by around this sort of time of year I wouldn't have accomplished any of them...but hey, I had good intentions! One resolution was to learn to knit, a reasonable goal I thought and after doing pretty well at cross-stitch over the Christmas period, well worth a go to add to my craft repertoire. I had an advantage as well in the form of my Gran who has been an avid knitter for most of her life and has recently taken it up again.

She agreed to give me some lessons but I think she was expecting me to forget about it within a week. So, imagine the surprise on her face when I turned up on her doorstep, ball of 'horrible acrylic wool' (her words, not mine) in hand and asked her to teach me. And I found it surprisingly easy-after a slightly tricky start with casting on ('No, NO! Not like that, around the back of the stitch!' 'I don't know what that MEANS!')-and managed a few rows of plain knitting within an hour of starting.

I quickly tired of the rubbish wool (it had come free with a magazine and kept splitting and creating extra unnecessary stitches so that the knitting got wider and wider) and so found an excuse to visit the wonderful treasure trove that it Masons wool store in Abingdon: