One Day in Normandy: Omaha Beach and COVID Test Chaos

It was our last day in France, which was bittersweet. We’d all fallen in love with France, and could have explored it forever, but Florence awaited! Since our flight didn’t depart until close to 10pm we’d planned to spend the day paying our respects to the thousands of Allied soldiers who died storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day by visiting several sites relating to the battle. It was a lot of driving, and time would be tight, but we were determined. However, we first needed to obtain COVID tests in order to fly back into Italy, so we bid Gilles a reluctant, fond farewell and set out on our three hour drive to Caen for testing.

Whether it was user error or our phones’ Americanized algorithms struggling to perform a Google search in France, the testing location we navigated to did not actually exist. Frustrated and confused, we began searching for another nearby location, each of us getting different search results, none of which proving fruitful. To make a long, and indescribably boring story a bit shorter, it took us almost three hours to find and obtain our COVID tests, which meant trimming our itinerary down dramatically, to a single stop.

We opted for Omaha Beach, set out in that direction, and arrived as we received email notifications that our results were available. However, the friendly nurse who had administered our tests had input my birthday incorrectly, making me unable to access my results. It took another half an hour and three phone calls before she finally entered it in correctly and I was able to access my results, and by that point Olivia, who spoke the most French of the three of us and had been the one making those three phone calls, was ready to explode.

Our tests were all negative, but our frustration level was still high, so we decided to get some lunch before heading to the beach. There was a restaurant across the street where we found an outdoor table to catch our breath and feed our bellies. It took many French fries, but by the time we got up we were in a much better head space.

On June 6, 1944 America, Great Britain and Canada launched the largest invasion fleet in history. More than 1200 warships, 4000 landing craft, 12,000 aircraft, and 160,000 troops set off for Normandy to finally gain a foothold in Nazi occupied France, and begin their push towards Berlin. The invasion itself was a surprisingly and hilariously successful deception by the Allies. Between radar trickery, dummy-paratrooper drops, espionage, and US General Patton’s phantom army full of inflatable tanks, trucks and planes, the Nazis were hoodwinked. They knew an Allied attack was imminent, but they thought it would happen at Calais, not in Normandy, and they focused their defensive resources according to that erroneous assumption. Hitler literally slept through it. Once he woke up around 9am, convinced the Normandy invasion was just a diversion from the non-existant attack on Calais, he started dispatching his infamous Panzer troops mostly in the wrong direction. Sucker.

While the Allies were successful on D-Day, we paid a heavy price. More than 3000 Americans died on Omaha Beach alone. Thousands more on Utah, behind enemy lines, and the ensuing days in the push to seize Caen and secure a supply line. That’s to say nothing of the millions who died throughout the course of WWII, including the 6 million Jews who died at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis. I can’t even fathom how it must have felt to walk through these European cities 80 years ago, amidst unimaginable destruction and death, knowing it was all at the direction of a madman.

If you didn’t know of the bloodshed that occurred there more than three quarters of a century ago you’d think it was just another beach. Omaha Beach today is pretty, and fairly touristy. Families milled around, walking their dogs and playing in the surf, and with the sun shining it was hard to imagine it had once been the site of unfathomable carnage.

I don’t think any of us were prepared for how emotional we’d feel walking on that battlefield. In my head I kept seeing the beach-storming scene from Saving Private Ryan. The clear, sunny day transformed into a haze of smoke, with boats full of terrified men and boys filling the ocean along the shore. I could hear the gunfire and screams, see the mangled bodies littering the blood-soaked sand. It was overwhelming to imagine. It reminded me how fragile our own democracy is. We’ve all seen how susceptible people can be to propaganda and misinformation, and how that vulnerability can be exploited by madmen craving power.

We had a long drive to the airport so we hit the road once we’d paid our respects. It was a quiet, reflective 3 hour drive back to Paris. By the time we arrived we were all emotionally exhausted. Our flight was a quick one, but thankfully long enough for us to get in the right mindset for our Florentine adventure. The only complaint we had about the flight was that after all the confusion and frustration and wasted time to get our COVID tests, we were never asked for them. Not at the airport, and not on arrival to Florence. We found that irritating, but we got over it quickly.

It was nearly midnight when we arrived so we took a taxi straight to the AirBnb. Although the driver totally overcharged us and lied about it, we were just grateful for our day of travel to be over and to get settled into the city at the heart of the Renaissance. Our AirBnb host’s son, Niccolo, arrived to let us into the flat, and the girls were positively smitten. He was young, adorable, so polite, and his Italian accent was absolutely charming. The flat itself was equally as charming, and we couldn’t have been more pleased with our home for the next four nights. The apartment was small, but beautifully decorated and comfortable. The girls had their own room, with my room next door, both connected by a balcony overlooking Brunelleschi’s Dome, which was all lit up for the evening when we arrived. My dream was coming true. I was in Medici country!

We had a busy day of exploring planned so we needed to get some sleep, but first we needed some food. As had become customary during our trip, and since we’d arrived so late, we ordered McDonald’s. And, as always, it was the comfort food we needed after a crazy day traversing two foreign countries.

Come back next time to get a history lesson from your resident nerd-blogger as I acquaint you with the Medici family while we explore the birthplace of the Renaissance! Till then stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

Today Was A Fairytale: The Castle, the Vineyard & Dinner by Gilles

Our second day in the Loire Valley began with the smell of fresh baked breads wafting up the stairs and into our rooms. Our AirBnb host, Gilles, was busy in the kitchen preparing a traditional French breakfast. There were meats, fruit, croissant, baguette, jams, juice, and eggs waiting for us as we meandered downstairs to start our day. A handsome man had made us breakfast; talk about a fairytale beginning! I’d tasted the good life and never wanted to return. I was ready to give my blessing for Olivia to marry Gilles simply so I could come visit and eat baguette and creamy, French butter on the regular.

We had only two places on the itinerary that day, so we took our time savoring our meal and getting ready before hitting the road. While we were preparing for the trip Olivia and I had gone shopping. She wanted to find a dress, something delicate and feminine, to wear while visiting castles and vineyards, and found a beautiful Kelly green dress to fit the bill. I’d been eyeing a kimono in the same shade of green, and Carey found a dress that was also the same shade, so we decided our second day in the Loire Valley would be Green Day (and yes, we obviously listened to Green Day in the car). Once we’d all stuffed our faces full of the delicious breakfast Gilles had prepared, and donned our floral green outfits, we were off.

Our first stop was the Château de Chenonceau, a Renaissance castle once owned and occupied by Queen Catherine de Medici (after kicking the king’s mistress out of it upon his death). I’ve told you all before that I’m a history nerd, but that nerdiness is on a whole new level when it comes to the Medici family. I’m completely obsessed (just wait till I post about Florence). I was beyond excited to visit the Château de Chenonceau, and the experience surpassed my expectations beyond measure.

The path to the castle is lined with well manicured trees, a gift shop, gardens, and a hedge maze. The castle itself is smaller than the others we’d visited, but no less beautiful in appearance. Situated over the Le Cher River, the Château de Chenonceau is like something straight out of a fairytale. Built in the early 16th Century, and renovated to its current state by the Medici Queen, its design is classically Renaissance and hopelessly romantic.

We explored every nook and cranny of the castle, seeing the room where Queen Catherine slept and the kitchens where her meals were prepared, admiring the antique furniture that filled its many rooms and corridors, standing on every balcony, imagining what it must have been like 400 years ago. The entire building was enchanting, with intricate wood paneling and stonework, massive fireplaces, stunning leaded glass windows, and beautiful tapestries. I was in heaven.

Once we’d gone through the whole building we went outside to explore the grounds. A moat surrounds the castle and gardens, with tall trees all around, making the property feel like its own little enchanted kingdom. We walked along the moat and through the beautiful, meticulously manicured gardens, soaking it all in and taking hundreds and hundreds of pictures. I almost had to pinch myself to believe we were really in such a magical place!

I couldn’t take enough pictures of the Château de Chenonceau. So many of my favorite pictures of this trip are from this day, including a hilarious series of Olivia attempting to leap. It took about 30 tries to get it right and by the time we were done we weren’t the only ones laughing. Don’t let Instagram fool you. For every perfect shot there are dozens more that look ridiculous and hysterical.

Before moving on we swung by the hedge maze where Carey and Olivia raced to the finish as I relaxed in the shade and smoked a cigarette. Carey won the race, and after a stop in the gift shop we were on our way to the Château de Miniere for a wine tasting.

We weren’t sure they were open as we arrived and were the only car in the parking lot, but a very handsome young man greeted us at the door and gave us a map of the grounds, telling us to explore while he checked the guests out of the château. The first thing we saw when we went into the courtyard, aside from the charming château itself, was a cat. My daughter is like the cat whisperer and was positively gleeful as she called the little kitty to her for some pets. Liv was already in heaven and we hadn’t even had any wine yet!

We explored the vineyard and made our way back to the château where the sommelier was ready to give us a lesson in the region’s wines. We sampled 10 different wines; some red, some white, one rose, all exceptional. I didn’t know what good wine tasted like until these wines touched my lips. It took but one wine tasting to make wine snobs out of women on a Barefoot budget. We’ll never be able to drink bargain wine again! I brought home the rose, while the girls bought the 1996 white–without a doubt the crème de la crème–harvested the same year I graduated high school.

Olivia gave some extra pets to the resident cat before we left, which gave me a little time to let the effects of sampling ten wines wear off before getting back in the car. The day had been absolute magic, and it wasn’t over yet.

After all that wine and exploration we were (okay, I was) starving, so we started looking on Google for a nearby market, stopping along the way to get some pictures at a sunflower field (the only one we’d seen with the sunflowers still alive). What we hadn’t taken into consideration was that it was Sunday, and nothing in the small towns of France is open on Sundays, nor, apparently, do people leave their homes. We mapped our way to two separate towns, not finding a single store open, and not seeing a single person out and about. They were like ancient, picturesque little ghost towns. Undeterred, we knew we just needed to find a larger city, so we headed into Tours.

Given our ignorance of the area and the names of French grocery stores, we mapped our way to the nearest market that said it was open. When we arrived we realized we should’ve done more research. The store we mapped to was a tiny little bodega that was most definitely designed to serve their black community, not white chicks with the munchies. Lots of products to care for black hair, lots of French beans and nuts, but nothing snack-wise. We got quite a few “are you lost?” looks as we walked in. I did find Coke, so I bought a couple to take with us and we headed to the fast food joint around the corner, called Point B.

What a hilarious experience. It clearly wasn’t just the folks in the bodega who thought we were lost. The whole restaurant was watching us as we ordered, and we felt quite on display. I went outside to smoke after I inhaled my burger, and the girls came out saying everyone in the restaurant had been staring at them. Blatantly, shamelessly staring, whispering and pointing. Clearly we had not found the touristy part of town, and our presence was either amusing, confusing, or both. Such a bizarre, yet highly entertaining experience!

We arrived back at our AirBnb to find Gilles hard at work in the kitchen preparing our dinner, and us regretting our stop at Point B barely an hour before. The whole house smelled amazing as we got cleaned up. The table on the patio was set and the sun was just beginning to go down as our first course of baguette, pâté and fruit was served with a bottle of local wine. We had barely finished that when he brought out our next course of various meats, followed by the main course of slow-cooked sausages (smoked for 8 hours) and cheesy potatoes, then a cheese course, and apple cake for dessert. By the time the dessert arrived we weren’t sure we could eat another bite, but the cake was so good we couldn’t help ourselves. The girls said they had never been so full, which is really saying something for Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving every year.

We sat on the patio for hours digesting, talking, laughing, calling family back home, and just relishing every second in this French paradise. Each moment of the day had been unforgettable. We were so satisfied and joyful that I didn’t want the day to end. So fun, so memorable, so magical, so unlike anything we’d ever experienced. Truly, today was a fairytale!

Though we were sad we had to leave France the next day, we were excited to head back to Italy to soak up the Renaissance history of Florence! Come back next week to hear about our attempt to visit Normandy and get a Covid test before our flight, both of which proving to be a bigger challenge than we’d anticipated. Till then stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Loire Valley Road Trip: The Castles and the Countryside

After a week in two of the biggest cities in Europe it was time to switch gears (literally), and head to the countryside. There’s so much more to France than Paris, and narrowing down the area to explore was difficult, but a trip to Europe would seem incomplete without visiting castles and vineyards, and the Loire Valley is absolutely ripe with both. And so, we bid a fond farewell to Paris and set off for our next adventure.

The best way to see the French countryside is by car, and since I love road trips I didn’t hesitate to rent a car in France. With our budget being what it was I wasn’t willing to spend the money to upgrade to an automatic transmission, so the first challenge was remembering how to drive a stick shift. We stalled twice pulling out of the parking garage, and initially struggled to follow the GPS navigation while simultaneously re-learning how to shift, but once we were out of the city I’d gotten the hang of it. That’s not to say driving in a foreign country is without its challenges. It took me over an hour to realize the circular signs with numbers along the highway were speed limit signs, which is probably when I received two radar-generated speeding tickets (notified by the rental car agency of the violations, I have yet to receive the actual tickets from France, now 4 months later). Oops!

We had about three hours to our first castle, and I was immensely grateful for the time we spent in the car, just watching the countryside pass by, seeing sign after sign for castles and historical sites, and listening to our (mostly Taylor Swift) Spotify playlist, created especially for our European road trip. We all sang along with T-Swizzle, jammed to the French pop song (Carrousel by Amir) we’d added after hearing it in a taxi, and bumped FDT by YG as loud as the little car’s speakers would go. We were impressed by the large number of wind turbines we saw, by the infrequency of above-ground power lines to sully the beautiful landscape, and by the amount of sunflower fields we passed (sadly, all wilting at the end of the season).

Our first castle of the day was the Chateau de Chambord. The enormous, gorgeous castle was commissioned in the 16th Century by King Francois I, and completed in the 17th Century under the reign of King Louis XIV (the Sun King). It was built as a hunting lodge (you know, just a cozy little country cottage), and was never the primary royal residence, but both kings stayed here during their reigns. The central feature of this magnificent castle is the double helix staircase, inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, which is designed so that a person can be going up the stairs, and another going down, without ever seeing one another.

When we first arrived we decided to sit down for lunch at one of the shops on the castle grounds. We had yet to eat French crepes, so we were excited to find a creperie on site. We each ordered a different crepe and then perused the vendor stalls, buying a bottle of local wine for my sister, before heading into the castle to explore.

The Chateau de Chambord is positively marvelous. Like everywhere we’d visited, it’s freaking gigantic, and is beautifully and intricately detailed. We wandered its many rooms and corridors, all filled with period furniture and art, and even walked along the rooftop, admiring the view of the grounds. Though there were quite a few people visiting, it’s such a massive space that there was never any crowding.

It was a hot day and the 500 year old castle was pretty stuffy inside, so once we’d finished exploring the interior we found a bench in the garden under the shade of a tree to cool down on. This was one of those moments we were able to truly appreciate the slower pace of our road trip through the countryside. We had no timetable to keep except to be at our AirBnb that evening, so we were able to just sit, relax, smoke a cigarette (for me, anyway), and soak in our glamorous surroundings.

After an hour or so we headed back to the car to drive to our next castle, only about a half hour away, the Chateau de Chaumont. Originally built around the year 1000, it was rebuilt about 500 years later in the Renaissance style we see today. My favorite fun-fact about the Chateau de Chaumont is that it was once occupied by Queen Catherine de Medici (more on the Medicis when we reach Florence). When her husband, the King, died she took another castle, the Chateau de Chenonceau, which she liked more, as her own, kicking out the late king’s mistress, and sticking her in Chaumont instead. Pretty boss move by Queen Catherine! Before leaving, she entertained the likes of Nostradamus in this stunning, medieval marvel.

The Chateau de Chaumont has such a classic, fairy tale appearance, and the interior definitely felt older than the Chateau de Chambord. We explored the interior and the gardens, and though it was exciting to be in such an old, historic place, the modern art installations in the chapel and other rooms of the castle looked incredibly out of place. The inside of the chapel looked like something out of the Blair Witch Project, and the art throughout simply did not work with the beauty of the Renaissance architecture. Then again, modern art is definitely just not our thing in any environment.

It was late afternoon when we got back to the car and we decided to get an early dinner before heading to our AirBnb for the night, so we drove to the nearby town of Onzain, parked the car, and went in search of a restaurant. The town was picturesque and charming, and had the added bonus of having a festival going on in the town square. It must’ve been a big event in this small town, cause we didn’t see a single human being anywhere until we reached the square, which was packed with people. We found the only restaurant that was actually open and sat down at a small outdoor table to enjoy the all-ages community orchestra playing American pop music and show tunes while we ate our meal.

The big cities and tourist attractions were full of people who spoke English. Not so in the less touristy areas. Only one person at the restaurant spoke English, and it was limited, so Olivia and Carey got to really test out their French. Thankfully, everyone was patient with us, though I think they were also a bit annoyed with my requests to get my burger sans cheese and other toppings. Picky-ass Americans, amiright?

We’d been in communication with our AirBnb host, who had let us know his sister would welcome us upon our arrival. The house was located on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and was even more adorable than the pictures. We were greeted by Sylvie, who showed us around the space, then sat on the patio chatting with us over a bottle of local sparkling wine. Sylvie was gracious and hospitable, telling us about her family and asking us about where we were from and what brought us to France. The sun was beginning to set over the field when she left, and after getting settled into our home for the next two nights, we found ourselves back on the patio, enjoying the warm night breeze and the sound of the crickets. It was so quiet, so peaceful, the perfect place to unwind after our day of driving.

While we had run of the house, our host, Gilles, lived on the premises and had rooms at the back of the cottage. Olivia had been in touch with him regarding our visit and was already dying to meet him simply for the way he worded some of his messages. Gilles is an award-winning local chef who, for a fee, offers a full, 4 course meal option to his guests, which we were delighted to take advantage of. When he asked which menu we preferred, he asked which one “seduced” us. Language barriers can be positively amazing. Gilles arrived as the girls were getting cleaned up and I was on the patio. Though his English was limited, he made a valiant effort, and was as handsome and charming as we’d imagined. Olivia was ready to marry him on the spot, despite his being at least ten years older than I am. Truth be told I don’t think any of us would’ve turned him down. We were all loving the oh-so-sexy Gilles.

We each had our own room at Gilles’ cottage and we slept incredibly well. Perhaps it was the country air, maybe the frantic pace of our first week, or just how much more concentration I had to put on driving in a foreign country, and the comfortable atmosphere of Gilles’ cottage, but it was the best night’s sleep I’d had through the whole trip.

Our first day of the road trip had been absolutely wonderful. By this point I was running out of adjectives to describe just how wonderful each day had been. Every single one had been enchanting, and that was to continue for the duration of our epic Ladycation. Be sure to come back next week to read about our second day exploring the castles and vineyards of the Loire Valley. In the meantime, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Our Last Day in Paris: Versailles to Ver-cry

It was our last day in Paris, and although I was absolutely exhausted, there was so much more we had yet to see in the City of Lights! Paris is synonymous with luxury and extravagance, and there were two places that epitomize both which we had yet to visit: Versailles and Galleries Lafayette, which is basically the Versailles of malls. So, for our final day in the most beautiful city in the world we set out in search of the most pretentious palace and swanky shopping. Little did I know I’d be sobbing into my pillow by day’s end.

Though we’d planned on using the Metro, we were seeing so much, and were so short on time, that Ubers were just easier. However, the cost of all those Ubers was really adding up. While none of us were confident that we’d be able to figure out the train system and actually get where we wanted to go on time, we were able to be a bit more flexible on our last day, so we decided to save some money and brave the train.

Surveying the train maps

We’d planned to go to Galleries Lafayette first. We studied the train map and thought we knew which train to get on, but about two stops down the tracks we realized we were going the wrong direction. Oops. This was why we hadn’t attempted public transit until now. Luckily we were headed in the right direction for Versailles, so we just flipped our plan for the day and went to the Sun King’s Pleasure Palace first.

The train station is a short walk to the palace, and we’d arrived quite earlier than our timed entry slot, so we stopped for coffee, then to peruse an antique shop. Antique books, trinkets, furniture, you name it. It felt like walking through the past; the truly authentic Paris of regular people, instead of those who occupied the palace we were about to explore. I felt like everything I touched had a story, each one a small piece of Parisian history, the Paris Hemingway fell in love with, the Paris in which Monet was born. It was one of my favorite places we visited in the entire city.

There’s no missing the Palace of Versailles. We came around the corner and there it was, dominating the landscape in the distance, occupying an entire city block. It’s absolutely gargantuan, and looks as if someone drizzled gold over the whole thing. Even the fence around it is gold. It’s insane. It’s difficult to imagine it being someone’s home, not at all difficult to imagine the effect living in such a place would have on the ego of its inhabitants.

As we walked the halls and rooms of Versailles, each one seeming more opulent than the next, I could almost see the members of his Majesty’s court milling around in flamboyant outfits and powdered wigs. Ostentatious doesn’t even begin to describe just how ridiculous the luxury on display is in the Palace of Versailles. The girls were loving it, but I found it all a little off-putting, to be honest. Seeing the in-your-face exhibit of wealth made it fairly easy to figure out why people were pissed enough at the monarchy to start a Revolution.

It took a couple hours to get through the palace, and I was absolutely spent by the time we were done. My legs felt like lead weights and my blisters had blisters. All I wanted to do was lie down, but the girls had been looking forward to shopping since we first began planning the trip, so I womaned up and off we went.

The Galleries Lafayette is a multi-building mall/department store in Paris with everything from an H&M to Dolce & Gabbana. We perused cashmere sweaters and colorful berets (the girls each bought one), smelled designer fragrances and admired the domed, leaded glass ceiling. The top floor holds a resale shop of all top designers, and the girls each found a little something to take home that didn’t break the bank. I found it rather amusing to watch a woman try on a used Burberry coat that was at least 3 sizes too large for her, and still drop $300 on it, just because it was Burberry. I’m no fashion icon, to be sure, but that made me roll my eyes so hard I thought they’d pop right out of my head.

The Galleries Lafayette.

By this point I was ready to drop. I was hungry and so tired, and I just wanted to be sitting down in the flat. It had been go-go-go, nonstop, for a week. Wonderful, yes. Exactly as I’d planned it, yes. Worth it, also yes. But I was physically shutting down from the pace of our epic Ladycation.

Since we were staying outside the city limits we had to switch trains at one of the main hubs in order to get back to Suresnes. That meant buying a second train ticket for the different train line. To this day we have no idea what the hell we were doing wrong, but we couldn’t figure out how to buy the second ticket to save our lives. We bought three tickets, all of which ended up being wrong, and we couldn’t even get out of the train terminal because we needed to scan the tickets we didn’t have in order to do so. “Screw this. We’re getting an Uber.” I was beyond frazzled. A few kind Parisians took pity on us inept Americans and had us closely follow them through the gate when they swiped their tickets, and we were finally out of there.

Unfortunately, our frustration was not over once we emerged from the train station. We couldn’t figure out how to get down to the street level, and it felt like we were wandering in circles forever in a concrete maze. By the time we finally found the street and got in the Uber I was ready to cry, but I kept it together.

The second we arrived back in our flat, however, I went into my room, shut the door, and sobbed. I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t having a bad time, they were tears of pure exhaustion. We hadn’t stopped since the second we stepped foot in Europe, and my old ass simply couldn’t handle that much fun for that long. We were walking a minimum of six miles every day without a break. Even when I was backpacking we never went four days without a rest day, and I was in much better shape then.

Before we left the US my boss asked to see our planned itinerary. I gave him a multi-page, detailed outline of everything we planned to do, filled with my own colorful commentary for some added flavor, and he shared it with his family. They gave me a card with a gift before we began our adventure (truly incredible, amazing people. I was blown away by their kindness), wishing us a wonderful trip. His wife wrote that she’d be exhausted attempting just half of our ambitious itinerary, and advised us to make time for relaxation. As I was melting down on that bed, dripping snot onto the pillow, I remembered that card and thought, Dammit, this is what the Lews were afraid of! But, after a good thirty minute emotional purge I pulled myself back together. Sometimes a person just needs a solid ugly-cry to cleanse and refresh the soul. Besides, compared to my busted neck on my Hawaiian Crap-Cation some sore muscles and blistered feet felt pretty benign and unremarkable.

A tear-filled selfie to remind me that the lows are what give so much joy and significance to the highs

The only thing we had planned for that evening was dinner, so I ordered McDonald’s yet again (comfort food), and the girls ventured out on their own. I won’t speak for them, but I suspect it was nice to leave Mom behind for a few hours. As far as moms go, I think I’m a pretty cool one. Olivia and I have a great relationship, we’re very close, and Carey and I were getting along beautifully. But I am still Mom. So, while I enjoyed a quiet, solo evening relaxing on the balcony watching the Eiffel Tower and eating my American junk food, Olivia and Carey set out on their own for an adventure without their chaperone.

By the time the girls returned I was full and relaxed, and they were laughing and telling me stories of their mom-less dinner. They’d had a blast, I’d enjoyed my me-time, and we all gathered together once more to watch one last Eiffel Tower Twinkle Show from our balcony to cap off the day. What an absolutely magical time we’d had in Paris! Sure, I broke down and cried like a little bitch-baby by the end, but I wouldn’t change a moment of our trip.

We’d completed our first week of vacation, and still had another week to go! Come back again to read about the next adventure: renting a car and road-tripping from castle to castle through the Loire Valley! Till then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Louvre-ing Life: Art, the Seine, and the Frenchmen

We’d already had two amazing days in Paris, but we’d barely scratched the surface of what the city has to offer. Since we had no idea if or when we’d be back in Europe I wanted to cram as much as possible into our itinerary. While I would certainly not describe our trip as a relaxing one, we awoke each morning excited for what we had planned. Waking up knowing we were about to see the most famous painting in the world, and would be eating our dinner in style as we cruised down the River Seine, was certainly no exception. And, as usual, the day far surpassed our expectations.

Paris is absolutely full of museums, but only one is the most famous museum on earth: The Louvre. The museum itself is gargantuan, and filled with some of the most recognizable art on the planet, including sculptures like the Venus di Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, both of which are absolutely breathtaking.

We drooled over the Crown Jewels of France, walked past priceless paintings and sculptures, and through rooms of hundreds of years old furniture, and ancient Egyptian artifacts. But, without a doubt, the main draw to the Louvre is the Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance master who painted her, got his start in Florence in the 15th Century, and was a man of many talents. He was a painter, inventor, and scientist before science was really even a thing. He had a curious mind and was ahead of his time, even performing autopsies to understand human anatomy during a period when that was a huge no-no. The dude had brains, talent and balls.

Everyone says, “The Mona Lisa was smaller than I expected,” which is why it was bigger than we were expecting. The painting is at the center of a large gallery, surrounded by other masterpieces, including his famous (and strangely erotic) painting of St John the Baptist. Though we would have undoubtedly had a better view of the detail had we gone through the rope line, standing outside it near the front gave us a pretty solid look at her without waiting for an hour amidst the throngs of people. We may have been vaccinated and masked, but we were still cognizant of the risk involved with spending time in crowded indoor spaces mid-pandemic. Just to be in her presence was a privilege.

After spending a couple hours wandering the massive Louvre, there was one more museum we didn’t want to miss, so we struck out across the Tuileries Garden towards the Musee de l’Orangerie. A smaller museum, with an abundance of pieces by Renoir and other masters, the crème de la crème is definitely Monet’s Waterlilies. The paintings surround the walls of two oval shaped rooms dedicated solely to those paintings, and they are absolutely magnificent. The galleries are intended for silent meditation, which is enforced by museum employees whose sole job it is to sit there and tell people to shut the hell up. A boring job with a spectacular view.

We walked around each room slowly, marveling at the detail of these enormous paintings. It’s so cool to see them up close, admiring the texture and the colors, then to stand back and see them all together as a whole. Two completely different experiences, both exceptional. And, as was becoming customary for me, I was moved to tears.

We had some time to kill after we left the museum, and decided to just relax and enjoy the gorgeous day in the Tuileries Garden before heading back to the AirBnb to get ready for dinner. We grabbed some drinks at the museum and found a quiet spot to kick back and revel in not having anywhere to be in that moment. We admired a particularly handsome man lunching nearby, watched the leaves that were beginning to fall from the trees, and were amazed by the stamina of the young (teenage) couple who sucked each other’s faces for the entirety of the time we sat there. No shame, gratuitous groping; they just wanted to get it on. It was so Parisian (and rather nauseating).

The Bateaux Parisiens is considered the best dinner cruise in Paris. They have several package options for just about any budget, but since this was our special, splurge meal, we went for the premium VIP package that included champagne at the beginning and end of the cruise, and a table in the front of the boat, completely enclosed with windows to allow you to see the whole city as it floats by. It was touristy and pricey, almost $300 per person, but worth every penny.

The boats board beneath the Eiffel Tower, and we were a little tense as we were running late, so when we finally found the right boat and got in line we were relieved. The one thing about Paris we were not crazy about was the aggressiveness of the people walking around selling shit. Souvenirs, water, beer; they were approaching us constantly. A polite, “No, merci,” is usually sufficient, but not on this occasion. As we waited in line to board the boat a guy approached trying to sell us roses. We politely declined, but he wasn’t taking no for an answer. I get that everyone’s gotta make a living. However, if you’re selling something and I say I’m not interested, being pushy and intrusive is definitely not going to change my mind. After a couple minutes of this clown testing the limits of my patience, I’d had it. I summoned my angry-mom voice and forcefully said, “NO!” Did that do the trick? Of course not. He just began to mock me with, “No! No! No! No!” until Olivia whirled around with an assertive, “No, fuck off!” We’d tried polite, we’d tried firm, but it was ultimately good ol’ American snark that finally did the trick.

We boarded the boat without further incidence, and were escorted to our table and given champagne and hor d’oeuvres. We felt positively pampered as the boat slipped away from the dock and glided down the Seine. The city was all lit up along the riverbanks, and we finally got a glimpse of Notre Dame, still closed for renovations after the devastating 2019 fire. We were relaxed and laughing, enjoying the atmosphere, and the food.

Our cruise lasted nearly 3 hours, included several glasses of wine, five courses of authentic French cuisine, and concluded with cappuccino and a macaroon. The girls even got to try something they’d been wanting to try since we arrived in France: escargot (to mixed reviews).

Once we got back to shore the Eiffel Tower was all lit up and looming over us. The girls looked absolutely stunning in their fancy dresses, and we decided to stay for the next Twinkle Show before heading in for the night. We all FaceTimed with family, giving them a view of the shimmering tower against the dark, night sky, as we walked to the Champ de Mars to admire the show.

Even that late at night we were still approached by no fewer than six men attempting to sell us something to drink. Fortunately none were as obnoxious as the flower man from earlier in the evening, but it got irritating. After a while a young, cute, French man approached Carey not to sell her something, but to hit on her (a refreshing change of pace). He apologized for his English and asked, “Is okay if I. . . sit down with you?” Carey wasn’t sure how to respond, probably at least in part because she was there with her best friend’s mom, so she said, “Uh. . . I’m on the phone with my dad, but sure.” The young man sat and kept trying to spark a conversation, eventually asking what her plans were for the next day, and telling her he would love to show her, “hidden Paris.” Surely an innocent proposal to show her around areas not frequented by tourists, but definitely came across as serial-killerish. She let him down gently and we called an Uber to take us back to Suresnes. Awkward though it may have been, is there anything more Parisian than being hit on beneath the Eiffel Tower?!

The Uber that arrived was a tricked out Mercedes, with neon lights throughout the interior and undercarriage. Total pimp-mobile. While at a stoplight a car full of young men pulled up and tried to get the girls’ attention. They weren’t sure how to react, so I leaned over them both and yelled, “Hi! I’m their mom!” to the car full of now confused young men. The light turned green, and we drove away laughing, as our Uber driver chuckled along with us. An amusing end to another wonderful evening.

We had only one more day left in Paris, which was bittersweet, but a whole extra week of European adventure to follow. Stop by next week to read about our trip to Versailles, and the moment all that activity caught up with me. Till then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Flirting with the Finer Things: Getting Posh in Paris

If there’s one word I’d use to describe Paris, it’s posh. The fashion capital of the world, a city dripping with gold and luxury, Paris is a place for the average Joe to flirt with the finer things. The finest restaurants, designers, hotels, wines–everything is fancier in Paris. While we were traveling on a budget, I still wanted us to have the full Parisian experience, so I worked some of that finery into our itinerary.

First up was a history-nerd stop at the Musee de l’Armee. The Museum houses a massive collection of military memorabilia, including the remains of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon’s fancy-ass casket is inside an enormous marble rotunda, with the skeletal remains of his horse suspended above it. Quite the pretentious digs to spend eternity in, but I think that was the point.

Next up was the Musee d’Orsay, which wound up being my favorite museum of the trip. Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas; their collection contains some of the finest pieces by the finest artists to ever have lived. Carey was moved to giddiness by Van Gogh’s Stary Night Over the Rhine, Olivia fell madly in love with Renoir, and the Monets literally made me cry. Seeing them up close, the color, the texture, the detail, was awe-inspiring. When we came to Van Gogh’s self portrait that was likely his last piece before committing suicide, we were all overcome with emotion. None of us are “art people,” but the extensive, stunning collection at the Musee d’Orsay certainly made us understand why some people are.

The downside to traveling with me is that I’m the pickiest eater you’ll ever meet (until you meet my oldest son), so finding a restaurant with something I’ll eat can be challenging. That was especially true in France, where the food isn’t at all to my taste. I wanted the girls to be able to experience French cuisine, but I also didn’t want to gag my way through every meal. Luckily, European restaurants have their menus posted outside, so we were able to read them before deciding whether or not to go in. We quickly found an adorable bistro with authentic French food and the most American thing in the world: hamburger and fries. Sold!

The main event in Paris is undoubtedly the Eiffel Tower, and we planned to do it right. You can probably guess how excited we were on the way there, all dressed up and ready to spoil ourselves from the top of the world. Once again, we were blown away by the enormity of the monument. We knew she was tall, but damn, it’s a long way to the top of Paris’ most famous landmark. Even the footprint of the tower was bigger than I expected.

We’d opted for the premium ticket option (highly recommend) that allowed us access to all three levels via elevator. We stopped first at the 2nd level with its viewing deck large enough to allow people space to maneuver around each other without too much crowding. We meandered all the way around, taking in the view and posing for what turned out to be laughably awful pictures by their overpriced photographers, before continuing to the top floor.

I’m claustrophobic and afraid of heights so I was concerned that the elevator ride would be similar to the one I took to the top of the St. Louis Arch (a tiny, cramped, egg-shaped capsule where I very nearly hyperventilated). The elevator wasn’t as small as I’d expected, but it was made of glass, which means watching the city fall farther and farther away the higher you ascend, so I was grateful I’d taken a Xanax on our way there. Once we got to the top I did alright, though I didn’t spend much time standing near the railing.

The view from the top of the Eiffel Tower is spectacular. The top viewing platform is significantly smaller than the lower levels (obviously), and it was a bit crowded (which weirdly made me feel safer), but there’s champagne, so. . . Is it ridiculously expensive? Of course. Was it worth it? Hell yes! A champagne toast atop the Eiffel Tower is the epitome of fancy! We sipped our champagne as we wandered around the platform, getting a full 360 degree view over the city. We saw Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur, even the mini Statue of Liberty on the River Seine. At one point my daughter said, “I’m so freaking happy right now!” and my heart swelled till I thought it would burst. This was why I wanted to bring my daughter to Paris. In that moment I knew we were both checking something off our bucket lists.

Once we’d finished our champagne, we decided it was time for more cocktails, so we headed back down to take some pictures and call another Uber. A Mercedes arrived to pick us up, which was fabulously appropriate given our destination was one of the swankiest, most luxurious joints in town: Bar Hemingway at The Hotel Ritz. In the early to mid 20th Century the Hotel Ritz was home to icons like Coco Chanel and Ernest Hemingway. The Nazis actually took over the hotel during their occupation of Paris in WWII, and the bartender (and several members of the hotel staff) became a spy to help the French Resistance. When Paris was liberated by Allied Forces Ernest Hemingway was the first American in the city (after essentially stealing a military vehicle), saying he was on his way to “liberate the cellar at the Hotel Ritz!” He did just that, then went on a multi-day bender to celebrate. The bar is now named in his honor, and it’s what I was most excited for in Paris.

We rolled up in our fancy ride and were greeted by the doorman with a posh-sounding, “Bonjour, mademoiselles,” before he graciously directed us to the bar, which was on the other side of the hotel. We were in awe as we gawked at the Versaci gowns, Cartier jewelry, and MacCallan Scotch on display along the luxurious hallways, and I had a keen sense of not belonging, like they’d kick us out if they saw I was wearing Old Navy pants. In my head I kept hearing, “So this is how the other half lives.”

Bar Hemingway itself is small and intimate, paneled in dark wood, with plush leather benches, and walls covered in Hemingway memorabilia and books. We were escorted to a tiny table, and provided with cucumber water and little bowls of chips, nuts, and olives. To give you an idea of how swanky it is, their signature drink is a Ritz Sidecar, which is made with cognac from the 19th Century, and costs almost $2000. I couldn’t even afford to lick the damn glass, much less fathom the kind of wealth required to think nothing of spending that much on a single cocktail. Throwing down $45 per drink was hard enough, and took weeks of saving to accomplish. But when the cocktails arrived with fresh-cut white roses, and tasted absolutely divine, it was entirely worth it! Elegant, refined and classy, just like I’d planned our evening to be.

We savored each sip, and were having way too much fun to leave, so we decided to order a second cocktail. It was about half way through drink number two (three if you count the earlier glass of champagne) when the strength of the drinks, and the fact that we hadn’t eaten a meal since lunch became apparent. We were beginning to go from classy and refined to boisterous and goofy.

We thought we’d spend 45 minutes to an hour at Bar Hemingway. We ended up staying for three hours, six bowls of chips, and a friendly conversation with the rich, honeymooning couple from Manhattan at a nearby table. The entire experience was exceptional, and when another Mercedes arrived to take us back to our AirBnb it was the perfect end to our night of fanciness.

We needed dinner when we got back to Suresnes so we decided to order some more McDonald’s, which felt strangely comforting after a night of unusual finery. There’s just nothing more average-American than a burger and fries from Mickey D’s. However, I’d be remiss to not mention that their “Chicken Big Tasty” was neither big nor tasty, and the Croque McDo ought to be re-named the Croque McDon’t. If there’s one thing America does better than France it’s fast food, though I’m not sure that’s something we should necessarily take pride in.

We watched the Eiffel Tower’s Twinkle Show again before bed, and, like each night of our trip, we were exhausted and fell soundly asleep within moments of our heads hitting our pillows. Our posh day in Paris had been pure magic, and we still had more finery to come. Stop by next week to read about our next day in Paris, complete with a fancy-schmancy dinner cruise on the River Seine. In the meantime, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

From Buongiorno to Bonjour: Our First Taste of Paris

Paris, the City of Lights. My daughter Olivia, like most young women, had long dreamed of going to Paris. She loves French fashion, French culture, the French language (she even minored in French in college), and was dying to try real French cuisine and wine. Her excitement as we went to the airport for our flight to Paris was both palpable and contagious. Her dream was finally coming true! Rome had been wonderful, but it was time to trade our buongiornos for bonjours!

Going from the US to Italy to France in a matter of a few days gave me a kind of linguistic whiplash. Though I don’t speak French or Italian, I at least know how to greet people, and say please and thank you. But I’d just gotten used to doing that in Italian, and now had to switch from buongiorno to bonjour, and grazie to merci, which made all my interactions somewhat clumsy and awkward. Liv and Carey, however, after both taking French for years, were totally in their element. Liv was able to tell the cab driver where our AirBnb was located, and even make small talk with her, completely in French. I was très impressed.

Paris is so expensive. Being that this was my college graduation gift to my daughter, I wanted it to be special, and for her to have the full Parisian experience, but I was also trying to accomplish this without blowing our entire budget in one city. So, when I found a three bedroom flat on AirBnb with two bathrooms, a terrace, and a balcony overlooking the Eiffel Tower, that was within our budget, I was ecstatic. Located in the suburb of Suresnes, just outside the city, and only a block from a metro station in a quiet residential neighborhood, we felt we had really scored. What I didn’t know when I booked it was that our host, Anis, was a douche. He left us waiting on the sidewalk outside the building for 2 hours, and kept commenting on how inconvenient a time it was for us to arrive.

We decided to get some lunch while we waited. Since we weren’t sure how much time we had before Anis would grace us with his presence, and we had all our luggage with us, we didn’t want to stray too far. Luckily there was a McDonald’s just a couple blocks away, so while I manned the luggage, Olivia and Carey went to a French Mickey D’s and brought back a little taste of home. In case you’ve ever wondered, yes, it tastes exactly the same no matter what country you’re in. I’m usually more of an Arby’s gal, but damn was it delicious! The familiarity of a McDonald’s burger and fries was oddly comforting as we sat on a French sidewalk surrounded by suitcases.

After we’d finished our literal French fries, Anis finally arrived and let us into the flat. He gave us a tour, told us not to open any closets or cabinets that had been taped shut (weird, but okay), and left, which was a relief. I got a weird vibe from him, but we were grateful to be in Paris, in a spacious flat where we each had our own room, and were ready to get exploring already.

After we’d gotten cleaned up we took an Uber into the city to our first destination. Built to honor the soldiers who fought in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, the Arc de Triomphe is one of the most famous monuments in France. It was constructed in the early 19th Century and inaugurated in 1836, and it’s so Parisian! While we’d planned to go inside the Arc, it was seemingly under construction (actually being prepped for an art installation, we later learned), so after taking a few pictures we headed down the Champs Élysées towards the Place de la Concorde.

The Champs Élysées was exactly as I’d imagined it would be. A wide boulevard, exceptionally clean for a busy city street, lined with manicured trees and swanky shops, and populated by some of the best dressed (and most attractive) humans I’d ever seen. The girls were absolutely giddy. Though I felt a bit out of place in my cheap-ass outfit, being an overweight middle-aged woman also made me feel somewhat invisible, which really took the pressure off. I was an observer, a facilitator of fun for my daughter and her best friend, and I was loving it.

The Place de la Concorde, my history nerd stop of the day as I’ll explain in a moment, is a large, open square (the largest in Paris) on the western side of the Tuileries Garden. With two fountains, an obelisk, and gold galore, it’s quite a sight to see. The gold that adorns just about everything in the square was all glowing and radiant in the early evening sun, and the effect was luminous. While Rome had been filled with ancient historical ruins, Paris was absolutely dripping with opulence.

Alright, time for a very brief history lesson. After centuries of being ruled by kings and queens the French citizens were tired of suffering at the hands of out-of-touch, lavish-living monarchs, and decided enough was enough. During the ensuing French Revolution thousands of people were executed by guillotine, including, in 1793 during the Reign of Terror, King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie-let-them-eat-cake-Antoinette. The infamous contraption had been set up in the Place de la Concorde (then called the Place de la Revolution), and a plaque now marks the spot where the guillotine once stood. We admired the fountains and the obelisk, somehow resisting the urge to jump in the fountains (it was still 90 degrees), and paid our “respects” to Marie Antoinette by way of parodying her execution. We then decided it was time to get to Sacré Coeur before sunset, so we called another Uber.

Sacré Coeur, a Roman Catholic church, is perched on the highest spot in Paris’ Montmartre neighborhood, and overlooks the entire city. In addition to a spectacular view of Paris, the people-watching was fantastic. There were couples displaying more PDA than I’d seen since a middle school dance; couples enjoying classic French picnics, complete with baguette, wine, and pâté; people walking their dogs; others taking pictures; and plenty of entrepreneurs hocking beer and water to them all. We sat on the steps among Parisians and our fellow tourists, watching the people, and admiring the sky while its color changed from blue, to orange, to pink, to a deep purple as the sun finally dipped below the horizon. Perfection.

Once the sun went down we called another Uber and drove back to Suresnes. We were all pretty tired so we decided to order dinner in. Pizza isn’t something one generally associates with France, so it felt weird ordering one, but that’s exactly what we did. Not their specialty. Because we were so hungry the first few bites were fine, but then we started actually tasting it. Turns out, French cheese just doesn’t work on pizza. Lesson learned.

Our dinner may have been a bust, but our view was positively enchanting. We finished our evening on the balcony watching the Eiffel Tower “Twinkle Show.” Beginning at dusk and going until 1:00am, every hour on the hour, the tower begins to twinkle with thousands upon thousands of lights. It’s absolutely magical, and we were enthralled. What a perfect way to end our first day in Paris!

This trip was all I’d hoped it would be. To finally get to see Rome after decades of dreaming was incredible, but to be able to see the pure joy on my daughter’s face as she walked the streets of Paris with her best friend was everything. Hearing them laugh, seeing their smiles, feeling their excitement, gave me a sense of immeasurable satisfaction. We all want to give our kids the world. As a single mom living paycheck to paycheck that can be challenging. This trip was a big deal for me. I saved and made sacrifices for more than a year to make it happen. I wanted it to be epic, special, a memory she would cherish as she begins her new life on her own, an experience to make up for having to share a bedroom with her little brothers, for all the nights I’d only been able to afford Kraft mac-n-cheese, for the years I couldn’t afford Christmas or birthday presents. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a vacation, but as I watched the delight in her eyes as the Eiffel Tower sparkled in the distance I knew this trip was the treasure I’d intended. My daughter and her bestie were glowing. Mission accomplished! And we still had three more days in Paris before moving on to our next destination!

Be sure to come back next week to read about our first full day in Paris, a luxurious day filled with museums of fine art, champagne atop the Eiffel Tower, and cocktails at The Hotel Ritz! Till then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

Take Me to Church: Three Audacious Atheists Visit the Vatican

I struggled for months with whether or not to visit the Vatican. I am, after all, a pastor’s daughter-turned-atheist, so being inside the Mothership of Catholicism doesn’t exactly sound like my jam. But the home of the Holy See houses the largest privately owned collection of art in the entire freaking world, including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The Church has also, in large part, shaped the path of the western world for more than 1500 years. Less so now than, say, 400 years ago, thank God (pun intended), but it’s impossible to separate Christian history from European history–which is totally my jam. However, the Vatican amassed their enormous collection of priceless art through centuries of widespread greed, corruption, plunder and slaughter, and they ran (run?) the largest pedophile syndicate in all of documented history, so. . . yeah. I struggled.

In the end I decided that I’d be contributing to the preservation of the art and history, not the Ring of Rapists, and our one-time $20 donation wouldn’t go far in the grand scheme of things, anyway. So, the Mother, the Daughter, and the Bestie ventured into the inner sanctum of et Patris, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti (Amen).

Now, about that history. . .

Notorious Roman Emperor Caligula, in the 1st Century CE, began building a massive circus (think chariots, not clowns). However, Caligula was a super shitty emperor (rumor has it also a sadistic, incestuous, nymphomaniac), so his own men murdered him after he’d reigned for a mere 4 years, leaving his circus unfinished. Enter Nero, the villain of early Christianity who, upon completing Caligula’s circus, promptly took all the credit and named it the Circus of Nero.

In CE 64 about a third of the city was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome. As usual, people wanted someone to blame, so Nero gave them one: adherents of a strange new cult who worshiped only one god, and had earned the nickname (derogatory at the time) “Christians.” Given the absence of modern investigative and forensic tools to reveal how, or at whose hands, the fire actually started, scapegoating the folks his subjects were already suspicious of must’ve felt like a no-brainer to a ruler who just wanted to restore order to a city teetering on anarchy. To placate the throngs of angry Romans, Nero’s soldiers started targeting and executing Christians (by crucifixion, as they’re infamous for doing), and the primary spot used for the executions was–that’s right–the Circus of Nero.

The bodies of the alleged arsonists were laid to rest in a cemetery right next to the Circus, including that of the most famous of Nero’s victims, one of the men credited with founding The Church, Peter the Apostle. St Peter’s Basilica is suposedy built over his grave, and the sprawling complex of palaces, gardens, offices, chapels, residences and museums has been built up around it over the ensuing centuries to give us what is now the independent city-state called The Vatican.

There’s one piece of the original circus left, and that’s the obelisk at the center of St Peter’s Square. Not a Christian relic at all, but a pagan one, Caligula looted the obelisk from Egypt way back in the early 1st Century CE. I can’t even tell you how hilarious I found it to be standing in the epicenter of the Christian world, neighborhood of the Pope, burial place of a dude who purportedly walked with Jesus Christ himself, and staring at looted, pagan booty. See, guys? History is fun!

More than the paintings and sculptures, or artifacts and relics, the rooms themselves were incredible, especially the ceilings. The Sistine Chapel doesn’t have the only magnificent ceiling inside the Vatican. Others are just as spectacular, and many are covered in gold. So. Much. Gold. Despite their beauty, I kept wondering, “Y’all sure this is what Jesus had in mind?

Through the entire museum, room after room, gold ceiling after gold ceiling, I was amused by the juxtaposition of a hippie like Jesus, who reportedly said it was, “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God,” (Matthew 10:25 NLT) with the obscene wealth that now oozes from the seat of the church founded in his name. If they melted down all the gold in the Vatican they could single-handedly end homelessness for millions of displaced persons, which, let’s be honest, is what Jesus would do. Yet there I was, walking under gilded ceilings and surrounded by art that’s worth more than the GDP of most nations. “Seriously though, you guys even read his work?

Confessing nearly 44 years worth of sins was a lengthy endeavor. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. How much time you got?”

After the museums we headed to St Peter’s Basilica, stopping for souvenirs along the way. Another building that would be far too ostentatious for Jesus’ liking, it’s basically a massive marble and gold testament to the ingenuity, artistry and power of man. If the builders and architects wanted visitors to feel small and insignificant under the eyes of God, they nailed it. The giant atop Jack’s beanstalk wouldn’t even need to duck his head to walk into St Peter’s Basilica.

St Peter’s tomb is at the front of the sanctuary near the high altar. The above ground marker is a massive bronze and gilded baldachin by Bernini that is absolutely stunning. While I may be an atheist, the history nerd in me was beside herself to be potentially standing over the grave of yet another pivotal historical figure.

The most magnificent part of the entire basilica, as far as I’m concerned, is, hands down, Michelangelo’s Pieta. WOW! There’s a reason he’s considered a master. The emotion on Mary’s face, the realistic lifelessness of Jesus, the detail of every inch of them. . . and just knowing that before my eyes was a piece of marble carved by Michel-freaking-angelo was overwhelming. I felt the anguish of a mother who’d lost her child, and I actually cried. My daughter made fun of me, but this wouldn’t be the last time Renaissance art moved me to literal tears.

The least intimidating looking security of all time: the Swiss Guard.

As we left the Basilica the girls did an impromptu impersonation of the Swiss Guard, after which we fled before getting arrested at spear-point, tried for heresy, and burned as witches. We then found a shady spot in St Peter’s Square to sit down, relax and enjoy the day. While the museum had been crowded the square was relatively empty. I’m sure there were an equal number of people in both places, but the square is so enormous and open that it felt nearly deserted. We all FaceTimed with family, I smoked a cigarette, and we spent an hour just chilling and soaking everything in. We listened to the bells tolling from the basilica, watched as traditionally dressed priests, monks and nuns passed by, and I tended to my blisters. A lovely respite before continuing with our day of sightseeing.

Swiss Guard Imitation Vatican
Olivia and Carey imitating the Swiss Guard, but in less ridiculous outfits

Though we’d taken a taxi to the Vatican, we walked back in order to see some sights along the way, the first of which was Castel Sant’Angelo. Originally built in the 2nd Century CE as a tomb for Emperor Hadrian, history has seen it used as a prison, and even a papal hideout during the Sack of Rome in 1527. While primarily German and Spanish troops pillaged the city, Pope Clement VII fled down the Passetto di Borgo, a secret passage that connects the Vatican to the castle, and remained there until the troops finally exhausted the city’s resources and left. Not exactly one to lead by example, that Pope, but before he died he did commission Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, so he’s not without his contributions to posterity.

We admired the castle, then crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo and continued walking along the Tiber until we reached the Mausoleum of Augustus. The building itself, like the Castel Sant’Angelo, was austere and imposing, but had lost most of its decorative detail to the ravages of time, and was visually unimpressive. We sadly weren’t able to go inside, but I did take a moment to pay my respects to the superstars of history entombed within: the entire Julio-Claudian Dynasty, starting with Augustus and Livia, and going all the way to Caligula, Nero, and finally Nerva. Some bad, some badass, all part of the history that shaped Western Civilization.

After I’d paid my respects it was time for some more gelato, and to head back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. As we walked, we passed Trajan’s Market, the Altar of the Fatherland, and a statue of Julius Caesar. One of my favorite parts of Rome is that, no matter which way you turn, there’s probably something fun around the next corner.

That evening, as we savored our final dinner in Rome (best steak I’ve ever had), we decided we greatly prefer the European style of dining to the American way. Dinner is an event, and it anchored us each evening. The waiters are always nearby, ready to help, but they don’t bug you. No loud music to impede conversation, no interruptions to ask if you’re enjoying your meal, no rushing you along to free up their table. Instead, we were able to enjoy leisurely, relaxed meals that allowed us to decompress, reflect on the day, and really connect with one another. I can’t begin to say how refreshing an experience that is when you’re used to places like sports bars or Olive Garden.

Rome had been as magical as I’d always dreamed, and although we were sad to leave, we knew we still had a week and a half of European adventures still to come. Stay tuned for the next installment when we trade the narrow, cobblestone streets of Ancient Rome for the wide avenues and posh luxury of Paris! Until then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

Exploring the Eternal City: Rome for History Nerds

Rome, the Eternal City, is like Disneyland for history nerds. The Roman Empire once stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, as far north as England, and as far south as Egypt. Rome helped shape Western civilization for thousands of years, from their time as conquerors to the height of Vatican power. For better or worse, Rome changed the world, and for history nerds like me, exploring the Eternal City was a dream come true.

After breakfast at our hotel we headed to Rome’s main attraction: Il Colosseo! Built between CE 72 – 80, the Colosseum is the largest amphitheater, and one of the most recognizable buildings, in the entire world. Once used to stage public entertainments for up to 70,000 plebeian and patrician spectators alike, it showcased everything from gladiatorial combat and battle reenactments, to animal hunts and public executions; the bloodier the better for Ancient Romans. On the one hand, it’s rather disturbing to think that watching people fight to the death in an arena passed for quality entertainment a couple thousand years ago. On the other hand, beating the shit out of people is an actual Olympic sport, and we spend millions of dollars every year flocking to theaters for movies like Saw and its many sequels, or reading true crime novels about grisly murders. So it seems our humanity hasn’t evolved quite as quickly as our technology.

We arrived early and had plenty of time to admire the exterior and take pictures before going inside. That so much of the structure is still standing and intact after thousands of years being ravaged by the elements is astounding. The phrase, “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” never seemed so fitting. Earthquakes, fires, rain, snow, hail, wind, war–she’s been battered, but never beaten.

We had all our documents ready when our time came to enter the Colosseum, but we weren’t sure what to expect since Italy had rolled out their new health pass. There was some confusion as to whether or not a US CDC card would be sufficient for entry to Italy’s museums and restaurants. We were pleased to learn that yes, our CDC vaccine cards with our passports were all we needed to get into everything. Europeans are now used to seeing them from American tourists, and we never ran into an issue. Though you may be slowed down if you received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as they expect to see 2 doses on your card, so you will have to explain why there’s only one.

Being inside a building that was constructed 1400 years before Europeans even knew America existed is surreal. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around just how long ago that really is. 21st Century life would be unrecognizable to the men who built The Colosseum entirely by hand. No cranes. No computers. No power tools. Just human ingenuity and raw strength. Mind: blown.

Our next stop was the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Even older than the Colosseum, The Forum was the heart of Rome before Julius Caesar even walked its streets. Speeches were given, commerce conducted, trials executed, debates and tributes held there. Palatine Hill, on the other hand, held the most expensive residential property in town. According to legend, around 754 BCE, twin brothers Romulus and Remus disagreed as to on which hill to found their new city. Romulus preferred the Palatine Hill, while the Aventine was more Remus’ jam. So, being the superstitious ancient humans that they were they, “let the gods decide.” Remus claimed to have seen 6 birds from the Aventine Hill, proving him divinely favored. Romulus, not one to be outdone, said he saw 12 birds from the Palatine (totally legit, surely), declared himself divine winner (yep, because birds), and killed his brother Remus, thus making the Palatine Hill prime Rome real estate, while the Aventine became Skid Row. It’s also why it’s called Rome and not Reme. Isn’t history (mythology, in this case) a hoot?!

Once we’d finished walking through the Tribeca of Ancient Rome we were ready for some lunch. We started walking and came across a lovely trattoria with what we were all craving: pizza! We sat on the patio and enjoyed a leisurely lunch, watching as two old nuns left the convent next door for supplies, then came back oblivious to the trail of onions they were leaving in their wake. Just as we noticed them falling off their little wagon, a passerby kindly pointed it out to them. The nuns just shrugged and kept going. Zero fucks given. It was fantastic. Even more so when a car ran the onions over, moments later causing a very confused pedestrian to wonder why the street was covered in smashed produce.

Olivia has always been obsessed with France, and Paris in particular, but her favorite movie is Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. In the movie Greg takes Audrey to the Mouth of Truth. He tells her the medieval legend which says the mask will bite the hand off any liar who dares to put their hand in its mouth. It’s one of Liv’s favorite scenes from her favorite movie, so it was a must-see. The mask is located in the portico at the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, and Liv was so excited and adorable as we waited in line to reenact the scene. Bonus: we all kept our hands!

On our way to the Pantheon we passed one of the spots I was most excited to see. On the Ides of March, 44 BCE, Julius Caesar walked into the Theater of Pompey for a meeting with a group of senators. What he didn’t know was that the meeting was a ruse designed to lure him to his own murder (et tu, Brute?). Caesar entered, and the senators swarmed around him and pulled daggers from their togas. As the blows rained down on him Caesar knew he was toast. He pulled his toga over his head so they wouldn’t see his face as he died, then bled to death right there on the temple steps. His assassination sent Rome into chaos, triggered a civil war, and effectually ended the Roman Republic for good. Gaius Octavius Julius Caesar Augustus (commonly referred to as Octavian, because that name is a hell of a mouthful), Rome’s first emperor, was Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and posthumously adopted son. After gaining control of Rome, he erected a monument on the spot where Uncle-Daddy Caesar was assassinated, and that spot is located in what is now an archeological site called Largo di Torre Argentina.

I recognized it right away and immediately began nerding out. I was staring at the spot where one of the most pivotal events in ancient history took place, and I couldn’t even. There’s not much left of the temple, and even less of the monument, but I couldn’t help but visualize what it must have been like as the senators fled the theater and word spread that Caesar was dead. Loved by the people and hated by the ruling elite, whatever you think of him, Julius Caesar’s fingerprints are all over our lives. He’s the man who gave us the calendar we still use today. July is named after him, August after his successor. He had an affair with Cleopatra, crossed the Rubicon, and inspired Shakespeare. “I came, I saw, I conquered.” He’s legendary. So, I pulled my kimono over my face to pay homage in my own way to the OG JC.

The girls finally dragged me away from my nerd-fest and we arrived at the Pantheon, which is the best preserved ancient building in the city. Commissioned in the early 1st Century CE by Agrippa, bestie to Emperor Augustus (Octavian), but rebuilt after a fire around CE 126, its original purpose was as a temple to all the gods of Rome–and they had a lot of gods (shoe leather? Yep, there’s a god for that). Even Caesar and Augustus were posthumously deified and worshiped. Of course, the Pantheon was eventually converted into a Catholic Church in the 7th Century, but I still see it as a pagan monument. Once again, its size blew our freaking minds. Absolutely colossal. It was impossible to not feel dwarfed in its presence, and mad respect for the dudes who were up there building that roof more than a millennia ago. Unfortunately reservations aren’t possible, and the line to go inside was several blocks long. So we enjoyed the view from the fountain and then headed to one of the most famous piazza’s in Rome.

Piazza Navonna. I’ll be honest, this wasn’t a huge priority for me, but I was so glad that we went! Having been built on the site of what once was the Stadium of Domitian, Piazza Navonna is huge, of course, and utterly charming. The Baroque fountains are beautiful, as was the 17th Century church of Sant’Agnese in Agnone, but our favorite part was a man called Super Mario.

We were about to walk back to the hotel, not interested in being lured into sitting down at one of the overpriced cafes, when one of the maître d’s caught our attention in the cheesiest, most cliché way. Realizing we were Americans, he said, “My name is Mario. Super Mario!” mentioned cocktails, and we caved. When in Rome, right? This was the perk of not scheduling every minute of the day. We had the freedom to just stop, relax, listen to the old man playing a portable organ, and sip our cocktails, soaking it all in. Olivia ordered an espresso martini, while Carey and I went for the frozen mimosa, and they were absolutely divine, the perfect way to cool down on a 90 degree day. Thank you, Super Mario!

Our first full day in Rome was everything we’d dreamed and then some. After hitting so many sites in one day we were once again exhausted, but so excited to get up in the morning and head to the Mothership of Christianity: The Vatican. Come back next week to read about how St. Peter’s Basilica became a trip-favorite of us three atheists.

Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Ciao, America! Ladycations Goes International: Italy and France

Airport selfie

Ladycations is back! And we’re going international! After my last Ladycation turned into a total crap-cation, then COVID-19 grounded us all for more than a year, I was beyond ready for an escape in 2021. I’d taken social distancing and masking very seriously, hadn’t done much of anything outside my home and work throughout the entire pandemic, and had worked myself into hypertension over the cacophony of misinformation being spewed. I wanted to completely disconnect, and flee to far away lands that stir the imagination and stimulate the senses.

If you’ve been following Ladycations you know I love nature. I’m always down for camping and hiking, and generally escaping humanity for the serenity of the Great Outdoors. What you might not know is that I’m also a history nerd. I devour historical non-fiction, binge low-budget documentaries, and will randomly announce historical “fun facts” to people who then question whether I know what the word “fun” actually means. Going to Italy was my dream, like an historical pilgrimage for nerdy nerds. So, instead of getting my nature fix I decided to feed my history habit, and with at least six miles of walking a day, it was basically hiking with cuter shoes and better snacks (and considerably more people).

France was my daughter’s dream. She even minored in French in college. She worked her ass off throughout her entire education, has literally never gotten into trouble, and graduated summa cum laude from the Ohio State University in May. She’s smart, witty, kind, responsible, thoughtful, poised, driven. . . She’s amazing. So, being the proud, cool-ass mom that I am, I decided to make both our dreams come true and take Olivia and her best friend on a two week tour of Italy and France to celebrate their awesomeness.

Our adventure began in Cleveland with a flight to Rome, and we were prepared. We had our passports, my international drivers ID, we were vaccinated, Covid-tested, and equipped with KN-95 masks. But, because preparation can only do so much, an unwelcome surprise: our flight out of Cleveland was delayed by several hours, adding an additional layover in Frankfurt, Germany, and getting us into the city much later than we’d planned. Welcome to international air travel, folks! Between that and all the uncertainty associated with traveling during Covid, despite having all our documents in order, part of us wasn’t sure we were actually going to make it to Rome at all.

The Frankfurt airport is. . . off-putting. Very gray, very confusing and crowded, and not overly friendly, in our limited experience. We looked up reviews of the airport online to amuse ourselves. “Gray, gray, gray.” “Unsettling.” They’re not wrong. While I know logically that Germany would be a beautiful, super interesting place to visit, we won’t be doing that anytime soon. It’s like childbirth, we need time to forget the experience before trying again. On the bright side they did have smoking lounges, so I was able to smoke a couple cigarettes while we waited, which may have saved lives.

We arrived in Rome as the sun was starting to set, and I’m not sure I have the words to explain exactly how I was feeling. Years of dreaming and planning and reading and researching and pandemic-related apprehension, and here we were, in the back of a taxi, being driven maniacally through the ancient streets of Rome. We made it!

Our home for the first three nights of our trip was the FH55 Grand Hotel Palatino. I usually prefer to AirBnb or VRBO, but it was cheaper to book the hotel with the plane ticket, and I wanted to be within walking distance of all the major attractions. I also wanted rooms with balconies cause smokers gotta smoke, and a continental breakfast to simplify our mornings. The Grand Hotel Palatino checked every box, and we would definitely stay there again! Clean, perfectly situated near all the major attractions, with bright, spacious rooms and friendly, helpful staff. Two enthusiastic thumbs up.

We needed food. We were dying for our first taste of real Italian pasta, and after traveling for more than 24 hours, our nerves needed the sedating effect of wine. It took us all of 5 minutes to find an adorable trattoria in a little piazza with everything we craved and charm to boot. Within 10 minutes of sitting down at the tiny outdoor table we were sipping our wine and nibbling fresh-baked bread. It was so European that the reality of the distance from home really started to sink in.

Before this trip I’d been to Windsor, Canada for a couple nights, and had stopped in Mexico and Jamaica on my honeymoon cruise, but I was always surrounded by English-speakers. I’ve never been so far from home that everyone around me was speaking another language, and it was such a strange feeling. It gives a sense of vulnerability, and anonymity. You know you’re not going to run into that annoying coworker, or your ex. In fact, you’ll neither know nor see anyone you encounter ever again, and no one will even remember you once you’re gone. Just another American tourist. That’s incredibly liberating. But we also had a keen sense of being at the mercy of others, relying on them to know our language because we never bothered to learn theirs. That’s mercilessly humbling, especially with the added risk of traveling during a pandemic.

When we heard a police car nearby with its siren blaring I felt even more detached from life in the US. So many sirens, and not the sirens I’m used to hearing in the American Midwest, but the sirens I’d only heard in movies. Sitting there, as I alternated between white wine and Prosecco (because, why choose just one?), and savored my to-die-for lasagna, I half expected to see Tom Hanks come flying into the Piazza with the Swiss Guard hot on his heels, like a scene from The Da Vinci Code.

It was getting late when we finished our (delicious) meal, and we were exhausted, but we weren’t ready to turn in, so we headed deeper into the Eternal City in search of gelato and the 18th Century Baroque masterpiece: the Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain). Talk about living up to the hype! The gelato was sublime, and the fountain was massive and stunningly beautiful. All lit up for the evening, the water was glowing blue, reflecting its light onto the faces of its many admirers. The intricate detail and enormous scale of the sculptures cannot be adequately captured on film, and we were in complete awe. So different from anything any of us had ever seen. I wasn’t sure if I was more amazed by the fountain or knowing it was only the first of fourteen days full of being amazed by Europe’s magnificent art and architecture.

After taking some pictures and making a wish as we tossed a coin into the fountain we slowly made our way back to the hotel. It had been a long day, with unforeseen delays and lots of frustration, but it ultimately ended exactly as I’d imagined it would: joyfully, my appetite satisfied with scrumptious pasta, my thirst satiated with crisp wine, and me blissfully smoking a cigarette on my private balcony. The travel stress had been entirely worth it.

Before Covid hit I’d been planning a solo trip to Italy for Spring of 2020. As disappointed as I’d been about having to cancel, as I sat on the balcony, listening to the sound of the revelry on the street below, I was immensely grateful to have my daughter and her friend sleeping in the room across the hall. It was my first time overseas, which was a little unnerving. I’d have been fine alone, but it certainly would’ve added an extra layer of anxiety. Mostly, though, it was just special to be able to experience it all with Olivia, seeing everything from my own perspective and through her eyes, as well.

I couldn’t wait for morning to explore more of Caesar’s ‘hood! But first, a shower and the soundest sleep I’d had in months. Next time my fellow Ladycationers and I set off for the main event in Rome: The Colosseum! Until then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.