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!

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.

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.

When Good Vacations Go Bad: My Hawaiian Crap-Cation

Rainbow over Kipahulu

Hawaii. Its mere mention conjures mental images of sun-kissed bodies lying on sandy beaches, palm trees swaying in warm breezes, and leis of colorful, tropical flowers. It connotes relaxation and luxury. While my trip to Hawaii certainly had a little bit of all of those things, this is not that kind of story. For no matter how meticulously one plans, dream vacations can turn into nightmares in the blink of an eye, or, in this case, a crick in the neck. And when good vacations go bad, they can go really, really bad.

I’ve tried to write about my trip to Hawaii for more than two years. Each draft was ultimately scrapped. They either read as aggressively depressing or superfluously disingenuous. My brother asked why I hadn’t written about the trip and I told him my predicament. He said with confidence, “You’ll find a way to make it funny.” At that point, however, I was entirely unable to find anything funny in that shit-sandwich of a vacation. And so, two years later, here I am. Trying again.

Everything started out great. Lindsey and I had two weeks planned on three islands, mostly camping, with bookend stays at AirBnbs and a resort. We spent our first two days on Oahu at our beachfront guesthouse; snorkeling, swimming, hiking, driving around in our convertible, and eating our dinner under the palm trees in our lounge chairs on the beach. It was magical. We assumed the next leg of the trip (camping on Maui) would be even more so. The universe heard that assumption, laughed diabolically, and said, “Hold my Mai Tai.”

sunset ewa beach oahu hawaii palm trees
Sunset from our AirBnb in Ewa Beach

Our first night on Maui, my sleeping pad popped. We were in the middle of nowhere, at Wai’anapanapa State Park, on the Road to Hana, and had zero options as far as finding a replacement. No big deal, I thought. I’m a badass, outdoorsy woman, right? I wasn’t going to let a little ground-sleeping interfere with my bitchin’ Hawaiian Ladycation, so I popped some ibuprofen for my sore shoulder and carried on like the boss-ass bitch I am.

We hiked across barren fields of ancient lava flow, swam next to sea turtles in the crystal-clear ocean, soaked up the sun on the black sand beach, and spent countless hours staring out at the waves as they crashed against the rocky shore. We invented our own constellations at night, made friends with fellow campers, and were generally having the time of our lives in “paradise.” Unfortunately, my shoulder was becoming more and more of a problem, the pain extending farther down my arm with each passing day. My boss-ass bitchness was wilting faster than a Hawaiian lei.

After the third night of camping I couldn’t lift my left arm. My shoulder had just stopped working. Shit. The pain was extending from my neck to my fingertips, and had evolved from an annoying ache to a burning, ferocious, all-consuming pain. Shit. I struggled to get dressed (shit, ow, shit), trying, to no avail, to mentally will my arm to work. Shiiiiit. That was my last night’s sleep of the entire trip, the first of an infinite number of “shits,” and the moment my Hawaiian Ladycation turned into a total Crap-cation.

The pain continued, unabated, despite deploying every weapon in my arsenal: ibuprofen, Tylenol, ice, steroid cream, prescription strength NSAIDs, stretching, massage, and reiki. Nothing helped. I didn’t want to ruin Lindsey’s trip, so I tried to “woman up,” and just deal with it, but when we missed stargazing from atop a volcano because I couldn’t handle the drive, then I had to use a pool noodle for snorkeling the Molokini Crater because I couldn’t swim with only one arm, and finally got seasick on the boat ride back to shore (I grew up on the water, I do not get seasick), I lost my ability to be even a wilting version of my boss-ass bitch self, and was just straight-up bitchy.

I went to the emergency room on Maui, got X-rays, a cortisone injection in my shoulder, a sling, a prescription for pain medication, and off we went to Kauai for the final leg of our trip. None of those interventions helped. I suppose one would think, “I’d rather be miserable in Hawaii than Ohio.” But, when you’re blinded by unrelenting pain the view doesn’t really matter.

The only thing I found that did help the pain were near-death experiences. How did I discover this, you may be asking? A wave at Polihale Beach knocked me down and tossed me around like a rag doll. My desperate attempt to not die caused my brain to release chemicals–an “adrenaline rush”–which temporarily blocked my pain receptors. Momentary sweet relief. So, what did I do? I just kept almost drowning. . . on purpose. . . over and over and over, until I was too exhausted to risk it again. I had an hour of glorious, pain-free bliss, and had unknowingly been providing entertainment for another group of campers, who found my apparent clumsiness and inability to learn from my mistakes absolutely hilarious, and more than a bit concerning. You’re welcome, folks.

By this point Lindsey and I were not exactly a harmonious duo of travelers. I hadn’t slept in days and was in constant pain, and Lindsey was stuck in “paradise” with a miserable, bitchy cow. Not an ideal situation for either person involved, to say the least. While Lindsey was exploring a holistic souvenir shop she found a mineral that was purported to “heal ligaments and tendons,” and told me I should hold it. I wanted to throw it at her damn face. When she performed reiki on me before snorkeling she recoiled and needed to meditate, saying I had, “too much negative energy.” Well, no shit! My arm is on fire! I wanted to slap her. Was she deliberately being dismissive? No. Did I handle it any better because her intentions were innocent? Also no.

I never want to come home at the end of a vacation. I always lament going back to reality, wishing for more time in whatever beautiful destination I’m in. That was not the case with my Hawaiian Crap-cation. I could not wait to get back to lame-ass Ohio and the medical care at my disposal there. Being that I’m a medical secretary to two orthopedic surgeons I assumed (erroneously) that I would get a quick diagnosis and surgery, and be back to Ladycation-planning in no time. Unfortunately, I was only at the beginning of a three month journey through US Healthcare Hell. 13 medications, 6 doctors, 2 spinal injections, countless physical therapy appointments, and 4 full-blown panic attacks later and I was a shell of the person I’d once been. Shit got really dark, and I gained an entirely new understanding of what our patients go through.

Ultimately I did get the surgery I needed. I had herniated two disks in my cervical spine (neck), and one was compressing a nerve that runs all the way down my left arm, which was what caused the pain and loss of function. When I came out of anesthesia after surgery the first thing I did was try to lift my arm. When it actually lifted off the bed I was so happy I cried. It was the first time I’d felt hope in months.

I don’t have wonderful memories from my trip to Hawaii. I did come home tan, but I also came home crippled. I remember watching the sunset over the ocean at Polihale, but I also remember that that’s where I deliberately near-drowned myself to escape the pain. I remember the waterfalls, and the pain. I remember the palm trees, and the pain. Every memory from the entire trip is clouded by the memory of the pain, and the several months and thousands of dollars in medical bills that followed. Even the memories of our first couple days, before “The Incident,” are under a fog of, “You didn’t even know what you were in for.” I went to Hawaii and came back physically and emotionally broken. Was it Hawaii’s fault? Obviously not, but when it comes to emotional trauma, it’s hard for the mind to differentiate between correlation and causation.

Luckily for Lindsey my injury didn’t have as negative an impact on her trip as I thought it had, and she packed up and moved to Kauai less than a year after we’d returned to Ohio. I’m glad she’s happy and living her best life–but I will never be going to visit. She can have Hawaii. The Island has spoken, and Jeff Probst has snuffed out my torch. Aloha, Hawaii.

If nothing else the trip was a learning experience. Most importantly I learned of the necessity of travel insurance. I learned the value of having backup equipment. And, weirdly, being incapacitated and miserable for several months before Covid hit kinda prepared me for the long months of lock downs and social distancing, so in the end, it all worked out pretty well.

For my triumphant return to travel, post Hawaiian Crap-cation and post global-pandemic-travel-restrictions, Ladycations is going international! Stay tuned to hear about how I am the most awesome mom ever, cause I took my daughter and her best friend to Italy and France to celebrate their college graduation. Ancient ruins, iconic art, actual castles, all the wine, and no neurosurgeons needed. The boss-ass bitch is back! But for now, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

Walking (and Driving) on Water: Winter on Madeline Island

jonis beach madeline island

Madeline Island in the winter is a completely different experience than it is in the summer. Tourism doesn’t just slow down in the off season, it damn near stops entirely. Save for a handful of winter adventurers and an even smaller handful of badass, die hard locals, the island feels all but deserted from October to April. The stores and restaurants close for the season; Tom’s Burned Down Cafe boarded up, waiting for the warm breezes of summer; and you’re just as likely to see a snowmobile cruising down Main Street as you are an actual car. But the beauty of winter on Madeline Island cannot be denied.

You might be wondering how one gets to an island in Lake Superior in the dead of winter. Depending on the day and how cold it’s been, you could get one of three answers:

  1. Ferry. Happening with increasing frequency thanks to climate change, milder winters have meant a year round ferry season when the lake never fully freezes.
  2. Wind Sled. The least appealing and sustainable option, before the lake is thick enough to drive on, but after it’s too thick for the ferry, islanders travel back and forth to the mainland, skidding across the thin ice on what’s essentially an everglades boat with an airplane propeller on the back. Bring earplugs.
  3. Ice Road. The lake between the mainland and the island, once frozen, is actually considered a part of State Highway 13. img_1500

The Ice Road begins in Bayfield next to the ferry docks. With a speed limit of 15 miles per hour (to prevent creating wake in the waters beneath the thick, frozen layer of lake), and Islanders’ discarded Christmas trees marking the route, the Madeline Island Ice Road is, like all things on Madeline, something you just have to experience to fully appreciate.

The day I arrived was bitterly cold. So cold, in fact, that Duluth set a record for the coldest March day ever (a fact I was thrilled to have been present for). The entrance to the Ice Road was frozen solid as I slowly inched my rental car from land to the frozen expanse of lake before me, with sparkling snowflakes blowing across the well-worn path.

When I reached the middle of the “road” I stopped the car and got out, feeling like a kid again when my dad would stop and let us run around on the ice before continuing on our way. I realized very quickly that I hadn’t dressed appropriately for this adventure. Since I don’t own a winter coat, I was sporting two long sleeve tee shirts and two hoodies, jeans that had holes in them, and my cute, but not functional boots. I had a scarf, but no hat or mittens, and definitely no snow pants. My nose hairs were frozen within seconds. jonis beach madeline islandAfter taking a moment to appreciate the experience and revel in happy childhood memories I got back in the warm car and continued on, passing some ice fisherman, one other traveler, and the wind sleds parked at the island’s shore, before I felt my tires grip the solid ground of Madeline Island. I was home.

I drove down Main Street, past the closed up storefronts and eateries, the summer homes that had been winterized for the season; abandoned to the snow drifts until the spring melt. I passed my old house and church, Joni’s Beach, with the dock where I used to spend hours with my girlfriends, our feet dangling into the water. I drove around the empty marina with its lonely, snow-covered docks, and then headed out to my favorite place on The Island: Big Bay Town Park.

As I drove it occurred to me that unless the town was maintaining it during the winter months, the park may not be accessible. I was grateful to find the entrance plowed, but as I parked the car I realized I still wasn’t in the clear. Though the driveway was plowed, the trail to the beach most definitely was not. My jeans and fashionable boots suddenly seemed alarmingly ineffective. I hesitated for a few moments as the wind whistled through the air, wondering if hiking through snow up to mid-thigh was wise, but ultimately decided: to hell with wisdom, I wanna be on that beach, and frostbite is treatable.

It took considerably longer than usual to reach the staircase that leads down to the beach. Trudging through snow that deep is no joke. I was winded and sweaty despite being freezing by the time I reached the end of the trail and was gazing out across the lagoon. Even in the winter, under a blanket of snow instead of a blanket of summer stars, the view took my breath away. Though, to be fair, that may have partially been the wind whipping in my face. So cold was the wind that my revelry ended significantly earlier than it does in the summer months.

The next challenge to getting to the beach was the stairs. Previous visitors had packed the snow down so tight that each step was now coated with a thick mound of ice. I once again questioned the wisdom in continuing, and once again was too determined to reach that beach to be wise. I slowly sidestepped my way down the stairs, across the bridge, and finally found myself standing safely on a deserted Big Bay Beach.

I thought Big Bay was peaceful at night, but I’d forgotten the peace of Big Bay in winter. Instead of the sound of the waves kissing the shore, the frogs croaking, and the loons calling, all you can hear at Big Bay in the winter is the wind as it blows the dusty top layer of crystallized snowflakes gently across the frozen expanse of the bay. The flat, snow-covered lake against an overcast sky made it impossible to see the horizon. Everything had been whitewashed. The glare was so bright it made me remember that snow-blindness is a thing, and I was grateful that I had at least one piece of proper gear: sunglasses.

I walked out on the lake that I’d been skinny dipping in just a few months before, my feet crunching on the snow with each step instead of my toes sinking into the sand, and stared into the white void ahead, engulfed by the same sense of peace in my many layers of hoodies as I had been when I’d slipped naked beneath the surface of the water I was now standing on. Despite the cold I could’ve spent a lot more time enjoying the solitude of Big Bay. The feeling of absolute isolation was intoxicating. I was only on Madeline Island for about an hour. I could’ve spent days cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, sitting by a fire and staring at the stars, but I had a plane to catch, so I set off back towards the car. Miraculously, I made it back in one piece, without injury, and only a couple spots of frostbite (in the spots where my jeans had holes). As is always the case, even in winter, my visit home to Madeline Island was enchanting.