Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Paris: Breathtaking

I spent a lot of time in Paris walking, walking to the Eiffel Tower, walking to the Louvre, walking to the Palais Garnier (the Paris Opera House), walking EVERYWHERE! It was awesome and Paris is a very comprehensive city, so navigating it was easy. I always kept a city map handy and was never afraid to ask where something was, "Excusez-moi, où est le....." or "Excusez-moi, où est la...", yeah, I told you my French is terrible. That's probably one of the only phrases I knew without even thinking about it. Merci, Canada, for making me take French up until grade 9!!! I dropped French to study Japanese, but looking back, I wish I'd kept the French and studied Japanese AND French. It would've helped me find an nice, cozy, high-paying government job.

Anyhooo, back to the city of wonders. As I wandered day in and day out around Paris, I found myself at all of the prime tourist spots. However, I knew I had to see the Palais Garnier, not because it was merely another "must-see" attraction, but because it held a special place in my heart: I was very sick as a child. I was so sick that the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted me a wish. I asked if I could go to Toronto, stay at the Fairmount Royal York Hotel, see the Phantom of the Opera at the Pantages Theatre (now named the Ed Mirvish Theatre) and do some other things (we went to the Science Centre, ate at delicious restaurants, etc...). My wish was granted and after watching the play, which is amazing, I was fortunate enough to meet some cast members, go on a tour of the theatre and also get a program signed by all of the cast members. The songs from the musical are still on my iPod and a giant wooden poster with all of the cast members' signatures hangs above my bed. 

Why did a simple musical show leave such an impression on me? Other than it being the very first musical I'd ever seen, the story line felt like one I could relate to (I've been left with multiple scars and the man I  was in love with always loved someone/something else more than me, and I loved him and more importantly myself enough to let him go). Even more than that though was that by the time I finally was able to use my wish, I was finally healthy and my life had, pretty much, returned to normal. So it all felt a bit surreal and I think we all felt relief. My immediate family was there, as were my childhood friend and my aunt and uncle. We had a blast and I don't think the Phantom of the Opera was simply a play for any of us. It was...Magical. Therefore, it was only fitting that I see the place that inspired the Gothic novel The Phantom of the Opera, which was, of course, the inspiration for Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical of the same name. Sadly, I have not yet read the novel. However, I DID buy it at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris ;)  

I wish I'd booked tickets to see, well, anything at the opera house. Alas, I didn't and only took pictures. Enjoying an opera at the Palais Garnier is reason enough to return to France! Alright, enough of the back story. Here are some photos!

 The first view I got of the ENORMOUS structure.
 The other side: A close-up of the plaque with Charles Garnier's name. Garnier was the architect of the neo-Baroque building, completed in 1874.
 Ahhh, look at the spikes jutting out on the lanterns and the golden statues on the rooftop...Beautiful!
 I was enamored with the metal work!
 This is the view from across the street. It was HUGE!
Yet another side: Breathtaking statues that gleamed in the sunlight! I could get used to living in a place I'd see this on a daily basis!

Another place I couldn't pass-up seeing was the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. It was just as breathtaking and I heard the chimes ringing. It was packed around the entrance, but I managed to get in a few good shots.

This shot doesn't do the magnificence of this place justice.
 For some reason, people were clearing out from around this place, but you can see from all of the heads that there were A LOT of people there!
 I love the rays of sun shining down on this place. Gorgeous weather and a gorgeous cathedral!
Can you see the flying buttresses? I realize I didn't get a good side view of them here :(
This is the back end and it's just as spectacular! LOVE the architecture!!! 
 The grounds around the cathedral were stunning and I took a lot of pictures of the surrounding area!
 I don't know the name of this tree, but it's leaves are a vibrant green on top and then uber white underneath. It was so pretty!!!

Being that the bookstore Shakespeare & Co. was sooo close, I couldn't NOT go there. Obviously, I bought books. I thought it only fitting to buy and English translation of The Little Prince (1943), written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and, as I previously mentioned, an English translation of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera (1910). I would have purchased more had my suitcases allowed, hehehe!

 I LOVE books. Hello, my name is Miki and I'm a bibliophile.
Another type of heaven on Earth :)

Of course I eventually made it to the Eiffel Tower and, shock, it was yet another warm, sunny day outside! I walked, of course, and it was totally worth it. You can eventually see it as you approach. I mean how could you miss the thing??? It was a moment when I just had to stop and pinch myself as a reminder that it was all real...To be steeped in so much culture, history in a country that is on the receiving end of...Well, madness. France apparently is the most visited country in the world, and I can now understand why. I want to go back! I want to move there! It's stunning. The things that left me speechless...Well, you know me well enough to know that when I can't speak it's astonishing, lol!

 I can see you, Eiffel Tower! You can't hide from me!
 Getting closer!
 Sooo close! Move outta my way, people...Please! I gotta see this thing!
 Finally got there! Standing right under it and looking up. 

Alright, I've hit some highlights and completely ignored the food situation, but I think France is going to be a four-post situation since I still have SOOO MUCH MORE to post about, not to mention photos to share! Until then, stay cool, especially if you're in southwestern Ontario where the humidity is brutal, or the gulf, where my former student just texted that it's 52˚C!!!

Friday, 6 June 2014

Paris: Enchanted

I am in love.

Flying into Charles de Gaulle airport was a traveller's dream! The suitcases came out onto the luggage belt quickly and there was NO cue at the passport control counter; I mean the officer barely glanced at my passport before waving me through, and although there was a wait for a taxi, it was a short one.

From the airport experience alone, I gauged that this trip would be excellent, but as I approached the flat I'd rented in Paris (near Montmartre), I began to feel dread growing in my stomach. The area was extremely dirty, police officers were patrolling the streets and talking with people, and somewhere among the storefronts was a hammam which was camouflaging the  actual flat. As I made my way up to the flat, I smelled urine and stale cigarettes in the hallway. My renter was awesome about helping me with my luggage, but I couldn't tell if she was assisting to be helpful or to speed up the check-in process. I finally caught my breath as she complained that I was late. As I tried to get details about the internet, garbage disposal, etc...I was becoming annoyed that the renter was upset over me being late-I had made her miss her train to her home over 200km away. I had told her my arrival time and asked her how long it would take me to get through security, collect my bags and the length of the drive to her flat. She had no idea how long the drive would take, so how was I to give her my EXACT arrival time??? My welcome to France was beginning to feel lukewarm.

The renter had barely briefed me before leaving-great. Additional light fixtures weren't working, no extra pillows were left out (as I'd requested because I need to sleep sitting up-a medical issue), the bed linens were old and smelly and to make it all so much worse there were...Cockroaches. Oddly-or not-my renter was unavailable the entire evening and only returned my phone messages AFTER the payment for the flat had been processed the next day. I managed to sleep that first night somehow, but before 8am the next morning I went out and scouted the area and found a gorgeous hotel in Montmartre only two blocks from the Moulin Rouge and five minutes from Sacre Couer! 

After our rocky start, Paris and I were finally on the same page and I easily fell in love with France. It didn't have to do with Paris' reputation for being a romantic city. It was that, if it's possible, part of me felt at home. I feel that way in Japan because I can understand the idiosyncrasies that I've inherited from my father that I just thought were his own quirks, but actually made sense IN Japan. In France, however, I just felt like even though my French heritage is part of a distant past (my great-great grandmother was Métis, French-Indigenous Canadian), it was alive in me. Maybe part of it was the hospitality that I experienced. I was worried that the French people I encountered wouldn't like me. In life, I rarely care what others think of me, but something was different in France. You always hear Canadians say that French people won't even acknowledge Canadians speaking Canadian French. Not true in my case. Even my broken Québecois French wasn't horrible enough to offend them or put them off. Their smiles, politeness and genuine curiosity about where I'm from were their only reactions. Amazing! I thought that all of the French writing would be overwhelming, but it was great because I could actually understand some of it! The city was so dynamic, animated, vibrant and gorgeously rich. The history, culture, food, wine, people, sights, architecture, environment and public transit were...Heavenly. Maybe I've lived in Kuwait too long. Maybe France was just a one-time deal, but I don't think so. France was the first country I've visited in Europe and it was completely unforgettable.


I ended up checking-in to the Hotel des Arts on 5 Rue Tholozé. It was awesome! They were so accommodating and helpful! Once I'd settled in I was able to de-stress and ENJOY Paris! Below are some of the sights I saw in the first, I mean second, day of my travels :P

A Room With a View: what I saw when I looked out my window at sundown. Look at colours in the sky! P.S. it wouldn't get dark there until 10pm! WOWZA! LOVED that!!!
 The Moulin Rouge! 
The line to see performances formed early!
 Beautiful flats! I know that I have a romanticized view of living in the flats in France, but they are gorgeous! I just read this article. Check it out:
 I don't know if I did the lamp posts justice. Can you see the gargoyles (??) almost swallowing (embracing??) the lights?
 Breakfast of champions at the hotel: croissant, butter (of course!) and LOTS of cheese!!!
 The view when I would turn right out of the hotel :)
A rare occasion: NO ONE on the street. This street was usually packed full of people! The hotel is about halfway down the street
Enjoying a specialty coffee at the Irish pub at the top of the street. LOVE all that whipped cream!

It wasn't long before my (former) Polish flatmate from Kuwait visited me!!! She travelled from Switzerland (YES, that's where she's living now!). Seeing her outside of Kuwait was incredible. She was radiant, and full of life! The Irish chef and I used to converse about our sentiment that Kuwait never really brought out the best in us (expats), and that we'd be interested to see our friends and colleagues outside of Kuwait so that we could know what people were really like. I saw a lot of exhaustion, weathered faces, defeat, depression and frustration in people in Kuwait. I think the best people I knew were affected negatively while they were living in that environment, unfortunately. Seeing my flatmate in a country sooo different than the one we'd met in was like the icing on the cake! There were really only three women at the university who I thought were true friends: My Lebanese roomie (who is living it up back in Lebanon!), the Georgian lady (who will be moving back to Georgia this summer!) and my Polish flatmate (who is now living and working in Switzerland and learning German!). These women were my lifelines while we were there. When I saw my Polish flatmate, I don't think we stopped talking (or walking for that matter, except when we attempted to use the metro-which we somehow did successfully!). She spoke about life as an expat in Switzerland and the ups and downs. She told me all about Switzerland and now I want to go there sooo badly!!! She spoke about travelling and we reminisced about old times in Kuwait. We laughed and may have even laughed at the horrible times, too (hindsight IS 20/20). It was so nice catching-up with her. Now I wonder where we'll meet next: Canada, Switzerland or somewhere in the middle? ;)

 The rain didn't stop us! We walked about 4 kilometres to the Arc de Triomphe
 It was under construction...It looks like it has a Band Aid on it, hehehe.
 Seafood and noodle soup at a Chinese restaurant near the hotel.
Welcome to Berko in Montmartre: 
Okay, so we had to sample some sweets! Look, we needed dessert after that long walk! Cheesecake and cupcakes were on the menu!
 Yes, that blue one is a SMURF cupcake!
 Oh, hello! What? You want to go in my belly?!? Well, I can help you with that! A sampling box of three later, I was honestly feeling bloated, but whatever! They were sooo delicious!

Yes, there's still MORE to post about Paris. Apologies for not writing in ages (actually it's been a few weeks), but readjusting to life in Canada has been hectic and blogging has been at the bottom of a never-ending "To Do" list. I will try to add more about Paris VERY soon!!!

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Istanbul: The End of a Transcontinental, Sentimental Journey

As I waited in Taksim Square for A, my friend's friend, I was unaware of why exactly Taksim Square was famous (it's a monument on the European side of Turkey which commemorates Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish Republic's founder). Once A arrived, we all headed to Udonya for a Japanese lunch. Although Udonya served up pretty tasty food, for me, it was overpriced considering what I would pay in Canada and/or Japan and considering what I ordered is a budget-friendly, basic essential dish. 

 Taksim Square monument.
 The view looking down the street.
Although tourists have been discouraged from visiting this area because of the violence recently, I went anyway.
 Ohhh, yeah! Delicious, steamy curry udon for lunch!
Tempura udon, fried fish, salad and rice. A typical Japanese meal!

After lunch we headed out for a drink. We walked down the famous shopping street, Istiklal Caddesi. Although we didn't shop, we stopped for traditional Turkish ice cream...We all know that really means I alone stopped for Turkish ice cream. I opted for strawberry and lemon-yeah, I know the flavours don't really match, but I wanted something tart and something sweet. I was clearly not able to make a clear decision.

 Are those gigantic muscles a result of ice-cream making?!? 
 Traditional Turkish ice cream: strawberry and lemon :)
Oooooey, goooooey and oh, so yummy!

After ice cream, we stopped off at a pub-no, not one of my ideal hangouts, but I was in the minority, lol! So by 1pm we were drinking Turkey's famous alcoholic beverage: (Yeni) Raki. The country's unofficial national drink, fondly called Lion's milk, turns a milky white colour when ice, water or tonic water are added to it. Since it's cheap, we drank a bit of it. Instead of calling it quits early, we continued to drink. I chose piña coladas, but somewhere between San Juan/Puerto Rico (where piña coladas originated is still contested) and Istanbul, someone forgot to tell our bartender that the drink should be blended (I know it's made different ways, but I prefer it blended). Mine was a tad, or A LOT, rum heavy and I was pretty happy/tipsy-ish on the borderline of being drunk. I knew I needed to walk the alcohol off in the cold Istanbul evening air, but once I was back on the warm ferry, my cheeks heated back up, nice and red, like the tomasian I am, and I was ready to take, what I thought were, fun photos...I look insanely ridiculous as I was wearing my sunglasses at almost 11pm...I hope you're all singing Corey Heart's 1980s hit, I Wear my Sunglasses at Night. I may have started singing that (not too loudly though) on the ferry for everyone to hear. 

BEFORE drinking: Looking like I've been walking, but not disheveled...Yet.
 What happens to Yeni Raki when an ice cube is put into it.
 Mmmmm, Raki!
An non-blended (and VERY strong), piña colada with a sparkler!
And...Uh...After drinking...Lol! Where's the other dude???

The next day I needed to recover. Thank goodness, I didn't have a hangover. I was exhausted from all the fresh air I got the day before. However, I ended up going for a walk to see Topkapi Palace on the European side, and although I didn't actually go into the palace (let's face it, I absolutely LOATHE waiting in lines and paying ridiculously overpriced entrance fees), I did really enjoy walking around the beautiful grounds. 

 LOVE the mosaic of tiles!

 Ohhh, sooo colourful!
 I walked up a steep hill to see the view.

 The view of the Eastern side

Meeting an old acquaintance the next day was one of the highlights of my trip. J is an American dancer who I met in Seattle, although neither of us are Seattlites. She's from Ohio (a state quite close to the Windsor-Detroit [Canadian-American] border). She and I hadn't ever really had any talks on our own (our partners at the time were good friends), so in my mind I was thinking that she may not enjoy hanging out with me. However, after sitting down to a plate consumed by a waffle decorated with various toppings, our conversation was fantastic. We caught up on what we'd been doing since we last met and where we wanted to head in the future. After waffles we had tea and coffee and walked leisurely outside for almost the whole day. Time flies when you're having fun, but we eventually parted ways and vowed to meet again once she's back in New York...Just a bit closer to (my) home, hehehe!

 Waffle extreme!
 The beach in Kadɪköy
Having çay (tea) overlooking the water at Topkapi Palace

Not one to stop socializing, the next day I met up with my old colleague from the University of Victoria (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada). I hadn't seen her since just before my mother passed away in 2011, so I was really excited! We met near the Sura Hotel on the European side and ate at a wonderful Turkish restaurant for dinner. Catching up was clearly important, but so was the dialogue we had with our waiter. L, my old colleague, and her husband, G, have been role models for me. I love their energy, brilliance and their approach to a variety of issues. They've always supported and guided me, and if I've ever needed a place to stay while I'm in Victoria, they've always offered their home. I had really missed them terribly. Their two sons, now in their 20s, are amazing. I've always admired the way that L&G raised their sons, and knowing that those once-boys are becoming fine and wonderful young men makes me feel very happy and thankful for some reason.

At dinner I ate pide for dinner (Turkey's version of pizza-DELICIOUS!) and had (yet again), a bit too much to drink. So we may have ordered a big bottle of red wine, don't judge! ;)  I sat there drinking and wondering how the heck I had drank so much while I was a grad student. I'm not a big drinker, but I've definitely gone through stages in my life where I drank quite a bit: 1.) high school (YIKES! Kids, don't follow my terrible example); 2.) Japan the second time I lived there  (I was in my mid 20s); 3.) grad school in Victoria where I met L&G. L&G may have been shocked when after barely half a glass of wine I was red. Well, living in Kuwait where alcohol is illegal (but where everyone still drinks it all the time), I actually didn't drink a lot. Yes, it's widely and easily available (I can say that openly now that I'm not living there). Many embassies there have some function where they serve it, many westerners make homemade stuff (what I fondly call modern moonshine and stuff that could kill you, so I never drink it) and a lot of nationals/locals illegally smuggle it into the country.

 Our waiter setting fire to clay pot that encased delicious food!
 Our waiter said he could do magic, but I think he's just got some good precision, lol.

The conversation over dinner was lively and, as always, interesting. Dessert saw a clear divide between baklava and traditional Turkish ice cream: vanilla, chocolate and salted caramel. The salted caramel ice cream was to die for! It was the first time I tried baklava in Turkey and I found it to be more similar to the Greek version than the Middle Eastern one/s. To someone who LOVES baklava (yep, no surprise to anyone out there, no doubt), I was really interested to see how baklava had been modified (or not), when both my Arab and Greek friends have admitted that they believe that baklava originated in Turkey.

I ended up meeting L&G again the next day for coffee and we chatted, walked around and drank some more wine. I had so much fun catching up with them! They had arrived in Istanbul after travelling around Israel for a few days and so I got to hear about their trip there. I was really curious to hear about what they saw and felt during the travels there. After a great afternoon together, we parted ways as they had booked tickets to see the whirling dervishes. I, on the other hand, went back to the Asian side and started packing my bags because the next day I was travelling to France!!!

Drawing hearts in the foam for all the girls, or just for me? Hahaha!