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Why you should be watching Orphan Black

One of my program items at the Worldcon was “Why Aren’t You Watching…”, a series of panels in which fans of various current TV series were invited to advocate for 15 minutes each about why you should be watching their favorite shows. I did the session on Orphan Black. Here’s what I said.

Orphan Black is the story of con artist Sarah Manning, played by Tatiana Maslany. A young woman with a troubled past, a pretty messed-up present, and not much hope for the future, she is an orphan and a single mother whose seven-year-old daughter Kira is currently being raised by her foster mother. She also has a FABulous foster brother, Felix, an artist and rent-boy who is a hoot and a half. One terrible day, when everything in Sarah’s life is going wrong, she sees something unbelievable: a woman on a railway platform who looks exactly like her. Before Sarah can approach her, the woman slips off her jacket and shoes, sets down her purse, and steps in front of an oncoming train. Stunned by this inexplicable occurrence, she picks up the dead woman’s purse and finds inside a ready-made escape route from her miserable life: she will adopt the dead woman’s identity and claim that the corpse on the tracks is her.

Sarah intends to clear out Beth’s bank account and hit the road with Kira and Felix, but it’ll take time to get that much money in cash, so she finds herself having to occupy the dead woman’s shoes, job, and life for longer than she’d planned. But playing someone else isn’t easy, especially when the dead woman, Beth Childs, is a police detective. Working with limited information, Sarah finds herself trapped in a web of lies to Beth’s partner Art Bell and boyfriend Paul, while Sarah’s abusive, drug-dealing ex-boyfriend “Vic the Dick” becomes unexpectedly morose over Sarah’s death and insists that Felix, who is in on the scam, help with a big public memorial service.

Sarah finds herself rapidly switching identities and accents (Sarah is English, Beth Canadian) as she tries to manage her relationships with Art, Paul, Felix, Vic, Kira, and her foster mother Mrs. S without anyone but Felix finding out about the scam. She particularly doesn’t want Kira to learn that her mother is supposedly dead. But the late Beth had two mobile phones: one is connected to her public life as a cop, and the other keeps buzzing with cryptic messages from some stranger who insists on meeting her. Beth also has a safe deposit box with information on several apparently unconnected women. And Beth is under investigation for having shot a civilian, in a situation that reeks of conspiracy.

Then things get really complicated, as the mysterious message-leaver slips into Beth’s car. Her name is Katja, she’s German… and she too looks exactly like Sarah. WTF?

Before long Sarah finds herself investigating — and possibly embroiled in — a conspiracy involving a biotech corporation, a scientific-slash-social movement called Neolution (led by Dr. Aldous Leekie, played by Max Headroom star Matt Frewer), a scary religious cult, and a secret military project. She meets several more young women who look like her: dreadlocked bisexual grad student Cosima, uptight soccer mom Alison, unstable Ukranian assassin Helena, corporate shark Rachel, and who knows how many more might be lurking out there.

And it’s those clones, all played by Tatiana Maslany, that really make Orphan Black worth watching. Genetically identical, all the same age, but raised in different countries under different circumstances, each of them is a distinct individual with unique speech patterns, mannerisms, and reactions. Maslany, with the help of brilliant but unobtrusive special effects, makes you completely believe in these different human beings, and the many scenes in which she portrays one clone pretending to be another are some of the finest acting I’ve ever seen on television. A scene near the end of season 2 in which most of the clones participate in a dance party is a fabulous, wordless paragon of acting and filmmaking genius. Sarah’s joyous hip-hop, Cosima’s dreamy glide, Alison’s contained shuffle, and Helena’s frenetic thrash are perfect demonstrations of the characters and the actress’s complete understanding of them from the cellular level on up. The fact that Tatiana Maslany has never even been nominated for an Emmy should be a felony.

Many of the other characters, including Leekie, Mrs. S, the fabulous Felix, and even Vic the Dick — who manages to be sympathetic and completely despicable at the same time — are also excellent, and they inhabit a variety of worlds: seedy dance clubs, frightening religious cults, university biotech laboratories, corporate office suites, and, most frightening of all, the suburbs of Toronto. The creators keep the extremely complex plot spinning along at high speed, and you have to pay close attention to keep the players straight, but they play fair with the viewer — though there are plenty of surprises, all the pieces are right there in plain sight. The music, too, is excellent — atmospheric, modern, and kicky. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent show, carefully crafted and brilliantly executed.

It’s also real science fiction, of a type rarely seen on television — one in which the science and the fiction are inseparable and both are important. This is the story of a bunch of believable human beings whose lives are deeply affected by a fictional but highly plausible technology. The science is sometimes a bit hand-wavy, but it’s good enough for this non-biologist, and the varied reactions of the characters, their organizations, and the larger society to this technological change are well-thought-out and seem realistic, though sometimes extreme.

Orphan Black is a hell of a ride. There are two seasons so far, each with a satisfying arc, and you really have to watch the episodes in order. My suggestion is to space them out, giving yourself a chance to consider the implications of each episode and anticipate future developments before watching the next, but I suspect that once you start you’ll binge until they’re all gone and you’ll be left anxiously anticipating season 3 with the rest of us.

I’ll leave you with one caveat: there were some developments at the end of season 2 that make me question whether the show can keep this performance up for another season. But the creators have done such a good job so far that I have hope that they’ll be able to continue the streak. We’ll have to see. In the world of Orphan Black, the only constant is change.

My LonCon3 Schedule

  • Thursday, 14 August, 11am-12pm: Reimagining Families in Capital Suite 2 (Level 3) with Jed Hartman, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Laura Lam, and Cherry Potts

    In a 2013 column for Tor.com, Alex Dally MacFarlane called for a greater diversity in the way SF and fantasy represent families, pointing out that in the real world, “People of all sexualities and genders join together in twos, threes, or more. Family-strong friendships, auntie networks, global families… The ways we live together are endless.” Which stories centre non-normative family structures? What are the challenges of doing this in an SF context, and what are the advantages? How does representing a wider range of family types change the stories that are told?

  • Friday, 15 August, 12-1pm: What Do You Mean You Don’t Watch … Orphan Black, Grimm or The Returned in Capital Suite 17 (Level 3) with Mark Slater, Jeanne Beckwith, and Maura McHugh

    Once upon a time, a fan of genre television could watch everything. Back in the 20th century, the number of SF or fantasy shows running at any given time were in the low single figures. But here in 2014 we’re now drowning in content – and much as it is impossible to read every SF book published, it is becoming increasingly difficult to watch every genre TV series (even with the ability to stream seasons or binge on boxsets) – so we have to decide, and often gamble, on which shows we will give our precious time to. In the first of our ‘What Do You Mean You Don’t Watch’ sessions, advocates for ‘Orphan Black’, ‘Grimm’ and ‘The Returned’, will each have 15 minutes to convince an audience that these are the shows you should be choosing.

  • Saturday, 16 August, 1:30-3pm: “The Province of All Mankind” in Capital Suite 7+12 (Level 3) with cosmonaut Anatolii Artsebarskii, Karen Furlong, Emma J. King, and Mary Turzillo

    This program item is a late addition and does not appear in the printed program. Come see me moderate a panel with an actual Russian cosmonaut!

    For many of us, space holds an endless fascination: we strive to explore the cosmos through scientific research, through our dreams and imaginations in fiction, and by travelling into space itself. Our panel of scientists, writers, and space travellers discuss the ways they were driven to explore our “childhood dream of the sky”, and what might be next for human spaceflight in literature, in science, and in our future.

  • Saturday, 16 August, 3-4pm: Kaffeeklatsch

    Come have coffee and ask me anything!

  • Sunday, 17 August, 12-1:30pm: Should We Trash the Planet on the Way to the Stars? in Capital Suite 5 (Level 3) with Hayden Trenholm, Gregory Benford, Mark Charan Newton, and Paul Abell

    The development and deployment of technologies that would allow mass migration to other planets and stars can pose major threats to the ecology of the Earth – launching nuclear pulse rockets from the ground for example. If this is the only way to expand into space, should we do it? And to what extent do these arguments apply to other technological developments?

Belgium days 3-5

Sat 8/9 – Mechelen

Step count: 12,749

Awake 9ish, I think; breakfast of Greek yogurt with fresh local blueberries and muesli. Today was our day to explore Mechelen. Started with the Saturday morning market in Grote Markt: the whole town square and several subsidiary squares all filled with stands selling vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, bread, pastries, clothing, and cheap consumer goods of all types. Roelof said it was a little underpopulated because of the summer holidays, but it seemed to be hopping to me. Picked up some herring and a few other things, hit the post office, then we went off in separate directions. I went back to the house, where I saw one of the cats (Skip, I think; she hissed at me) and I picked up a Mechelen walking tour booklet Roelof had offered. Followed the booklet (Streetwise Mechelen, very well written and full of interesting tidbits) from the Grote Markt to picturesque streets, several churches, and palatial buildings. Took plenty of pictures. Passed at least one and possibly two wedding parties, including the celebrants coming up the aisle at St Rumbold’s Cathedral as I was heading down (I beat a hasty retreat as soon as I realized what was happening). Managed to buy a hartenwafel (little heart-shaped waffle) for a snack and some chocolates for a gift, using a horrific mishmosh of German, English, and a little mangled Dutch.

Back to house for lunch: herring for everyone else, ham sandwich for me. After lunch Roelof, Kate, and I went back to a couple of churches I’d spotted in the morning that weren’t open to visitors yet, including the interesting informative sign that replaces the taken-away-for-renovations statue of “Jesus at the Mount of Olives” at Klapgat (“here, let me show you something that isn’t there”), then walked along the boardwalk by the river. We spotted an exhibit about the Cavalcade procession held here once every 25 years (the last one was in 2013). The Cavalcade costumes were hung up on racks in such a way that it looked more like a shop as an exhibit — kind of strange.

Back home for dinner with Lynne Ann and Roelof and their friends Freddy and Mies. Full spread of language skills: me with almost no Dutch, Kate with some Dutch, American-born Lynne Ann with very strong Dutch, Netherlands-born Roelof with very strong English, Flemish Mies with good English, Flemish Freddy with very little English (and a nearly impenetrable Flemish accent). Nonetheless, we managed to have good conversation over a tasty dinner, prepared by Lynne Ann and Roelof, of teriyaki chicken skewers, chirashi sushi, and a seaweed salad. After dinner we all went across the street for ice cream and more conversation. To bed around 11:00, I think.

Sun 8/10 – Mechelen

Step count: 10,473

Awake around 8:00. With Kate still asleep, read Facebook on my phone for a bit until Lynne Ann posted a comment: “Hey, Mister Awake-Enough-to-Like-This-Post! Loving spouse has just gone to the bakery for breakfast”. I took the hint and got up.

Yogurt and blueberries for breakfast, plus fresh pastries from the bakery. Today we decided to go to Brussels and meet up with Lynne Ann there after her aikido. Roelof walked with us to the station and made sure we got on the right train.

Took the tram to Atomium from the Brussels train station (wanting to hit it in the morning, as rain was forecast for the afternoon). Extremely cool! I’ve wanted to see it since I don’t know when. Found a huge line for tickets, but decided to stand in it anyway, even though the rain started while we were waiting. The first thing we encountered after the turnstile was a photographer and some poor sap dressed as Spirou. Unlike the usual “stand in front of this green screen so we can photoshop you into a picture of the thing you just visited in real life” that’s so common these days, this photographer was active and engaged as he snapped us with Spirou and separately.

The first part of the Atomium visit (first two spheres) is an exhibit about the Atomium itself and the 1958 World’s Fair, pretty intriguing. Next (three spheres) was an art installation of sound and light, also cool. The final sphere is where the Amazing Racers slept, usually only open to children. The remaining spheres are not open to the public, except for the panoramic view and schmantzy restaurant in the top sphere. On the way back down to ground level the escalator suddenly stopped and we had to hoof it the rest of the way. Once back down to ground level we found an hour-long line for the elevator to the top, so decided not to bother, especially as it was raining. But the photo of me and Kate turned out great so we bought a print and a keychain (sadly, the two shots with Spirou didn’t turn out as well). Bought a few postcards and other souvenirs.

Lynne Ann texted from the central station and we decided to rendezvous with her there for lunch. She took us to her favorite coffee shop near the station, called Arcadi. My tart of soybeans, leeks, and chicken was absolutely delish, Kate’s sandwich less so. Most everyone we encountered in Brussels speaks French, I’m able to communicate again!

Not enough spoons or time for a museum, and it was raining hard, so we decided to walk to Galerie St. Hubert right next door. This was a long, bright, glass-enclosed shopping street (one of several connected galleries) full of high-end chocolatiers, bookstores, art galleries, knickknack shops, etc. We ended up at Brussels’s Grote Markt (like Mechelen’s on gold-plated steroids) and had a drink at Lynne Ann’s favorite brasserie on the market square, Le Roy d’Espagne (The King of Spain). Interior somewhat reminiscent of The Leaky Cauldron at Universal Studios, amusingly cheeky waiter. Back to Mechelen by train, picked up Roelof at home, went to Turkish restaurant De Hete Patat (The Hot Potato) for dinner. Back home by 8, sync’d photos, sat and wrote up my notes. Had hoped to do more in Brussels today, maybe we will go back there another day rather than Ghent or Antwerp as planned. Or maybe not; life’s full of choices. To bed about 11.

Mon 8/11 – Mechelen

Step count: 11,323

Awake 7:30. Breakfast of yogurt and pain au chocolat; out the door by 9, determined to get an earlier start on the day than yesterday. Train to Antwerp. Antwerp Central station pretty amazing, though we learned later it had been built with the proceeds from slave labor. The zoo next door had some great mosaics at the entrance.

Went back into station for transit tickets, caught tram to St. Carolus church, then got off that tram and back on the one in the right direction. Church very very Baroque, with intriguing open confessionals with life-sized carved angels. Also a saint holding his own de-headed head in his hands (the actual saint’s skull, I think — definitely a sacred relic of some sort). He was St. Justus, patron saint of headaches, I shit you not. Outside the church, enjoyed the peace and quiet of Conscienceplein (named for author Hendrik Conscience, whose statue overlooks the square from the old main library which is also named after him).

Walked to cathedral, but decided not to stand in line and pay admission to see the paintings within, as it was nearly lunch time. Admired buildings in Grote Markt and several other squares. Every town we’ve visited in Belgium seems to be trying to out-Grote the others’ Grote Markts. Rejected several lunch options before settling on bar 7 Schraken. Touristy, spendy, multilingual menu, but plenty of locals as well, and the food looked good and was. I had stoemp, a traditional Flemish dish of mashed potatoes, sausage, bacon, and gravy. Not healthy and I shouldn’t have eaten it all, but I was sorry to see the end of it. Kate had moules frites, also very good.

Visited Het Steen (“dinky but photogenic castle” near the river). Popped into several book shops and other such. Then I noted cafe “De Kleine Tunnel” and wondered… what tunnel? Google Maps showed a tunnel under the river nearby, but only visible at high magnification. Pedestrian tunnel? I walked to a nearby building that looked a bit like the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel building seen in Men in Black. It was indeed the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel, with interesting tile work and neat old wooden escalators inside. Score!

Did a bit more shopping, and was amenable for more, but we both realized we were running low on spoons and decided to head home before hitting the wall for a change. Tram to train to bus to home. (De Lign (tram) and SNCB (train) iPhone apps extremely helpful in getting around.) Got home, fell over. Woke to a delicious dinner of rabbit simmered in cherry beer, mashed potatoes, and green beans, again prepared by Roelof. After dinner and conversation (largely about the history of Japan), wrote postcards and blogged.

And now… more photos!

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Saturday morning market in Mechelen’s Grote Markt square

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These guys are on a house in Mechelen called, for some strange reason, the House of the Three Devils

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Cavalcade costume exhibit (or possibly sale)

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Kate and Roelof on the Dijle River boardwalk

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My first view of the Atomium!

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And then I got to see it for real!

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Dramatic close-up

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Inside the atom!

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Galerie St. Hubert (Kate in red hat)

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Charming French bookstore inside Galerie St. Hubert

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These guys were on a building in the Grote Markt in Brussels

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Inside Le Roy d’Espagne

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Antwerp train station

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Mosaic at the entrance of the Antwerp zoo

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Equestrian statues are usually more, um, equestrian, and not so much camel (also: note the faces on the base)

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The Antwerp train station also houses the post/telephone office

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This is one of the little side chapels of St. Carolus; the main church is even more baroque

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Conscienceplein, right outside St. Carolus

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The peak of Antwerp city hall, just visible over other roofs

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Antwerp city hall, with the flags of all nations. Pride was either last weekend or next weekend, we think

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This picture just makes me smile

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“Hey! You forgot your rope!”

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31.57 meters below ground, at St. Anna Pedestrian Tunnel

Normandy days 5-7, Belgium days 1-2

Mon 8/4 – St. Martin-de-Landelles

Step count: 3,674

Awake 8:30. Breakfast: half an almond croissant, yogurt, coffee. Talk with Mad, Juan, Greer, Ellen. Jonathan Strahan and daughter Sophie arrived. Off to St. Jacques with Ellen for lunch; after considering several options, had lunch at Hotel St. Jacques. Delicious tender grilled pork chop for me, Kate had a salad with duck gizzards. Ellen’s aperitif arrived in a glass labeled “Suze,” the name of the protagonist in her novel Green Glass Sea, which she determined she must have. To my amazement, despite her limited French she got the owner to give it to her for free. After lunch, stopped at a magazine shop and a post office before heading home. Had intended to visit a market in the afternoon, but Kate decided she’d rather take a swim. I blogged while she did that, and took care of some writing business (about which more later). Dinner was chicken and sausages, prepared by Mad, with a salad on the side and packaged baba au rhum for dessert. After dinner, a game of anagrams and much hilarity. To bed about midnight.

Tue 8/5 – St. Martin-de-Landelles

Step count: 7,182

Awake 8:00. Breakfast of coffee, yogurt, and half an almond croissant; I’m really getting to like plain yogurt. Off to Mont St. Michel then with Pat and Greer! Stopped in Ducey on the way, for the Tuesday market there. Almost didn’t spot it; if we hadn’t seen the fair last time (same place) we would most likely have missed it. Wandered the market, picked up some sausages, nectarines, and prunes, and talked with the vendor from whom we’d bought the rabbits and chickens the other day (she didn’t remember us at first, but eventually did after Kate reminded her of how she’d passed up on a chicken so that one of her regulars could have it). It became clear to me that the vendors make a circuit of the markets each week.

Continued on toward the Mont, with fabulous views from several stops along the way. Parked in the lot and took the free shuttle along the causeway to a construction zone where the parking lot we parked in 24 years ago (!) used to be — they’re renovating extensively. The Mont itself was extremely crowded and touristy but still very, very cool; took tons of photos. Took an early lunch to avoid crowds. Mere Poulard has taken over most of the restaurants on the mont; our lunch wasn’t spectacular but perfectly adequate. I had croque monsieur (first time this trip), cider, a cappuccino (didn’t order it, exactly, but it was welcome), and a bite of Kate’s gaufre au chocolat. The line to get into the abbey itself was too long to bother with, but we did find a glow-in-the-dark St. Michael at a souvenir shop, also some kounig amann and a cider bowl with Alex’s prenom (no Isobels, alas). Back home, fell over.

Dinner, prepared by Ellen, was roast pork, bow tie noodles, and leftover green beans. For dessert Scott cut up some pain au chocolat, which was resourceful but reminded me a bit of the moment in The Sparrow when they used the shuttle for a short trip, consuming the fuel they needed to get home: very nice, but what will we have for breakfast?. Much industry gossip of a particularly catty and entertaining stripe; a hilarious game of Anomia; to bed around midnight.

Wed 8/6 – St. Martin-de-Landelles–Rouen

Step count: 2,019

Awake 8ish. Breakfast of yogurt, two half-croissants I found at the bottom of the bag, and coffee. Packed up, stripped beds, said our goodbyes, hit the road by 10. Tried 3 times to buy gas before finding a station whose pump would take my credit card (first one denied the card; second one had no card reader, door was unlocked, but no staff visible; third one finally worked).

Kate had made lunch reservations at restaurant La Petite France in tiny Surdon, and we found it without too much difficulty, arriving just after our 12:30 reservation. Absolutely fabulous entree of coquilles st. jacques on a bed of leeks. Main dish, veal with mushroom sauce, accompanied by frites and vegetables, very nice but not so wow. The entrees have been the stars of the trip, culinarily speaking. The only other people in the restaurant (whose staff appeared to consist of the waitress and the chef, likely husband and wife) were a happy multigenerational party of 12-14 which we think might have been celebrating the very recent birth of the youngest present. Credit card didn’t work, paid cash.

After lunch we headed off toward Belgium, planning to take the toll road to Roen and find lodging at some chain hotel on the far side of it. Toll plaza also refused my credit card, and Kate’s, but another card of mine did eventually work.

Rouen doesn’t have a ring road; the only way past it is to go through town. This proved stressful and confusing. Eventually we found ourselves on the far side of town and pulled off in Isneauville (“is no ville”) to find a restaurant and reconnoiter, but the town was too small to sport a restaurant, cafe, or even parking lot. But on the way into town Kate had spotted an Ibis (chain hotel) which claimed to be open despite construction, and as neither Google Maps nor TripAdvisor showed any hotels on our route ahead we doubled back to it. The entrance to the parking lot was restricted by construction to half a lane off a busy traffic circle, but after a couple of nerve-wracking tries we did eventually manage to get inside. The place was sterile and characterless but cheap, clean, and HERE. Free wifi too. We took the bird in the hand and checked in. Credit card did work here, not sure what’s up with it. Not the way I’d choose to select a place to stay but all in all it’s okay.

After settling into our room, I called the credit card company (using Skype) and after a brief conversation was told my card had been “adjusted” and there’d be no more problems. We did tell them before we left that we’d be traveling….

Looked online, found a nice restaurant nearby, called to make sure they were open; they weren’t, but recommended another: Le Cheval Rouge. Called them and made a reservation for 7:00 when they opened. Survived the traffic circle. We were not the first to arrive; there was a small family with a loud baby (it did quiet down eventually). As we ordered and ate the place filled up. Only one server visible, busy but not panicked. Food very good: appetizer of melon with porto, main course of turkey with camembert sauce, side of pureed carrots (very light and fresh), dessert an amazingly light ile flottant (floating island: baked meringue floating in a custard sauce).

Back to the hotel, survived the traffic circle again, one more time and we’ll be okay. Looked into visiting Waterloo on the way to Brussels. It is on the way, and the museum, films, and panorama sound like they’d be worth a visit, but the day will be full enough (3.5 solid hours of driving plus returning the car) that it’s probably unreasonable to cram it in, so decided not to. To bed around 11:00.

Thu 8/7 – Rouen-Brussels-Mechelen

Step count: 6,059

Awake 8ish. Pretty good spread of breakfast options, actually, though all packaged. After checking out, headed for a boulangerie in nearby Quincampoix for the 3rd-best brioche in France. Alas, it was closed for vacation (one of the hazards of visiting France in August). Sign in window said nearest available bakery was nearby Casino mini-mart, not an acceptable substitute. Alas.

Hit the road at 10, Google said it was a 3.5 hour drive, add an hour for lunch, so texted Lynne Anne (who had very generously volunteered to meet us in Brussels) that we’d be there no earlier than 14:30. On the road many people honked at me; sometimes I even knew why. I’m sure I confused people by being a black Audi doing 20 km/h below the speed limit.

Stopped in Amiens at the “Pole Jules Verne” (that’s what it said on the water tower — turns out to be a business park) in hopes of a bookstore and lunch. Took a bit of flailing to find the bookstore, located in a strip mall. Sadly the “librarie” turned out to have no books at all, only trashy magazines. Also in the mall was Paul, a chain bakery, which provided a decent roast beef sandwich and pastries for lunch. Also a Giant Casino grocery store, where we picked up some French beer and wine to take to Lynne Ann and Roelof as a hostess gift. Talked with a man in the wine aisle: what part of France are we in, and are there any local wines he could recommend? Turns out we were in Picardy, which doesn’t really produce wine, but we found something from the north of France that sounded good.

Drove on a ways, stopped in Peronne in hopes of a map of Brussels and maybe to see the “Historial de la Grande Guerre,” whatever that was. The local papeterie was closed until 3, but the Historial turned out to be a fine museum of WWI, so we stopped in for a brief visit. Just as we left the museum, about 2:00, Lynne Ann texted to say she had just arrived at the station in Brussels. But we were still over 2 hours away! Apparently we had failed to communicate that 14:30 was our earliest possible arrival time. Sent her an apologetic text and resolved to make the best possible time. Naturally we hit a terrible traffic jam around Valencienne. Texted Lynne Ann “stuck in traffic, no ETA, go on home and we’ll meet you there” but she said she didn’t mind waiting.

Worked around traffic jam on side roads and made our way into Belgium. Stopped at a rest area just past the Belgian border for a bathroom break, Brussels map, stroopwaffels, and a cold drink. Lynne Ann texted that she’d figured out where we would be returning the car. It was like having an advance spy!

Many subtle changes in highway furniture and signage showed that we were no longer in France. Then we passed from French-speaking into Dutch-speaking Belgium and the language changed too — “Bruxelles” changed to “Brusel” and the “don’t text and run into the car ahead” billboards changed from “Bip Bip Boom Boom” to “Beep Beep Boum Boum.”

Driving through Brussels, even with a map, was a challenge. We didn’t know the local rules or customs and couldn’t find the street signs. Eventually we did make it to the train station and, thanks to Lynne Ann’s hint, the car park where we’d be dropping our car (tiny tiny Europcar logo on the big QPark sign). At the parking entrance, I pushed the green button for a ticket and got only a display with two lines of rapidly-flashing text in French and Dutch that didn’t make any sense. Tried inserting a credit card but that didn’t do it either. With a line of drivers building up behind me, I pushed the little “i” button on the ticket machine and, eventually, got a voice who spoke English. He said the machine was out of paper and that I should use another lane. Thanks a lot, guys. Kate got out and waved the other drivers off so we could back up and try the other lane.

Finally got into the garage and made our way down to level -5. We wouldn’t have known what to do if we hadn’t picked the car up in a similar situation. Two bored teenagers there gave the car a quick once-over and directed us up the elevator to the office. At the top of elevator, we found ourselves in the huge Brussels train station, with no sign of any Europcar office. Set Kate down with the bags and ran off to find it. Finally did find it, turned in paperwork, no problems, au revoir.

Back to Kate, who went off to try to find Lynne Ann, meeting with almost immediate success. Lynne Ann then proceeded to help us with our luggage, show us which train to catch, get us tickets with her pass, shepherd us onto the train, show us where to get off, buy us bus passes, get us onto the right bus and off again, and let us into her lovely home (built 1650!). There we found that Roelof had fixed us a delicious Flemish stew. Roelof also went out for frites and provided a green salad. For dessert, fab gelato from the ice creamery across the street.

To bed 11ish, completely exhausted but very happy and grateful to be here.

Fri 8/8 – Mechelen

Step count: 5,439

Awake 6:30; dozed off and on until nearly 9. Breakfast of pastries, sheep and goat yogurt, cheese, bread, coffee, then chatted with Lynne Ann and Roelof and their friend Elina who popped by to pick up some stuff. After that, went out with Roelof in the drizzle to the local farm market (very small today). Lynne Ann joined us as we continued to the grocery store, vegetable market, cheese shop, meat market, bakery, and clothing store, picking up what we needed for breakfast and lunch, seeing the local sights and culture, and getting a bit oriented (though I’m still not very oriented). Back home for a nice lunch of sandwiches, then fell over hard for a long nap.

In the afternoon, dealt with email, caught up on notes, blogged a bit. Then we chatted with our hosts about a variety of topics, including languages and travels, over perry, cheese, and apples. Dinner, again provided by Roelof, was grilled duck breast, red cabbage with apples, and lovely roast potatoes. They are completely spoiling us.

After dinner, I sat with Lynne Ann while she worked on her Japanese calligraphy. I asked her “if you please, draw me a sheep” and she drew the kanji for “sheep.”

And now, more photos

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Door of the mairie in St. Jacques, I think

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Jonathan, Greer, and Mad in the kitchen

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Lovely produce at the market in Doucey

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Greer takes a photo of Mont St. Michel

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I took one too

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We are here!

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Arrow slits continue to perform effectively the same function today

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Pat at lunch, with the abbey spire visible above

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People walking on the tide flats below the Mount

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Many a seagull is to be seen

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This metal track brings up materials for renovation. It sits atop a stone structure used for a similar purpose in previous centuries

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Beautiful old buildings in every direction

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Even from the parking lot, it’s amazing

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Ellen talks to the cows. Sometimes they answer

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Mad, Ellen, Mike, Elise, Bear…

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…Scott, Pat…

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…and us

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Coquilles St. Jacques, yum

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One of the sights of Mechelen

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Another of the sights of Mechelen

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Mechelen city hall, I think

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View from our bedroom window

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The second-floor staircase is so steep it cannot be descended facing forwards — you must face the stairs and do kind of a grapevine step to get around the corner. This was code in 1650

Travel makes you stupid

When I woke up yesterday I could read and write, and ask questions and understand the answers. Today, not so much.

One of the pleasures of travel is practicing a foreign language, which I enjoyed greatly during our time in France. But now we’re in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, and I get to have a different adventure: attempting to communicate despite not speaking a word of the local lingo.

Admittedly, in this case I’m not that severely handicapped. Our generous hosts, Roelof and Lynne Ann, are a native speaker and longstanding inhabitant respectively; Kate has studied Dutch in the past; and between my knowledge of German and some previous exposure to Dutch I can puzzle out much of the signage and a little of the spoken language. But my ability to produce Flemish is essentially nil, so I’ve been doing a lot of smiling and nodding.

One thing I’ve discovered on this trip is that the techniques we learned from Rick Steves’ Europe through the Back Door thirty (!) years ago are no longer as useful as they were then, because so many transactions have been automated. Gesture, mime, and pointing don’t help at all when you’re trying to get something (money, bus tickets, gasoline, parking, tolls) from a machine with a schmancy audio-video interface. On the other hand, some of those machines now have instructions in English — in fact, a few of them switch to English immediately upon insertion of a US credit card. But the translation is often weak, and frequently includes bits of untranslated local language like rum-soaked raisins in the cake. It’s a mixed bag.

The bottom line, though, is that one of the big reasons I travel is to have different experiences and stretch my mind, and working in a culture where I don’t speak the language is a big part of that. So vive la difference! *

* I wanted to put that in Dutch, but I couldn’t figure out how. Which only goes to show.

Normandy days 1-4

Thu 7/31 – St. Martin-de-Landelles (cont’d)

After blogging, identified the regular beeping noise that sounded like a dying smoke alarm as a tiny toad in a crack in the wall outside, and watched the Scary Ham video. To bed about midnight-ish.

Fri 8/1 – St. Martin-de-Landelles

Step count: 4,882

Awake 9-ish. Breakfast of yogurt, muesli, and half a pain au chocolat, then a run to St. Hilaire for groceries. A detour due to construction led us to a little farm market where we got vegetables, chickens, and a rabbit (with eyes, ew). Then we walked through centre ville, stopping at the boulangerie (bread and pastries), epicerie (vegetables), papeterie (3×5 cards, colored pencils, postcards, map), and bank (cash). On the way back to the car, I swerved back to the farm market for a couple of sausage baguettes hot off the grill for our lunch. Then to Carrefour (big commercial supermarket) for everything else on the list. Greeted upon our return as conquering heroes. Ellen: “best lunch ever”. Bear: “oh hello, bunny innards”.

After lunch, sat around and read for a while. Was going to take a nap when Kate popped up: let’s take Juan to town for some cider and wine, and see some menhirs on the way. So we did that. Even a tiny mini-mart in Goron has excellent produce and a good selection of wines and local ciders. We were afraid of being late for dinner, but when we arrived we found the chickens were being very uncooperative and dinner was going to be late. Took a nap. After that, still awaiting the chickens, we had a first course of bread and cheese on the terrace and talked about superheroes, including a discussion of the relative patheticness of Aquaman and J’onn J’onzz. Elise’s chair self-destructed, apparently the third to do so, so we moved the table to a flatter spot to try to prevent further such disasters (don’t ask me how this is supposed to work). We also tried to figure out what that amazing cheese from last Wednesday’s market day was (the person who bought it didn’t get the name and it wasn’t anything obvious), but not even posting a photo and query to Twitter was able to resolve the question. What this world needs is a “what’s that cheese” app (“Cheezam”?). Back inside for more reading, then a second course of artichokes. At last the chickens appeared — they were delicious — along with some amazing roast potatoes. After dinner, we played Anagrams with the Bananagrams tiles, and Anomia with Kate’s hand-drawn deck: a silly success. More writerly chat; to bed about 1am.

Sat 8/2 – St. Martin-de-Landelles

Step count: 2,442

Awake 7:45, then back to bed until 9:30. Breakfast of corn flakes and coffee. Quiet morning of practicalities: caught up on email, checked phone messages back home, paid credit cards, etc. Drove out under lowering skies in the vague direction of St. Jacques for lunch, but wound up in Ducey, lured by sight of street fair and smell of grilling. Wandered flea market for a bit, settled on very Breton creperie Ty Breizh.

To explain this next bit I need to haul out an anecdote from a previous trip. On our first trip to France we had some andouille sausages which were incredibly delicious. A few days later we saw “andouillette” on the menu and ordered it, despite the waitress’s dubious expression — we assured her that we had eaten and enjoyed it before. Well, this turned out to be a mistake, and it took quite a while with phrasebooks to figure out how to say “you were right, we shouldn’t have ordered this, please take it away and bring us something edible.” We came away from that incident remembering that, of andouille and andouillette, one was delicious and the other… wasn’t… but we could never remember which was which. Both are made from parts of the pig not usually served in the States.

So, anyway, we saw andouille crepes on the menu at Ty Breizh and I decided to order them. We did try asking the waitress (who was definitely Breton, not Normand) and she assured us that andouille and andouillette (shiver and headshake) were very different things. Well, when my andouille crepe came… it was a bit more like pig innards than I’d hoped. So I guess our one delicious andouille was a fluke. I wouldn’t order that again, but unlike the andouillette I did finish it.

As we finished our lunch the deluge began, a real duck-drowner. It had slackened somewhat by the time we were ready to leave the restaurant, but was still coming down pretty hard. Fortunately we had brought coats and rain hats. “Bon courage” said one woman to me as we headed out into the downpour. We made it to the car only half-soaked-through and headed back to La Cahudiere. On the way home we passed through a town with a wedding in progress, many horns honking, and one car decorated with hot pink plastic penises. Back home, where it had no more than drizzled, I hung up my pants to dry and talked with Ellen about WWII and whether the USA would really have tried to invade Japan if not for the A-bomb (Ellen says the war was, in effect, already over by then and that the main audience for the bomb was the Russians). We also put up a load of laundry, knowing it might take days to dry.

Lazy afternoon. Elise bought a whole box of medals at some thrift shop and was quietly slipping them to people to present to Ellen on any excuse. Pretty soon everyone was giving medals to anyone for anything. Dinner, prepared by Bear (who received a medal for it): rabbit stroganoff, noodles, green beans, with macarons and other assorted sweets for dessert. Le yum. Much industry gossip over dinner, as all of the non-SF people have departed. A brief skinny dip, in which I did not participate because brrr, and then Elise brought out her ukulele. To bed ~1am to the sound of people drunkenly singing “Alleluia” (the only song Ellen can play on the ukulele, though she owns 5 of them) over and over.

Sun 8/3 – St. Martin-de-Landelles

Step count: 5,901

Awake 9:00. Breakfast of coffee, pain au chocolat, yogurt, then off to Utah Beach. Stopped for lunch at pizzeria Le Union in Villedieu-les-Poeles, where Kate had moules frites and I had a Moroccan pizza (merguez sausage, gyro meat, chickpeas, etc.). Not the best crust ever, but tasty. Also picked up some pastries at the boulangerie in town. Utah Beach had a fine museum of the Normandy invasion, including a B-26 bomber and an excellent introductory film. On the way back we stopped in Coutances to see the cathedral, and also spotted an open Carrefour grocery, where we picked up some cheese as requested and also a few other things. Had enormous difficulty getting out of Coutances, but eventually instinct led me to a place where we could see the sign for “toutes directions” and we escaped. Discovered when we arrived home that Mike & Rachel had failed to find a grocery open on Sunday, so our cheese was very welcome. Dinner was a soup made from leftover chicken and rabbit by Mike and was delicious. Pat Murphy, Madeleine Robins, and Greer Gilman joined us. Light conversation after dinner, while Kate & I cleaned up. To bed around 10:00.

And now, the photos

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Dolmen de la Contrie, a Neolithic corridor tomb

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Kate snapped me taking the above picture, while Juan looks on

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A bowl of cider, the traditional Normand tipple

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La deluge

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Bunny skull! With bonus dead dragonfly

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Rachel, Ellen, and Juan at breakfast

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Ellen plays “Allelulia” on Elise’s Fluke uke

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These hay-bale guys are everywhere: “31 August, Festival of the Land and Rurality.” I am guessing that “JA 50″ means Jeunesse Agricole — young farmers, aka 4-H — of department 50

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Town square of Villedieu-les-Poeles, where we had lunch

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Utah Beach museum. Utah Beach was originally code-named Oregon, but was renamed for unknown reasons

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Before the invasion, carrier pigeons were parachuted behind the lines, together with a bag of feed and instructions: 1. Feed pigeon. 2. Fill out questionnaire about what the Germans are doing in your area. Print neatly. 3. Roll questionnaire tightly and insert in cylinder. 4. Attach cylinder to pigeon’s leg as shown. 5. Release pigeon. TELL NO ONE.

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Kilometer zero on the Way of Liberty, commemorating the march of the Americans from the Normandy beaches in 1944

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Plaque on Utah Beach memorializing Dwight Eisenhower

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One of the marvelous stained-glass windows at the cathedral in Coutances

Paris day 7, Normandy day 1, and photos

Wed 7/30 – Paris–St. Martin-de-Landelles

Step count: 8,379

Awake 6:30. Sync’d photos, blogged (but didn’t post any photos, ran out of time), finished packing, cleared out the fridge, did the dishes, took out the trash. Cleaning lady (speaking French with what sounded to me like a Spanish accent) arrived before Miss Keys, who was somewhat delayed. Did manage to get all checked out and get our security deposit back before the cab arrived at 10:05 as requested. Cabbie didn’t know where Europcar was, per se, but when we arrived at the Air France “aerogare” at Les Invalides (which was all the address we had for the rental agency) he spotted the Europcar desk through the door. No issues at all getting the car, but we did have to lug our bags three blocks from the rental counter to a nearby parking lot and down the elevator to level -5.

Our car is a lovely black Audi A1 with four doors and a trunk just barely big enough for our two suitcases. A nice car, comfortable, quite a bit of hop, handles well, and has an interesting habit of stopping the engine completely when not actually moving. Hit the road around 11am. Thanks to Kate spending an hour or more last night researching the route out of Paris in detail via Google Maps satellite view, the process of getting out of town, in traffic, was straightforward instead of the panicked thrash it could easily have been.

Pleasant drive across country, through little towns, past fields of corn and many cows. Stopped at an aire (rest area) around noon to eat the sandwiches Kate obtained this AM. Flagging and headachey in the late afternoon, stopped in Domfront for coffee and found it to be a delightful medieval town. Got a nice cup of coffee, many photos, also shampoo and Q-tips at the local pharmacy.

Found the house, La Cahudiere near Saint-Martin-de-Landelles, with only one minor backtrack. Welcomed by our host Ellen Klages, Ellen’s sister Mary, Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch, and several others not as well known to me. Dragged our stuff up to our room, visited the chickens and pig, then fell over for a nap. Didn’t actually sleep much because of hilarity from the pool but it was a reasonable rest. There was only one outlet in our bedroom, and the lamp was plugged into it, but I managed to combine a French/UK plug adapter, a UK extension cord, and some UK/US plug adapters to allow charging devices and having a lamp at the same time. Win!

Dinner, prepared by Bear and served on the terrace, was salad and a delicious ham-and-bean soup served over croutons made from Bread of Other Days. Sat around talking after dinner. Much hilarity; no wine actually came out of Ellen’s nose but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Went for a walk down to the bridge and back as the sun set, with a beautiful sliver of moon. More conversation in the living room after that, largely about SF awards. Finally went to bed nearly 1am.

Thu 7/31. St. Martin-de-Landelles

Step count: 2,835

Awake about 7am. Easy morning of email, sorting through photos, light conversation, and noshing. Invited along to Mont St. Michel but decided to spend the day at home decompressing instead. Scrounged lunch of bread, cheese, salami. Talk on the pool deck, largely about brassieres, segued into sitting companionably and reading, then moved indoors for Russian Bank (a card game known only to Ellen and Mary) and more reading. Various parties went various places for dinner; Kate and I headed for L’Auberge du Lac, recommended by Ellen. Got rather lost on the way there. Many protest signs on the road leading up to the lake (lac) in question, protesting the apparently planned removal of the dam that created it. Restaurant turned out to be run by Brits, and all of the other customers we saw were also Brits, and much of the menu was British — Kate had a beefburger, I had steak pie and mushy peas. Best mushy peas I’ve ever had, but still… musy peas. Back home at 9:30, we had the whole place to ourselves for an hour. Then everyone came back from their various dinners, including freshly-arrived Elise and Juan!

And now… pictures from the last six days!

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The gnomon of the church of St. Sulpice

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Bat-winged lion-snake-thingy at St. Michael’s fountain on Boulevard St. Michel (“Boul Mich”)

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Mouthwatering display of French cookies in Montmartre

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Sacre Cour, home of continuous prayer, a jazz band, and a little tourist train

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I just loved this little old (abandoned?) boulangerie

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Napoleon’s Tomb, a humble little stone hut

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The actual sarcophagus of the actual Napoleon

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Just one room of the medieval arms and armor museum, which is only part of the Museum of the Army

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This delightful little automaton dulcimer player stands about two feet tall

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We’re at the Louvre!

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Three of these people are posing for the de-rigeur “holding the top of the Louvre pyramid” shot. The other two are taking a selfie with a camera on an extension stick

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Typical Louvre crowds

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The footings of the medieval Louvre castle, which can be visited beneath the current museum

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Shot of the Tuilleries gardens and Eiffel tower, taken from the giant Ferris wheel

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Another shot from the Ferris wheel, this one with miniature effect

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Gotta have a shot of the Eiffel tower or it’s not really a trip to Paris

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Space Mountain Mission 2 (riders are shot from the cannon up to the top of the mountain) and the Nautilus at Disneyland Paris

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Malificent stained glass window inside Sleeping Beauty’s castle

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Shot from the castle balcony with miniature effect

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Hey mom, I’m at Disneyland Paris!

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Beautiful flowers in the medieval town of Domfront

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Another view of beautiful Domfront

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L to R: pig, Ellen, Bear

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This place has plenty of butterflies of various types

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View of the living/dining room

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Black rabbit, white cow

Paris days 4-6

Sat 7/26 – Paris

Step count: 19,791

Awake about 6:00. Breakfast in the apartment of yogurt and muesli. Plan for the day: Marche des Enfants Rouges in the AM and lunch, then a nap, then Sacre Cour and Montmartre in the afternoon and dinner. Headed out for the market bright and early with a stop for delicious cappuccino at cafe Le Sancerre. These establishments (coffee in the morning, cafe in the day, bar by night) just don’t exist in the States — probably because of our ridiculous liquor laws. Eventually found the market, which was kind of hidden in mid-block (though the entrances were plain once we realized what we were looking for), but though it was 9:30 and the market nominally opened at 9:00 it was almost completely dead. Looks like a great place for lunch though.

Plan for the AM squashed, we decided to hit the book shops in the Latin Quarter. On the way from the bus to the first bookshop, passed St. Sulpice and decided to stop in. Lovely church, notable for its wood-paneled vestry (with hidden ladder), marble pulpit suspended in mid-air by its stairs alone, magnificent organ, gnomon for telling exact solar noon and the solstices and equinoxes (used to set the date of Easter), and priest-in-a-box (it’s the lamp that really makes the picture).

Spent an enjoyable several hours browsing several book shops, finding some guide books and maps. Lunch of delicious falafel at Maoz (it’s a chain, with branches in Amsterdam, Barcelona, and NYC among others — recommended) with a nutella crepe for dessert. Took some photos at St. Michael’s fountain, browsed a few more bookstores, then dragged back to the room for a nap.

Awoke around 4:00 and realized it was too late to hit any museums before they closed. A certain amount of “whaddaya wanna do, Marty?” wound up circling around back to plan A: Sacre Cour and Montmartre. The existence of a funicular was the clincher — whenever possible, always take the funicular. While finding the way to the funicular, CityMapper app (great app!) told me that several metro stations were closed due to “manifestations” (demonstrations about the situation in Gaza) but as we were only passing through them on the train we had no problems.

Substantial crowds at Montmartre station got even denser as we made our way up a street jammed with souvenir shops to the funicular. Funicular itself was not crowded at all and included in our transit passes; we were glad not to be climbing all those stairs, and besides funiculars are cool. Mobs of tourists at the top, expansive view of Paris, little train. Sacre Cour itself featured big banners talking about how this place was the site of continuous prayer, also many people selling cheap Eiffel Tower souvenirs and a jazz band playing “Sweet Georgia Brown”. Can’t make this shit up. Inside, it was one of the more impressive churches I’ve ever visited. The church had staff enforcing modest dress, silence, and no-cameras policies (good for them! much better than St. Mark’s in Venice, which had nominally the same policies but, lacking enforcement, was a zoo) so no photos.

Wandered through town of Montmartre, jammed with tourists, with an interesting mix of fine establishments (pastries, art, clothing) and tacky tourist tat. Artists sketching tourists everywhere; it’s a thing here. The area was clearly too touristy for a good meal, so we took the funicular back down, then the metro to a restaurant Kate had bookmarked in the 11th arrondissement. Alas, it was closed for vacation (a common sight in Paris in August). Even with Yelp’s help we had to look into 5-6 local restaurants before finding one we liked — most of them were basically just bars — before finding Chez Mamy. I don’t think that means “Mom’s Place”. Crowded little bistro, very friendly staff, amazing appetizer of burrata cheese and lightly-grilled cherry tomatoes, on the vine, with a balsamic-basil sauce. Main dish, roasted lamb with mashed sweet potatoes and mixed veggies, took a long time to arrive and was delicious, but not so wow as the appetizer. Finally done with dinner at 10:30, got home at 11:15, to bed about midnight. Although almost all of our plans wound up getting thwarted it was still a good day.

Sun 7/27 – Paris

Step count: 14,865

Slept in until 10. Breakfast in the apartment of yogurt and muesli. Kate went off on her own; I took the metro to the Army Museum at Les Invalides. On the way I had a nice musical treat from some buskers in the subway car. Got off one station too early, then after getting to the right station walked a half-mile in the wrong direction, but did eventually get there.

The first thing you see at Les Invalides is Napoleon’s Tomb, a modest little marble hut (*cough*) — but you can’t blame Napoleon himself for that, as it was put up 40 years after his death. It’s also the general tomb for many other French military heroes. The Army Museum itself was simply amazing, and gave me a great overview of the entirety of French military history (and, thus, French history in general). Excellent text, lots of uniforms and weapons, some animations of major battles. I focused on Napoleon, especially his last years, as I’m writing an alternate history set in that period. The Army Museum is actually a complex of museums, rather like the Smithsonian but all in one building, which also included a large display of battle site reliefs (dating to the 1700s), an entire museum of medieval arms and armor which I skimmed, and a museum of WWI-WWII which I skipped entirely. Also Les Invalides is still a working military hospital, and possibly also a military administrative center.

Very nice, very late lunch of “quiche moussaka” (I got the last one) at friendly coffee shop Kozy Salon Urbain. After considering several museums, decided to head for Arts & Metiers. Museum was interesting but not fabulous. Did take tons of photos of interesting-looking scientific equipment from centuries past, and automatons (including “a smoking monkey dressed as an Incredible” — no, not the Disney/Pixar movie — must look into that). Got kicked out at 6, went back to apartment, met Kate there. Dinner at restaurant Page 35: beef bourguignon with frites (yes, French fries, it is a vegetable here and they do a fabulous job with it), and for dessert “Coupe creole:” vanilla and cinnamon ice cream, rum-soaked raisins, and a huge mount of whipped cream. Delicous. Back to apartment, backed up photos, finished up and submitted a story due by the end of the month. To bed 10:30.

Mon 7/28 – Paris

Step count: 15,983

Awake 8:00, Kate a bit earlier. Yogurt and muesli in the apartment, then back to Le Sancerre for coffee and those delicious-looking croissants. They were as good as they looked, though Jeune overdid it with the chocolate sprinkled on my cappuccino and it looked rather like mud (delicious, though). Bus to the Louvre, expressly to see the pyramid. Admired the building, both old and new bits, and goggled at the tourists. Hour and a half line to get in, but our museum passes skipped that. Visited a Vermeer, Durer was inaccessible, saw the medieval Louvre’s foundations, otherwise we just admired whatever we happened to pass, which was plenty amazing. Lunch at the museum cafe — tarte aux legumes, not bad — then walked to the Tuilleries. Didn’t get very far, as Kate was all walked out and had to lie down in the shade.

While she was resting, I spotted a big Ferris wheel nearby (Roue de Paris) and realized that would be something fun to do, with great views and no walking. So we did that. Tried out the “miniature” filter on my camera and got some interesting shots. Then we went to the Sewers of Paris museum/tour. They’ve been offering tours of the sewers for over 100 years, though back then it was only once a month and you went by boat. Today it’s a walk-through of several blocks of sewers with some explanatory and historic signage. The smell wasn’t too bad and was, in fact, very familiar to me from the “gray water” in the green hab on “Mars.” Okay, it was kind of a weird thing to do but how could we not?

By that point we really needed a cafe break. There wasn’t much in the vicinity and what there was, was expensive, but we did have a nice sit-down, some lemonade, and a nice bit of cheese at Cafe de l’Alma. (We did wash our hands first.) Then we went back to the apartment, intending to nap, but wound up backing up my camera and doing some research for tomorrow’s trip to Disneyland. Dinner at Le Petit Italien: appetizer of melon and prosciutto (shared), for main courses we ordered gnocchi alla sorrentina and veal scaloppini with marsala and truffles and traded them halfway through, and tiramisu al limone (again shared) for dessert (“of course there are lady fingers. If there weren’t any lady fingers it would just be a glass of lemon-flavored cheese”). Very good food, friendly service, lovely weather for dining outdoors. Then back to the room to prepare for tomorrow’s assault on The Mouse! (Or perhaps The Rat, as we’re hoping the new Ratatouille ride will be running…) To bed about 11:30.

Tue 7/29 – Paris Disneyland

Step count: 19,197

Awake 6:30. Breakfast of yogurt and muesli in room, comme d’habitude. Got out of there at 7:30, intending to pick up a sandwich on the way to the train station, but the sandwich place Kate was looking for wasn’t where she thought it was, or maybe not open yet. Plowed ahead to train station, bought tickets, caught correct train (thanks to a website which explained how you need to look at the display for a yellow light by the station you’re heading to). Arrived Disney over an hour before 10:00 park opening, with printed-at-home tickets in hand — probably earlier than necessary.

In any case, we were among the first into the Disney Studios park when the turnstiles opened at 9:30, and proceeded straight to new Ratatouille ride… where we waited behind a rope until about 10:15. The ride opening was apparently delayed due to mechanical issues. When it finally did open we sprinted through a long long queue (“they’re helping us imagine we’re rats!”) and then right onto the ride. A delightful combination of 3-D video, trackless “rat” vehicles, smells, heat, mechanical effects, water. Not quite as mindblowing as Universal’s Spider-Man ride but definitely fun and charming. By the time we got out there was an 85-minute wait and they were handing out FastPasses for 4pm.

Went from there to Tower of Terror… 30-minute wait, we waited, it was worth it. We have now ridden the Tower of Terror in California, Florida, Tokyo, and Paris; it’s one of my favorite rides anywhere. The only other thing we were interested in at the Disney Studios park was “Stitch Live!” and only if the timing worked. When we found that the next English show was in 19 minutes, we decided to do that. It was fun and silly, a live interactive show similar to Turtle Talk with Crush — basically puppetry with a realtime computer-generated video character instead of a puppet. I would love to know what the operator’s control interface is like. Had a sandwich at half-empty cafeteria. It was okay (and jammed restaurants at Disneyland park later showed that we made the right call to eat in the Studios).

After lunch, headed over to Disneyland park. The park was beautiful from the entrance and everywhere inside, much nicer than the Studios, really much better theming than just about anywhere else I’ve been other than Animal Kingdom or DisneySea. First stop was Buzz Lightyear for FastPasses, a frustrating experience: inexperienced guests, machines with poor signage that failed to read guests’ tickets, no help from cast members. Somehow did get my passes but I’m not sure how. Then walked through the Nautilus display, quite cool but over too quickly. There was only a 5-minute wait on Space Mountain then, so I did that while Kate chilled on a bench. I would have enjoyed it more if I’d remembered my Croakies, also it gave me a headache, but fun. Walked through Sleeping Beauty display. Looked for a place to sit and have a drink, but Gepetto restaurant was mobbed and most food stands were shut (one disadvantage of the relatively non-crowded park on a rainy Tuesday in July) so we just had some water. Then we did Buzz Lightyear, which was just the same as in the other parks — still fun. Then Pirates of the Caribbean: the best version of the ride I’ve seen, but the worst-behaved and most poorly managed crowd. Finally the Phantom Manor — not the same as the other Haunted Manors, with no punches pulled! You descend into the grave and everything.

Kate was really flagging by now, so I left her in the Gibson Girl cafe while I looked at the animatronic dragon that lives under Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Then, after sharing coffee and a muffin, I went back to Space Mountain for one last ride. This time I did remember my Croakies, and had a great time… even though it have me a headache again. Loop-the-loop, two corkscrews, great visual effects, all in the dark, very rattly. We bought some pins (I am not a “collector,” I just bought some pins I liked) and headed home about 5:30. Dinner at Creperie Suzette, the same place we’d dined on arrival. Packed, called our cab, to bed 10:45. Tomorrow we rent a car and head to Normandy!

No photos today — out of time. Will post some ASAP.

Paris day 3

Fri 7/25 – Paris

Step count: 8,022

Awake 8:00, found that Kate had already gone out for pastries. Croissant, pain au chocolat, half a kouign amann, and yogurt for breakfast… delicious, but half my calorie budget for the day and I didn’t even touch the “incredible thing with the figs.” We will walk off some of those calories but we aren’t walking THAT much.

Walked to Notre Dame with a stop for cappuccino. Took a while to buy our museum passes at the nearby kiosk because of incredibly chatty Spanish tourists ahead of us, oblivious to the growing line behind them. Our first museum, “Crypt Archaeologique du Parvis du Notre Dame,” was built around the Roman (etc.) ruins under the plaza in front of the church, and gave us a lot of info about the history of Paris including several interactive 3-D computer graphics. Fun & informative. Went to nearby Le Navigator for lunch at Janna’s recommendation (after a stop for orangina at a nearby cafe to kill 10 minutes until it opened for lunch). My grilled duck breast came with fabulous morels (morilles) rather than the noodles (nouilles) I’d expected. This was the fault of the menu, written in cursive on the chalkboard, in a handwriting in which M and N were absolutely identical. Dessert menu included “abnicors au naison” (abricots au maison). My €29 menu also included kir royal, an appetizer of ham & melon, half a jug of wine (I got water) and a simple dessert of raspberries with whipped cream, yum.

After lunch, headed toward the Maritime Museum but got distracted on the way by a BD (comic books etc.) shop called Album, where we spent a happy half-hour before continuing to the bus stop. The Maritime Museum was right by the Eiffel Tower, so we spent some time admiring the landmark and the crowds of happy tourists. Museum itself very impressive. Tons of sailing ship models (some of them huge, like five meters long huge, with completely functional sheets and sails). Many paintings of ships, battles, and suchlike. Fine collection of figureheads (some of them amazingly huge!) and stern pieces. All these ships are run by string, there’s string everywhere, the trick is knowing which string to pull to make the ship go the way you want it to. There was also a considerable section of 20th century ships, including submarines, and a little bit of marine aviation, plus some early ironclads.

Back to the apartment by Metro, with a surprise stop at the steampunk Arts & Metiers station. Brief trip to Franprix for yogurt, milk, and a few other necessities plus a bag of frozen peas for Kate’s knee. Sadly the freezer in our little fridge is too small for the bag of peas, but I happened to see a tip online about freezing a saturated sponge in a plastic bag as an ice bag so we’ll give that a try. Sat around the apartment until after 8. Not very hungry, and according to my calorie-tracking app I’m already way over for the day even with the walking we’ve done, so might just skip dinner (sacrilege, I know).

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A stretch of street in our neighborhood has tall skinny sculptures, such as this cat, instead of the usual please-don’t-park-on-the-sidewalk bollards

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Au Seine

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Not sure whether this was left over from the Occupation, the Revolution, or some other conflict. Lots of history here

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Easy to get around with the simple, well-thought-out public transit system

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Gotta have a selfie with the Eiffel Tower

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They thought so too

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Just one of the many fabulous ship models on display at the Maritime Museum. I took TONS of research photos

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Model showing how the obelisk of Luxor was put on the ship for transport to Paris in 1831

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This isn’t from a video game, this is an actual prototype diving suit (though probably never used) from 1882!

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At the steampunk Arts & Metiers metro station

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Another view

Paris days 1-2

We are in Paris! We’ll be in Europe for a month all told, a week each in Paris, Normandy, Belgium, and London, returning home after the Worldcon.

Tue-Wed 7/22-23. PDX-SEA-FRA-CDG-Paris

Step count: 12,002

Our trip began with a cab to the airport, rather than the train as planned, because raining. Despite some question as to whether Kate’s rollie bag would qualify under United’s new rules, it fit in the sizer so we carried it aboard — mine too — though we had to a-la-carte them on the puddle-jumper to SEA. Both of us got TSA Pre-Check; it was like going back in time 20 years to the days when all you had to do was run your baggage through the X-ray and yourself through the metal detector. At SEA we spent our brief wait in the International Lounge, shared between Lufthansa, ANA, and a few other airlines’ business classes. (We flew business class, using United miles saved over years of domestic travel, because it’s ever so much nicer on a long trip like this.)

Our Lufthansa jumbo jet had surprisingly little room for carryon bags, even in business class. We had to put our rollie bags into the overhead bins sideways for them to fit, and the foot space for the seat had to be completely empty for it to fully extend, meaning I had to give my backpack to Kate in order to lie down. Even with that the seat didn’t lie completely flat; the seat and its remote control were kind of strange. Still much better than economy class, of course — I’m not complaining. The food was the real highlight; I had a beef and quinoa salad appetizer and Wagyu beef brisket main course that would not have been disappointing in a fine restaurant. Also the flight attendants kept the fizzy water, hot bread, and other amenities coming. Breakfast omelet was not quite so good but still more than acceptable. Got about 2 hours of sleep, spent most of the rest of the time revising a short story that’s due at the end of this month. Did most of the major and minor edits but didn’t get to the emotional stuff and I’m not 100% certain the ending works. Also read Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale on my iPad. I was kind of put off by the florid Literary language at first but pretty soon I started getting into it. It is remarkably funny. Might not finish it before it has to go back to the library though. Also noted: the United in-flight magazine had “3 days in Portland,” International Wall Street Journal had a long article on the Portland Zoobombers, and L’Express had one on George R.R. Martin.

Arrived Frankfurt and found almost no signage, no maps, no people to help. Walked for miles in vain search of “terminal 1, gate A” for our Paris flight. There were at least two things labeled “A” on the signs and I’m not really sure what either of them was. Fortunately we had 3 hours to find our plane. How can such a popular connecting terminal have such miserable signage? After passing through passport control twice (almost three times) and security once we finally were directed to the Lufthansa business class lounge, where I had a second breakfast of yogurt, banana, and cappuccino from the machine and dealt with email before our short flight to Paris. Even on a 45-minute flight, Lufthansa gave us a very nice warm meal: cajun poulard (chicken breast, I think) with citrus fruit and a mango pico de gallo.

At CDG we traveled through the cover of the Alan Parsons Project’s album I, Robot before managing to locate a bathroom and the train to Paris. No passport control here, just a large green gateway saying “nothing to declare” (no staff visible). At the airport, got a text from “Miss Keys,” the freelance concierge employed by our VRBO apartment to deal with their guests, saying there was a “Big Problem” with the apartment we’d booked and that they were giving us another. Well all right then.

Arrived at Chatelet des Halles and, after wending our way to the surface (the train arrives on level -4 of this enormous underground shopping mall) walked to the new apartment, supposedly 12 minutes walk vs. 5 for the original one. The long slog over cobbles with rolling luggage nearly did us in, but we made it about 20 minutes before our scheduled rendezvous. Miss Keys let us in, showed us around, explained about the cute little mini-washer/dryer, combination dishwasher/oven/gas-electric stovetop, wifi, etc. This was tout en francais, avec pas de problemes; the 20 days of study I did with the Duolingo app on my phone before he trip were a HUGE help in spinning back up on French. The Big Problem with the other apartment was a sudden infestation of “insects” (bedbugs, I think) brought by the previous guest, only discovered this morning and requiring 3 weeks to fumigate. The apartment we got instead is adequate, pretty small and a 3rd floor walk-up, but character-filled and still in a great neighborhood. After a brief nap, walked around the neighborhood and beyond. Bakery, Pompidou Centre, the Seine, Notre Dame, etc. — we’re here!!!

Right around Notre Dame I realized I was all out of cope. Still perfectly happy, but I recognized that I was no longer competent. We decided crepes were just about our speed and headed for what sounded like a good one between there and our apartment. On the way we passed a hopping corner cafe called Les Philosophes. “Are we being stupid to not just go in there and eat?” (long pause) “I don’t think so. But that could be Dunning-Kruger Effect talking.” After passing a place whose crepes were highly recommended but lacked seating, we wound up at Creperie Suzette, with delicious crepes; a huge, simple and very fresh salad; and a bottle of delicious apple cider. Went home, unpacked, did wash, wrote up these notes. To bed 9:30 local time.

Thu 7/24 – Paris

Step count: 8,951

Awake 5:30. Bleared around the apartment until 8; much frustration trying to create an account on thefork.com, French equivalent of OpenTable, which refused to accept a US postal code. Couldn’t get shower door to close all the way and soaked the bath mat. Hung it out to dry on the clothesline outside the window, using a binder clip (glad I brought some) as a clothespin. Ate a spiral chocolate thing we’d bought yesterday, then walked out to nearby mini-grocery Franprix for the makings of breakfast — but found it closed until 9. Adequate coffee and croissant at Le Pick-Clops, got transit pass from machine at Hotel de Ville station, then back to Franprix for yogurt etc. Surprising lack of Greek yogurt. Dropped off groceries at home then went to Carnavalet Museum.

The Carnavelet is the museum of the city of Paris, and not quite what we expected. There was one hall of signs from businesses over the centuries, and quite a few artifacts, but most of the collection was paintings of historical Paris, painted at the time they depicted and arranged chronologically. Many really fine paintings, and an interesting way of viewing the history of the city as the people of each time understood it. Lots of weird history here, the Directorate and the Commune and the Restoration and all the Napoleons. Huge painting of a balloon launch during the Siege of Paris, 1870, and a smaller painting of a room of secretaries examining a projection of a microfilm sent by carrier pigeon during the same conflict. Also on display was a feather from one of those pigeons. Another notable display was several cabinets of delightful caricature sculptures of famous Parisians of the 1830s by Jean-Pierre Dantan.

Had a delightful lunch of steack frites at restaurant Camille, which turned out to be right next door to Creperie Suzette from yesterday’s dinner, then back to the museum for the special exhibition of photos from the 1944 Occupation. It turned out to be the 70th anniversary of not just the Liberation but of the exhibit of photos of the Liberation which was displayed in this very museum before the war was even over. The new exhibit talked a lot about the differences between how history was perceived then, right after it happened, and now — e.g. erasure of women Resistance fighters and black American GIs from the coverage. By 3:00 we were just about ready to fall over and went back to the room for a nap.

Slept until 4:30 or so, too late to hit the Marie Curie museum as we’d planned. Tried to set the PIN on my Barclay credit card so as to use it in machines, which took wads of time trying to authenticate to the Barclay website and finally wound up at the apparent conclusion that I should expect to be asked for a signature in any circumstance where it is possible, using a PIN only on an unattended machine (which I had been avoiding). Will try that next time and see if it works. Then out into the neighborhood for bread, cheese, dessert, and, as it turned out, sandwiches, which we dragged back to the apartment and ate for dinner, still being full from lunch and lacking in energy to seek out anything more ambitious. After dinner, we had intended vaguely to visit the Eiffel Tower by night but found ourselves both too tired to do any such thing. Stayed home and read instead. Tomorrow is another day.

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Greetings from the cover of The Alan Parsons Project’s I Robot (Charles DeGaulle Airport)

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Living room ceiling of our apartment, which dates from the 1800s

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Notre Dame! We are here!!

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This tasteful little cradle was a birthday gift to the newborn son of one of the Napoleons

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Plume du pigeon voyageur

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Now that’s what I call a minister with portfolio

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One of dozens of delightful little caricature sculptures