Thursday, October 29, 2015

Birthday Insurance

No matter how simple it may be, I've always had a birthday cake. Think of it as a family tradition if you will, something we've actually tried our best to impress upon the next generation since we don't ever miss my niece and nephew's birthday celebrations ever. There's always a sweet slice of cake with a row of candles to blow at the very least.

And thoughtful birthday gifts all wrapped up with perfectly matching cards and bows waiting on the table.

For us, it's a given.

These days I'm starting to understand that the Sweet Sixteen Birthday Bash isn't quite the norm for everyone. In fact millenial birthdays don't even involve gifts at all, with a last-minute birthday cake mashed together as a careless afterthought.

Now who wouldn't want a piece of that? 

Undoubtedly when it comes to memorable birthday stories, Charming Calvin always has one that takes the cake. Figuratively - since there's never a literal cake usually. Understated simplicity seems to be the case for his family with very little more than a firm handshake and a dour congratulations for successfully making it that far in life.

Just like the day he had this year. Since Calvin already knew about the surprise party we had planned, there wasn't much he expected from home. Especially not after the grim reception he had last year.

Madame : Calvin? 
Calvin : You called me? 
Madame : Happy Birthday.
Calvin : Thank you.
Madame : Here's your insurance.
Calvin : Thank you.
Madame : Live long and prosper.

Really. Call it the birthday insurance. Guess it does ensure that you survive to celebrate the next!

Ever the practical sort, our Madame Borgia, but at least there was a modest token of remembrance this year. I assume there'll be a prettily worded Hallmark card next year!

Fortunately he has me to run out to get a cake and candles. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Comme Ci Comme Ça

After the chic elegance of Paris, it wouldn't have surprised me that any other city would have looked just a trifle shabby.

Quite unhappily for Brussels which turned out to be our very next stop for the tour. After the grand boulevards of Haussman's Paris that was displayed to great advantage by the bright sunny week that we had, the dreary, graffiti-riddled environs of Brussels certainly made the disparity even more stark. Added to the gloomy clouds ponderously hanging above the Belgian city, Brussels could be compared to the bedraggled housemaid shuffling lackadaisically onto the stage - such a vast difference in relation to the dazzlingly stylish ma belle called Paris.

Even the haggard cityfolk trudging around in Brussels seemed to be missing the unmistakably French chic that characterized the Parisiennes.

Had Brussels changed that much from what I remembered from my last Grand Tour?

Well, that's what we all thought at first.

Never fully trust first impressions though. Sure the threatening rainclouds remained, as did the dilapidated storefronts - but we managed to see past all that ramshackle urban decay for what it had to offer.

Which is glorious food. Remember my earlier disdain for fine, dainty French dining? Flaunt all the Michelin stars you want but all I really need is something hearty, home-cooked soul food - which is why I felt right at home eating in Brussels. Large portions of steaming hot mussels. Trays of fresh oysters and fried calamari. Heaving plates of sizeable sausages and mashed potatoes.

And the awesome Trappist beer.

That's all in one meal.

Who could forget the chocolates!

If that wasn't enough to whet your appetite, well I haven't even mentioned the chocolates yet. There are some who claim that Brussels came up with chocolates to counter their horribly inclement weather - and if that's the reason, then it can rain gloom all day long since Belgian chocolates, from Neuhaus to Wittamer are all simply to-die-for.

In fact I gobbled up so much chocolates in a day I almost expired from a sugar-coma. Surprisingly I learned painfully that it isn't all that hard to get an overdose of rich, delicious chocolate!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

C'est Si Bon

Guess my friends were correct; this trip has turned out vastly different from my last - credit invariably due to the company present. Even though I was practically delirious with fever on the first day, having Charming Calvin and my mother certainly helped perk my spirits up. After all if I'd taken to the sickbed on arrival, I doubt the two of them - highly unadventurous souls they are - would even bother stepping out of the hotel.

Don't know if Calvin would concur. Perhaps his first experience of Paris could be quite as miserable as my last, especially since he frequently gets left quite.... far behind as I dash off to the next destination. After all the boy has never been known for his excessive speed.

What? You're where? 

Adoringly cooing lovers might walk hand in hand along the Seine but Calvin certainly remembers his flagging trudge down the Left Bank quite differently - especially since I had to be at least two bus stops ahead in stride, which precludes any sort of romantic hand holding activities. So many things to see, so many things to do!

And that wasn't even the challenging climb up hilly Montmartre yet.

So you can imagine my consternation when he blithely made this innocent comment.

Calvin : We should cover more places! Why aren't we going to this museum? This park? 
Paul : You know the reason why!
Calvin : But why!
Paul : You're not moving fast enough.
Calvin : Oh. 
Paul : Yes. 
Calvin : You walk too fast! You're practically running. 
Paul : I am strolling. I barely break a sweat. 
Calvin : You're an alien. 

Even my aging mother - with what I suspect is a bad knee though she fervently denies it - overtakes the dawdling fellow. As usual, I blame the pathetically slow snail's pace sadly glorified on this side of the Big Puddle.

Which is fine by me actually. Let's take our time enjoying the sights and smelling the ubiquitous French lavender sachets. After the success of this trip, I doubt it would be our last time there so Paris, we shall come by again.

Even if it's just to eat the delicious croissant au beurre.

Yes, it's all good. C'est si bon!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Champs Elysées

I have developed a new mantra for dressing well.

Dress as if you're strolling down the streets of Paris.

Surely you'll never go wrong that way! After all the city of Paris wears a merit-worthy crown as unrivalled queen of the fashion world with trendy boutiques and appointment-only ateliers lining the city boulevards offering the latest in haute couture - which the stylish Parisiennes are only too quick to acquire. And then skillfully display on the cobblestoned streets that double as their very own easily accessible catwalk.

Have to dress for the fall!

Nothing wildly frou frou. Nothing far too risqué. All the Parisiennes need are the essentials in the staple blacks and blues; not to mention the ubiquitous scarf. Never has so little been so shrewdly - so effortlessly - put together in a simple yet amazingly polished ensemble.

A point of envy even on my last whirlwind trip - but even more so this time that I have the time and luxury of watching the oh-so-chic Parisiennes stroll by from my corner seat at the neighbourhood cafe. Almost all perfectly dressed from head to toe as they sauntered with such Gallic insouciance to work. Certainly no one scampering around in hastily thrown together tees and shorts. Definitely no sweaty gym trainers around. Hardly a single shabby flip flop to be found.

Apparently the one way to recognize a visiting tourist would be to note the frumpy clothes they are wearing. Doesn't surprise me at all since it would be almost impossible to match the impeccably dressed Parisiennes!

Makes everyone else in the world seem just a trifle shabby.

They try but they will never succeed, the poor fools.

Doubt the mainland Chinese folk could even succeed - though it certainly doesn't stop the extremely determined arrivistes from trying.

Showing telling signs of the changing times, it would be hard to visit a single French atelier without finding at least a handful of Chinese citizens, all caught up with the Paris Syndrome, squabbling loudly outside in a rowdy line waiting to go in. Even along the glittering fashion boulevards of Champs Elysees and Boulevard St Germain, you can find strident Chinese matrons snapping up vibrant Hermès scarves and splashy Louis Vuitton handbags as if the items were going on a fire sale.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Paris Sera Toujours Paris

Second time around I can finally see a little of the indefinable magic that others see in the lovely city of Paris. Having that morning coffee along with the delicious croissant au beurre in a teeming corner café while watching the impossibly stylish Parisiennes rush off to work. Taking a slow stroll down sun-dappled boulevards full of chic boutiques showcasing the latest in haute couture, specialist stores full of eccentric oddities and ... oh the wonderful boulangeries filled to the brim with buttery breads.

And the ever tempting chouquettes.

Yes, all terribly stereotypical - just short of the typical black beret and the silky black mustache. Maybe even the oddly provoking French mime. But surely a quintessentially Parisian experience not to be missed.

All the terrible fears I had before seemed but a memory as I found this trip far more enchanting.

As the autumn days went by, all our endless worries about muggers and murderers faded away slowly but surely. Maybe a niggling disquiet at the back of our mind whenever we dashed down the admittedly dingy steps of the Metropolitain - cautiously keeping an eye out for the ubiquitous felons - but the ever present dangers didn't seem very different from any other large cosmopolitan city. Thankfully the snatch thieves remained at a safe distance from us. Then again it might have been near impossible to slip a hand into my bag when I'm practically sprinting to my destination.

Though my brother had warned of shabby treatment from the infamously haughty locals, we seemed to have nothing but the loveliest reception wherever we went. Utterly prepared to stare coldly down my nose at anyone who dared cross me but even the most uppity maître d'hôtel at their exclusive restaurants warmed up fast enough after a friendly bonjour or two. The chic young assistants at the ateliers were only far too ready to display their beautifully made ( and terribly pricey ) merchandise.

Sure the immaculately dressed girls at the neighbourhood boulangerie were a tad dismissive on our first day but on our second visit, they seemed so absolutely attentive and charming that I wondered if I'd feverishly imagined their pretentious impertinence the day before. Possibly the result of my drugged, dishevelled self when I initially arrived. Their chouquettes certainly brightened my day after.

Perhaps times have changed.

Ah the lovely cafes. 

Though of course my thoughts when it comes to fine French dining remain the same as always...comme ci comme ça! Don't get me wrong though, I find it all utterly exquisite! Magnifique! Almost parfait! But given a choice, I would still head for something heartier. Tastes differ I guess.

But when it comes to their boulangeries and pâtisseries, it's probably safe to say that the French have little reason to worry since they are simply without peer. From their deliciously lush St. Honoré to the creamy Religieuse, from the sweet Madeleines to the humble French baguette, oh yummy. Even the simplest croissant from the neighbourhood boulangerie tastes like a sheer bite of heaven.

I'm sure I mentioned the heavenly chouquettes, right?

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Sous Le Ciel De Paris

Though I might be a somewhat seasoned traveler, I would never lay claim to be a great traveler. Absolutely, positively the lousiest in fact. Plagued with mysterious aches and pains along with the ever-present insomnia during my flights, it's not that hard to imagine the sallow, bleary-eyed, dishevelled zombie who stumbled out at Aéroport de Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle was in fact moi.

Even the surprisingly radiant autumn sunlight that trickled over the steps to greet me at the airport failed to brighten my spirits. Indeed I felt the need to raise my sunglasses and rush back to the hotel to shut myself up in the suitably darkened room. Was that a touch of the flu?

Obviously all that misery was bringing back shades of deja vu from my last trip there. Back then it was all wretched days filled with cold crêpes and dirty pavements.

Perhaps it was the brief nap at the hotel. Perhaps it was the delicious croissants au beurre. Perhaps it was just the crisp autumn breeze.

But all it took was a couple of hours back in the hotel to give me some bounce in my step. At least enough to happily trip down the stairs to the magnificent Palais Garnier which lay barely a stone's throw away. Or in Paris, that would probably mean less than a ubiquitous Metro stop away.

Paris. Bah. 

Bound and determined to make new memories of the wonderful City of Lights! Heard so many endless raves about the place that I knew it deserved a second chance without the sad bias of emotional baggage.

And it's certainly different this time.

Perhaps it was the company. Perhaps it was age. Perhaps it was a healthier bank account. But even the dreary Passage du Choiseul looked almost enchanting despite its dilapidated state.