Arc of Triumph

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In my youth I was fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time with my maternal grandparents. We lived in the Bronx and they lived in a small walk up Brownstone apartment in Manhattan and my mother and I visited regularly. I often dreaded the visit because as a child, I was bored as only a child could be. My Grandmother had lots of little breakable items that tempted me, however, I wasn’t permitted to touch. I often found myself sitting and staring at a large piece of mass produced artwork that hung on their wall.  It was a moody, slightly abstract depiction of Paris in the very early 1900’s when cars were new and multiple lanes of traffic were still in the distant future. The focal point of the piece was the Arc de Triomphe, pictured as a light rain fell. The pedestrians huddled under umbrellas, bent forward and moving quickly against the rain and mist as they walked past a single traffic light. The glow of the street lamps as dusk signaled the end of the day gave the scene an ethereal feel.  In later years I began to wonder why they chose this particular piece of art. I remember thinking that the picture seemed strangely out of place with their 1960’s style décor. The identity of the artist remains unknown but the work resembles that of artist Eugene Galien-Laloue, who painted under many different names but always using a similar style.  His primary focus was the Belle Epoque era, using a soft focus with an almost ethereal interpretation of common street scenes, primarily of Paris and surrounding areas. Did they admire his work or was it their hope to eventually be able to visit Paris? My grandfather had ancestors who hailed from the Alsace Lorraine region of France, but I never heard him mention a desire to try and locate any relatives. Now having become familiar with Paris, when I think of Manhattan in the 1960’s, I realize that the similarities between the two are quite noticeable. It was most obvious in apartment buildings with their design flourishes, large windows and wrought iron work and the decorative street lamps that have now been replaced with modern, utilitarian versions. The Flat Iron building in downtown Manhattan, most notable for its wedge shape, is a page taken from Parisian architectural design, as are Tudor City and the Dakota. Perhaps my Grandparents also recognized the resemblance between Paris in the 1900’s and Manhattan..

11220851_10152943793801581_1931384640060123011_nIn time, our family left the city and moved to the suburbs in Dutchess County. My parents struggled to achieve the goal of owning their own home and when they did it was with my grandparent’s financial assistance. In return for their investment, the lower level of our two story raised ranch was built as an apartment, just the right size for two retirees and my grandparents relocated with us. Their furnishings were pared down and kept simple but once again, the Arc de Triomphe graced their wall. If the artwork seemed out of place in NYC it definitely was an unusual décor choice for the suburbs. Several summers after we relocated I struck up a friendship with a brother and sister from France who were visiting with relatives. Guy (rhymes with key) and Ghislaine spent the entire summer in Dutchess County and we enjoyed time together almost every day. It was during that time that I was introduced to the French language, culture and the small daily nuances of life in a French household. As the summer came to a close my new friends prepared to return home. They came to bid adieu to me and my grandparents. My grandfather was inspired to photograph the three of us with the Arc de Triomphe artwork as our backdrop. As we said our good-byes I was invited to visit them in France and we exchanged addresses. They sent several letters, I failed to return a reply and the letters eventually stopped coming. To this day, it remains one of my regrets.

11796284_10152943794311581_2577371835381910989_n.jpgEventually, my Grandparents made one additional and final relocation, this time to Florida and the Arc de Triomphe made its last journey when it retired with them in Miami. Fast forward to 2015 when I’m given the opportunity to sail aboard an Avalon River Cruise and I chose to sail on the Seine. It was my first visit to Paris and I wanted to visit the major attractions and no visit to Paris could be complete without seeing the Arc de Triomphe. Decades of change and progress have brought multiple lanes of fast moving traffic. Wealthy Parisians and curious tourists stroll the Champs- Élysées now lined with upscale stores and boutiques such as Sephora, Guerlain and in case you might be inspired to buy a car while strolling, Bugati has a store front. I was surprised to see The Disney Store, but they too were crowded. As we made our way towards the Arc we also passed dozens of souvenir shops which attracted my travel companion like a moth to a flame. I considered going on ahead so she could shop at her leisure but I decided to stay close and not risk getting separated. Needing to occupy my time, I gave in and entered a small shop carrying mostly postcards and inexpensive replicas of the most famous Paris landmarks. An oversized postcard of the Arc de Triomphe caught my attention and I experienced a sense of familiarity. The art style was a bit abstract and the street lamps glowed just as dusk was over taking the city. The likeness to my grandparent’s artwork was uncanny. It depicted the same early evening rainy scene of people bent down against the wind straining for whatever protection their umbrella could provide. It wasn’t an exact replica but it was close enough to evoke feelings of nostalgia. I was inspired to buy it and now it hangs in my living room. Perhaps, my grandparents dreamed of visiting faraway places, Paris included, but they never mentioned it. Maybe they just liked the artwork. If every journey begins with a wish, I’d like to think  that 40 years later, I fulfilled that wish for them.

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The Grey Beret

Apparently, there are two types of people: shoppers and non-shoppers. I don’t know if your shopping profile is assigned at birth or a trait that develops like a finely honed skill over time. I do know that I fall into the category of non-shopper, apparently having been born without the shopping gene and this includes souvenir shopping as well. Sexism aside, as a female, it would seem that I am in the minority as far as searching for the next treasure, especially when I’m travelling. When I do make a purchase I prefer useable, wearable items that serve a purpose in my daily life. That’s the best type of souvenir, something that perhaps can be used on a regular basis that reminds me ever so subtly of a previous visit to someplace interesting. Sure, I bring home gifts for others, but for myself, I usually wait for something to strike my fancy, inspire me, before I make a purchase. One of my favorite souvenirs is a beautiful scarf that I found in Hong Kong. Sometimes it appears burgundy colored but at other times it appears as if it is black and I like that dichotomy. During the winter I wear it daily and only I know its origin and when I wear it I am always reminded of the night market where it was purchased. I also carry a tote bag emblazoned with the picture of a dog, a West Highland Terrier and people often comment on the cute dog. I think of England and remember that it was purchased in Harrods, probably the most famous department store in London. Ordinarily, I don’t approach any place I visit with intent to purchase a particular item, however, this time I had one specific item on my personal wish list. I was in France and I wanted a beret and if it wasn’t asking too much, I wanted one that was grey. Why specifically grey? In the right shade, it is soothing and classy. Grey is neutral enough to coexist with other colors and intriguing enough to make a boring outfit look chic. It also happens to be my favorite color. Travelling through France via riverboat gave me access to a lot of smaller towns with unique shops and a multitude of markets. I approached each retailer with optimism and anticipation of finding the perfect chapeau only to be disappointed over and over and in several different languages. Finding a beret in France seemed to become the equivalent of finding a leprechaun in Ireland. You hear they exist yet you never see one.

My quest continued on land as we returned to Paris after the cruise but I admit that I was far less optimistic at this point in the trip than I was at the beginning. It was difficult to focus on shopping when there were so many beautiful and historical sites to visit without taking time out for every pop up market. I will confess that one particular market caught my attention in a way that only the smell of warm fresh dough could do. I happened upon a bread festival set up in front of Notre Dame and like a siren song, it lured me in, seduced me to stay and made it impossible to resist the sinful luxury of the just out of the oven, fragrant chocolate croissants. My quest for the beret was temporarily halted as I took in sustenance in the form of freshly baked goods. The thought occurred to me that perhaps the French Beret was more of a legend and less a part of the Parisian’s daily wardrobe. Upon reflection, I can’t actually remember seeing a single person in France wearing a beret. The search, however, did lead us to some wonderful little shops, even if most of them were selling chocolate! I was ready to admit defeat and with a wistful c’est la vie, I returned to the hotel empty handed but confident in the promise that tomorrow, my last day in Paris, would be fully dedicated to souvenir shopping.

As with each morning, I awoke without the aid of an alarm, however this morning something was different. I had a touch of vertigo which worsened when I tried to sit upright. Certainly, if I couldn’t sit without getting queasy, then standing and walking were definitely out of the question.  However, I had a mission to complete and was determined to give it my best effort, but the virus had other plans. I had no choice other than to give in and rest with the hope that I would be able to rally in the afternoon. Reluctantly, I encouraged my fellow traveler to go on without me and I returned to bed. I admire the confidence she displayed as she departed for her solo venture, going off to explore and experience the Left Bank region of Paris on her own. Around midday, when I had hoped to have felt a bit better, she popped into the hotel room to check on my condition and to offer to bring food. It was kind of her to touch base but I had no appetite and clearly whatever energy I might have been able to muster now needed to be conserved for the long journey back home the next day. It became obvious that I would be forfeiting my entire last day in Paris and the final opportunity to find my grey beret. I surrendered to the virus and remained prone, drifting in and out of sleep. My travel companion returned in the early evening enthused about the markets she explored and the food she had sampled. I was finally feeling well enough to stay awake and sit up for a bit and admire the souvenirs and gifts she had purchased for others. I watched as she pulled out multiple packages from her tote bag. I oohed and aahed and tried to muster enthusiasm over each item as I wondered if she was going to exceed the maximum weight the airlines allowed for checked luggage. When she had at last emptied her bags one final item remained. She handed me a small crumpled paper bag and I peeked inside to find the elusive beret, and yes, it was most definitely grey! But as much as I enjoyed the triumph of a quest completed, this souvenir will always be remembered, less for France and more for the kindness that inspired it.

Twenty Minutes

All it took was 20 minutes for me to fall in love with France.  That’s quicker than my daily drive to work and almost quicker than it takes for me to choose my dinner in a restaurant. My first impressions of France began while I was still in the air, circling, preparing to land. The ground below was green, very green. 20150511_032241So much so that it’s noticeable from above when you get your first glimpse of the country from an airplane window as you begin your descent into the airport. It’s been said that Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, however, this isn’t about Paris. Indeed, Paris is beautiful in many parts, and truthfully, a little ordinary in others. But, it wasn’t the city that caught my eye, instead it was a 20 minute detour due to a missed turn that captured my heart. I admit that I approached Paris as though expecting a quick fling. Much like a first date, you’re nervous about the introduction to the city, not knowing what to expect, wondering if you will click. But, the French countryside, well that was definitely more than a crush. The French people have a phrase for it: “le coup de foudre”, which translates to love at first sight.

I was about to set sail on a river cruise with Avalon Waterways aboard the Tapestry II but the recent rains resulted in higher water levels making it difficult to pass under the beautiful bridges of Paris. In order to navigate the river we would need to board a motor coach to drive to our first stop. We would then embark at the first port of call in Vernon-Les Andelys. Some might have seen the change in plans as disappointing but I now believe it was fortunate fate. The bus ride along the highway to our new starting point was just like any other highway: multiple lanes of traffic in each direction with very little to look at. You could almost call it boring. We were moving along at a fast pace, passing other vehicles and sometimes being passed. Perhaps this hypnotic tedium contributed to our driver missing the turnoff for our destination. One additional exit later, an alternate route was chosen and unknowingly, our luck had just changed and for the better as we unexpectedly found ourselves in the French countryside.20150511_032308

At times it seemed as though the full size motor coach, the travel industry’s fancy and professional name for “bus”, couldn’t possibly navigate the small roads of the ancient villages. The driver faced a modern day challenge as the curbs were lined with private cars and the twists and turns were tight and many. Surely l wasn’t the only one to hold my breath as inch by inch the driver slowly and carefully shimmied his way through the narrow roads. But then, as I exhaled, the village itself took my breath completely away. It was everything you would imagine a small European village to be. A town where the tallest structure is the church steeple and people with picnic hampers lounge on the grass. Winding roads, originally built for animal drawn carts, weave past 16th century chateaux whose placement was determined long before there were paved roads. Stone houses with tiled roofs and grand chimneys had wooden shutters that covered full length windows. Jumbles of colorful flowers spilled over ancient stone walls that were originally erected to delineate property lines. However, the current function of those walls seemed to be solely for the purpose of preventing the premature deaths of free roaming chickens by limiting their access to the road. Occasionally you come across a newer home whose design with its constructed antique appearance is such that it intentionally pays homage to its past. Some homes are trying for modern sustainability while retaining an aged patina and have found a way for solar panels to coexist in design harmony with an earlier time. The pace was comfortable and slow and the countryside seduced you into relaxing and setting down the burden of daily life. It invited you to have a sip of calvados, the apple wine and perhaps taste a bit of pastry as you spent some time getting to know each other. Villages are dotted with handmade signs advertising apple “cidre” and fresh eggs and are replete with open meadows inhabited by contented cows and happy horses. The narrow roads allowed a front row view into the daily lives of the local folk giving the appearance of an idyllic lifestyle or at least a page from a themed calendar featuring story book cottages. Slowly, almost at an escargot’s pace, the driver continued safely past automobiles parked on both sides of the narrow road, until we had successfully navigated our way. I was almost disappointed to arrive at our destination as I wanted more of this countryside charm. I didn’t yet realize that this wasn’t the end of the trip but just the beginning of our journey.20150511_032400

We boarded the ship and were soon on our way. Smoothly and slowly, we made our way up the Seine (pronounced Sen). Local cottages gave way to grander homes perched high upon the riverbanks, set amidst the rolling green hills that lined the banks. Occasionally, a friendly land owner would wave and those of us on deck would wave back. I envy their lifestyle, perhaps they envied me mine, however temporary it was.

Did I fall in love? Absolutment! But, France was more than just a whirlwind romance or a brief fling for me. I believe that it was the prelude to a long lasting relationship – definitely an affair of the heart. “Jusqu’a ce que nous reverrons” – until we meet again.

Mad about Macarons

macaron-whoopie-pie-workshopThe French know food. Their contributions to the culinary world are countless and they’ve succeeded at taking dining to an art form. Many of their well-known dishes have found their way on to American menus and no doubt you are familiar with Bouef Bourgonion (beef in wine), French Onion Soup (onions in wine), and Coq au Vin (chicken in wine). Despite their obvious love of wine,   the French chefs really step up their game when it comes to desserts. In a nation with so many fashionably svelte people it’s a wonder that this country gave birth to Eclairs, crème brulee, Crepes Suzette and Chocolate Mousse. Their secret is that they enjoy small tastes of rich items and unfortunately, I prefer large tastes of rich items. I was already familiar with most of these dishes but I hadn’t yet been properly introduced to the Macaron, a cookie that is uniquely French. The first time I saw a Macaron was in the arrivals hall of the Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris. Bright and colorful, hundreds of the little cookies were on display in equally colorful push wagons. It was an excellent marketing decision as, no doubt, they were a quick and easy gift to pick up to and from wherever you were travelling.
Perhaps you’re a Macaron novice, as I had previously been, or just have never been properly introduced. First, let’s cover the basics: Macarons are not macaroons. Even the name is pronounced differently. I offer this basic primer: Macaroon sort of rhymes with balloon. Macaron sounds like macaroni if you were to eliminate the “i” at the end. The spelling is similar but the cookies themselves couldn’t be any more different from each other. Macaroons are largely based upon coconut as the main ingredient and are often dipped in chocolate. The chewy treat is a free form cookie with the batter being dropped from a spoon onto a baking sheet. I love macaroons.  Macarons are served as a sandwich style cookie with two colorful almond flavored merengue discs surrounding colorful sweet whipped cream. I prefer dense, chewy cookies so I had no interest in trying a Macaron. I have never been fond of whipped cream, hard to believe but true, so I had even less interest in this national treasure in cookie form.  I was convinced that I wouldn’t like Macarons so I didn’t try one.
My second introduction to the Macaron was during my cruise on the Seine River. Avalon Waterways arranged for a Michelin starred chef to come aboard our ship, the Tapestry II and give a demonstration on creating classic French desserts, tasting included. This was definitely a fun afternoon and I gleefully sampled everything, except the Macarons. They looked beautiful and yet I still wasn’t convinced, and wouldn’t allow myself to be swayed from my anti-Macaron conviction so I didn’t try one.
My third opportunity to welcome the little French cookie into my life came as I watched my travel companion purchase several gift boxes of Macarons at what I thought was an insane price. However, after visiting several shops hoping for a better rate I realized that this was one pricey little cookie. No matter which store we entered the price was always the same at e1.80 per treat. I’ll convert that for you: it’s the equivalent of $2.00 U.S. per cookie for what is actually a rather small cookie. You can practically buy an entire box of Nilla wafers for that cost. I began to wonder if there was some French patisserie syndicate that was guilty of price fixing. I was ready to consider that “strike 3” against the arrogant little confection and was smug in my self-righteousness. I planned to spend my last day in Paris searching for the perfect gifts in the local markets, for several people, most importantly, my staff. It’s always challenging when one of us is out of the office for an extended period of time and I like to show my gratitude. Nothing says “hey, thanks for covering for me” like sweet treats. Instead, I spent the last day in bed with the flu. Fortunately, I had already purchased a box of incredibly rich butter cookies but I wanted something additional. Suddenly I became that person shopping at the airport for a last minute gift and I headed straight for the Macaron cart. I was warmly welcomed back to my office, less likely due to being missed and more likely because I was bearing gifts. We started with the butter cookies which immediately elevated my status to that of “favorite boss”. Then, I pulled out the oh so French Macarons and became a legend. As everyone oo la la’d at the colorful confections, I decided the time was right and chose a red cookie. The texture was better than I expected. Slightly crisp on the outside, light and airy inside. You arrive at the creamy, whipped buttercream center before finishing with another colorful disc.  It was just like a little slice of French heaven on earth. We quickly finished the box and wanted more and the irony of all those missed Macaron eating opportunities deflated me like a chilled soufflé.
If you won’t be getting to Paris in the near future and are curious about these marvelous little confections, I’ll share a secret. You don’t have to go all the way to Paris, although I encourage you to do so. It’s as close as 1946 Campus Drive (Route 9), Hyde Park.  If you didn’t recognize the address it’s for the Culinary Institute of America.  Authentic Macarons are as close as the Apple Pie Bakery. You walk in, stand on line, look at the different flavor options in the display case and choose. You might wonder why anyone would pay $2.20 USD per cookie, but then you taste one and you know. If you’d like to try out your cookie-baking skills visit our facebook page to see the video and recipe for making authentic Macarons. Bon Apetit.
Photo source: http://asi.cpp.edu/campuscrop/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/macaron-whoopie-pie-workshop.jpg

Normandy’s Landing Beaches

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have
striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The
hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on
other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war
machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of
Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well
equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.
” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower

June 6, 1944 – D-Day codename: Operation Neptune. On this day a coordinated effort of the allies began their quest to free Europe from the Nazi stronghold. A key part of the total initiative called Operation Overlord, the fight to free France began as American troops arrived at the beaches which were given the code names of Omaha and Utah, while British landed at Gold and Sword and the Canadians at Juno.

My recent river cruise with Avalon Waterways aboard the Tapestry II travelled from Paris and featured a visit to Caudebec, an area best known for its intact medieval town and especially its proximity to Arromanches and the D-Day Normandy Landing Beaches. As part of the cruise package I was offered a choice of excursions at each destination and at the port of Caudebec I chose to visit the American Landing Beaches. Even though I had no relatives who served in the war, I wanted to honor the memory of those who did serve and those who perished and to show appreciation for their gift of freedom.  The Avalon Tapestry II ship hosted travelers of many nationalities and the excursions were thoughtfully arranged to allow the American travelers to visit Utah and Omaha beaches while our fellow Canadian and British guests would be taken to pay their respects at the Juno and Sword beaches. The journey started with a 2 hour bus ride filled with friendly banter about home towns, yesterday’s adventures and the breakfast served earlier that morning that included chocolate chip pancakes. During the drive, our guide offered insight into the history of the attack and the significance of the areas we would be visiting. Approaching from the East, our first glimpse was of the British beaches. We wouldn’t be stopping but as a point of interest the driver slowed the bus so we could get a quick look.  In lieu of a traditional sign, the locals had chosen to mark the passage entry with a visual impression featuring silhouettes of soldiers as though there were no words to describe the horror of that day. Lacking facial definition the images represented every son, brother, husband and father that fought for freedom. The bus grew uncharacteristically quiet, except for the clicking of cameras.  We arrived at the American sites a short time later and started our visit with the D-Day museum which is perched above Utah Beach. As our group waited for our assigned admission time I watched a carousel filled with colorful animals circling round and round. The children either giggle or cry as they go up and down, and it often seems to be more for the parent’s enjoyment. You find carousels in many spots in France but in no other area did it seem so out of place. I headed down to the beach and made my way to the water. It’s an ordinary looking beach that bore witness to extraordinary events. Large and wide with firmly packed sand, the beach attracted families and strolling couples and an occasional dog or two. One particularly romantic man carved out in the sand a rather large heart complete with Cupid’s arrow using nothing but the heel of his bare foot. The object of his affection was no nowhere to be seen as he walked away alone. A group of Beach kiters were spinning and chasing each other in contraptions that looked like canoes on wheels but were powered by the wind harnessed in their sails.  They seemed oblivious to the blood that was spilled and the thousands of young lives lost 70 years ago. My first thought was “isn’t this disrespectful?” No, indeed, this freedom and carefree joy is exactly what the soldiers were fighting for.  We entered the museum at our assigned time and as you would expect, the building is filled with authentic artifacts and preserved photographs and recordings. These items serve as evidence and depict in stark black and white the brutality of the war and the youth of those who were fighting, many of whom never survived past the point where water met the sand. After we viewed a film that detailed the complex plans for the attack, as others were purchasing souvenirs I returned to the beach to collect some sand and shells.

We continued to Omaha Beach and the vulnerability of the allied soldiers was immediately evident. The high cliffs perched above the beach gave the opposition a vantage point that they maximized. Stone and cement military bunkers had been constructed by the German force that provided their fighters protection as well as the ability to watch the shores around the clock. Touring the ruins gave a clear understanding as to why the allied casualties were so heavy. Several in our group declined to enter the structures, I assume, due to either claustrophobia or heavy emotion and I understand both.

The final leg of our journey brought us to Colleville sur mer to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. You’ve probably seen the photos of this cemetery with the perfectly spaced crosses marking the graves of American soldiers. Row upon row, close to ninety four hundred white marble crosses mark the graves of those Americans who lost their lives during the war.  To honor the dead a ceremony is held that includes raising the American flag while visitors sing the National Anthem. Both pride and tears were abundant. Participants are then given roses to place on the grave of their choice and the ceremony is repeated every 60 minutes to include all new visitors. As I walked through the headstones I was most touched by the occasional grave that bore a Star of David. They are few amongst the many crosses and all the more notable when you remember that at the peak of the Holocaust 6ooo Jews were being gassed daily. There is a custom that visitors to a Jewish grave often observe: that of leaving a stone on the grave or headstone. The history of this tradition offers several theories, most logically to indicate that someone had paid a visit. I noticed that none of the Jewish graves bore any evidence of visitors while many of the graves of Christians were graced with a rose. I had already placed my rose shortly after I entered the cemetery so I searched for a stone of any size or kind but found none.  I did find small pine cones and decided that intent was paramount and made a choice to honor and simultaneously break with tradition and placed that pine cone atop a Star of David.   Today, the sacrifices of those soldiers on that day on those beaches which bore witness to extraordinary events are once again ordinary. This ordinariness, this living a life free of tyranny is a gift, often taken for granted. This is the victory that the soldiers fought for and paid for with their lives. It was their gift to future generations and one that we should be grateful for each and every day.