Monthly Archives: August 2014

One short day in the Emerald City…I mean, Paris!

One short day in the Emerald City…I mean, Paris!

When I was in London last month, I decided to take a day trip to Paris.  Why?  Because I could!  There is something very cool about boarding a train in London and coming out in the heart of Paris just a little more than two hours later.  And, if you book far enough ahead of time, the fares for the Eurostar high-speed rail are pretty inexpensive.  I took the earliest train from London St. Pancras, which leaves at 7:00am.

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I got to the station in plenty of time to grab a coffee and a croissant.  I meant to exchange some money for Euros, but I didn’t have time…I figured I’d do that when I got to Gare du Nord.  The train was comfortable and I napped most of the way.  When we arrived in Paris, I immediately went to the nearest Bureau du  Change and inserted my debit card into the machine – as I have done many, many times before in many, many places.  Only this time, the machine gave me this message:

“Transaction défendue. Carte retenue.”

Which means “Transaction denied.  Card retained.”

I stood staring stupidly at the machine for at least a minute.  Then I went over to one of the women behind the change booth.  “Your machine kept my card,” I told her.  “Cards are a 12% commission,” she replied.  I tried again.  “The machine didn’t give me my card back!”  She looked at me with a bored expression. “That’s not our machine,” she said.

I went back to the machine and looked at it again.  My card had not magically reappeared.  I went to the second booth and changed the measly £30 (pounds) I had into €30 (Euros) which theoretically should have been about €37, but there apparently was a 10% commission on cash.  Whatever.  I tried one more time to find out what to do about the card-consuming machine.  This time, I was told, “There’s a number on the machine you can call.”

Figuring that trying to get someone out there to open up the machine and return my card would likely eat into most of my day, I decided to forget it.  I now had a bit of cash, I had other credit cards and most places took credit anyway.  I walked out into the bright Paris sunshine and started to walk towards Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sienne.

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I have a love-hate relationship with Paris.  It is not a very friendly city.  People are brusque and sometimes downright rude. The streets can be crowded and confusing.  But – you are never more than 500 meters from a metro station…and wherever you walk, you see gorgeous architecture, fountains and statues.

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It was a hot and sunny day and I stopped frequently to sit, take pictures and just soak in the busy-ness of Paris.  Finally I reached Notre Dame Cathedral.

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Entrance to the cathedral is free, but the line snaked all the way around the block…and I have been inside before.  I love the square, though and the magnificent statues around the arches of the doors.

I found a little cafe a couple of blocks away and had a lunch of home-made pâté, crusty bread, poached salmon with potatoes and red wine.  I mentioned my problems with the cash machine to the waiter and he told me he thought all the machines at Gare de Nord were faulty.  Luckily, this place took American Express.

I then continued my walk along the Sienne.  There are beautiful bridges and a walkway right down by the river.  One of them is the famous “Pont des Arts” where it has become a tradition for lovers to “lock up” their love by putting a padlock on the bridge and then throwing the key into the river.   IN recent years, this has become a problem, as there are now so many locks on the bridge that there is danger of collapse and rust from the locks is leaching into the Sienne.  Apparently, a portion of the railing actually did collapse this past June and was replaced by plywood.  There has been talk of trying to ban the practice of placing locks, but to my eyes, this has not had much effect.

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I continued walking until I came to the Tuileries Garden.  This used to be part of the Tuileries Palace, which was destroyed during the French Revolution.  The Gardens are now open to the public, with many beautiful fountains, statues and plantings.  It is a popular place to walk, sit, read, get a bite to eat and just hang out.

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I found a public toilet at the end of the garden.  Unlike London, which prides itself on its many available, clean and free public toilets, Paris’ facilities will cost you 2 euros.  $2.65.  To have a pee.  I was outraged.  However, I didn’t think anyone would take kindly to my using a bush in the public garden…so I coughed up my €2.

By this time, I could clearly see “la tour Eiffel” in the distance.


I continued out of the Tuileries and along Avenue des Champs-Elysées…that very famous street with the Arc de Triomphe at the end.


There was a lovely side section along the Champs-Elysees called “Allée Marcel Proust” with some benches, green grass and a couple of statues dedicated to the writer.  I got myself a fruit drink from a vendor, spread my scarf out in the shade and lay down.

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When I woke up, it was a bit cooler.  I continued to walk, past the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais and across the Sienne again.  I made my way down to the pedestrian walkway right on the river and stopped at a cafe for a cappuccino and some people-watching.  I was right by the Pont Alexandre – such a beautiful bridge.

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By now it was getting to be late afternoon.  I decided to re-cross the Sienne one last time and find myself a new place for dinner.  I had dearly wanted cassoulet, but it was really too hot for it, so I opted for some delicious French onion soup and a huge salad Niçoise (tomatoes, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, Niçoise olives, and anchovies with a vinaigrette dressing.)  Accompanied by crusty bread and wine, of course!

I took the Metro back to Gare de Nord, went through passport control and found my seat in a half-empty train.  I dozed most of the way back to London and thought what a great thing it had been – to go to Paris for the day.





On my way back to Zambia after my summer holidays, I decided to spend a week in London, seeing some old friends.  Because of the way airline tickets are priced, I needed a one-way ticket from Boston to London and because one-way tickets can be ridiculously expensive, I decided to fly with Icelandic Air, who has (by far) the most reasonably priced airfare to London.  The caveat: you make a stop in Iceland.  The cool part: you can stop over in Iceland for as long as 7 days without paying any more for the plane ticket.  So – I decided to do just that and spend a full day and night in the “Land of Fire and Ice.”

The plane landed at midnight and the sun was just sinking below the horizon.


There was a bus to take people to their various hotels and hostels…everyone got on together and then we were taken to the city center, where we boarded smaller buses to take us to our respective lodgings.  My bus driver welcomed me to “the best county in the world!”  By the time I got to my hostel, it was 2:00am (Iceland time) but the place was warm and welcoming and the desk clerk was happy to give me my room key and show me where everything was located. 

I stayed at a hostel called “Hlemmur Square” which was a very comfortable “upscale” hostel with a full kitchen on each floor, very comfortable beds, a full bar and an optional breakfast in the morning.  Oh, and free wifi – always a good thing.  I found my room and found a free (bottom) bunk and got myself sorted.  Each bed had lockable drawers underneath, a reading light and a plug for charging phone, iPad, etc.  Very nice.  When I woke up, the sun was high in the sky and this was the view from the room windows.

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I had pre-paid for a “Hop-On, Hop-Off” bus tour around the city and also a late-afternoon/evening tour of the “golden circle” which had some incredible sites and views.  It was raining on and off as I walked down towards the town center.  The hostel was in a great location, on a street with shops and cafes and many of the streets were designated for pedestrians. 

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The street that my hostel was on was called Laugavegur, which means “wash road.”  It used to lead to the hot springs in Laugardalur, where women in the olden days took their laundry for washing.  It is the primary commercial artery of downtown Reykjavik and one of the oldest shopping streets. There is a modern statue at the foot of the street, depicting a woman laboring up the hill with buckets of water.  Apparently, this statue was removed at one point, because the city thought it was “too modern.”  But it was later returned.  I liked it a lot.

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Laugardalur is also the location of the Icelandic Phallological Museum.  That’s right.  It’s a museum devoted to penises.

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It is not quite as risque as it sounds…it has 280 examples and samples of penises from many species land and sea animals, including (they say) Icelandic elves and trolls.  It apparently has a couple of human specimens as well.  You can read more about the museum HERE.

Unfortunately, I did not have the time to go in…but I did take a few pictures from the street.

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It was a bit colder than I had expected…and I was chilled from being in the rain.  I had always wanted one of those cool Icelandic sweaters.  So – I did my part to stimulate the Icelandic economy.


I probably could have skipped the “Hop-On, Hop-Off” bus tour.  The city is quite small and I had slept in, so didn’t really have time to do any of the “hopping on and off” that I would have liked.  However, it gave me a good sense of the city of Reykjavik, a little history and some interesting buildings, statues and other historical bits and bobs. 

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I had a quick bite to eat at a cafe and then it was time for my “Golden Circle Tour.”  This was a small van, with a driver who was also our guide.  First stop was Thingvellir National Park, where the great Atlantic rift is slowly pulling Iceland apart – and it is clearly visible.  Every year, Iceland expands by 1 centimeter in either direction.  “Soon,” our guide joked, “We will become a major world power.”  It was pretty amazing to see the rift and imagine the land moving, slowly but inexorably.

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Thingvellir National Park is also the site of Iceland’s first Parliment in the year 930.  There are still ceremonial events held here.  It became a National Park in 1928 and there are numerous hiking trails and camp sites.  The rift has formed the largest natural lake in Iceland.  Many of the rifts are very deep and have incredibly clear water, making them popular with SCUBA divers.  The width of the little gift shop is supposed to show how far the plats have moved apart in the last 1,000 years.

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The next stop was Gullfoss Waterfall (meaning “Golden Falls.”)  This was stunningly beautiful, with an interesting history. .

During the first half of the 20th century,  there was much speculation about using Gullfoss to generate electricity. During this period, the waterfall was rented indirectly by its owners, Tómas Tómasson and Halldór Halldórsson, to foreign investors. However, the investors’ attempts were unsuccessful, partly due to lack of money. The waterfall was later sold to the state of Iceland. Even after it was sold, there were plans to utilize Hvítá, which would have changed the waterfall forever. This was not done, and now the waterfall is protected.

Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of Tómas Tómasson was determined to preserve the waterfall’s condition and even threatened to throw herself into the waterfall. A stone memorial to Sigriður, located above the falls, depicts her (rather severe) profile and the story is that she actually saved the waterfall…although this may not be entirely true.  There are paths built so you can walk along the top of the falls and steps to climb lower down.  By this time, the sun was trying to appear and it was really a spectacular sight.

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Finally, we arrived at the Great Geysir (pronouced “geezer.”)  This was the first geyser described in a printed source and the first known to modern Europeans. The name Geysir itself is derived from the Icelandic word “geysa” which means “to gush”, the verb from Old Norse.  There were actually several geysers, some more “regular” than others.  Most of them had names. You could smell the sulphur and feel the heat from the steam rising out of the ground.  We were warned not to get to close to the active ones. There were several pools of hot water that were almost unbelievably blue.  It was pretty cool.

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We were able to have a bite to eat at the cafe there and then it was time to head back.  The sky was still very light and the scenery was stunning.  We passed several herds of Icelandic “ponies” (although they call them “horses” – there is no word for “pony” in Icelandic.)  These are sturdy little creatures who can be trained not only to walk, trot and canter/gallop, but also to do an ambling gait called a “tölt” and a fast paced called a “flugskeið” or “flying gait.”  Up until relatively recently, there were no roads outside the city and these horses were the primary means of transportation.  They come in many colors and in the winter, they grow long, wooly coats. They still play a large part in Icelandic life.   (These pictures are from the internet…I was not able to get close enough to take any good pictures of the horses!)

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I was sorry to leave Iceland after such a short visit.  I plan to return when I can have a more leisurely trip (and visit the Penis Museum…)

And then, I was off to London!