Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Night in London

My daughter and I had 24 hours to immerse ourselves in London. A city filled with eye candy: Big Ben, the West End theatres, London Eye, London Bridge, and of course Buckingham Palace.  Ironically our feet never entered any of these iconic symbols and yet what unfolded was more profound and meaningful than anything with an entrance fee could hope to offer.  

It started with a gentleman in a grey bowler hat opening our cab door welcoming us to the posh St. Ermin’s Hotel.  Walking through the gold rimmed door was a feast for the eyes.  If Cyndi Lauper's funky wardrobe were to have a one night stand with the threads of Ralph Lauren, the frock's love-child would be the St. Ermin's.   Walking into the lobby felt like waltzing on to an elaborate wedding cake.  White ornate scroll work detailed the ceilings and walls.  Crystals dripped from the chandeliers.  Subtle hints of color, like plum colored sofas invited the passerby to sink into its cushions.  My daughter pointed out a sophisticated ruby colored table lamp.  It looked ready to waddle off at any moment, held up by long golden legs with duck feet.   Quirky or quacky, I’m not sure, but we loved these fanciful touches.  Not unlike a Graham Base children’s book, the longer you looked, the more you began to see.

Playing “I spy” in the hotel lobby is a natural past time.  This was the gathering place for real spies. It was also a favorite spot for Sir Winston Churchill and other members of the House of Parliament.   As the hotel’s website states, “In 1940 Winston Churchill, held a historic meeting at St. Ermin’s Hotel. He asked a group of remarkable people to join him in ‘Setting Europe Ablaze’ – this elite set, were to become the founding members of the SOE (Special Operations Executive). The unit carried out covert operations during WW2, from their headquarters – an entire floor of St. Ermin’s Hotel, whilst MI6 were stationed two floors above.”  There is even rumored to be a secret tunnel that runs from the hotel to the House of Parliament.  A bell was installed at the request of Sir Winston Churchill.  Since many of the Parliamentarians liked conversing over drinks at the Caxton Bar, the bell served as an alert when it was time to head back for voting.

“I spy” continued as we traveled up to our guest room.  The walls were a soothing shade of peridot with complimenting tones of cranberry and cream.    The room was both refreshing and inspiring.  As I poked around, I started to find little treasures.  It’s common to find coffee stations in hotel rooms, what’s not common is finding stainless steel push pot coffee makers, herbal teas, and heart-be-still, real half and half!  The marbled bathroom was beautiful and so big that when I sneezed, it echoed.  

As difficult as it was to leave the room, we headed out for Piccadilly Circus, the “Time Square” of London.  We watched as crowds whisked by, youthful energy buzzed around us.  After buying a few souvenirs we headed out to find a place to eat.  Fortunately my misguided steps got us lost and we stumbled into a quaint pub, The Greencoat Boy.  They had a wonderful assortment of traditional pub fare and a few Indian dishes as well.  The meal was delicious.  The wait staff was personable and friendly too.  Leaving the restaurant, we headed back to the hotel to find each pillow topped with a bumble bee, a CHOCOLATE bumble bee.    This was a subtle reference to the bee colony on the roof, another quirky touch.  After downing my chocolate I slipped on my robe and slippers.  My daughter pulled out a large bag of M&M’s from the M&M store in Piccadilly Circus, got settled into pajamas, and was given full access to the remote control.  She looked right in her element.  I’m not certain how long she stayed up, but I fell fast asleep in a bed fit for a Queen Bee.  

The next morning, after sipping freshly squeezed orange juice, filling our stomachs with sweet blueberry pancakes, we packed up our belongings. It was Sunday and our whirlwind trip was coming to a close.    Doing nothing in London is a pure delight when you’re surrounded by a host of cordial locals.  Sure, this trip was enhanced by our splurge on the St. Ermin’s Hotel,  but it’s really the people that define the overall experience.  London cab drivers, delightful, London hotel staff, superb, London police officers, priceless (especially patient w/ lost tourist), and everyone in between made us feel welcome.  My daughter was the icing on the cake.  How wonderful to see a hop in her pre-teen steps as she wandered beside me.  Her world opened a little more the day our steps got lost doing nothing in London.   And I had the pleasure of taking home the part of the experience that dazzled me most, my daughter.

Cultural Cocktail

Finding a location in southern Belgium to learn French wasn't easy.  It took an ugly pair of shoes, a prison, and being late to find where I belonged.   Following are the misguided events that led me to the SHAPE Language School.

My first attempt to learn the language of love left me speechless.  A French friend invited me over to her Italian friend’s house for a French conversational class.  The small group consisted of four Italians, my French friend, and me.  As soon as my dull penny loafers were greeted at the door, I knew I was out of my league.  The Italian women who welcomed me were dressed to kill!  Their shoes were shiny, inches high, and scuff free.  Their hair was perfectly coiffed, and their clothes impeccably perfect.  Hesitating with self-doubt, I humbly walked through the doorway.  Before the official class began we were treated to delicious homemade pastries and espresso, the espresso only added to my already nervous jitters.  Moving on, we jumped into our limited French.  It didn’t take long before something unexpected happened.  When one of the Italian women didn’t know French, they reverted to Italian.  I became the quiet woman in the room, with ugly loafers.  Eventually I began to relax and enjoy the sounds of both lyrical languages. It truly was amazing hearing them float from one romantic tongue to another.   As I looked around I noticed three things: these lovely women knew a lot more French than me, I fit the stereotype “American that only knows one language”, and it was time to ditch my flat rubber soled shoes!  As much as I would have liked for this to have been my spot, I knew I would only hold these trilingual ladies back.  Arrivederci.

My second attempt had me going in circles, literally.  The language school was in a downtown location and parking was an issue.  By my fourth circle I noticed the dark prison attached to the school.  This observation along with the high enrollment fee were signs, keep driving.  Au revoir.

My third and final attempt took me to the SHAPE Language Centre.
Our French instructor Sandy looked more like a French rock star than a teacher.  She dazzled not only with her eloquent French accent, but with her equally jubilant personality.  Not unlike the Italian ladies, she too dressed to impress.  Her sparkly rhinestone belt was only outdone by the mischievous twinkle in her eyes. This woman exuded a prideful passion for her native language.  It didn’t take long for Sandy to get across there would be no language other than French spoken.  There were many nationalities represented around the table: Americans, Canadians, Italians, British, Germans, and Lithuanians.  It was a cultural cocktail in a class.  

After stumbling through our introductions in a mosaic of broken French, we were divided into groups to practice one-on-one, uncomfortable and awkward, I can’t lie.  At the same time, it was reassuring that I was among others who were also determined to muck through the sloppy beginning stages of learning a new language.  I can honestly say it was Sandy’s positive demeanor and genuine smiles that enabled me to believe I had found the right place.  The French have a wonderful phrase, "sans soucis", which translates to “no worries”.  There are a multitude of challenges that come with settling into a new country. It was a relief to check one worry off my list.  Regardless of whether I choose to wear scruffy loafers or six inch heels, my feet found a suitable home in the SHAPE Language Centre…sans soucis!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Table for One

One night over a glass of wine my sister confessed how tired she was. She fantasized about checking into a hotel for one night, alone. I too was guilty of having the same fantasy. My mind raced to a scene in the movie Date Night (starring Tina Fey and Steve Carell). Tina Fey's character, in a moment of exhaustion seemed to verbally express what so many parents feel at the end of the day.

 "I fantasize about being alone. There are times when, on my worst day, I’ve thought about just leaving our house and going someplace quiet, like checking into a hotel. Checking into a room
all by myself, in a quiet, air conditioned room, sitting down, eating my lunch, with no one touching me-drinking a diet Sprite, by myself.
  She goes on to say, “Every day I get up, make breakfast, go to work, come home clean the house,pick up the kids, take them to soccer, pick them up from soccer, cook dinner, clean up, give the kids a bath and get them into their pajamas which is a fight every night—it’s a BIG SURPRISE to everyone every night that they have to wear pajamas!—and then after I have washed everybody else’s food and boogers off of me, I use whatever energy I have left to physically put myself into bed…”. Those words resonated like chiming church bells in my brain.

I put guilt aside and asked my husband to gift me one night. We’ve been married 15 years, I’ve never asked for a night alone. I could feel the guilt gurgling inside me. What was I thinking? It was too late; the words had already left my reluctant mouth. To my surprise he was not only understanding, but supportive. Without questioning why I needed a break from the rigors of raising four kids, he encouraged me to book a room.

Next up was deciding where to go. Brussels seemed to be the natural choice. It’s an easy train ride from where we live. The goal was to find a hotel that whispered, urban sanctuary and was easy walking distance to the Grand Place and Central Train Station. I wanted the security of being within a short stroll to museums and sites. Finding a place that catered to my vision wasn’t an easy task. Brussels is geared to the business traveler. Most of the hotels I found seemed to scream corporate, not soothing. After researching, I found my 24 hour retreat. Without a second thought, I booked it!

Hotel Le Dixseptième. This lovely boutique property consists of 24 rooms and suites. At one time it was a Spanish ambassador’s residence. It sits quietly on a tree lined street outside the Central Train Station. The neighborhood is home to numerous art galleries and antique shops. Perfect. Upon entering the hotel I was greeted with a warm smile by the hotel’s receptionist, Josephine. Josephine was courteous, professional and accommodating. She was a great first impression. With my room key in hand, I headed up the beautiful 17th century oak staircase.

Opening the door was a breath of fresh air. The colors were cool, calm, and serene. Shades of grey, cream, white, with subtle splashes of lavender were easy on my tired eyes. My nest for the night was refreshing. I was beginning to feel a sense of relaxation come over me. If it weren’t that I had called a head for dinner reservations, I could easily see myself slipping into the plush white robe and black L.D. monogrammed slippers waiting beside the bed, but I had a table waiting.

The restaurant I chose was called La Roue D’Or (The Wheel of Gold). It sits off an artery road from the Grand Place. Entering is a feast for the eyes. The ceilings are painted sea foam green with drifting, puffy, white clouds. The chandeliers add a touch of grandeur and offer a nice contrast to the dark wood. If you’re a fan of the surrealist painter Magritte, you will be in heaven. The entire restaurant is filled with touches of whimsy. Behind the bar you’ll find paintings of numerous men in bowler hats with striking blue eyes peering over a ledge. They seem playful and taunting. The visual feast continued as my meal arrived. The fish soup I ordered was accompanied with homemade butter toasted croutons made from French bread. The broth was think, rich, and filled with clams and tender white fish. Crumbling the croutons into the soup was comfort in a bowl, whimsically delicious! With a smile on my face and a full belly, I strolled back to my quiet oasis. I nestled in with a great book, before falling asleep.

The next morning I splurged on room service. It was well worth the Euros to have coffee and fresh bread delivered to the room. Breakfast was included in the room rate, but that would mean
I needed to get dressed and head down to the dining room. I really wanted the luxury of having time to enjoy my robe and slippers before having to leave them behind. As I sat reading my newspaper, enjoying my hot cup of coffee with frothy steamed milk, all I could think was how wonderful it all felt. No guilt, just simple pleasure.

Historic Eye Candy

Many tourists traveling to Paris look for a dose of sugar coated history by heading to the Palace of Versailles or the Palace of Fontainebleau. Both famous residences are dripping with opulent eye candy, but there is a hidden gem waiting patiently to be unwrapped by those interested in the private residence of one of Frances’ most famous couples. Malmaison, the country home of the Emperor and Empress of France, Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte.

Walking up to the chateau you’re consumed with aisles of roses and cone shaped topiaries. Even on the rain soaked day I arrived, the roses brought life to the surroundings. At its height, there were 250
different varieties of roses planted by the Empress and her gardeners. To say Josephine loved flowers is an understatement. It seems fitting the Empresses’ middle name would be Rose. Thirty years after the Empress’ death, a Russian Grand Duke named a rose in honor of Josephine called, “Souvenir de la Malmaison”. Today there are several floral scented perfumes bearing the Empress’s name. The day I went to Malmaison I had the pleasure of discovering a perfume made from an assortment of roses from Josephine’s garden.

Walking into the home felt oddly comfortable. Computers and telephones were replaced with writing desks and books. The space felt lived in. While much of the original furniture was auctioned off after Josephine’s death in 1814, the house is filled with period pieces, some original and many which came from the apartment she and Napoleon had in the Tuileries Palace. Every room holds reminders of the famous residents, like the Imperial bumblebee and eagle, the monogrammed letters “J” and “N”,and their numerous portraits. Most of the paintings on the walls are from the Empresses’ private collection. Many were given to her as gifts from Napoleon. Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques- Louis David resides within Malmaison. Originally commissioned by Charles IV, king of Spain to symbolize unity between the two countries, Napoleon was so touched by the king’s gesture, he requested three additional versions. There are details that may be missed at first glance, like the rocks in the lower left corner. If you look closely, you’ll see the names of Hannibal and KAROLVS MAGNVS IMP (Charlemagne), two other generals that crossed the Alps previous to Napoleon. This painting is a wonderful representation of how Napoleon viewed himself, larger than life.

Napoleon’s mahogany study leaves me almost speechless. At one time there were over 40,000 leather bound books lining the walls. More than 500 have been found and placed back upon the shelves. The original volumes bear the embossed emblem, “BP” for Bonaparte. Hidden behind mirrors is a private staircase leading up to the Emperor’s apartment. Everything in the study is scholarly, like the paintings of Homer and Voltaire and the medallions of Apollo and Minerva. Even after the couple’s divorce in 1809, Josephine was adamant that nothing change in her husband’s study.

Upstairs I found myself at a standstill within the Empress's Bedchamber. The room mimics a luxurious tent. Rich ruby red fabrics drape the walls. The focal point is a golden canopy bed topped with the Imperial eagle. It was here that Josephine died in 1814, four days after catching a cold while on a walk in the gardens of Malmaison with the Tsar of Russia. It is said her last word before dying was “Bonaparte”. Napoleon chose to visit Malmaison for two days after his escape from Elba. Even though he was no longer married to Josephine, he wanted to pay respect to the memory of his first wife before embarking on another military campaign, Waterloo.

Unfortunately the second floor was not open when I toured Malmaison. Had it been, I would have seen an assortment of clothing worn not only by the Empress, but would have also seen original pieces from her court’s attire. The second floor also has the “Train Room”. This space is dedicated to the lavishly long robes worn by Josephine’s court. Documented inventory shows the Empress at one time had 49 elaborate trains. She was known to select the colors for her train based solely on the furniture and wall coverings of the area she was attending. Josephine was notorious for her extravagant spending.

Last was a visit to the “Carriage Pavilion” on the grounds of Malmaison. There are two pieces of history you won’t want to miss: a remnant on wheels from the Battle of Waterloo, the carriage used by the Emperor, seized by the Prussian army on June 18th, 1815; and the hearse used on St. Helena for the Emperor’s funeral.

My daughter pointed out something unique before leaving. She guided me over to a beautiful painting just off the entrance. It wasn’t the painting’s beauty that caught her eye; it was the
location, perched on an easel in the corner of the room. What made the painting so spectacular was the fact this portrait of a family stood exactly where it was painted. You could see the fireplace in the background, the ornately painted walls, and the gold and crystal chandelier hanging above. With the exception of the subjects in the portrait, over 200 years later, nothing had changed within the room.
Time may not stand still, but I think in the case of Malmaison, if Josephine and Napoleon were to walk through the door, they would feel right at home too.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Pink Perfection

Before moving to Belgium, I had visions of peddling down cobblestone streets lined with windows dripping with colorful flower boxes.  When our airline tickets arrived, confirming our move, I knew my peddling dreams would come to reality.  I hadn’t owned a bike since I was 12.  My first bike was for my 5th birthday.  I named her “Daisy”.  We lived out in the country.  We could be found any given day rambling through the forest.  Daisy had a lovely plastic weaved basket that rested on the front handle bars.  I can still hear the pine cones rattling in her basket as we drove over sticks and tree roots . My heart skipped a beat when I realized that we were moving to a countryside that invited bicyclist to become an ornament within an already pretty landscape.   After 35 years, I believed my time to revive my jovial moments spent with Daisy were luring me back.

Reality set in fairly quick.  Shortly after landing, my husband and I couldn’t help but notice the insanity of drivers.  In addition, there were no bike paths along the narrow country roads where we live. After a year in Belgium, I can think of four people I know who have been in traffic accidents (myself included).  The combined knowledge of the accidents that exist and my first hand eye-witness accounts of mad drivers and crazy road conditions led me to the realization that having a bike wasn’t going to be quite what my rose colored glasses had envisioned.

Recently, as I was driving in the pouring down rain to pick up my husband from work, I noticed a pale pink bicycle tied to a tree.  On the front of the bike hung a lopsided handwritten sign that said, “20Euros”.   As quickly as my heart skipped a few beats, reality reared its head.  A two wheeling peddling machine just wouldn’t make sense.  I drove on, picked up my husband and thought about how lucky the person would be that swiped up such a bike.

The next day, as I drove, once again in the rain to pick up my husband I knew the bike would be gone.  I almost went another way, just so I wouldn’t have to be reminded of what wouldn’t be.  As I approached the area where the bike was, my eyes grew in disbelief.  There she sat, soaked in water.  The sign's black ink was smeared and dripping.  I knew without hesitation, this bike should be mine!  I drove down yet another, narrow street, the kind of street where two cars driving in opposing directions would have to face off and play the game of chicken.  I didn’t care.  I parked in front of the house and knocked on the door.  A frail woman answered the door.  I mustered up all the French I knew for this situation,”Velo pour vendre, Je voudre”, or “Bicycle for sale, I would like”.  The woman smiled.  It was the most beautiful smile I had seen with so few teeth.  She said her name was Monique.  We both walked together in the rain toward the bicycle.  I gave Monique 20Euros and in more broken French told her “J’aime rose velo, pour moi” or “I love rose bicycle, for me”.  Monique smiled and helped me load up my new piece of steel on wheels into my trunk. 

It’s been months since I purchased my happiness on wheels.  It has rained continually since, the road conditions have and will not change.  The potholes and narrow streets and crazy drivers will continue to exist.  More importantly, so will the little girl in me that will always remember the days of Daisy.  I may or may not ride my pink perfection on wheels, but the name on the bike gives me hope that I will, "Triumph".

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Le Cordon Bleu

Le Cordon Bleu sits unobtrusively among other 17th century buildings in Paris’ 15th arrondissement.  The exterior is somber.  I had expected something a little more glamorous.  The day I arrived, there were two tailored representatives greeting incoming visitors.  They politely led me to a waiting area.  Wide eyed and dismayed, all I could see were salmon colored chipped walls, cracked blue and white tile floors, and indoor awnings that desperately needed dusting.   How could this be the famed Le Cordon? As I moved up a flight of stairs I couldn’t help but notice the lopsided picture of Julia Child hanging on the wall.  I shuffled on, curious where this would lead.

Clarity began to arrive in the form of an individual, Chef Patrick Terrien.  Anyone that refers to a plate of vegetables as “A magical garden” immediately grabs my attention.  Sprinkle in phrases such as, “Brigitte Bardot at her peak”, and I find myself clinging to every playful word. Chef Terrien’s confidence in the kitchen was an unexpected delight.   It wasn’t his impressive culinary background that grabbed me, although it didn’t hurt.  To the untrained eye, you couldn't help but notice his careful precision and attention to detail. Every move was calculated, no motion wasted. He offered a rare glimpse of pure harmony.  A sprig of parsley becomes not just a sprig, but the final ornament to a perfectly plated dish. The seasoned chef coddles and hovers over his vegetable broth like it were an infant that needs guidance and nurturing. He often mentions his Grandmother’s culinary influence; her remembrance was always followed by a nostalgic grin. 

When it came time to indulge our taste buds, my eyes were focused on Chef Terrien.  I imagined he was waiting to see how the audience would react to his masterpiece. To my astonishment he was not interested in our reaction. While everyone delighted in their delectable dish of cod with spring vegetables, he stayed busy tenderly caring for his beloved broth and vegetables.  This man exuded self-assurance. A light began to flicker within my brain. His sense of satisfaction would never come from the audience.  He has nothing to prove.  Cooking is in his blood. I felt humbled for thinking he would be concerned with how the masses would react to his plated masterpiece.  Perfection it seems, does not need an audience approval.

My inadequate first impressions had been shrouded by current standards.  Current mind set dictates for something to be of value, it must be shiny, pretty and highly commercialized.  Le Cordon knows value does not reside in fresh coats of paint or flashy neon signs.  The famous culinary institution has earned wisdom which has led to something more defining, Character.  Not something a credit card can buy and certainly not something found within a home improvement store.  By the end of my visit, I left hoping the school would continue to place value where it belongs, on the talent that courses through the history filled walls.  In hindsight, 8 Rue Delhomme did not live up to my expectations, it exceeded them.  Turns out the “Magical garden” exists beyond the plate of vegetables. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Sweet Dream

I’ve often found physical similarities between couples that have been married for many years.  On a few rare occasions I’ve also found myself seeing similarities between furry canines and their human owners.  It wasn’t until recently that I noticed a building too, could take on an owners physical features.  
Our family has fallen in love with a dragon.  It sits happily indulging in several scoops of pastel colored ice cream.   It only took a week after arriving in Belgium to walk through the doors of what would become a family favorite.  The whimsical dragon brought us in, but the assortment of scrumptious confections has kept us going back.

Georges Doutrelepont’s shop sits contently off a busy street. Walking up to the front door, you’ll notice the immaculate lawn and sparkling windows. For a brief moment on our first visit, I hesitated bringing the kids inside (it looked too nice) I was glad I ignored my original impulse.  Eyes and noses are rewarded with temptation at every corner.  To the right you’ll find more than a dozen soft peaked domes of gelato flavors to tempt your palette.  Straight ahead the sweet perfume of dozens of handmade artisan chocolates quietly prompting, “Eat me, please”.   If your eyes make it past the chocolates, you’ll be rewarded with the colorful assortment of ice cream cakes, sitting proudly on a tiered pedestal.  After spending a morning in the kitchen with Mr. Doutrelepont, I began to discover the mystery behind what makes Georges Doutrelepont’s shop unique.

Ten years ago, Mr. Doutrelepont had a dream.  He dreamed of having his own Chocolatier/Glacier shop. He worked out of his basement in Brussels for three years developing and testing recipes.  He then traveled to the northern hills of Tuscany to study at the Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna. On his return he would select a location along with a signature trademark to coax the unknowing into his store. The playful dragon prompting those that pass by to stop in has a unique story.  Mr. Doutrelepont’s great-great Grandfather operated a successful brewery in the Ardennes, at one time employing over 120.  Proudly, he tells me the dragon was his hometown’s symbol.  The brewery his great-great Grandfather owned used the dragon on their beer labels.  It was only natural for Mr. Doutrelepont to do the same.   The fact the local area’s emblem is a Dragon, only added to the appeal.

If you fancy eating around the world without needing your passport, you’ll appreciate the lengths Mr. Doutrelepont has gone through to ensure your taste buds are not disappointed.  He only uses the best ingredients: almonds from Portugal, hazelnuts from the Piedmont region in Italy, pistachios from Sicily, and vanilla from Madagascar.  

As I watch him cut a sheet of almond paste into perfect little squares, it dawns on me his attention to detail carries through in everything he touches. The hundreds of perfectly lined chocolate molds against the wall, the neatly arranged circular cake rings lining the gelato room, his crisp white chef’s coat and neatly parted hair, these are all signs of his quest for perfection as well.   When I ask if he feels customers have an appreciation for the time involved in the production of one praline, without hesitation he confidently says, it doesn’t matter.  His personal drive for quality is what pushes him to provide the best product available.   Mr. Doutrelepont went on to explain how important it was in finding the perfect architect to build the structure that would house his dream.  He insisted on quality that would last through future generations.  I couldn’t help but feel Mr. Doutrelepont is rooted within the mortar of his dream.  Not unlike the building's façade and interior, Mr. Doutrelepont too, strives for quality and providing his customers a product that will stand the test of time.  The building and its owner are structurally sound.

Chefs have a phrase, “Mise en place”.  This phrase translates to “Everything in place”.  After spending a sunny Friday morning in Georges Doutrelepont’s Chocolatier/Glacier shop, it’s apparent he lives by this motto.  From the building’s tidy entrance to the impeccably clean kitchen, to the delectable treats inside, it’s clear all is in place within this sweet shop. Next time you see the unassuming building with the silly dragon licking ice cream scoops, you may want to stop the car.  And I must say, it’s pretty amazing walking into someone else’s dream.