A Day with Monet

window, monet, jardin, giverny

As the rain falls this morning in Chicago, it is difficult to believe that seven days ago I was looking out the hotel window at the mist making everything it touched glisten in Paris.

Wednesday was supposed to be the best day weather-wise during our stint in Paris. The plan was to seize the good weather day and visit Giverny, the home and jardin of Claude Monet.

We landed in Paris on Monday and were greeted not with a warm accolade, but with a gray, drizzly day. The next day was more of the same with temperatures in the low 60s.

The forecast promised Wednesday being warmer and sunnier until Tuesday night when the fickle European winds shifted. We discussed visiting Giverny another day, but opted to go anyway.

Giverny is an hour to the northwest of Paris. There are regional trains that make the voyage. You are supposed to buy the tickets in advance versus on board. I say supposed to because we purchased ours, which are reasonably expensive (about 30 euros RT), got on board only to never have the tickets checked. This was the third time we had purchased train tickets which went unchecked.

Tip: Use train time as nap time. Make sure to set an alarm for when you should be arriving.

The train stops in Vernon. From there you exit and can take a shuttle bus (4 euros each way), rent a bike or walk an hour. It was raining and we were light on time, so we paid the 8 euros for the RT bus. If it had been nicer we may have walked. The bus winds its way through the streets and over a bridge before burping out the tourists. The parking lot was filled with other tourist buses. Beyond the parking lot is a lush open field. There are paths toward the house and an Impressionist museum.

Meandering through old homes and quaint tourist shops, we found our way to the main attraction. We purchased the Paris Museum Pass, but discovered Monet’s house and garden are not included in the list of venues. To the back of the line we went. Admission is 9-10 euros. You can buy tickets in advance and save yourself time waiting in line.

Once through the gift shop you enter the garden. THE jardin. It takes a few moments to realize you are in Monet’s garden. You see some pretty flowers. The garden is a large grid, with rows and rows of vibrant blues, greens, purples, yellows, reds. Every color you could put on a painter’s palette. As I walked deeper into the flowers and trellises, I began to appreciate and accept the magnitude of where I was.

Starting and stalling to avoid photoboming someone else’s photo, I made my way toward the lily pond. You go through a tunnel and come up steps to see the pond replete with water lilies.

I slowly panned right to left, taking it all in. I was in Monet’s paintings. THIS is what he looked at and painted countless times. The rain started to increase, creating ripples in the pond, blurring the previous crispness of the leaves and lilies. The visitors opened their multi-colored umbrellas, which now resembled the array of flowers that preceded the pond.

We lingered here for a while absorbing the serenity of the water garden., listening to the sound of the frogs. For the past week and a half we had been running around from museum to ancient site. We had taken time to relax and enjoy each of the previous cities, but for me, the garden was an oasis to recharge. We sat for a bit on a bench that was kept dry by the overhanging tree.

Eventually we slowly strolled our way back to the tunnel, through the garden and into Monet’s house. A man at the door gave us a plastic bag for our lightly dripping umbrella and told us “no pictures.”

To the left of the entrance is a room of paintings, then Monet’s studio with large, open windows looking out on the garden. I still can’t fully fathom that I was standing in the room where Monet painted impressionist masterpieces, revered to be one of the masters of art.

His bedroom is upstairs, directly over his studio. It also has large windows that look out onto the garden. The house isn’t that large. It’s no Versailles. Back down the stairs and through the kitchen before exiting. Naturally, I snapped a pic of the kitchen on our way out. I wonder if Monet would’ve liked my cooking. Or if Monet was a cook.

The gift shop has an array of Monet offerings, everything from books to bobble heads to prints and calendars.

We found our way back to the shuttle bus, then train station and Paris. Our next stop was Musée de l’Orangerie. This is covered by the Paris Museum Pass and is home to “Les Nymphéas.” These are amazing and I highly recommend this 1-2 itinerary if you are interested in impressionism.

We started the day seeing the flowers and garden that inspired Monet. Then followed it up with seeing his panoramic lily paintings housed at l’Orangerie.

As I look out the window to my backyard, I don’t see a vast, colorful garden or a water lily pond like Monet’s. Instead I see a patch of pale green grass that stands a little taller because the lawn mower ran out of gas last night. But if I close my eyes, the sound of the light rain takes me back to that rainy day in Giverny with Monet.

Do you hear the bells?

“Leann. Your phone is going off.”

“Huh?” She said groggily. “That’s not my phone.”

This morning, our last in Venice before flying to the city of lights, started with the familiar sound of bells faintly chiming. I mistook them for the alarm set on the phone and woke up my regazza. It wasn’t her alarm, but the real bells. It was 7am. Our water taxi out of Venice departed at 6:50.

After a Home Alone moment, we jumped into the clothes we had set out for today, hurriedly ransacked the room (like Venetians and their gold booty), and charged down the stairs and out into the misty morning. I managed to twist my ankle on the last stair.

Taking a boat to a plane seems like the Kanye thing to do. The boat/cabbie was bumping hits like “baby come back.” He was one Adele song away from making me ask if he wanted to talk about the breakup.

The previous day in Venice was lackluster. We wandered around the city, shuffling behind tourist groups and couples. The canal is pretty and the abundance of bridges is a neat feature. The absence of crazed drivers on Vespas was a welcomed respite. If Venice were in Redfin it would easily receive a walker score of 100. There are water taxis and your feet. Those are your transport choices.

The ongoing struggle with Venice, and the other Italian cities, was where to eat. I don’t often eat out so having to choose where to eat twice a day is taxing, especially when Chipotle isn’t an option. Most of our time was spent wandering the streets looking at menus.

Venice has its perks and can serve as a delineator for what type of traveler you are.

Do you like to make lists?
Are you a fast walker?
Do you like going with the flow? (Or “flowing with the go” as my friend Marissa learned from an author of a book by that name)
Do you walk around a new city seeing it through your iPad?

Venice is well suited for those looking to unwind or those ok with not having plans. One of the challenges is finding a particular address or place. The streets wind like a massive rat maze, replete with cheese shops. During our first dinner in Venice, I spotted a mouse scurrying out of the darkness around the corner. In that moment I commiserated with that mouse. For the majority of my time on the island, I was darting around looking for sustenance.

After the Murano incident and our general meandering, we decided to try one last time to find a particular restaurant. It had been rated highly on yelp and was in Cannaregio, an area my boss recommended as being a hot spot for the remaining locals. I asked our concierge, who had a penchant for whispering, if he could call the restaurant to make sure it was open. He gladly assisted us and informed us we had until 9. That gave us 60 minutes to find our way. Pressure cooker.

Uncharacteristically, I successfully navigated our way to the area (the top part of the fish). We eventually spotted the restaurant and sat down outside for our last supper. Leann chose tortellini in a cream sauce with prosciutto. I went Jesus style. Linguine alla pescatoro.

The dinner was good and our most substantial amount of food. Leading up to that dinner we had eaten: yogurt, croissant, mini sandwiches, two nectarines and a creme-filled donut. The food came out Taco Bell drive-thru fast. Maybe I’m just going though taco withdrawal. It’s been 10 days since I’ve had Mexican food.

The evening was the perfect temperature for pants and a tshirt. The food was fresh, good and fairly priced. We lingered finishing our half liter of vino rosso. Then we wandered into the maze one last time. Eventually we found our way to piazza San Marco to shake off the rose and laser pen salesmen, and to take in the orchestral sounds one last night.

Venice was a reminder to relax. You’re on vacation and there’s nowhere you have to be. Enjoy wandering. Enjoy stumbling on a scenic view. Enjoy the charm or reconstructed Byzantine architecture. Just enjoy being alive.

All too soon I’ll have to return to the real world of scheduled conference calls, navigating the streets I know and the suburban sprawl I call home. But for now, I’ll bid Venezia arrivederci and grazie mille for the reminder to enjoy being a tourist. 20140526-172052-62452856.jpg20140526-172053-62453289.jpg20140526-172052-62452533.jpg

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Day trippin' to Murano

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Venice doesn’t offer a ton of attractions for travelers in their 20s. This is the last year I can identify as being in that age bracket so I should use it while I still can.

Coming after Roma and Firenze, Venezia was a choppy gondola ride of emotions. Rome is epic and has more potential itinerary items than you can list. Florence had a more relaxed pace, but still offered extensive cultural and sightseeing locales.

After half a day in Venice I felt I had seen all I needed to. Venice is aptly described as an old world theme park.

In 24 hours I saw four people crying.

The island comes complete with a Hard Rock Cafe and Disney store, if you should miss the comforts of commercialism. The largest irritant was that nearly no one speaks Italian to you. After day one, I had my fill of Venice.

This morning, in an effort to do something off the guidebook, we ventured out at 5am to see the sunrise. The streets were empty. It was refreshing to not be stuck behind tourist mobs. The emptiness allowed us to appreciate the beauty of the city as the sun rose.

After stopping to see San Marco Basilica, we decided to head to Murano to see glass blowing. We attempted to see a demo near the basilica but the shop only offered tours for groups or if you physically had rick Steve’s book. I tried claiming we left it at the hotel, but the man told us to go get the book and we could see the demo. One problem: that book is back at the library we got it. In the United States. Of America.

Off we went to Murano. The hour plus boat ride took us to another quiet, not über touristy island. I multitasked and fell asleep on the boat. We ran into one problem once at Murano. All the shops close at 4, with none offering demos. It was 4:10. Walking to all the closing shops reminded me of Miss Swan from MadTV.

The only meal consumed today was breakfast; then we grabbed nectarines and had mini sandwiches we made from cold cuts at breakfast. We looked for a place to eat on Murano but all the food appeared to be reheated pizza. We snagged a donut and €3 bottle of water before catching the water taxi back to Venice.
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Could we salvage the stint in Venice and end on a high note? Check back tomorrow for the dramatic conclusion of Andrew’s Euro-Venture.

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Levata del sole a Venezia

Venice

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Play this while reading: I’ll follow the sun

As the day draws to a close in the states a new one is starting in Venice. To my friends back home I offer these pictures to inspire your tomorrow dreams.

I’ve had a goal for a long time to see the sunrise and sunset on an island. Venice offers the perfect opportunity to see both in a day. Thankfully my bladder woke me at 5:04 local time. Daylight was starting to creep through the transparent white draperies as I checked my phone to see when sunrise was. I had 20 minutes to hustle to the sun.

I woke up Leann to ask if she’d like to join. Groggily, she agreed.

“And we can get donuts.” I added.

“Why didn’t you lead with that?!” She replied.

We wandered around and I snagged these shots. The streets were empty, save the runners and dog walkers. A few women opened their window shutters as we walked along the water. One couple was getting gelato.

On our return trip, the garbage men and gondoliers prepared for another day of tourists.

I hope you have a great day ahead.

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Llévame a los Tacos!

fish taco

mexico, travel, tijuanaThere comes a time in every man’s life when he’s standing at a border. On one side, safety and predictability; on the other, risk and new experiences. If any of you had read my online dating profile, you may recall that I wrongfully claimed I “loved variety” and “new experiences.”

In my case, my border was the legitimate border between the US and Mexico. Conservatively, I have been warned no less than 17 times about going to Tijuana.

“There are men with guns!” my aunt had cautioned.

“It’s filthy,” someone else said.

“Watch your wallet…Don’t take anything you wouldn’t be comfortable leaving in Mexico.”

I looked at my new iPhone for a good minute. Then tucked it in my pocket.

After visiting vineyards in Sonoma and almond orchards in Bakersfield, we were one grow house away from completing the agricultural trifecta.

While planning the trip, we looked at a map and the proximity of Mexico. We can skip over my undying love for Mexican food. The prospect of getting my first passport stamp was also alluring. Plus, we had a half day free to explore. All those tortilla chips started to tip the scale.

The day started meeting Toussaint, a med student in the area, for breakfast. I’d already eaten, since my threshold for sustenance is six minutes after waking up. I ordered a bagel and everyone else got oatmeal. We shared our plan to cross the border and asked about safety. Our breakfast companion, originally from the Dominican Republic, said it’s fine during the daytime, but warned that coming back across the border could take hours via car.

While eating Michelle’s unguarded bowl of oatmeal, I said it might be my last meal and I didn’t know how long they’d hold me in a Mexican prison. Toussaint possesses a laugh that fills a room. It’s more than a laugh. Almost a guffaw. I’d credit the acoustics of the colorful café in Chula Vista, but I’m rather certain his sincere, bellowing crescendo of a laugh would fill even the most boisterous environment.

It has been confirmed by nearly all my friends that I wouldn’t fare well in prison. Let alone an international prison where the only words I know are for la comida. My best shot of survival would be ingratiating myself with a cell mate involved in food service.

We finished potentially our last meal and went to pay the check. The waiter had a perfectly manicured beard and a baseball hat on backwards. Displaying our uncertainty about the adventure, we also asked him about crossing the border. He advised to park the car on the US side, facing North and to cross the border on foot.

Perhaps my brain has been influenced by nightly new footage, but I envisioned the border being a large fence with barbed wire. Instead the border was a large cement wall. Perhaps there was barbed wire at the top. But the only barrier to leaving the US was a metal revolving gate, like one you’d see at your high school track. Yes. Yes, it is that easy to leave the US.

My first sight once in Mexico? Two men with riffles. I’m guessing they are riffles. They were big and I’m nearly certain they weren’t water guns. A very small part of me hoped there would be a welcoming committee with tortas and tacos. Didn’t someone tell them me and mi estomago were coming?

¡Bienvenidos Tijuana! My first impression was that Mexico was like a more rundown version of a fringe neighborhood in Chicago. I felt like Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny when he arrives in the south. I know I stuck out. Sadly, I never learned how to say “Oh shit” en español. There was an armada of cabs just past the border. Fortunately for me, Michelle is fluent in Spanish. I’m normally verbose but the surefire way to make me go mute is to take me to a land where I don’t speak the language. The cab drivers had matching uniforms and reminded me of ticket scalpers. Meech negotiated the rate and we hopped in the cab.

Now I know where cars from the ’80s go to die.

Everyone who had a shop or a cab tried to get us to spend our money with them. For $5, the driver took us to downtown Tijuana. It was a strange experience. I didn’t totally feel like I was in another country and it certainly wasn’t Canada. Maybe it was the fact that I was able to walk right in.

Once in downtown TJ, we walked around and I took in the sights and smells. The shops were a rotation of bar, tourist/t-shirt shop, discounted drugs, and taqueria. For some reason the smells also cycled between food and feces/garbage.

We made our way to la iglesia. Prayers of thanksgiving and prayers for safety were in order. For the middle of a Thursday afternoon, there were a fair amount of people inside the open-air church. It had a lot more statues of saints and a ton more candles. There was one corner that housed a statue behind glass. Surrounding the statue were black and white pictures of women. The flyers were for people that are missing.

We returned to the streets and went into a photography museum. The exhibit highlighted scenes from Mexico’s battle for independence, with military generals posing. One man had a face that screamed, “Don’t even think of putting this on Instagram!”

After all that tourist activity, I was in need of some fuel. What would a trip to Mexico be without food? Earlier in the day we had asked what the exchange rate was so we had an idea what things cost. The taqueria offered three tacos for the equivalent of $1. ME GUSTA! TODOS TACOS! We had a sampling of pollo, carne asada y pescado. Now I can say I’ve had tacos tradicional.

Our final stop in TJ was a little coffee shop. I’d gotten my fix on tacos, now it was Michelle’s turn. Since she knew the language, she started conversing with the barista. Show off! Another man was seated behind us in the small, but cozy café. Meech had mentioned that it was my first trip to Mexico and they started discussing Tijuana.

We joined Tony Barragan at his table. He had his laptop, a cup of coffee and his Blackberry resting atop a book. He asked me if I spoke Spanish and I told him I understand it but don’t speak it that well. Kindly, he started speaking in English. He urged us to go to Rosarito to get a better impression of Mexico than Tijuana. Tony gave us specific instructions on where to go and how much it should cost. He was our Mexican Jeremy! Instead of the wiggle, Tony advised us on cabs to Rosarito Beach.

But before we left, we talked with Tony for nearly an hour. We learned about his life and how he became a model scout. He started ditching school and would design window displays. One of the standout moments of the entire trip was when he told us about a model he discovered while walking the streets of TJ. Tony spotted a man washing cars. “And he was gorg-eous.” Tony went up to him and informed him that he was a model scout and he wanted him to come to his office to take some shots. The car washer was aggressive toward Tony and ignored his offer. But the he ended up showing up to Tony’s office when he was told. Tony took some shots and an agency in New York was interested in seeing the newly discovered model. Tony told them he wasn’t ready, but they insisted. Reluctantly, Tony sent him. Once setup in New York, the model was to go to meetings at the agency. While walking around New York, he saw a sign at a construction site looking for workers. In exchange for a day’s work, he would receive $100. He ended up working at the site and not going to his meetings.

The agency reached out to Tony sharing their displeasure. Once the model was back in Mexico he met with Tony and said how the accommodations weren’t good enough for him. At this point, Tony mimed taking off earrings and tucking them in his shirt before executing a perfect Z snap.

After some training and polishing, that car washer is now traveling the globe and will be walking in a show in Milan.

Sadly, neither of us stood out to be global models. But Tony gave us his phone number in case we got into any trouble. We stepped outside  and Michelle asked me what we should do. I mentally went through how much cash we had. We weighed our options, checked the time, then got in a yellow van for Rosarito.

Forty-Five Minutes in LA

time, clock, LA, union stationDoes the term “layover” only apply to flights?

On our interpretation of The Odyssey–or Plains, Trains & Automobiles for those that don’t care for Greek– we had a layover in Los Angeles. The Spaniards must have been horrible prophets or have a deep love for irony. LA is far from a repository for the pious and devout. This was my second visit to Lalaland. The first was during spring break my senior year of college, and included seeing The Price is Right before Bob Barker retired. Continue reading Forty-Five Minutes in LA

Down on the Nut Farm

Dream car. 1955 Porsche Continental

On our wiggle toward the border from San Francisco, we stopped outside of Bakersfield to visit my bestie’s (we both refer to each other as bestie) parent’s. After a 6 hour train ride from Oakland, we arrived in Wasco, the former rose capital. Here are a few shots from life on the almond farm.

Next up on Bachelor Basics: Almond Farming 101. I had a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the life of an almond, from planting, to processing, to packaging.

I’m nuts and I know it. But so long as I make ’em laugh, they ain’t going to lock me up.
Red Skelton