Surrealism on the banks of the Rhine

Basel is full of surprises. And it is fitting that one of the twentieth century’s most surprising artists, Jean Tinguely (1925 – 1991), grew up here. Known for his avant garde sculptures that mock the machine age, Tinguely was also a painter and something of a philosopher in the “Dada” or surrealist tradition. His work is playful, ironic, and at times, menacing. Mostly, it simply delights.

When I suggested a visit to the the Kuntsmuseum, Basel’s main art museum, I could see Mohammed’s eyes glaze over. So, the Tinguely Museum in Klein Basel seemed a better choice. It proved to be a completely joyful romp!

Designed by Mario Botta, an architect from the Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, the building itself is a work of art. Set on the banks of the Rhine River, it perfectly showcases the “metamechanics” Tinguely created – everything from chairs, to chandeliers, to roaring racing cars, to cannons, and perhaps most famously, fountains.

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We arrived at the same time as a little boy and his grandmother, and he dashed through the galleries, deftly pushing the floor pedals that operate these whimsical creations. Once a pedal is pushed, the sculpture roars to life, and it cannot be restarted for a fixed period to save wear and tear. So we followed in the boy’s footsteps, led by his laughter and sing-song Basel dialect as he exclaimed over each new delight.

When the hammer came down on the head of the furry blue creature, we all cracked up. One of the guards alerted us when enough time had passed so that we could have a turn pushing the pedals and bring the kinetic sculptures to life. Mohammed was entranced. We went from gallery to gallery playing with Tinguely’s strange creations.

At last, we made our way to the cafe, where the waiter suggested a wonderful wine from the Ticino – a white Merlot  – not something I’d ever run across. It was lively, fruity yet dry, and absolutely delish!

A transplant from Sicily, our waiter now lives in Basel with his wife and six-year-old daughter, and he insisted on giving us a precious little panna cotta topped with raspberry glaze. And so we had dessert before dinner. Yum!

Thus fortified, we walked across the bridge and returned to the Gross Basel side of the Rhine. There, we found ourselves inexorably drawn back to the Goldenen Sternen for dinner on the outside terrace. Mohammed had the lamb, and I had the plate of the day, veal with traditional spatzle, a wonderful egg pasta with herbs.

We walked back to Adlerstrasse in the dusk, through St. Albans Tor, and then on the gravel path of Gelertstrasse, where Baslers walk their very well behaved dogs. Walking everywhere during our stay has taught me so much I missed about Basel in my initial year abroad. Back then, I usually took the tram. One of the delights of this trip in addition to great food, great art, and great company, has been getting lost in this delightful city.

 

 

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Tango on the banks of the Seine!

Our final day in Paris was sunny and hot. Blazingly so! Saturday’s Techno Parade 2016 meant that bridges were blocked by police barricades. A gendarme searched my backpack and when I asked in my best high school French what was going on, explained about the parade, and gave permission for me to cross.

I walked across a deserted bridge to the left bank. Unable to cross to the right bank, traffic on the left bank metastasized quickly. Cars inched along honking like angry geese, crazed motorcyclists took to the sidewalks, skittish pedestrians were assaulted by sirens and dodged cars at every intersection. Even the bicyclists were cranky!

The Boulevard St. Germain was chock-a-block with shoppers, so I dodged into a shady alley and stumbled upon a wonderful bistro, Relais Odeon, where a glass of crisp white wine and a dish of Pad Thai, French style, revived my wilted spirits. My waiter explained that the French word for a cute, small boy was “mignon,” after I mistakenly said the boy at the neighboring table was “jolie.” He asked if I thought he was mignon, and we had a good laugh, because, in his way, he was – totally adorable – even when harassed by impatient customers inside the bistro and out!

Mohammed had been exploring the Latin Quarter, and met me as I was finishing lunch. We strolled the adjoining cobblestone lane peering into shop windows, savoring the shade and relative peace.

But once we emerged on Boulevard Saint Michel, the chaos and noise were overwhelming. To escape, I descended to the banks of the Seine. Our river cruise the previous day had alerted me to places I wanted to explore. Mohammed chose to stick to the streets. So be it! I couldn’t stand another moment of the madness. And the Seine rewarded me with strolling families, lovers entangled on benches, and in the Jardin Tino Rossi  among the sculptures, dancers!

imageTango has to be the sexiest dance ever invented. People one might pass on the street unnoticed suddenly become gods and goddesses when entwined in each other’s arms, legs and feet paralleling an intimate ballet.  It was  magical, and like the moment with the birds in the Marais, totally unforgettable.

As the tour boats swept up the Seine behind the dancers, I was reminded of our river cruise the day before. We had come by guided bus tour, the one provided by the city of Paris tourist agency, and it was a bumpy, hot ride with a focus on all the major monuments, most of which have some military history or significance. I was duly awed, but a bit bored. How many times can one consider the exploits of Napoleon or the planning genius of Haussmann?

But once we reached the river and boarded our boat, everything changed. A light breeze bathed our faces and flattened our clothes. The light gilded the water, the clouds pouffed like meringue, the moment opened and expanded so that even monuments like the Eiffel Tower that have become visual cliches became stunningly beautiful.

When we had our fill of the dancers and the river that hot afternoon, it was already twilight, so we walked back across the Pont Marie and made our way to a falafel joint in the Marais. There, we ate street food and drank the only less than stellar wine of the entire trip, but it didn’t matter. I still had tango music in my step.

So back we went to our apartment to pack and organize ourselves for the train trip to Basel the following morning. More on that in an upcoming post. For now, drink in the beauty of the Seine. I am!

Walking down memory lane

Basel is a place that will always be dear to me. I first came here as a 20-year-old college student on a junior year abroad. Totally unfamiliar with the history and lore of this city, I was plunged into a world of medieval lanes, a red sandstone Munster (cathedral), an annual celebration with fife and drums corps, outsize masks, and traditional foods that lasts for a week and is a cross between Mardi Gras and an informal roast of all things proper called “Fasnacht.” I had the good fortune to live with a wonderful family, the Metzgers, and to become one of their adopted American daughters. One could call it culture shock, or love at first sight – it was both!

Returning now, 48 years later, almost to the day, I am overwhelmed and in love all over again with this quirky beautiful place. Found at the very heart of Europe, wedged between France and Germany, Basel may be one of the most unique cities on the planet. Here the local dialect is a sing-song mixture of cockney-fied German, idiomatic expressions and puns, with French words thrown in for good measure.

One is much better off not attempting high German here! English is more acceptable to the independent-minded Swiss. Basel is justly proud of its traditions, its medieval Old Town, its art museums, its famous Big Pharma (Roche and Novartis are headquartered here), its banks, and its culture, high and low.

During our first full day here, we were led to the Old Town by my Swiss mother, Ingrid, always an adventurer, who now gets around on a motorized scooter.

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Ingrid took me under her wing when I was naive but attempting to be all too worldly wise, and helped put a solid foundation under the feet of a homesick girl. The year was 1968, a time of great upheaval, and Ingrid and her husband Martin generously allowed me to become part of their young family – Katrin, Maja (after whom my lovely Maya was named) and Lucas – became my adopted siblings.

What a time we had! Looking through the old photo albums of family dinners, birthday parties, Christmas, and uncountable Sunday hikes, I feel – again and more deeply – how terribly lucky I was to land with the Metzgers on Adlerstrasse. This is my third trip  back and each time I am again welcomed like a daughter.

Ingrid took us to the Old Town via St. Alban-Tal, past the original city wall and the Paper Mill Museum which originally began producing paper in 1453.

Mohammed and I had to walk quickly to keep up! Ingrid buzzes about like a Mayfly on her scooter, pausing only for us to catch up before she zooms off again. She treated us to coffee creme at one of the most famous Basel restaurants, Gasthof zum Goldenen Sternen (the Golden Star Guest House) which sits facing the Rhine River.

Then she buzzed off home, and we wandered the streets of Basel, where I once again marveled at what good builders the Swiss are. Everything here lasts! Most of the buildings in the Old Town were constructed between the 14th and 16th centuries, yet they stand, proud as always above the river. We crossed the Mittlere Brucke  (middle bridge) over the Rhine and wound up wandering along the river, much as we had done along the banks of the Seine in Paris.

Here one finds cafes a plenty, and we stopped at the East West Hotel cafe to sit at one of the wooden picnic tables and enjoy a snack, Basel-style. We could see the traditional Basel ferries crossing the river from the Munster on the city side, or Gross Basel (literally Big Basel) to Klein Basel (Little Basel) where we sat enjoying the sunshine and an amazing apple tart.

 

Then we walked back to Adlerstrasse using the shortcuts and winding paths Ingrid had shown us, logging more than eleven miles that day. It was splendid to be back in this unique place and equally splendid to share it with Mohammed.

Sketches of the Marais

Monumental Paris – the Louvre, the Arc d’Triumph, the Eiffel Tower – inspire awe. But the neighborhoods of Paris inspire devotion. Strolling the streets, lanes, and courtyards of the Marais, we stumbled on one treasure after another. Friends had alerted me, but nothing quite prepares you for the overwhelming sensory stimulation. I felt every inch of this neighborhood in my nerve endings. It was pure pleasure!

Our day began at L’Amuse Gueule over cappuccino and a latte.

From there, we continued up Rue de Francs Bourgeois and stumbled upon a small neighborhood park, Square Charles-Victor-Langlois, where residents were eating lunch on the weathered benches. The sparrows were feasting too! Chests fluffed, these intrepid little birds hopped at our feet, but then flocked to a neighboring bench for provender.

I was hoping for a St. Francis of Assisi moment, and our neighbor generously shared his sandwich with them. It is odd, the moments that stick, and this is one of them. Completely ordinary and utterly tranquil.

Mohammed clucked at the birds, and some hopped our way, but as soon as our neighbor left the park to return to his office, they ascended to the trees behind us.

From the park, we wandered along the street, window shopping. After several detours, including the delicious Ted Baker boutique, we made our way to the Place des Voges,  the oldest planned square in Paris. Perfectly symmetrical, with four identical fountains in the four corners, neat rows of plane trees that would make an obsessive compulsive proud, and identical townhouses ringing the square, it was peopled with picnickers and sun worshippers, and one older couple reading actual printed books!

Mohammed and I had each bought sketch books and it was lovely to get out from behind the iPhone and simply observe. Here are our drawings…

By then, we were hungry! We consulted our “nearby me” options and headed to Chez Janou, a Provençal bistro, a few blocks from the square. This little treasure is tucked away in a quiet corner, with an ivy-laden patio, and some of the brightest, most delicious food we have yet sampled. And, an all-you-can-eat turine of chocolate mousse. Incroyable!

We did not order this masterpiece, but a young couple two tables over did. They offered to share, since we had sensibly ordered the peaches with rosemary, and not the chocolate. While the peaches did not disappoint, the mousse was irresistible, so we accepted two heaping tablespoons and, voila, total bliss.

After a two-hour lunch, the norm in Paris, we wandered back to the square, and then to the Musee Carnavalet. There, we took refuge on a stone bench and watched as a group of school children scattered like our earlier sparrows among the plants and textile hangings. A teacher sternly called them to order.

After a brief rest, on we went, wandering into courtyards, shops, and hidden squares. By six o’clock, we were in a haze of sensory overload, and ambled home via the Seine, totally in love with Paris “on the ground.”

 

And so it begins…

This is a travel blog. But it’s also a love story. So let’s call this a “blovy.” For months I’ve struggled to get my beloved, Mohammed, to get as engaged, (ahem) possibly obsessed, as I was with planning a trip to Europe. In despair, I turned to my daughter Meghan to complain that he just wasn’t into it. She laughed. “Mom, what man do you know who plans like a woman?”

Thus began my long journey of surrender. I would have to plan our trip. I read. I researched. I scoured websites and cajoled friends into sharing their European travel secrets. And then I called my wonderful travel agent at Elizabeth Holmes Travel, Joy Bjork. Sure, I watched Rick Steves videos – travel porn – and sure I booked some apartments on VRBO. But when the reality hit that we’d be visiting nine locations in three countries – I let the agency book trains, cars, and smaller hotels for the stops in between VRBO havens.

Mohammed and I met later in our lives. Neither one of us is going to change. I’m a driver, a planner, a gal who gets shit done, who prizes efficiency. Mo is a live-in-the-moment guy, very amiable, sometimes hilarious. Sometimes a bit daffy. I love this guy to pieces. But in the days leading up to departure, he drove me nuts! He went out shopping for suitcases five days before we left! My suitcase was bought, packed, and tested on a recent flight to my home town, Cleveland back in August!

I spent three hours typing our itinerary, including live links to the websites of all the places we’re staying, not only so we could figure out that if it’s Tuesday, this must be Lourmarin (a great little village in Provence), but also so that our loved ones could track us down. Then I put together a binder with all of our train tickets and car reservations in order, plus maps, travel insurance, the whole shebang.

Now, we find ourselves in Paris. In a mere nine hours of jet travel, we’ve gone through the looking glass into a new realm. I’m dazed and amazed, punch drunk with beauty.

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Walk across the Pont Neuf our first night in Paris

 

Continue reading “And so it begins…”

Overcast in Paris

 

The “city of light” is gray-blue and cloudy and I like its proud defiance of stereotypes. Edges are more blurry, shadows more mysterious. Judiciously selecting side streets, it is possible to avoid the hordes. Not at Notre Dame, of course, but sneak around back and a whole new world appears. A sweet park, gravel crunching underfoot, and symmetrical lines of trees. A few moments of peace.

And then, music!

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Strolling across the bridge to the Ile St. Louis, we walked straight into a free concert.

Paris is a  veritable riot of colors, textures, smells, and the most amazing food! We turned onto a cobbled street and stumbled into a tiny creperie with a prix fixe lunch and French diners mixed with tourists. I ordered the gallette, a buckwheat crepe with an egg, Gruyere shavings, and sweet onions. Mohammed chose the salmon fettuccine.

Dessert? Mais, oui! A traditional butter and sugar crepe along with honey and creme fresh. Wash it down with the house white, and I’m a happy girl. Salad and veggies tomorrow we promise each other. But then….

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We just looked, I swear, but where else in the world would you find a tower of macarons so artfully arranged? And it went on like this, store window after store window, so that we zigged and zagged from side to side of the street immersed in exotica, fashion, and whimsy.

And so the afternoon passed, strolling the Seine, winding up at San Chappelle where the gendarme were out in force with stern faces and automatic weapons. Mohammed calls Paris, “The city where I see pretty girls with cigarettes hanging from their mouths.” Sure enough, when I turned to snap a photo – a pretty girl smoking.

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As is often the case, he observes details I miss, especially as they pertain to women!

By the time we arrived back at our two-floor studio apartment on the Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we were cranky and tired. We had stopped at a fruit market on Rue Honore and brought some beautiful figs and grapes, and our host left us a bottle of champagne – voila, couch picnic!

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And then, afterwards, a raging argument. Mohammed was born in Saudi Arabia. English is his second language. Talking is one thing – we are both expressive so body language and gestures carry us far. But I asked him to read my first blog post in this series, “And so it begins…” He was not pleased. “You made it sound like I don’t do anything.” The more I tried to explain about poking fun at my own obsessive nature, about irony, about my “blovy,” the deeper the rhetorical black hole.

Travel is stressful, and spending 24/7 with your beloved offers a minefield of triggers. We “brailed” our way through, with a combination of intense discussion, acknowledgement of unintended hurt, language and cultural barriers, and apologies. Our policy is never to get in bed mad.

Let me set the record straight: Mohammed constantly offers comfort, affirmation, warmth, and barrels of affection. Yes, we are opposite personality types. Polar opposites. But when the magnetic field aligns, whomp!  As one friend wrote, admitting she is also a planner, it’s time for me to let go. Amen, sister!