Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Paris - Day 5

It's been another woefully hot day here; at least we have the consolation of low humidity. On our way to the metro, we saw a group of roughly fifty chefs holding a demonstration, evidently protesting the impending reduction of the VAT on restaurants. Mystified, we asked various people to explain the protest, but no one understood the reason behind it. We thought the chefs would appreciate the extra business--the economic crisis has felled many restaurants here--but they seemed quite pissed off, perhaps at the prospect of extra work.

We spent the day on the Ile de la Citè, the wonderful area around Notre Dame. We saw the cathedral two years ago; this time we wanted to visit Sainte-Chapelle and other sights. The chapel deserves its reputation. Light and airy, it is comprised almost entirely of stained glass windows that take onlookers through the Old and New Testaments. Slender Gothic columns carry the eye upward and across so that one naturally "reads" over a thousand key moments from the Bible. We were enthralled.

Afterwards we went to La Conciergerie, the fortress dating back to the Capetian kings. Despite its historical importance, the edifice was largely devoid of tourists. We found it fascinating, though. We worked our way around the central hall (the Salle des Gardes) and then to the areas associated with the French Revolution. We saw grim cells for the payeux, the poor sods who couldn't pay for a bed or desk, and the slightly nicer (although still depressing) accommodations for the pistoliers. I was unexpectedly moved by the sight of Marie Antoinette's cell. I'm no lover of monarchy, but recent revisionist histories paint a portrait of a well-meaning if somewhat gormless young woman manipulated by court factions. I can't imagine being 28 years old and spending the last two months of your life in a cell alone, awaiting word of your fate as well as that of your family.

Most troubling of all was the room devoted to victims of the French Revolution; a wall listed names and occupations. Only a quarter were nobility. Most, surprisingly, were commoners, including laundresses, bakers, tailors, even several actors. Some might have worked at the palace, but I suspect others were just unlucky, perhaps turned in by vengeful neighbors or avaricious relatives. As with most violent revolutions, the deaths seemed largely senseless and unspeakably cruel.

We wandered the narrow streets for a while before stumbling upon a real find, La Réserve de Quasimodo, a cave à vins and tiny restaurant. It's the oldest bistrot on the Ile, dating back to the thirteenth century. There's a wonderful story associated with the site: in 1223 the roof fell in, trapping a family of doves that had taken up residence. The male escaped but faithfully fed his mate and chicks until they could be freed, thus inspiring la légende de la Colombe. Although it was late--nearly 3.00 p.m.--the chef gladly fed us an excellent lunch. I had a huge salad with thin slices of duck breast and chevre chaud on toast; Rod had the prix fixe lunch, which included a substantial salad (again, with hot goat cheese) and a superb salmon and spinach quiche. Our delightful Polish waitress chatted with us at length. Against our better judgment, we bought several bottles of wine to haul back to the U.S., our seeming fate in life.

We finished our afternoon with another walk around the Ile, stopping at the famed Berthillon shop for ice cream. Alas, it was closed (the same thing happened two years ago), but we found another storefront that purported to sell the same ice cream. We each had a small boule. I thought the ice cream was very good but not deserving of the hype; indeed, I had better in Provence.

We learned today that one can still eat well and reasonably in Paris--but it takes some effort. We were astonished, for instance, at the vast difference in price between today's lunch and yesterday's. Our waitress said that overall the Ile is priced well compared to other parts of the city. I noticed that bistros and brasseries in the Bastille were also competitive, but this little resto gave particular value: for 16 euros (around $21), one could have an entrée, plat, and a third of a bottle of wine-and all very good indeed. Yesterday, near the Louvre, 26 euros ($35) paid for a small omelette, some fries, and a paltry glass of wine. The moral is to shop around.

Tomorrow and Thursday we plan to take day trips, partly to escape the heat of Paris and partly to do something different.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Paris - Day 4

Our meal last night at Le Souk was excellent--every bit as good as promised in the Time Out guide to Paris. It was nice to have a break from traditional French cuisine. I started with a very good "caviar" of aubergine, followed by a tangine poulet that included dates. Rod began with a duck b'stilla and then had an enormous serving of a tangine agneau laced with artichoke hearts and olives. Everything was subtly spiced and piping hot. Even the wine list was good. Much to our delight, we found a rose from Orange, close to where we stayed with friends in Provence two years ago. It too was excellent. Our waiter, a charming French Algerian, was very concerned that we enjoy our food. Periodically he would come to our table, anxiously inquiring, "good?" Yes, we assured him, "la cuisine est superbe."

I liked too that the restaurant got us out of posh neighborhoods into a more ethnically diverse and youthful environment. Located in the Bastille, Le Souk hardly looks out onto a scenic setting--the restaurant is across from block housing, probably subsidized--but I liked the energy of the streets. The neighborhood is definitely grittier than the area around the Louvre or our sedate bourgeois neighborhood of the 7th. Graffiti adorns (or defaces, depending on one's view) buildings; signs warn of pickpocketing; and trash litters the streets. One can see, though, that the Bastille has become a hip urban outpost for twenty-somethings: it reminded me of the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

Glutted on North African food, we walked slowly to the metro, eventually disembarking near the Seine, where we spent a half-hour wandering and trying to work off some of the meal.

I couldn't face anything other than a cafe creme this morning. We braved the crowds and went to the Louvre for a couple of hours. I've decided the only way to manage the enormity of the Louvre is to tackle one gallery per visit. Last time we did Italian painting; this visit we looked at Greek and Etruscan antiquities. I have to say that the Venus de Milo is every bit as breathtaking as its reputation. So often women in Greek and Roman statuary are static and nondescript (with the exception, perhaps, of Amazons captured in bas-relief on sarcophagi). The Venus de Milo, though, moves with the sort of energy and grace customarily accorded young men: her torso twists and her left knee lifts, giving a sensation of energy. The rounded curves, the sinuous lines of the spine, and the movement of the drapery enhance her irresistable appeal.

I was also smitten by the so-called Borghese Gladiator, an extraordinary sculpture of a young warrior in as he steps forward to challenge his imagined opponent. The sense of three-dimensional space is extraordinary, as is the exaggerated musculature. I marveled too at several of the sarcophagi, in addition to several mosaics that have managed to retain their color.

By the time we finished browsing the Etruscan, Greek, and Roman collections, we were done. I had hoped to see the Egyptian collection as well, but the tour groups, loud children, and haphazard air conditioning (on a very hot day) wore us down. I was tired of people walking into me and irritated by the hordes rushing by beautiful works of art. Barely anyone stops to look, much less savor the experience. Most people go to the big-name objects, such as the Venus de Milo, pose for a snapshot, and then hurry on to the next famous work. Rod made the sarcastic remark that it's the aesthetic equivalent of vulgar tourists in game parks who ignore the extraordinary panoply of birds, insects, and flora for the "big five" (i.e. elephants, rhinos, lions, buffalo, and leopards).

I was additionally troubled to see that parents now arm children (as young as 7 or 8) with digital cameras, a seemingly universal phenomenon: kids of every nationality run amok, madly snapping photos of art works and interiors. Indeed, most youngsters either view art through a camera lens or ignore it entirely, sullenly plodding after parents determined to innoculate their children with high culture. With a few rare exceptions, this parental exercise seems like a waste of time and resources: just take the damn kids to Euro Disney and be done with it!

We left the madding (and maddening) crowds and collapsed at the Cafe Ruc across the street from the Comedie Francaise where we had a decent if woefully expensive lunch. I must admit that prices have knocked us back: costs seem to have spiraled since our last trip to France two years ago. The unfavorable exchange rate hasn't helped. We are eagerly awaiting the new VAT reduction on restaurants that takes effect on July 1st, down from a whopping 19.5% to 5%.

Refreshed, we walked across the Tuileries to L'Orangerie, which recently reopened after extensive remodeling. It was a welcome anodyne to the Louvre. We saw Monet's Les Nympheas, the amazing series of panels arranged around two salles eliptiques. We sat on benches for a long time, thoroughly enthralled. We then proceeded downstairs to the small but excellent collection of Impressionist and Modernist canvases assembled by Paul Guillaume. The museum reproduces in a couple of rooms the interior of his 1930s apartment, giving one a sense of how the paintings were originally juxtaposed against "primitive" artifacts from Africa and Oceana. The collection is superbly displayed and lit. It's small and infinitely manageable, again, a relief after the overwhelming scale of the Louvre.

By 4.30, we were exhausted. It is very hot here right now, and by most afternoons we have clocked hours and hours of walking. We returned to our hotel, showered, and then retreated to the pleasant little courtyard at our hotel. Guests often purchase wine, cheese, and bread at local stores and then sit at the tables outside, eating and drinking. We nibbled at a good Camembert and baguette while visiting with the nice Australian family we've befriended. Then to bed (and blog).

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Paris - Day 3

Last night we went to a jazz club on the Right Bank to hear a terrific Brazilian singer/pianist, Tania Maria. She's 70 and still swings! Maria works in a variety of styles ranging from jazz-inflected sambas to Brazilian-tinged scat singing; a very good bass guitarist and drummer accompanied her. The club, Duc des Lombards, has been around for a while. A small venue, seating no more than 50, it gives patrons a marvelous sense of intimacy. We enjoyed ourselves immensely.

I was amused to see that martinis, a huge fad in the U.S., have not made similar inroads here. I ordered a vodka martini, which completely confounded the waitress. The menu listed martinis as being largely comprised of vermouth (horrible!); when I asked for a vodka martini--in decent French, mind you--I got, well, a straight shot of unadulerated Polish vodka.

After the set ended, we wandered around the Right Bank, settling ourselves in a little sidewalk cafe. Rod wanted food; I needed water; and we both wanted to watch the parade of humanity saunter by. Hauntingly, Michael Jackson's songs played everywhere, on car radios and on the street. Groups of young people spontaneously broke into song and dance, some attempting to moon walk. It was moving and strange.

We overslept woefully this morning. After a light breakfast at our hotel--good strong coffee, baguette, and confiture--we took the metro to the Père Lachaise cemetary. I expected hordes of people, but with the exception of one tour group, the cemetary was quiet for a Sunday afternoon.

I found Père Lachaise as compelling as the accounts I've read over the years. Some memorials are haunting. Both Rod and I were especially touched by the statue of a nine-year-old boy with his devoted Irish setter. Other tombs were fascinating in their grotesqueness and sheer bad taste. One faux Aztec temple caught our attention as did a 20-foot high sarcophagus decorated with every manner of gargoyle and flourish. I was dismayed to see that the French also ignore their literary and intellectual greats. Astonishingly, Pierre Augustin-Caron Beaumarchais, one of the monumental figures of the French Enlightenment, doesn't merit special notice in the map of the cemetary, nor does Jean Racine, a major figure in theatre history. We stumbled around for half-an-hour looking for Beaumarchais' grave to no avail. At least Moliere is somewhat venerated. Visitors gravitated, perhaps predictably, to pop icons such as Jim Morrison and Edith Piaf. Apparently no one shares my predilection for Sarah Bernhardt or Pierre Bourdieu, both of whom I saluted. While the authorities have erected a fence around Morrison's monument to prevent vandalism, the same has not been done for Oscar Wilde's tomb, which is covered with graffiti and, weirdly, lipstick kisses. I'm still trying to puzzle out their semiotic significance outside of the usual connotation.

The last time I wandered around a cemetary was during my student years in London. I lived not too far from Highgate Cemetary, home to Karl Marx, and I remember giving directions almost daily to radical German students intent on paying homage to their hero. Today was strangely peaceful. The weather was warm, but a refreshing breeze blew through the cemetary. The site is huge--over 100 acres--and traversed with tree-lined cobblestone avenues that mimic the layout of Paris itself. I can see why people want this bit of real estate for their final resting place.

This afternoon we are resting up before heading out for dinner. Both Rod and I have tired of traditional European cuisine--we ate too many elaborate meals on the QMII--so we are opting for North African food tonight at a restaurant called Souk in the Bastille.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Paris - Day 2

Saturday morning we hauled ourselves out of bed at a reasonable hour, had our usual quick breakfast, and then walked in the cool air over to the Tuileries. I had never explored the gardens before, and I found myself underwhelmed--I'm not quite sure what I expected. They're pretty but something of a disappointment after the grandeur of Central Park, Golden Gate Park, or even various London parks, such as Kensington or Hyde Park.

We planned originally to spend the morning at the Musée de l'Orangerie but were sidetracked by the prospect of a special exhibition on Mount Athos at the Petit Palais. I'm very glad we took the detour. This is the first time these religious artifacts have left Greece. The exhibit was a surprise in several respects. First, we marveled at the excellent condition of the objects, especially the fine vestments that gleam with undiminished lustre. Perhaps the French government restored the artifacts as part of a deal struck with the monastery; perhaps they have never seen the light of day. Whatever the reason, everything was in fabulous shape. Second, I was struck by the difference between Greek and Russian icons. I have seen numerous icons on my trips to Russia with Rod, but they have neither the color nor complexity of these extraordinary works. The Greek monks seemingly possess an artistry and technique that renders their Eastern European counterparts primitive by comparison. And, finally, I was taken by the aerial photographs of Mount Athos and the sheer expanse of the monasteries, which are larger and more complex than I expected. Of course, being a woman, I will never see them.

Around 2.00 we walked over to Angelina's, a tea room and restaurant recommended to us last night by Australians here at our hotel. I ordered a salad with smoked salmon and vegetables. After all the elaborate food on the QMII, I can't bare to look at anything cooked right now. Rod had a superb cod served over chopped squash. We did on the advice of our acquaintances order dessert, which was unbelievably wonderful--the sort of pastry one simply does not get in the U.S. unless you're lucky enough to find a Michel Richard or a Boucheron. Rod had a flaky, light pastry filled with excellent custard; I ordered a confection that was essentially coffee-flavored brioche filled with coffee custard and topped with a thin crunchy layer of caramel. Neither one was sweet and both were divine. We fully intend to return.

Back in the 7th, we stopped at the Musée National Rodin, which is literally on the way to our hotel. Rodin lived in this building, what the French call a hôtel particulier, during the last years of his life (I believe the poet Rilke lived there too for a while). The building is shabby and rather sad. Rooms are not climate controlled and light beats down on paintings, several already ruined. The collection inside is mixed: a lot of plaster heads and figures by Rodin, basically rough versions of works he would eventually cast in bronze. I must admit to preferring many of the heads by his mistress, Camille Claudel, which are finer and more expressive. Outside in the lovely garden, though, is where one sees the magnificent bronzes and sculptures for which Rodin is known: the Thinker (overrated to my mind); the Gates of Hell (astonishing); and the Burghers of Calais (moving). I like Rodin best when he translates narrative to three-dimensional form: his interpretations of Dante are unsurpassed. I like less the endless nudes melting into stone (or emerging from stone, depending on your perspective), and I tired quickly of the infinite variations on The Kiss. While it's pleasant to gaze upon youthful flesh captured in ardent embrace, one can see it only so many times.

Now we are back at our hotel, resting and relaxing. Tonight we're heading out to a jazz club to hear a French singer who supposedly excels at a variety of genres.

Paris - Day 1

We slept far too late this morning: I think we were still exhausted from all those late nights on the QMII (too much partying for these old fogies!). We hurriedly threw on clothes and then ambled down the street to our excellent local bakery. Fortified by good strong coffee and buttery rolls, we took a short walk to the Musée de l'Armée and the Tombeau de Napolean, both here in our neighborhood of the 7th arondissement. The collection of arms in the musée was extraordinary, unlike anything I have ever seen under one roof. One goes through room after room piled high with armor, early pistols, such as flint locks, and various implements for skewing victims, some truly terrifying in appearance. We saw early examples of medieval chain mail along with formal jousting armor for horse and rider. By the time we had exhausted the pre-Napoleonic period, we burnt out on implements of destruction.

The sheer breadth of the collection cannot fail to impress. The early weapons derive mainly from the royal collection of Louis XIV; somehow government ministers managed to save 25% from destruction in the French Revolution. The rest of the collection has been added to gradually. Of course, Napoleon did his bit. There's nothing like pillaging to build up one's museums.

By 1.30 we had seen enough evidence of humanity's penchant for destruction. Most disturbing is the artistry of these weapons: their purpose is to kill, but they also function as aesthetic objects. The craftsmanship is oftentimes breathtaking: one almost forgets the diabolical end of an exquisite broad sword decorated with filagree or encrusted with gemstones. Does aestheticizing weapons make them less threatening? Create categorical confusion? Encourage a warrior to imagine himself participating in a higher form of activity, the proverbial "art of war"? I left depressed.

We boarded the metro for the 8th arondissement, alighted near the Boulevard Haussmann and realized we were hungry. We tried a local bistro and had a respectable but not great lunch. It was warm and a bit humid today so neither one of us felt like cooked food. We opted for salades grandes, which were certainly grand in size if not in taste.

The real treat of the day was our trip to the Musée Jacquemart-André, a lovely collection acquired over many years by the nineteenth-century heir to a wealthy banking family, Edouard André. His wife continued building the collection after his death, an impressive array of Rembrandts, Botticellis, and Mantegnas. Frescoes by Tiepolo grace the ceilings, as well as the wall above the stunning curved staircase. I especially liked the portrait of the Comtesse Skavronskaia by Vigée Le Brun, in addition to the achingly beautiful painting of the young Mathilde de Canisy by Nattier.

The museum reminded me a bit of the Frick in New York; indeed, one can see how the great New York families modeled their upper East side mansions on these magnificent nineteenth-century edifices in the elegant 8th arondissement. Best of all, the museum is quite manageable: one can spend a leisurely two hours and have the sense of an individual collection built over a lifetime, hardly the sensation afforded by the Louvre or the Met. As we left, we caught a glimpse of the lovely tea room on the premises and kicked ourselves for not dining there instead of our indifferent bistro. We heard the lunches and pastries are superb; if we're back in that neighborhood, we might pop in before the end of the week.

Tired, we returned to our hotel, eventually joining a very nice Australian mother and her teenage daughter in the patio for drinks and conversation, a pleasant ending to an equally pleasant day.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Journey to Paris

Thursday we awakened early, ate a substantial breakfast--our final meal on the QMII--and then disembarked early in Southampton, England. As always, Cunard did a brilliant job of organization. We left our luggage in the corridor last night; this morning everything was sorted and waiting for us in the dockside terminal. Even our departure from the ocean liner was orderly. After years of ghastly flights, our Atlantic crossing has been something of a revelation.

We made our way via train to London, arriving mid-day at Waterloo Station. A taxi took us to St. Pancras where we had a brief layover before boarding the high-speed train for Paris. This is our first trip on the Eurostar, an impressive mode of travel. The new modern wing in St. Pancras is clean and airy; check-in and boarding are effortless. On board, one finds comfortable seats, nice tables, and outlets for laptop computers (no WiFi, alas). We traveled "leisure select," essentially business class, which meant that we were fussed over from the moment we settled into our seats. I knew that Eurostar provided some sort of lunch, but I expected no more than a little sandwich. To my shock, we were given champagne and a full lunch (pollock, salad, vegetables) that was very good indeed. This being service to France, we also had a choice of wine with lunch as well as an excellent panna cotta for dessert, all included in the price of a ticket. We have taken the Acela between Washington, D.C. and NYC--a longer journey than this--and one pays for a bottle of water, never mind a dry, unappetizing sandwich. It's more expensive than the Eurostar and far less efficient. There's much to be said for a European sensibility that expects creature comforts, even in economy class.

The actual journey under the "chunnel" is quick, perhaps all of fifteen minutes. Once in France, you can gaze out the window upon lovely farms and small towns. I smiled at the French cows grazing contently in lush pasture (no industrialized farming here), some so fat that they stretched out on their sides, semi-comatose from the abundance of grass.

What is wrong with our politicians that we refuse to invest in transportation? Why shouldn't high-speed trains traverse the U.S. or ocean vessels travel the coasts? And why can't these forms of transportation include some basic amenities? Idiot Republicans scream about socialism whenever any program that benefits the public good is discussed: have any of them actually experienced firsthand the civilizing effects of European travel? Yes, it is subsidized by taxpayers, but frankly I would much rather dedicate my tax dollars to excellent public transportation, education, and health care than the various ill-advised invasions and wars since the 1970s. Just think of how that money could have improved infrastructure.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cunard Adventure, Part VI

On this, our final full day, I will conclude with several observations about:

*The "gentlemen dancers" who steer unescorted women around the dance floor (and, yes, such a convention still exists). These six gents, somewhere between their late fifties and early seventies, wear tuxedos, have impeccable manners, and evince the old-fashioned courtliness of another time. They are unfailingly patient, whether squiring an ancient lady or showing an awkward girl some basic steps. I find them charming and touching.

*The international flavor of the staff. Some 42 nationalities are represented; as I mentioned previously, Russians and South Africans appear to predominate. For the most part, they are beautifully trained and quite pleasant.

*The band singer Michel who accompanied the small orchestra and jazz combo. He looks like a young and perhaps more compact Kevin Spacey and sounds eerily like Chet Baker. He has a meltingly sweet voice and impeccable phrasing. Given the penchant for electronic music and hip-hop, I don't foresee much of a future for a honey-mouthed singer crooning old standards--outside of a cruise liner such as this.

*The unpredictable nature of dining companions. We didn't realize that you can request special seating arrangements when booking the voyage. Cunard seated us at a table for six for lunch and dinner. Our dining companions were pleasant enough but boring as mud. Making conversation was difficult if not impossible. By the third day, we pleaded with the maitre'd to secret us away to a corner of the restaurant, which he was kind enough to do.

*The absolute luxury of room service and dining in. Now I understand entirely why moneyed characters in 1930s movies bounce around merrily: they have servants. Breakfast arrives magically to our suite, beautifully hot and handsomely presented. Our steward makes certain everything is tidied up whenever we leave. We always return to a clean room, replenished fruit bowl, and fluffed pillows. Most terrifying is how quickly one adapts to this luxury.

*The pleasure of seeing people dressed up. Like most Americans, I inhabit social spaces where casual clothing is customary. The notion of "dressing for dinner" went out decades ago. On Cunard, though, everyone dresses, even in the lower class of service. I came to enjoy very much seeing men in dark suits and evening dress and women in cocktail dresses and formal gowns. Last night, for instance, I saw a striking woman in her seventies wearing a gorgeous cowled organza blouse over a long black skirt that fell into sinuous folds of material. Her white hair was beautifully coiffed, and she accessorized her stunning outfit with striking, bold jewelry. I hope I look half as good at her age.

*Our wonderful South African dancing instructors, Mel and Alain. Both hail from Durbin, where they ran a studio and performed. Outgoing and straightforward in the typical manner of South Africans, they're living a dream, as Mel put it, sailing around the world and doing what they love. Like several staff we chatted with, they feel extraordinarily lucky to be employed by Cunard. Staff enjoy full room and board in addition to salary and benefits. Some use their earnings to help family back home; others save toward purchasing a house (like Mel and Alain) or sending children to prep school.

*The seeming infinity of the ocean. Although I grew up on the Pacific and frequently went deep sea fishing, I have never spent several uninterrupted days at sea. We have seen other vessels only twice in six days. Mainly one looks out upon a blue-grey sea that goes forever.

*The dog kennel on the 12th deck. Unbelievably, you can arrange to have your beloved dog or cat do an Atlantic crossing too. We visited the facilities and were impressed by the care. Only 10 animals are permitted per voyage, and they get 2-hour blocks of play time throughout the day and early evening. There's an indoor playroom for bad weather and an outdoor run as well. When we stopped by, several owners were tossing balls for their dogs or cuddling them. Everyone looked pretty happy.

Would I do this again? I'm not sure about a conventional cruise, where one skips from island to island or scampers from one tourist site to another, disembarking for a few hours and then clambering back on board. Generally I like going somewhere and staying put for several days in order to walk and explore. As a mode of transportation, however, a cruise liner can't be beat. We will arrive tomorrow, refreshed and relaxed, in Southampton: no jet lag, no exhaustion, and, best of all, no airports and their attendant insanity. We've met several folks on board for whom this too is a maiden voyage; like us, they're exploring the option of sailing to Europe annually rather than flying. If one can forgo the upper class of service, the cost is surprisingly reasonable given what airlines now charge. For half the price of a business-class seat, you can cruise the Atlantic for six days, enjoying good meals, fine surroundings, and fun entertainment. We're certainly thinking about it for the future.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Cunard Adventure, Part V

I have figured out how to dine very well on the QMII: pretend that it's 1950 and order accordingly. Last night at dinner I succumbed to traditional fare to very happy results. I ordered prime rib (which I have not eaten in years), which was absolutely superb. It was accompanied, of course, by the requisite baked potato and horseradish. Initially I refused dessert given previous disappointments, but the waiter talked me into peach flambe.

Now who on earth serves peach flambe or baked Alaska anymore? Well, they do on the QMII--and it's fantastic. The French server who prepared the dessert table side described the ingredients as she went along: fresh peaches, fresh raspberry puree, a bit of simple syrup, and peach liqueur, accompanied by a dollop of homemade vanilla ice cream. She pointed out that "no one in Paris makes these kinds of desserts any longer," adding dismissively (with a Gallic wave of the hand), "it's all that nouvelle nonsense now." It's clear that her culinary sympathies inclined toward Escoffier, not Michel Richard.

Last night was clearly a Mad Men moment: me in a navy sheath and pearls; Rod in a smart dark suit; and both of us eating prodigious quantities of red meat washed down with red wine (I did at least forgo the pre-dinner martini). Forget healthy eating; ignore post-1980s nouvelle cuisine. Basically, any dish you would have seen in a 1950s or 60s cookbook will be superbly done on the QMII. More contemporary dishes? Not so much.

After dinner we went to the ballroom and danced to a live orchestra, happily fox-trotting, waltzing, and cha-chaing until 1.00 a.m. We went to bed blissfully content, and I had some insight into why all those characters on Mad Men seem to be having so much fun. All I needed was a cigarette holder and undulating trails of smoke.

Cunard Adventure, Part IV

Blessedly calm seas have prevailed now for over 24 hours. We could use some sun, but I'll take the temperate weather. I realize now why the Atlantic has a reputation for being such a grey ocean. On overcast days, the horizon blurs into an indistinguishable mass as though a giant finger has smudged the line separating sky and sea.

This morning I saw the resident osteopath at the Canyon Ranch Spa, who was a revelation after the fellow I had visited a couple of times in Annapolis (and to whom I will not return). Using a combination of electrical stimulation, acupuncture, and good old-fashioned manipulation, he rotated my sticky sacroiliac joint back into functioning mode. I may very well return for a second visit just before we disembark. I only wish I could find someone half as good back in Annapolis.

We whiled away the rest of the afternoon on a leisurely lunch and walks around the deck. I am told that three laps = 1 mile. Keen joggers run in mad circles, determined to make their daily quota. Most folks simply stroll, an activity much more suited to the stately pace of life aboard the QMII. As I write, I am happily settled in the library, my favorite spot aboard the liner.

Food continues to be very good although not quite as excellent as I expected. The kitchen seems to excel at old-fashioned English favorites: puddings, cream soups, breaded fish, and scones. Indeed, the soups are just wonderful. Last night I had a mushroom soup for a starter that far surpassed the entree of sea bass. Gladly I would have made a meal out of the soup alone, with nice crusty bread on the side. Desserts at dinner have been a disappointment. Last night I tried an indifferent lime panna cotta; by contrast, Rod's rice pudding was very tasty. I think the trick is to order the occasional custard or pudding--or simply hold out for the superlative afternoon tea.

Fortunately, one can also dine healthily. Fresh fruit and salads abound, and the restaurants feature Canyon Ranch sanctioned items on every menu. One of the cafeterias is kept open 24/7 to accommodate insomniacs or the perpetually hungry; again, fresh fruit, cheese, and salads are offered alongside less healthy fare, even at 3.00 a.m. If one were so inclined, you could spend the entire voyage eating, with only an hour or two between meals. Lunch morphs into afternoon tea which then melts into dinner, followed by a late-snack snack (or two). Most people, though, seem pretty good about pacing themselves. From conversations I gather that many people eat a substantial lunch or dinner, preferring to graze lightly at other meals.

In a few minutes we're off to another dance lesson with our South African instructors. Then I will go to the gym for some stretching and a session in the hydro-therapy pool. Tonight we will dance again but not for too long. Poor Rod's neck makes it difficult for him to "hold a frame" for more than 45 minutes. And we'd like to get to bed before 2.00 a.m. for a change.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Cunard Adventure, Part III

Saturday was not a good night: winds picked up to gale force, clocking 60 knots over the deck while waves rose to 18 feet. The much vaunted stabilizers on the QMII could only do so much to allay the effect. Rod is seemingly impervious to sea sickness, no matter how rough the seas. I suppose his stint in the South African Royal Navy, navigating the rough waters off the Cape, steeled him for any future turbulence. We learned from our steward that last night was sufficiently rough to fell staff as well, who lined up to receive the magic injection. Fortunately for me, the tablets were enough.

Stomach settled and balance restored, I've decided this is a most civilized way to cross the Atlantic. One's body clock adjusts gradually to the changing time zones, as we move ahead one hour each day. Cunard delivers each evening a schedule of the following day's activities, which passengers are free to ignore or join as they wish. If one were so inclined, you could run around from 8.00 a.m. until midnight, participating in dance classes, wine tastings, bingo, table tennis, and watercolor seminars. Lectures abound. A very good music historian has done a series of talks on great American composers such as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, while a maritime historian gave a splendid lecture on the great ocean liners of the pre-War era.

We've selected gingerly, preferring to pace ourselves. The rough conditions last night (and the resultant sleeplessness) made for a late morning. We had some breakfast, wandered a bit, and then attended a samba dance class conducted by a lovely young South African couple. Some 42 nationalities are represented among the Cunard staff, although South Africans and Russians seem to predominate, interestingly enough.

We indulged in afternoon tea, which is lovely. White gloved waiters circulate with silver trays laden with traditional tea fare: finger sandwiches, petit fours, little tarts, and absolutely the best scones I've ever eaten. Passengers nibble to the sounds of a very good string quartet. It is eminently enjoyable.

Tonight we dine at the private restaurant reserved for our passenger class; then we will dance to ballroom and Latin music until mid-evening, followed by a late evening drink in the "Chart Room," where we will listen to jazz before retiring for the evening. We are clearly falling into the pleasures of shipboard life.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cunard Adventure, Part II

Today has been a mixture of delicious luxury and downright misery. We had a "couples massage" at the Canyon Ranch Spa aboard the QMII, which was unbelievably fabulous. Rod's masseur paid particular attention to his damaged neck; mine gently worked the lower lumbar region. Canyon Ranch is known for exquisite pampering, and it certainly lived up to its fame. The entire spa is luxurious, with hydro-therapy and relaxation areas. I could happily spend the rest of the cruise in the spa, albeit to ruinous financial results.

Our other bit of luxury involved in-suite dining, which the QMII offers as part of the general service. I take an almost childish delight in room service, so awakening to a tray laden with fresh fruit, good yoghurt, and rolls was pleasure in the extreme. I may very well order in breakfast for the remainder of the cruise.

Now the grim bit.

I awakened this morning feeling a bit queasy. Rod, by contrast, was hale and hearty. Breakfast did not settle my stomach, and by 9.00 a.m. I succumbed and took a Dramamine. Rarely, if ever, do I experience sea sickness, and by the afternoon I understood entirely its fearsome reputation. The seas worsened, the winds picked up, and the rolling increased, as did my misery. By late afternoon I was one of numerous passengers in queue at the medical center, begging for relief. The ship offers an injection that supposedly lasts five days, but the medical officer wanted to hold it back as a last resort. I was offered instead a tablet not available in the U.S. but one which worked like a bomb.

After two hours of sleep, I awakened feeling ship-shape again, even though the squall persisted. We thought about attending the black tie dinner tonight but decided to dine in (again!), giving ourselves a quiet, uncomplicated schedule. Room service, incidentally, is excellent, and we were pleased by the quality of the food, which arrived hot and freshly prepared. Mind you, this was no small accomplishment given that half the passengers on board decided on the same: evidently sea sickness had felled dozens as well as myself.

As I write, the waters are calming and the winds dying. Hopefully we will have smooth seas tomorrow.

Cunard Adventure: Part I

Through our ten-year marriage (celebrated yesterday, by the way), Rod and I have sniffed dismissively at the prospect of a cruise. None of it appealed: the fixed itinerary, the canned entertainment, the excessive quantities of food, and, worst of all, the thought of being mewed up with all those people. So it was with some shock that I learned Rod had booked us on an Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary II, the flagship of the Cunard line.

I have now been on board for roughly eighteen hours, not enough time to form definitive opinions but certainly a sufficient span from which to jot down initial impressions.

The QMII earns its reputation for luxury. Our "Princess" suite features a comfortable queen-sized bed, walk-in closet, sofa and sitting chair, and various other amenities such as a little fridge and stemware. We have a nicely apportioned balcony with two deck chairs. Weather permitting, we can sit outside and gaze at the Atlantic.

Public areas are also quite grand, with sweeping staircases and plush carpeting. Everything is immaculate and staff materialize out of thin air with the quiet, helpful advice one expects from Cunard's famed "white glove" service. My favorite area, perhaps predictably, is the handsome, wood paneled library, which houses over 8,000 volumes and contains lovely desks and seating areas. Afternoons will me find comfortably settled in one of the overstuffed chairs, working on my book or blogging about the QMII.

Many of the other public spaces, while grand, are not to my taste. I suppose I expected something out of Noel Coward--the sort of art deco or high modernist furnishings that The Shakespeare Theatre Company recreated so lovingly in their current production of Design for Living. Instead Cunard has gone for a style I can only describe as "Vegas with taste," which means that it isn't very tasteful at all. Beiges, pale woods, and muted golds predominate, but the carpeting is faux leopard while trim is gilt. Never in my life have I seen such a surfeit of bad art. I'm not sure what the designers were thinking.

Food so far is good but not superlative. We dined last night at the Princess Grill, and I had a very respectable haddock, preceded by a chilled asparagus soup. Both were fine. Rod started with an excellent pumpkin soup, followed by a very good crab cake. Dessert, however, was a disappointment. The grill made us a special little cake for our anniversary, which we shared with other guests at our table. A sponge cake with whip cream and strawberries, it was not to my liking.

As we went to bed, winds increased and the seas roughened, not a good foreboding for tomorrow.

The Horrors of Horse Hunting, Part I

For good reason, horse themed magazines are filled with articles regaling readers with hilarious tales of horse hunting. The phrase "horse trader" well earns its pejorative connotation. In the right mood (and fueled by a couple of beers), I too can sit around with horsey pals and swap stories about crazy sellers and loco horses. My friend Susan has some of the best anecdotes I've ever heard, including one about an old guy who tried to demonstrate a horse's jumping ability but kept falling off at every cross rail. She thought he would die before he ever had a chance to sell the horse.

So it was with trepidation as well as anticipation that I embarked on the grand search. Most people have been surprisingly professional, fessing up to vices, such as cribbing, or problems with hooves and old injuries. I have run into the occasional unrealistic seller like the woman who claimed her horse was perfect except for his habit of cantering up to a jump on a cross-country course, spinning, and then running off in the opposite direction. This is not, to put it mildly, what I want in a horse.

So far, I've looked at a Belgian Cross at a local farm that seemed nice enough but too green. The connection just wasn't there. I tried a thoroughbred with a meltingly lovely face and luminous big eyes, but his trot tossed me up and down in the saddle, not a great movement for my aching lower back. I saw an adorable Haflinger pony that I would have bought in a heartbeat--he and I truly did "connect"--but he's been ridden the last three years by an adolescent boy who's taught him to run at everything. He goes from a walk to a gallop with little in between, and I didn't feel like retraining him to be a sensible mount. The pony needs another young rider who also wants to chase deer on horseback, a fitting pastime for a fifteen-year-old but not a middle-aged woman all too aware of her increasingly brittle bones.

Then there was the heartbreaker of the lot. My trainer Nina and I avoided him as long as possible for one very good reason: he was in Arkansas, and we're in Maryland. We loved the video, though, and we really liked the horse, so I did a truly crazy thing and bought us tickets to fly down to Arkansas to look at said horse. This gelding, a paint draft X, wasn't perfect, mind you. He turned out to be younger and greener than we expected, but Nina felt confident that with time and training he would make a great all-round horse. I worried about some weakness in his hind end, but we scheduled thorough vetting to disclose any potential problems.

This experience turned out to be my first truly strange horse encounter. I must admit to concern at the outset, when the seller played games with the price, dropping it by two-thirds. Who advertises a horse for three times what it is worth? One expects, especially in this economy, some wriggle room of 10-15% but not 65%. Then there was the demand for a deposit to look at him, 10% of which was non-refundable, a condition that stopped me dead in my tracks. It's like a home-owner asking for a down payment before you even see the house. I outright refused and more negotiations ensued. As soon as I bought our tickets, the seller called and claimed that she had other folks flying down. We had no way of knowing the truth of this statement, but I was sufficiently worried that I moved up our visit by three days.

The trainer in Arkansas was pleasant enough and very kind in letting me ride both days. And Arkansas proved far prettier than I expected, lush and green with lovely farms as far as the eye could see. I had a chance to hack out and see firsthand the horse's calm, sensible nature. By far, this gelding was the most comfortable horse I've ever ridden: his canter was a revelation after years os struggling with Beau's choppy, uneven gait. So I left Arkansas fully intending to buy the boy.

Then all hell broke loose. The trainer didn't seem especially interested in getting the horse to vetting in a timely fashion, and the delays concerned me, especially given the weak hind end. I've heard too many stories of drugging horses, and I know that many drugs wash out in seven days. Nonetheless I set up the vetting, and then the seller wanted a deposit--without anything in writing on her part. Two days of hassles ensued. As we got close to an agreement, I learned that she was still flying down other buyers while demanding a deposit from me. I asked that the horse be withdrawn from the market if I was going to put down part of the asking price. More hassles. The seller refused, claiming that folks were flying out that evening. When I inquired the following morning about the other buyers, she accused me ofsuspecting dark motives and professed ignorance about other prospective purchasers.

I thought about forwarding the long paper trail of e-mails to refresh my lady's memory but decided ultimately to bail. By this point, I was exhausted, fed up, and not a little worried that the seller was either wildly duplicitous or not entirely of sound mind. Either way, it didn't feel right. I called a couple of horsey friends I trust who advised me to get out--quickly--before I lost any more money.

The upshot is that I won't be hopping on planes anytime soon, swanning around the country like I'm Jackie O searching for the perfect hunt horse. But I still keep thinking about the horse that got away . . .

Horse Madness

Jane Smiley's fabulous novel, Horse Heaven, is built around the love affair between horses and humans. She chronicles its many strange incarnations, from the racetrack to the retirement farm, but constant throughout is the all-consuming passion some of us have for horses. This obsession oftentimes borders on madness that leads otherwise perfectly sane women to end up with several equines when they can barely afford the cost of one.

At the moment, I am questioning my sanity in thinking about a second horse. It isn't entire whimsy, though.

Mr. Beau just turned 16, not old for a horse these days, but his eyes are beginning to fail, and this last year has been an endless ordeal of vet bills, medicines, and care. The cataract in his left eye blurs his vision, and I began noticing back in January, especially on overcast winter days, that he often spooked at objects on that side. The right eye is still pretty good, but a bad attack of uveitis in early May resulted in another trip back up to New Bolton. Future attacks of uveitis, though, will compromise vision in the right eye. In short, his sight, while diminished, is still good enough for riding, and I might even be able to manage some jumping outdoors in bright sunshine. We don't know how long his eyes will hold out. They could stabilize and be fine for several years, or he could be blind by winter. It's a crap shoot.

So after weeks of looking at finances and figuring costs, I decided to take the plunge and look for a younger, healthier horse. If Mr. Beau's health straightens out, then I will have two horses to ride, an unbelievable luxury, especially given my mount's penchant for getting into periodic scrapes (and thus getting out of work for long stretches). If he continues to decline, I will at least have one rideable horse while caring for Mr. Beau as he transitions into retirement.