After rumanaging through some discount designer clothes at a Confessions of a Shopaholic like yardsale-thing. I wound up where one normally does when fatigued by elbowing through masses of impeccably dressed women: Chipotle; munching on a burrito that I wished had French fries and carne asada chunks.
Two things occurred to me, one, I was alone and two, this was an advent in my life.
Here is the story of two girls who dashed in mad flight from the city one weekend to court. Enthralled by the sun and autumn around them they went boating, were surrounded by lady bugs and beheld the wonder of Versailles at sunset.
le château du roi-soleil
Nicole and I, war battled travel pals at this point in time, set out as we normally do, early in the morning and half awake. We hopped on the Metro at Kléber and took it to where it connected to the RER C, getting off at that stop we find out that the RER C is not stopping at this station until the beginning of November. This is of course just the sort of thing that would happen to us. We flounder for a few seconds waiting for my data to adjust from coming from underground and in end simply did to hop back onto line 6 and take it to the 10 where the RER C connects again. Once on the RER C we take that to the end of its line Gare de Versailles Château Rive Gauche.
Once in the city of Versailles we do what must be done before attempting to take on such a daunting task such as seeing the old sun king's home and gardens. We stop at Starbucks to fuel up on scones, muffins, tea, and pumpkin spice lattes. Facing to train station I watched as person after person consistently did the same thing, they would descend the stairs, look about themselves confusedly then head towards where all the other people were going: left to the Château. This is what most come to Versailles for, the grand palace of the once beloved sun king, who's rule was absolute, until it was not. And then, well then heads rolled; but that's a different story. Today, we talk about what is left of this king.
Caution~ Tangental aside on the tiny beds at Versailles; skip over if disinterested.
The one thing I did not understand a second time was the tiny beds. Last summer when I first went I swore I'd go back to my apartment and research as to the historical accuracy of these tiny beds. Alas, I did not do this last summer, so now, now I research. My google search started first as a question "Why tiny beds Versailles?" This search proving unfruitful I switched from web to books and searched "beds 17th century France" this brought me to page 206 of a book called "Culture and Environment" written by Irwin Altman and Martin M. Parliament. On this page I learned that a bed was an integral piece of furniture in a home because as I was told, Guy de Maupassant (a 19th century French author) says "The bed comprehends our whole life..." I was also informed that Louis XIV was said to have 400 beds made throughout his lifetime and one truly large one installed in the French Parliament. The official website for Château de Versailles says that the bed that is in the Queen's Grand Chamber today was "... resculpted from the old documents..." and having interned in a historical landmark I am quite aware of the tediousness of having to be as precise and historically accurate as is humanly possible when one is trying to revamp a bedroom. So I have no doubt that the beds are true to size.
So back I went to google this time searching "average height of French people in 18th century". Because if the beds were historically smaller than average sized beds today than logically the people should be smaller. Interestingly enough with this search I found a discussion paper written in 2005 by John Komlos and Francesco Cinnirella for the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München Economics department entitled "European Heights in the Early 18th Century". This analysis relied a lot on datasets pertaining to the heights of soldiers and estimated that the general height in France was 65.8 inches which is roughly a person who is 5'5. So, basically people were not all that short in the 18th century and I still have no idea why the beds are tiny.
Aside is concluded, you may resume to adventure here.
The marble staircases in the château have worn groves in them from where mass quantities of people and their weight over the decades have walked on them. The wooden floors creak and the age of the place resounds in such a way that its hard not to imagine what it would have been like in the 18th century.
les jardins du roi
I remember reading in my first World Civilization's textbook four years ago that it took thousands of people to keep the gardens of the Castle groomed. Walking around today, I wonder how long it takes the army of gardeners to prune and tend to the vast acres of these gardens.
Nicole and I got it in our minds, while on our way to find the Queen's Hamlet that it was a great idea to rent a row boat and row around the grand canal. Now, I have rowed a total of one kayak in my entire life and that Kayak's ore broke on the way back to shore. Nicole has never rowed a boat before in her life, she was; however, very determined to row this one. And one thing I have learned about Nicole is that when she has settled her mind on doing something, there is quite literally nothing you or any force in the world can do to stop her from doing that.
So, there we are rowing this wooden boat on the grand canal in the middle of this garden next to a castle. And there I am advising Nicole that if we wander too far away from the boat launching area we will have a harder time getting back there. She is having far too much fun at this point enjoying my freak-out session to be bristled by my advice and continues on, struggling with those two ores and treading a lot of water in the process.
We hit the edge of the canal twice, a stone ridge that divides the water from the people who are lounging on the grass and chuckling at our slight dismay. We nearly topple over twice during this boating adventure when we try to shift positions. At one point a song from Pocahontas is sung by Nicole and I have proclaimed that we are redefining the notion of the chivalrous lord who rows his lady around the canal.
When we return to land, I obtain an ice cream for my efforts and Nicole a tea. Than we return to our original mission of finding Marie's house because the clock strikes 6:30pm and the grounds close. We take a misleading road that turns out to not be the road we needed to take and have to make many turns to readjust our direction and when we finally reach the area where Marie's house resides we discover that a tram would have taken us from the Grand Canal straight to Marie's house.
le domanine de marie
This is where the ladybugs made their move on us. Nicole and I walked down a tree lined gravel path took two rights asked for directions and then took a left into Marie Antoinette's house. Coming from the opulence of the gardens and the gilded house, we were expected the same to be found here. We were though very surprised, instead of the ornate designed wooden floors or the tapestries that we had been expecting, we found a same country home. White marble floors, cream stone walls, arched ceilings with sparse furnishings were the things occupied the Austrian Queen's home. To get to the Queen's Hamlet you had to walk over the carcasses of the fallen ladybugs, which was really quite unsettling for me. I wish I'd been able to snap a picture, but my phone had died at this point; however, the sheer amount of ladybugs (we're talking hundreds here) was truly astounding.
It seemed somehow fitting to me that the Queen's respite from the court, its glamour, and espionage, would be simple and surrounded by foliage, trees, and small ponds.
By the time we'd left the city of Versailles around 7pm(ish), boarded the RER C heading toward Musée d'Orsay, and sat for about an hour in that train Nicole and I were barely able to keep awake. I climbed those 133 stairs of my 6-floor walk up and fell face first onto my bed with a huff. How I even showered that night is beyond me.
Still despite this being my second time seeing Versailles I still feel like I could go back a thousand times and still discover new things, just because of the sheer vastness of the estate.
So, this is how it began: a fellow au pair friend of mine mentioned in passing one day that she was spending her upcoming weekend seeing Brussels, Ghent, and Brugge. I, being the incredibly direct person that I seem to be now, invited myself along. On the day before the day we were to depart, just about at midnight there is me in my apartment sitting on my bed booking a hostel and two BlaBla Car rides to and from Brussels. It was done, I was going.
Immediately after the fact I thought I had made a terrible mistake. In semi-hysteria I texted my friend back in L.A., who was just getting ready to start her Senior year of Undergrad, venting about the lack of research I'd done and how tons of things could go wrong once I stepped out of my Parisian bubble of security.
And she told me this: "Paris wasn't always a bubble." I realized that if I wanted to take full advantage of being in Europe this year than I would have to confront my fear of traveling or else I would never see anything cool.
So, here I go, confronting my fears.
chapter 1: brussels
Nicole and I, left in an Uber from my apartment at 5:20(ish)am on a Saturday, the Uber dropped us off at Gare de Lyon around 5:40. We had 20 Minutes to spare before we were to meet our BlaBla Car driver. The problem was that our meet up point was not Gare de Lyon but Porte de Bagnole, which was approximately 25-30 minutes away. We hefted it onto a bus and silently willed it to go faster making it with just minutes to spare before our ride showed up.
From there we drove 2 1/2 hours from Paris to Belgium waiting rather anxiously for the moment when we'd have to present our passports to get it that stamp that proved we'd actually left France. Much to our chagrin though, that time never came. In fact, we did not need our passports the entire trip. We'd both left France and entered Belgium without so much of a bonjour. The differences between the United States and European border control was not lost on the two of us.
Nicole and I were dropped off in Braine l'Alleud (a neighboring suburban town just outside of Brussels) around 10:30 (ish). Which was sort of a miracle in and of itself because our BlaBla car driver, a pianist doing her M1 in Paris had never driven to Brussels, had no idea how to get there, and lost her data (and therefore her ability to navigate) once we'd left France. From Braine l'Alleud we bought a 6 euro (them student discounts though) train ticket to Brussel's city center.
Before we get to Brussels though, I have some words to say about Braine l'Alleud.
I'm quite certain that whenever I think back on the brief time spent in this tiny place I will cringe a little. I will always think of how "Barbie Girl" was blasting from one of the homes while Nicole and I were walking around. This mental image will forever be in my mind and in a way that theme song will forever mar my image of Braine l'Alleud which just doesn't seem like a real place in my mind because of that song.
Now that that's done: onto Brussels. Firstly, bravo on your train system Europe. Secondly, United States take note.
The first thing I adored about Brussels was the cobblestones. Paris has cobblestones as well, yes, but they are not as noticeable, what I mean by that is that in Brussels, Ghent, and Brugge, you could feel the shape of each stone you were stepping on. And that's just cool. In certain areas where stones were missing you could see that each stone was placed in the ground and the gaps then filled in with dirt and unlike the fan pattern some streets have in Paris the stones here are all uniformly rectangular and placed simply in lines.
The next thing I loved about Brussels was that chocolate could be found on literally every street. This morning I counted just how many chocolatiers I had visited over that weekend and was quite surprised to find I'd only visited 10. It felt like Our entire trip was me dragging Nicole from chocolate shop to chocolate shop.
What was most striking about Brussels was how familiar the town felt to me. It was different from Paris in shape and size, yes, but the storefronts were the same. Small one-level boutiques attached to larger buildings. More buildings were made of bricks here than in Paris but the churches looked very much like the ones you'd find France.
At some point during the day after dancing a bit at a random concert we found that was playing mashups of American top 40 hits Nicole and I remembered that we had to check into our hostel. So with 30 minutes to spare find our hostel and discover a square room with white walls, a small bathroom, tiny balcony, and three bunkbeds. The one girl we talked to was on vacation from school visiting Belgium from Denmark, she asked us a lot about the L.A. culture and the presidential candidates. (A standard question I get over here.) That night all Nicole and I did was buy more chocolate and watch War Dogs in a movie theater with both French and Dutch subtitles.
chapter 2: ghent
By 12pm the next day Nicole and I we at the train station heading towards Ghent. It took nearly over an hour to arrive at the city center and once there I was quite dumbfounded. Here spread before me was a proper medieval town, the likes of which the child in you imagines are only in Disney movies and bad historically inaccurate History Channel shows. The streets were cobble-stoned, the buildings old and composed of mainly red bricks and thick slabs of rough weathered wood. There were horse-drawn carriages and venders in wooden brightly painted wagon carts selling candies and then there was the castle that Nicole and I had just randomly came upon in our awe of this new world we'd entered into.
The entire day at Ghent was spent on a mission: we were trying to find this one spot where some unknown photographer had taken this picture we'd found on Google Images. And in our pursuit of this one very photogenic spot we'd gotten lost once, been navigated to a pitiful looking river, found a dive bar near an elementary school, and stumbled, quite literally I tripped lightly over a cobblestone, looked up and thought to myself: "Is that a castle?"
We tried two things in Ghent, traditional candies, from one of the aforementioned carts, which they call 'Noses' which they named so because they apparently resemble human noses. They honestly just looked like cones to me; however, I would not if I were you ask why they are called 'Noses' because you may or may not get lightly teased.
chapter 3: brugge
We left Ghent around 4 pm for Brugge arriving just as the golden hour settled in. This particular time in the day when the sun begins its descent is my favorite. A glow seems to settle on the world and it's magical.
We spent a long time in Brugge just wandering lazily around the town, strolling alongside their river, and be holding the gilded buildings we swore we'd seen replicas of in Paris.
We made it eventually to the market center just as the sun and temperature was fully setting. Webought chocolate from one of few shops that were open and sat next to a moment of a Dutch explorer who's name escapes me now, Yelping for a traditional Brugge restaurant.
To escape the cold we decide simply to go to one of the overpriced tourist traps nearby, where the food was predictably overpriced and sub-par. During dinner the waiter, an Albanian man named Artie, and Nicole trade wise-cracks. Nicole, teasing that I'm free after 10pm and Artie playing along that he gets off at 10:30pm. Me, being the overt person I am, simply sit there squirming, thinking up a way to make Nicole pay for this (all in good fun, of course).
The last of our bus fare money is spent giving this Alabian a 5€ tip-- for reasons I still do not understand-- and have to walk back to the train station through a semi-lit park. (I am a big enough person to admit that perfect choices may not have been made during this trip.) This is where it happens, at some point during this walk one of the many things Nicole says to me is just too much and I, well, I loose it.
And by 'it' I mean, control over my bladder, as I'm doubling over in hysterical laughter in the deemly-lit park in Brugge I faintly realize that a waterfall is running down my legs. And indeed it was a waterfall because my pants were soaked down to my knees. After the initial euphoria wears off I am mortified and contemple briefly, jumping into a nearby water fountain. In hind sight I really ought to have gone into that water fountain because for the entire train ride I smelled like a seasoned homeless person.
So, there I am on platform 9 with both my and Nicole's cadarigns tied around my waist, and there Nicole, is dying in laughter. To give her credit, this is always the moment that I realized we'd be friends for a while, because when you learn that your travel partner has peed herself and you offer no judgement but instead sacrifice your cardigan for her, well, it forms a very unique bond that is hard to break.
Boarding the last train out of Brugge I think about the events of the weekend and I remember thinking " So this is how we part Brugge, with pants that I'll have to wash twice before wearing again and itchy thighs.
chapter 4: the way back
We wake up at 5:30am again, shuffle obnoxiously through our hostel room changing and stuffing things into our backpacks. We take an Uber to the meet up point: Zaventam train station and wait.
Our BlaBla car driver, a mid-20-something man from Toulouse, arrives relatively on time in a rusted red van. When he opens the trunk so we can put our things in there Nicole and I notice that their are two mattresses, a blanket, and pillow back there.
What I would have given to have our expressions captured. Naturally we decide to not put our bags in his bedroom and instead occupy the length of the middle seat. In a gentlemanly fashion, the man with the red van from Toulouse offers us his blanket; a fluffy over-stuffed feather montrosity cloaked in a black duvet.
I bring up the route to Paris on my phone and track our way back to civilization where cars are normally tiny faits and therefore incapable of housing a mans bedroom.
At some point I fall asleep, I know I must have done this because I am awaken by a loud sort of musical collaboration that involves a banjo, electric violin, acoustic guitar, screamo vocals which randomly counted to 5 in German, and a drum. Apparently it was a soundtrack to a Serbian movie called White Cat Black Cat.
By the time we were dropped off in Paris I was swearing to never get into a Bla Bla car again and was extremely greatful for the rigid normality of the Monday full of classes and babysitting that occurred.