Friday, November 6, 2015

Why Cuba?

I have always had a fascination with Cuba. Since I was in high school, I have dreamed about visiting the one place Americans were forbidden to visit (there are probably more, but in my mind, it was just Cuba).  Over the years I read books about Cuba, listened to the Buena Vista Social Club, and admired Che Guevara’s handsome face on all those hipster T-shirts.  But it wasn’t until recently that I decided it was time to actually pay a visit.  

Last year, I had a boss who was born in Cuba. He was one of the kindest, most open people I have ever met.  We worked closely together and I loved listening to his accent and watching his expressions. He left to take another job, and my workplace hasn’t been the same since. He got me thinking about Cuba again – quite a bit.

Then, last December, President Obama announced he was easing restrictions on travel to Cuba.  What do the changes mean?  America will re-open its embassy there within a few years.  Cuba will start accepting American credit cards next year. Americans still have to fall into one of the 12 categories of people approved to travel there (journalists, religious leaders, filmmakers, etc.), but no longer have to apply to the US Government in advance to get a license. Now travelers just self-identify as falling into an approved category, and go.

While restrictions are loosening, there is still a bit of a forbidden fruit appeal. You still can’t fly directly from the US (unless you take an expensive charter plane) or book a hotel from a US-based website. But if you are crafty, you can buy a flight to Mexico, then a flight to Cuba on a Mexican airline. You can use AirBNB to rent rooms in people’s homes, or European booking sites to reserve hotel rooms.

Thee number of American visitors to Cuba is increasing by the day. Once the embassy opens and credit cards work there – can McDonalds, Starbucks and Marriott be far behind? Probably not. Travel experts are predicting that Cuba will look completely different in 5 years – once American businesses are allowed in.

Because of my renewed interest, and my desire to visit Cuba BEFORE McDonalds gets there – I decided now is the time.  After tons of research and effort, I am booked and ready to drink some mojitos while soaking in some Cuban music and sunshine.  Unfortunately, Madelyn won't be accompanying me on this trip. Fortunately, my Spanish-speaking boyfriend will be. (Well, his Spanish is limited, but better than mine at least. My Spanish comes out in French.)  In late December, we will visit Havana, Varadero, and Trinidad. I will be covering my adventures for this blog and a few others kind enough to let me guest write about my trip.  

In the coming weeks, I will be writing about what went down between the United States and Cuba, and why the United States banned its citizens from going there back before I was born.  I will share how to book a trip like mine (it isn’t easy!) and what is legal/illegal when visiting Cuba these days. And of course, I will blog about the trip in detail after my return. (There's no wi-fi and iPhones don't work in Cuba - GASP!)

I hope you will join along on this journey, because it’s going to be the trip of a lifetime!


Friday, July 3, 2015

France Day 14: Kings, Queens and Guillotines

Of the many French/about France movies we watched before coming here, Marie Antoinette was our favorite. Not only is it really good, but it also was actually filmed at Versailles. So we were excited to get up early and drive 45 minutes to the palace (above).

On our way, we saw this vintage French hot air balloon taking off!

Versailles was home of French Kings for about 100 years. Louis XIV spent 50% of the tax income from the people of France (!!!) to build it and outfit it with some of the finest art in the world. Then his son and grandson (Marie Antoinette’s hubby) spent similar amounts to expand it and re-decorate it. This spending led to the French Revolution in 1789, when the people of France were like “eff you, royal family!”

After we passed through the golden gate topped with crowns and 100,000 gold leaves, we entered the chateau. It is ridiculously lavish, and was insanely crowded, stuffy and hot. We rushed through and saw many of the rooms. Our favorites were the:

Chapel where Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette were wed:

Queen’s Bedchamber where Marie slept, had “relations” with Louis, and gave birth to her children – all of which were witnessed by the court, to make sure everything was legit:

The Hall of Mirrors where royal balls were held:

And tons of rooms with endless paintings and gold leaf:

As we walked, I asked M which side of the Revolution she would have been on. She said she “definitely would have been BFFs with Marie Antoinette -- hanging out, trying on gowns, eating cakes, getting our hair done.” We both agreed that I would have been a revolutionary. M didn’t even hesitate to say, “Mom, you would have been one of the people outside screaming ‘BURN IT DOWN’!” Smart kid.

Speaking of cake, we were tired and hungry so we went to Angelina inside the palace and had a rose shaped pastry. M spent a long time contemplating what made it so red. 


The best part of Angelina was the bathrooms sign. Ha!

Next we walked outside to see the gardens. And holy crap are they HUGE. It would easily take an hour to walk the length of the garden to the grand canal. We walked around for a bit, but got so overheated that we decided to spend $13 to take the Petit Train to the back of the property to see Marie Antoinette’s Trianon Palace and her hamlet. Even the train ride was hot. I spent the whole time mumbling, “stupid king! Why did your property have to be so gigantic?!  Was this really necessary?!” M kept laughing at her mother, the revolutionary.

We arrived at the Trianon Palace, where Marie retreated to avoid the hustle bustle of the main chateau. It is much smaller in scale, yet still pretty swanky.

Here is M with Marie:

I told them both that if I had lived then, and had to put up with this kind of heat, in those kind of clothes, with no AC or ice – I would pray for the guillotine!

Here is Marie’s bedroom in the Trianon, which you should scroll up and compare to her bedroom in the palace – because it really is quite normal by comparison. 

She craved a much simpler life. Which is why she had the hamlet constructed:

Marie longed for simple country pleasures, so she ordered that her servants build this adorable little farm village, where she could relax and get away from the fast pace of the palace.

M and I feel sorry for Marie. She was only 14 when she was forced to marry Louis XVI. She never made any choices about her own life – it was all forced upon her. The French blamed her for the excesses and spending of the royals, but that all started generations before she was queen. She really longed to be a peasant girl, not France’s last queen.  Yet she lost her head on a public square in Paris, in front of cheering crowds. Even though I would have been a revolutionary – that still doesn’t seem right. And it appears that France has forgiven her as well, and made her a bit of a folk hero.

Because we kind of love her, M bought a Marie Antoinette iPhone case, and we headed back to Paris.

Tomorrow: Last day in France!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

France Day 13: We see dead people

This morning, we walked across the street to this adorable patisserie, just steps outside our door, to grab breakfast. This is why I love Paris. These are on nearly every street corner!

Then we picked up tickets for the L’Open Bus and headed for the catacombs. (This bus truly is the best way to get around Paris. For $32, you get a full day of hop-on, hop-off privileges, and there are 5 different lines that go all over the city. You can ride on the open top, which looks dorky, but allows you to see way more than you would on the Metro. They provide a free audio guide to what you are seeing as you pass it.)

Now, let me rewind 6 months to share the great Catacombs debate.  When planning this trip, I told M the one thing I want to see is the Catacombs. She said, “no way, not happening, nope, nada, NON!”  She told me that she didn’t want to see dead bodies. I told her I would leave her in the hotel and go alone if I had to. We had this conversation about once a week, for 6 months. Today was finally the day. She went, but wasn’t happy about it.

Neither was I once I saw the line. We arrived early, but still had to wait 2.5 hours in the hot sun. I don’t think I’ve ever even waited in line at Disneyland for 2.5 hours! M and I took turns standing in line, while the other sat nearby in the park.  When we finally entered, we had to go down a really skinny spiral staircase that appeared to go close to the center of the earth. It was dark, damp and cold – only 53 degrees! As we walked through the narrow corridors, M said to me, “Grandma is going to be SO MAD at you!” I guess Grandma was team No Catacombs!

"Stop! This is the empire of the dead!"

The Catacombs are awesome because they are totally unique to Paris. In the late 1700s, the cemeteries here were positively overflowing, and causing a public health hazard. Officials decided to dig up all the bodies in Paris’ cemeteries and move the bones to abandoned rock quarries underneath the city. 

They stacked them in sections, marked with a sign designating which cemetery they had come from. 

There are more than 5 million skeletons in the Catacombs! You have to walk for 2km underground to see them all (and to get out).  

When it was over, M said, “I am glad we did that. It was cool.”  Yes!! Moms love vindication.

As we climbed 100 steps back to the surface, she said, “Mom, if you don’t get me food soon, they are going have to add my bones to the pile.” So dramatic!

So we grabbed lunch at a cafĂ©, then hopped back on the bus to go to the Louvre. Last time we were in Paris, we didn’t do the Louvre. It looked exhausting and M prefers shopping, while I prefer more macabre sightseeing ventures, and food.  But this time, we decided it was a must. So we descended into the pyramid and followed the hoards to the Mona Lisa. Ok, it’s pretty cool that she is 500 years old. But other than that – meh. 

I was much more impressed by the actual building (which used to be a palace) and its beautiful ceilings. We saw the 2200 year old Winged Victory sculpture, the Venus de Milo, and a million paintings. My feet hurt – a pain that could only be cured by Laduree.

I mentioned previously that we LOVE the macarons from Laduree – so we trekked over and bought a box. Since we were in the neighborhood, we hit the giant and incredibly glamorous Galleries Lafayette department store to try to find new light dresses to wear in tomorrow’s heat. But we were broke from our Laduree spending spree, so we moved over to H&M instead, and each bought the airiest dress we could find.

We then decided to take the full circuit on the bus tour to see the Champs Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, and other beloved landmarks – because it had finally cooled down and the breeze felt nice atop the bus. Just as we neared our hotel, a bird flew overhead and pooped on M’s arm! I told her that meant we would have good luck for the rest of the trip.  She was not impressed.

For dinner we walked to a Brasserie and ate chicken, mashed potatoes, salad and chocolate mousse. We watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle from our hotel room window, and hit the hay.

Tomorrow: Versailles!