Category Archives: stuff to do

Normandy (1) – Road Trip!

After four years of nagging, I was finally able to convince family to take the long haul flight from California and come visit. It was a wonderful opportunity to show off my adopted (for a bit longer) city and a great excuse to take some well-deserved time away from the lab to indulge in a bit of touristing myself.

It was also time to relax, talk long into the night, make tentative plans for visits post-return, sleep, fix stuff around the house (yay to visiting parents), and blog. Since their departure about a month ago, my blog posting frequency has tumbled and is now inversely proportional to the time I’ve spent in the lab – that is to say, I need to go back and read this post (written not so long ago) again and again until it is indelibly etched in my mind.

Rather than stay in Paris for my entire week off (they had arrived one week prior and seen many of the bigger attractions), we kicked off our exploration with a road trip to Normandy. This region of France, found northwest of Paris, is known (among other things) for its coastline (mmm, seafood), agriculture (mmm, butter) and cider (mmm, Calvados). Historically, this region has been under constant dispute, from the settlements of the Vikings in the 9th century, through many centuries of French-English tug-of-war, to the most recent battles between the Allied forces and Germany on D-Day during WWII.

I know now that there is so much more to see in Normandy then the three days I allotted for our trip, but within these limitations we planned to arrive by train from Paris and stay in Caen, rent a car to drive around the area, specifically aiming to see Mont Saint Michel and the American memorials at the D Day beaches, and spend any extra time we had exploring the countryside and local color.

After arriving on a direct train from Paris (2 hours from Gare Saint Lazare), we first spent some time poking around Caen. Unlike other nearby towns, like Bayeux, that were been spared from destruction during WWII, Caen was almost completely destroyed during the German retreat following the Allied landings in the weeks and months following D-Day. This made for a not-so-picturesque skyline of ancient cathedrals and utilitarian housing complexes with very few of the twisty, narrow medieval passageways I have come to love exploring. However, the city was long ago home to William the Conqueror. He built his stronghold here around 1060 and it still can be explored today.

Although the actual castle is long gone, its foundations are still visible and the walls around the fortress have been restored and stand high on the only hill in town. Additionally, within the keep there are two museums and a medicinal garden that is still populated with several herbs and plants known (or thought) to have healing properties. Perusing the garden, looking for plants I recognized and learning about those I did not was definitely interesting and educational. It was also slightly frightening to realize that there were more than a few poisonous plants hidden in there.

While I could not imagine having a car in Paris (and would never recommend it), I have missed the feeling of freedom that comes from knowing you can hop behind the wheel and get out of town at any time. The few times I have driven outside of the city, I have found the French countryside to be vast and beautiful. Besides the gradually undulating green hills and endless rows of grapevines (or apple trees, depending on your destination), my favorite part about getting on the road is spotting the ‘what’s special about the next town’ signs.

A few kilometers before the exit to each small village, you can find large, sepia-toned signs that illustrate what that town has to offer the adventurous visitor. I find it to be a fun way to get an idea of what the local region thinks should not be missed (giant oysters apparently) and not nearly as tacky as the standard American billboard. Here are a few of my favorites or, you know, ones I was able to catch in semi-focus from a moving vehicle:

(Vire, home to a castle and many delicious sausages)

(Villedieu-les-Poêles, a one-stop shop for all your pottery and bell needs)

(Bayeux – timbered homes and an amazing medieval tapestry)

In a completely spontaneous move, we decided to drive a bit north and explore the harbor town of Honfleur. My step-father is a big boat lover, so fitting in a visit to a local harbor town seemed like the only fair thing to do after all the medieval castles and churches into which I dragged him.

This tiny coastal town turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

The outer Honfleur harbor was home to fishing vessels, sailboats and super yachts in seemingly equal number and, after finding parking, we hurried towards them, following our noses to the ocean and only pausing to let the ocean breeze temporarily cool the effects of the blazing sun. We eventually turned back towards the center of town in search of dinner and came into the inner harbor area. Cut off from the open water by a narrow passage (and a low lying bridge that is raised for passing boats), this marina, jam-packed with sailboats, is surrounded tall, thin multi-colored buildings whose sidewalks are covered by terrace restaurants serving up overflowing buckets of moules and looked like it could have been taken directly from a fairy tale. It would not have surprised me to see a newly be-legged mermaid or beautiful bookworm swing, singing, out of any one of the vibrantly colored buildings surrounding the water.

After an early evening spent exploring the winding, narrow streets and deeply inhaling the ocean air, we sat down to dinner at one of the many restaurants ringing the small harbor area. My step-father chose salmon with a curry sauce, while I had the more traditional moules frites. We ate quietly, and I allowed myself to finally, genuinely relax – this was what vacation should be – a glass of cider next to the water, the last rays of sunshine peeking over the tops of colorful buildings, stimulating conversation, delicious food and great company.

A little stow-away crab in my mussels apparently agreed (do any of you out there know of this? They were in about 50% of the shellfish and I have never seen them before…)


Le Tour (In Images)

Each July the Tour de France ends it’s three-week journey in the heart of Paris, welcomed by enormous crowds, great fanfare and the intense, afternoon summer sun. This year I joined the throngs, arriving early and waiting patiently for the riders to arrive, earning me both an excellent vantage point at the Place de la Concorde, as well as a sunburn that is still peeling, two weeks later. Like any international event, the mix of spectators was worth the trek in its own right and, with a Brit in the lead, us Anglophones found yet another reason to bond together beyond the preference for speaking English – the roar that arose from our particularly American/British/Australian corner anytime the Sky team van (or riders) passed was deafening.

Here are some of my favorite images from that day.

The View: Hard to beat, close to the road with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Bring. It. On.

The P’tit Tour: young kids raced a partial lap around the Place de Concorde and the Champs-Élysées, fighting for their mini-yellow jersey. Great to see a girl take it all.

The Parade:  In reality, just a series of ‘floats’ by big Tour de France sponsors, they mostly featured young, beautiful people gyrating to throbbing pop music. They went by at relatively high speed, but still did the job of waking the crowd up, making us laugh and getting us ready for the riders to arrive.

(The yellow jersey leads off, naturally)

(Why yes, those are marshmallows roasting over a fire on top of that car)

(This cracked me up – especially the ones with the giant cigarette lighter or Bic razor perched on their roof)

(There is a man, wearing very little, thrusting inside of a translucent plastic cage in an effort to sell laundry detergent, in case you thought you were imagining things)

The Riders: For those not familiar with the route, after leaving their starting point of Rambouillet, the cyclists wind their way approximately 80km to the center of Paris, at which point they do several loops around Rue de Rivoli/ Champs-Élysées to finish the stage, ending with a mad sprint down the boulevard towards the finish line.

(First pass of the riders through Place de Concorde – the leader here…)

(…followed by those riders giving chase, already…)

(… and then by the beginning of the peloton, or ‘little ball’ of riders that make up the main pack – in fact, not ‘little’ at all)

(the main body of the peleton moving through – the clatter of these bikes across the cobblestones was louder than I would have ever expected)

(Using the 200x zoom lens to watch the peloton streak by the crowds on the opposite side of the Place de Concorde)

(Our view down Rue de Rivoli, as the riders make another pass; the British fans ready and waiting, as their men push forward).

 The Spectators – for the most part everyone was friendly and happy to be there. We met quite a few people who had been following the tour, stopping place by place along the entire route, which seemed like both an extensive commitment and a great excuse for a trans-European road trip all at the same time. This guy was the best of all – having a great time and more than willing to stop for a photo. With Bradley Wiggins clinching his victory (and the first for Britain), this walking Union Jack and his robust salutation of “Cheers!” to everyone that stopped to sneak a peak (or take an obvious photo) seemed the perfect way to end an exhausting and exhilarating afternoon.

Last Call

I received an extremely crucial (and insightful) piece of advice from Meg not so long ago. No nonsense, eye-to-eye, I-know-what-I’m-talking-about words of wisdom: “Figure out what your priorities are for the rest of your time in Paris and DO them… the lab is not going to love you back…” Her blunt honesty stunned me into several long seconds of silence, followed acceptance of the truth and, finally, by a slow, affirmative (and still silent) nod: Yes.

Don’t get me entirely wrong, I have been working hard on (and still love) the science (especially now that the countdown is always ticking in the background) and I’m not about to toss my lab coat in a corner and never look back. However, there is a lot of Paris, and France (possibly even further afield in Europe) that I have not yet seen. Knowing that I am easily caught up by my overdeveloped sense of obligation, I need to be sure that I set aside time for me, in addition to the lengthy (always growing) list of experiments.

To that end, I am currently writing from a hotel room in Caen (one of the larger towns in Normandy) where I am taking in the sites with visiting family. For the first time in almost four years, I have taken a week off of work and stayed here. I am giving myself the time to get a bit more organized, see the sites and enjoy the time I have with my family on this side of the world. It is glorious.

As both a way to hold myself accountable and get the word out to my Paris friends, I thought I’d post my ‘to-do for FUN’ list here and keep track of things as I see them (and write about them, of course).

So, here is my dream list of places to see and photos to take before I depart in November. I would also really enjoy hearing your suggestions – food, landmarks, museums and/or views that are wholeheartedly recommended as ‘can’t miss’ when visiting the City of Light. Please, give me more ‘work’ to do!

Paris (and vicinity)


Musée Rodin (27 July 2012)

Musée des Arts et Metiers (26 July 2012)

Musée de l’Orangerie

Espace Dali (this is embarrassing as it is around the corner from my house)

Jardin des Plantes/Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle

Musée Dupuytren (yes weird, possibly disturbing, but still fascinating)

Musée Carnavalet (did this past weekend-post forthcoming!)


Madeline (did this past weekend – post forthcoming!)


Opera (the building definitely, but also – if I’m lucky – a performance?)

Galeries Lafayette  (for the building this time, not the shopping – I am on a post-doc salary, a French one, no less…)


Versailles (I have seen the gardens, but never the chateau)

Basilique Saint Denis

Night cruise along the Seine


Arc de Triomphe (29 July 2012)

Tour Eiffel (yeah, have not done this yet, shaking my head in shame)

Tour Montparnasse (top of)

Dome of Basilica Sacre Coeur

Towers of Notre Dame Cathedral



Montmartre (28 July 2012)

Beyond Paris

Normandy (23-25 July 2012)

–       Mont Saint Michel (24 July 2012)

–       Omaha beach (25 July 2012)



Bruges (mainly because of this and because it is GORGEOUS)

Yeah, so remember I did say dream list. However, please do suggest other things I may have missed. And, Paris peeps – let me know if you want to join the adventure(s)!

First Sunday: Musée de Cluny (from the archives*)

When it comes to choosing museums to visit in Paris, clearly there is an extensive list from which to choose. Personally, my favorite of them all (thus far) is the Musée de Cluny (officially known as the Musée National du Moyan Âge, or National Museum of the Middle Ages). Although it stands smack in the middle of the city, a sprawling complex on the corner of Boulevard Saint Michel and Boulevard Saint Germain, it tends to be relatively overlooked by visitors and is therefore a great candidate for (Free) First Sunday viewing.

The museum itself is architecturally divided into two parts. The permanent art collection is housed in the palace that initially was constructed in the 1300s for the abbots of Cluny. The visiting expositions are usually displayed in the soaring “Frigidarium”, the spacious remains of the Thermes de Cluny, an ancient Roman bath that first occupied this plot of land. Not only does the museum house an extensive and extremely well curated collection of medieval art, but it is also a fantastic opportunity to explore both the ancient baths and the palace, which are also very well preserved.

I have to admit that I am biased when it comes to my appreciation for the Cluny collection. In addition to my training in science, I also hold a degree in medieval history (yeah, I am not the most decisive person around). The reasons why are extensive and fun to discuss over a beer, and it does mean that I have boundless enthusiasm when it comes to looking at illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, tarnished reliquaries and broadswords. I am truly in my geeked-out element here – bring on another Madonna and Child triptych, I can take it!

One of my favorite stories about the museum involves this collection of heads (and the corresponding decapitated statues across the courtyard).

From the late 1200s, onwards, under the balustrade of the west façade of the Notre Dame Cathedral stands “The Gallery of Kings”, a row of larger-than-life statues representing the Kings of Judah, the ancestors of Jesus, looking down on the crowds as they enter the church. During the revolution, everyone was guillotine happy, particularly when it came to cutting off royal power (so to speak). Within this population there appears to have been some confusion – these statues were apparently thought to be representations of the French monarchy, rather than the biblical forefathers as originally intended. In order to remove any semblance of royal power from the symbols of the city, the façade was scaled, statues torn down and then beheaded and tossed into a mass statuary grave – just to be sure everyone got the point. The Cluny now houses some of the remnants of these victims of mistaken identity and mob rule.

The museum’s most famous piece is the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. These six tapestries are considered by many to be the greatest works of art of the European middle ages. Five of the tapestries represent one of each of the five senses (guess the one above!) and the meaning behind the sixth is still not agreed upon, but thought to represent some combination of love and understanding. The curators of the museum have built a special viewing room that has low light and is temperature controlled for optimal preservation. It is a special place to sit and imagine the years of weaving that went into each piece, to experience how saturated the colors remain after several centuries and to walk up and look at them so closely that you really can examine each stitch. They are stunning (plus, each one has a monkey and I love monkeys).

The last time I visited the Cluny, on a First Sunday several months ago, they were featuring a special exhibit, “L’Epée: Usages, mythes et symbols”, about swords, their history, use and symbolism. Housed in the Frigidarium, the visiting exhibition took our breath away – they had the swords of famous warrior Roland, as well as that of Joan of Arc. The sword pictured above was that used in the ceremony to crown new kings of France in the middle ages, complete with bejeweled scabbard. There were illustrated manuscripts demonstrating fencing and fighting techniques and, somewhat excessively, a skull showing the after-effects of a life threatening sword blow. Most amusingly was the looping video of the ‘Black Knight’ scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, presented as a representation of the “sword and modern culture” – seriously.

Unlike many of the other big name museums of Paris, the Cluny is relatively focused, small and easy to take in on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Between the history of the buildings themselves and the extent and quality of their collection, I would highly recommend adding it to anyone’s list of things to see when visiting Paris – the Musée de Cluny does an amazing job shining a light on France (and the rest of Europe) during what we mistakenly think of as “The Dark Ages”.

*”from the archives” will be an ongoing set of posts in the coming weeks that show what I was up to when I was not blogging here over the past several months – I never stopped collecting images and stories for the blog, and I am very happy to have the chance to share them now – better late than never, right?

Catacombes de Paris

Honestly, I am completely embarrassed that it has taken me 3+ years to make it to the Catacombs of Paris, deep in the 14th arrondisment. This was not due to a lack of effort – in fact, today marked my third attempt to gain entry, the first two blocked due to poor timing (we almost made it in time) and an electricity outage (now that I have been deep down there, I can only imagine how terrifying that must have been).

After a long wait in line (about an hour, in scattered rainshowers), we finally made it into the tiny vestibule where tickets are bought and one starts their initial descent. Both my visitor and I commented on how stark everything was and moreover, if this was the US there would be eerie organ music and an introduction voiced-over by Morgan Freeman looping the background. To say that I am thankful for the lack of crass commercial manipulation in France would be an understatement.

The self-guided tour started off with a not-so-quick history lesson. Apparently long, long ago, the land we think of Paris today was submerged under a land-locked sea. Following massive tectonic movement, continental drift, human evolution, settlement and civilization (yes, this was covered in one info-graphic), the locals began to excavate massive amounts of limestone from under the city to build the monuments we all gawk at today.  Following a massive outbreak of water-borne disease (traced back to contamination of the city’s water supply by an excess of shallowly buried, decomposing bodies – eeew), the government ordered the above-ground cemeteries emptied and all remains thrown the unused quarry tunnels. In 1809 a very astute business man (whose name is currently lost in the tunnels of my mind), decided that the display of those remains would rake in the Francs, so he initiated the massive undertaking of reorganizing, stabilizing and opening the ossuary for public viewing. That is forward thinking.

After being prepped for what we were about to see, we descended further into the quarry. Long, damp tunnels were haphazardly lit and we could see initials and dates of individual workers carved into the stones around each new corner.

The first decorative item we came across was this stunning castle, carved into the stone wall. According to the signage (everything in English! Bravo!), this was carved by an excavator who had been imprisoned in the south for many years, with this castle as the only view from his cell.

Again, more info-graphics. Not only did the quarries provide a perfect final resting place for 6 million (!!!) Parisian remains, but they also play a critical role in our current understanding of the geological time scale of the European continent. A core taken from deep within the quarry now represents the international standard  of the different layers of rock and sediment from the major geological periods of the past. The hole from which the core was taken is now an extremely deep well.

After educating us all about French history, geology and paleontology (there were fossils!), we finally got to the bones. SO. MANY. BONES. You have been waiting for them as well – here you go (please forgive the focus issues, it was *dark* down there):

There really are not words to describe this place. It was eerie and overwhelming. It was claustrophobic, yet peaceful. It was a collection of so many lives and so much history that it was impossible to truly take it all in. I cannot recommend it enough – worth every wet minute in that line and more. I cannot wait to take another round of visitors back and absorb the melancholy and the sacred all over again.

First Sunday: Musée du Quai Branly

Another first Sunday just rolled by, did you catch it? Seriously, time needs to slow down a bit – I am struggling to keep up. Anyways, it was the perfect day for museum-ing. The clouds were dark and heavy, threatening rain all morning, which culminated in a specatular thunderstorm later that night. My colleague suggested the Musée du Quai Branly, which is located just past the Eiffel Tower in the 7th arrondissement. Wanting not to feel claustrophobic, as can be the case when the whole of Paris seems to crowd into your museum of choice (I am looking at you, Musée d’Orsay), we made the effort to be there bright and early. This is what greeted me as I exited the metro:

Not such a bad way to start a Sunday morning. Turns out we need not have worried about space. The museum is massive and almost completely hidden from the quai (riverside boulevard) by a large glass wall and a tangled jumble of lush, green foliage. Is it just me, or does this remind others slightly of Jurassic Park?

The museum contains innumerable artifacts from the indigenous cultures of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.  Apparently, only slightly more than 1% of the total collection is on display. That was more than enough to keep us occupied, mouths agape and overwhelmed for the better part of several hours.

The layout of the museum was very organic. Designed relatively recently (mid-1990s), the different civilizations are grouped together and organized first by geographic regions and then chronologically. The exhibits run through a long, relatively narrow space, along the outsides of the rectangular building. Running through the center of the cultural exhibits is an additional feature, “La Rivière”, which seeks to explain how man perceives and impacts the environment around him. Here there are interactive features about how different cultures organize their homes, cities or perceptions of where Earth fits into a greater spiritual world.

Unlike several other grand museums in Paris, almost all major signage was displayed in at least French and English, if not also Spanish. As I have almost no background knowledge in anthropology or ethnography, it was a relief to have some framework within which to put the pieces I was seeing. There was so much – statuary, textiles, tools and idols – seemingly crammed into every nook and cranny that even after three hours of wandering I felt like I had only taken a cursory glance. Here are a few of my favorites:


(protective monkey spirit + my reflection)

(protective faceless spirit)


(ritual oxen mask)

(wooden man)



(totem pole)


(Mayan head)

(Greenland mask)

Upon reflection, I think that one of my favorite installations was “The River”. As you traveled up the ramp from the center lobby/entrance into the main exhibit hall, there was a projected cascade of words that traveled along the floor much like water. The words formed whirlpools and eddies, merging streams and meandering offshoots, and every once in a while, you’d recognize the words floating by and hurry to whip out your camera in time to capture the current.

As we walked out of the museum into the emerging sunshine, we both decided that this site would go onto our ‘must show to guests’ list, if only to have the chance to return and sift through the enormous collection. Moreover, entrance to the gardens is always free, and a coffee sipped in the quiet of this urban forest, just minutes from the tumult of Paris, seems as if it would be ideal for another summer Sunday afternoon. We parted ways and I meandered along the river towards the city center.

(roof of the Grand Palais, next on my list)

It is remarkable the palpable change that has come over the Parisians now that summer is here. The sunshine and long days have softened even the crankiest local and, it seems, everyone is smiling or laughing. And, why not? It is Paris, after all.

(wedding photos snapped in haste during a red light, as everyone strolls on by)

First Sunday: Centre Pompidou

Paris is full of museums; most of which I have not yet seen. When I originally arrived here I decided that I would not seek them out on my own. I planned that I would explore them all with my many potential visitors. I have had many visitors through the years (please keep coming – I love having you!), but all has not gone according to plan. Mostly they do their museum-ing during the weekdays while I am working. This makes all sorts of sense, but means that I am woefully ignorant, when it comes to art, in one of the cultural capitals of the western world. 

Lucky for me, Paris provides a deal that not even I can pass up. On the first Sunday of each month, the public museums are free. Not that I would ever shirk paying 10€ for admittance to the Louvre, but this just removes one more excuse and provides a convenient schedule for museum hopping around the city. Add to that the company of a new colleague (friend) who is always game to see more of her new home, and we have a standing monthly date. To note: selecting a museum to see on first Sundays is a challenge to itself. The entire city seems to turn out and some of the most popular highlights (Musée d’Orsay, for example) are bursting at the seams with visitors. A bit too much for this not-so-secret claustrophobe.

 As our adventure on the first Sunday of April (several weeks ago by now I know, I don’t want to hear it) we chose the Centre Georges Pompidou. We were joined by friends, old and new, kicking off the afternoon with the best falafel in Paris and then a coffee at the sleek museum café before taking in the all that France’s national museum of modern art had to offer. 

I need to stop to clarify that, prior to this visit, I would have sworn up, down and sideways that I ‘don’t do’ modern art. The medieval historian in me can look at endless rows of Byzantine icons, but urinals hanging in museums? No dice. I have to say that this visit completely opened my eyes (literally). A big blue square can be incredibly compelling. So blue that it hurt, yet I could not look away. Good on you, Pompidou. I did learn that the pieces I had negatively associated with ‘modern’ art belonged almost entirely to the Dada movement. I now understand the concept (seeing greater meaning in the modern, ordinary world), but still am not so enthralled with the products. I’ll just stay away from that wing in the future – to each their own.

The photos above are all from the permanent collections (and the artistry that is the skyline of Paris itself), which were incredible in their scope (temporal and media) and quantity. What really blew my mind was the special exhibition, “My Way” by Jean-Michel Othoniel. In collaboration with the glass blowers of Murano, Italy, Othoniel sculpts and scars glass in magnificent colors and chains. As someone who admittedly does not ‘get’ a lot of fine art, I am not going to take anything away with my clumsy descriptions. Suffice it to say that the entire exhibit took my breath away; here are just a few examples:

The exhibit is ongoing through 23 May. I would highly recommend it, if you can. First Sunday or not.