Speaking French

Speaking French in France.
There is a wonderful Boulangerie five minutes walk away from Palaiseau train station on Rue de Paris. I remember it from previous visits to the area. It is open 6:30 a.m. – 8:30 p.m. daily including Sundays, but it is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. When I saw it was open on Tuesday, Assumption Day in August, a public holiday in France, I went in to look at the goodies. The clerk asked me in French what I wanted; I asked back if she spoke English. “Non!” she said and walked away. I finished my exploration, made a mental list and left. Next day I went in, she recognized me and turned away. I called out loudly. ” Madame!” She stared with a very grim face. I said in my barbaric French: “Je veux beaucoup des tartes!” which I think means ” I want a lot of tarts!” This stopped her. I know how to say strawberry tart in a dozen languages; eclair is eclair and chocolate is more or less the same. Ah, but those petit-fours! I looked at the tiny little tartlets thinking of my children’s delight and said, “Un chaque s’il-vows-plait”. I believe it means “one each”. She gave me one, I shook my head, said ” Beaucoup” and pointed to a tray. She started placing tiny tarts on the tray, asking me after each one, ” C’est tout?” When the tray was full I nodded. She placed everything carefully into two boxes, tied them up with string and named the price. After a second I realized that since I didn’t get the number it must have been twenty. I can neither pronounce that French nasal ” vingt” correctly nor understand it, but I do know that if I hear a sort of empty clapping sound that must be it. I paid and she tried to push the two boxes at me while I tried to figure out how to ask her to tie them together for convenience sake. At which point another woman appeared from somewhere, took one look at me, my bag, the boxes, said something nice and long in French to the clerk, tied up the boxes, placed them into a large plastic bag with nice handles, gave me a charming smile and obviously wished me a pleasant day. I said the same to her.
A smile and some kindness go a long way and overcome any language barriers.

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Quebec, Canada

Quebec, Canada.
Quebec is a variation on an Algonquin word which means “the place where the river narrows”. The settlement appeared on the Saint Lawrence river probably in the 1520’s. The name was officially established in the very beginning of the 17th century. The Citadel, a massive imposing fortification, is the only still intact such construction on the continent. It is one of the main attractions in the modern city. The changing of the guard ceremony is performed daily at 10am; it attracts large crowds of tourists. The guards, clad in the old fashioned red uniforms and tall fur hats which look exactly like those of the Buckingham Palace guards, march along the embankment with their mascot, a white goat whose name is Batisse. At noon the old guns on the embankment are fired so that everybody knows it’s time for lunch. Several old city gates lead one to the old city center and to the majestic river. There are lots of old-time buildings with the usual assortment of souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants. One can walk along the local Parliament buildings, relax on a bench in the surrounding park before proceeding to the newer parts of town. Quebec is a very green city with lots of parks and lovely squares, fountains, statues and monuments. In the center of many flowerbeds one can see huge flowerpots full of nicely arranged blooms. Chateau Frontenac, an immense building standing on a hill near the river, dominates the skyline. Though it bears the name of count Frontenac, it was built on the site of the original noble castle at the end of the 19th century as a luxury hotel. In 2001 it was bought by Fairmont Hotels and completely renovated. Now it is even more luxurious and of course very expensive. In fact everything here seems rather pricey; various taxes added to any purchase are quite steep.
Québécois is an adjective used about the locals. The predominant language spoken here is French; it differs from the French spoken in Paris. One is addressed in French everywhere; English may be a bit of a problem. Though hotel clerks and shop assistants speak English fluently they don’t always understand what is said to them. But people are very friendly so all the possible problems are resolved quickly. The number of tourists clearly shows that Quebec is a very popular place. It is rich in history, its architecture is charming, and the surrounding nature is beautiful. What’s not to like!

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Storms of varying intensity seem to be all the rage this summer. After a rather long hot spell we woke up to thunder and lightning, and watched a veritable deluge. As I used to tell our kids when they were young, It’s raining mice and frogs! In-between storms, when the sun suddenly came out in all its summer glory in the evening, we walked around to see how Nature looked. Well it looked just fine! A visitor to our town said musingly that he never expected the greenery to be so lush and fresh, which helped us look at our surroundings with a fresh eye and indeed see the lushness all around us. Here and there we found roses proudly blooming on the lawns. In many places quite unexpectedly we saw tall clumps of white, red and pink flowers. Their name floated somewhere in the remote memories until it came to the fore. They were mallows, very common at the time when we were children but quite forgotten later. Now they seem to be making a huge comeback. I always pictured bluebells as little wild flowers. What we saw were almost bushes of them, standing tall and bearing large clusters of lilac-colored bell-shaped flowers. One white stem rose high among them.

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Nature has no bad weather. It does what it does without regard to human wishes and aspirations. Spring is the most beautiful season (for me), when everything wakes up after winter. All the trees go into blossom, there’s green grass and flowers everywhere, and at last we can take off the bulky clothes and warm shoes to walk around enjoying the sights. I saw lots of pretty flower beds all around town and decided to take some pictures next day. It was very sunny, with the afternoon temperature rising to 25C. It definitely felt like summer. Next morning, I woke up, looked outside and gasped. I mean, who would expect to see a huge snowfall in May?! All the trees with their tiny new leaves and lovely blossoms were totally covered with snow; I could not even see the ground let alone the new grass. What might happen to all the flowers in this blizzard? I went to explore today. Well, the tulips mostly survived; the daffodils are all bent down low or simply broken; some dandelions peek out from under the grass; amazingly the new just opened clusters and bunches of flowers are still here; and the green grass triumphantly covers the ground. A nice flowerbed nearby is partly ruined but there are enough flowers and grasses to give one hope. When I checked my photos at home I saw the a large cat walked into my shot, like a veritable photo-bomber. It was a one-day occurrence. Hopefully Nature will go on bringing us warmth and joy.

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Once I emerged from St. Michel – Notre-Dame RER station, I took a few steps, saw all the familiar landmarks and immediately felt at home – at ease. Paris is beautiful in all seasons; in May it is in bloom too. White, yellow, pink and red chestnut trees are covered with lovely candle-like blossoms, you can see them everywhere, near the celebrated cathedral, behind the Louvre in Tuillleries Gardens, on street corners and in various parks and gardens. There are magnificent and modest flower-beds with all manner of flowers, wonderful multi-colored displays at every Florist’s. Along the boulevards, past those numerous churches, monuments from various epochs and historic imposing buildings, through the throngs of tourists, on to Rue De Rivoli. This time I had a concrete purpose in mind which I successfully accomplished, to wit, I bought the new book by my favorite author and some souvenirs. What does one do then? Why, just stroll along looking around. The infamous Conciergerie, the former prison which stands on the Seine River embankment; St. Chapelle, the chapel with its never-ending line of tourists who wish to study the interiors; and whatever else attracts your eye. Just stare J After three hours of busy energetic walking I felt the need to leave my juices somewhere, so I marched to the well-known spot at Tuilleries Gardens. Having paid 80 cents, I stood in line to the ladies room and observed the same phenomenon: no matter which age and race the next woman in line was, she would step ahead, then recoil, then move forward cautiously. I was forewarned but still it took some willpower when my turn came: it turned out that there were two Muslim men sort of working there, half-heartedly waving their arms to direct the women to the booths. That was a big change from last year. Yes, I felt very uncomfortable; still, I paid my money. During my next walk I decided to find the unplottable spot at Luxembourg Gardens, a feat which I never managed to accomplish last year. I walked as per the arrow sign, past the Pavilion, on to the Senate building, the Medici Fountain… Nada, zilch, nothing. I retraced my steps, walked around the Pavilion and found it! I cautiously peaked inside. Ach joy! A young Muslim woman with a huge black eye and a scared expression on her face was sitting by the entrance, with the sign which said 50 cents. No other staff was needed inside.

The flower-beds, the statues, the fountains, the pond, they are all there, all very beautiful. I was glad to see plenty of people around, some busily running along, some strolling around snapping pictures. Hopefully nothing can change this amazing city. No matter how many times I walk along the same streets and look at the same places, they all make my heart soar.

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Tulip Inn at Massy-Palaiseau, France is a very nice residence hotel. It is easy to reach from Charles De Gaulle airport by RER B train, just be sure to check that the train goes in the right direction. The same train will take you to the city center. You may either buy single tickets or if you are staying for a week, buy Navigo transportation pass. It works Monday through Sunday for all kinds of transport including your return ride to the airport. It is also long-term, save it for your future travels. You can add money to it whenever you find yourself back in Paris again!

The hotel is five minutes walk away from the station. If you are traveling with luggage be sure to take the lift once you get out of the train. Look to your left and you will see a charming house with a turret. Follow the road past some very pretty houses and you will see the hotel right in front of you. I think they don’t do themselves justice: the picture on <booking.com> shows the building standing sort of nowhere. It is actually at the end of a street. I took several pictures along the route to memorize the few turns, and snapped some views from the apartment window. The apartments have a built-in kitchenette with hot plates and microwave; there are enough kitchen utensils, plates, cups and cutlery. If you take a larger apartment you will have the advantage of being able to go out the bedroom into the small separate kitchenette and have your morning coffee in peace while the family sleeps. Beds are large and comfortable. The bathroom is well-equipped; you may need to ask for an extra towel as they only offer the large ones and you don’t want to dry your face with the same one you use for your body. Anything you need may be found at Reception desk. Rooms are cleaned daily. The hotel serves breakfast for 10 euros per head. However you may prefer to cook your own meals. If you go back to the station, cross the tiny bridge and look for Rue de Paris, you will find a large food supermarket which is open daily 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., weekends and holidays included. There is a large Boulangerie (bakery) directly opposite which is open on weekends but closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. The locals obviously know the schedule well: we saw people stocking up on baked goods, carrying half a dozen long baguettes to their cars.

Last but not least, booking an apartment at Palaiseau is cheaper than booking a tiny hotel room in the center of Paris.

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When in Vienna, prepare yourself for huge daily doses of Beauty. Every building seems to have columns, ornaments, statues and various decorations. There are innumerable Titans and Caryatides (who were like female Titans) holding up the balconies and entrances. The female faces, in spite of the constant heavy lifting, are lovely. Walk inside any church, look at the dome, to Oculus, the murals and paintings, the winding staircases and stained glass windows, the organ and the altar. In the city park, Stadtpark, one can see the charming Kursalon building which houses a great concert hall and a very good restaurant. In front of it is a flowerbed clock. Behind the famous Karlskirche with its distinctive two tall columns on the sides, the French embassy is housed in an imposing large building. Many other embassies and businesses can be found in the area, each of them boasting a lovely location. Raise your eyes, and you will notice some statues soaring in front of a building, or a busy chimneysweep ready to step ahead onto his new task. Many historical places have plaques and signs which tell a tourist what it is they see and give a brief history of the area or a concrete house. There is clearly a method to this madness, one does not get lost or overwhelmed. Wherever you look, you see that inimitable phenomenon: a thing of Beauty is a joy forever.

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