On the road

IMG_4290I’ve been rather quiet on the blog lately. Please accept my sincere apologies. I have discovered that it is very difficult to just sit down and write all day. The mind grows numb after 5 hours. At least, my mind does. And I have been writing a lot lately because I was recently selected by AFAR magazine to create a guide to Monaco for their website. I was so flattered! They hire real writers, like Susan Orleans, and they were selecting me. I didn’t hesitate in replying with a loud YES! Typing as loudly as one can through the liquid crystal filter of a computer screen.

IMG_4269 P1080192 P1080179Before the writing, I needed to do some researching. I started immediately, reaching out to the tourist office and the Societe des Bains de Mer, the country’s largest employer that seems to be involved in every aspect of Monaco tourism. Days later, I found myself invited to the inauguration of the Pavillons Monte Carlo, a temporary luxury shopping center that was built as a centerpiece of sustainability. Even more incredible than an invitation to write for AFAR, and the opportunity to visit Monaco, I would be attending an event with SAS Prince Albert II. Totally ridiculous, but I was feeling pretty chuffed about the whole thing.

Then I started to panic about hat to wear. Thanks to the discerning eye of Mr French, I have a great wardrobe, but I was going to be hanging with the rich and famous of the world. I called a friend and she invited me to her new company the ELSS Collection, a company that rents the season’s latest designer fashion to women in my situation. Or women who have packed too lightly for the extravagant meal they have reserved in Paris, or women who are just curious what it feels like to wear high fashion on a low budget. This is starting to sound like a plug for her business, but Susan really is a friend and I genuinely had a great time trying on all the fun fashion at ELSS. I even pick up a dress for the big event and another for dinner later. Fun pieces by Kenzo that I would never buy, because they may be out of fashion in a year, but was thrilled to wear for an evening.

Dress ready, I was on my way. I had a busy day In Monaco, visiting insider haunts, exploring local favorites and doing the tourist thing. Suddenly, it was time to dress. In a moment of extreme anti-climax, it took me two minutes and I was ready to go.

IMG_4271The weather was gorgeous.  It had rained the weekend before, it would rain again in 48 hours, but tonight, the weather gods were in total cooperation with Princely desires for this outdoor event. The fountain was bubbling along joyfully with the British brass band, women were handed a whimsical posey as we arrived. I was thrilled to see that I fit right in with the ritzy crowd. I was a lone, but not at all lonely, there was just too much to see, gorging myself on this internationally flavoured eye candy.

The Prince arrived and it was a fun feeling being on the other side of the red rope, tourists clamouring for a photo op. On our side of the rope, blasé regulars were also shooting away, the man next to me raising his sleeve, the secret spy camera on his watch making that “pshut, pshut” sound, just like in the movies. A surreal moment with James Bond’s Casino de Monte Carlo as a back drop.

There were speeches. Mercifully short and to the point, boasting about the 90 species of trees that had been carefully cultivated to fill this commercial space with oxygen, the LED lights that would be beautiful, but also reduce light pollution and energy consumption. This was my kind of crowd after all! The prince cut the floral (compostable!) ribbon and a cloud of butterflies was released into the air. Breath taking.

Champagne corks popped and I was interested to note that the Monegasque were serving Perrier Jouet. Shockingly, I was not drinking, as I had a full schedule of decadent meals for the weekend and was saving myself. I was not the only teetotaler. Many of us were competing the few glasses of water available on each tray and the house had anticipated we’d be there, serving a delicious cocktail of kiwi, green apple and ginger.

As the evening progressed, we were invited to explore the shops that would fill the space over the next four years. Everything we find in Paris; Saint Laurent, Miu Miu, Balenciaga. Some stunning diamonds caught my eye. Not that I am in the market for diamonds, but I had remembered these diamonds from a Cartier show I had seen at the Grand Palais earlier this year. WOW! It is not every day I see a tiara for sale.

Slowly, my feet came back to earth, landing on the soft ground and carrying me happily back to my hotel for a dinner with a view.





Le grand départ…

Screen shot 2014-08-01 at 12.20.12 PMFor reasons that totally escape my independent American way of thinking, French vacation rentals run Saturday to Saturday. From ski chalets to seaside villas, family apartment-hotels to luxury lodges, during peak holiday season, we are all expected to arrive and leave on the same day. There are, of course, a few exceptions. Some hotels are flexible, some property owners have a different agenda, but those places are a microscopic minority.

The result is Le Grand Depart, the first Saturday in August when everyone in France who is not adventurous enough to travel abroad or wealthy enough for a second home, takes off on holiday. It is sheer madness and Mr French absolutely insists on being part of the insanity.

Because another French tradition is going to the exact same place every year (another mind boggler for this curious soul), I have found a great place in Hossegor that accepts flexible dates. We could show up on a (gasp) Sunday! and they wouldn’t mind. But that would mean one day less on holiday. I once tried suggesting that we make that first day a stay-cation, enjoy Paris and then leave early the next day. The entire family stared at me in a mix of horror and disbelief at the blasphemous idea.

Screen shot 2014-08-01 at 12.19.41 PMWith approximate 1/3 of the country hitting the road on the exact same day, joined by the Dutch and Belgians seeking warmer climes, traffic flows like a dammed up river. Last year it took us 14 hours to complete a 7 hour journey. There are some fun aspects to the adventure. The highway rest stops become party zones with the leaseholders organizing games like archery lessons and zumba classes, to keep drivers alert and their kids exhausted after a pit stop. At toll booths, cheerful young students hand out travel kits full of treats and this is the one time of year I allow myself a travel sized can of sour cream onion Pringles.

Mr French has decided that this year’s departure time is 2am. He plans to come home from work at 4, pack the car, have a bite, grab 6 hours of sleep and then slip behind the wheel. This is a man who is used to getting off a plane from China at 5am and heading directly in to the office for a shower and a full days work. I hope he can handle it, because no matter how hard I try to be the perfect, chatty passenger, the vibrations of the car ride as white dashed lane dividers pass rhythmically before my eyes, invariably hypnotise me to sleep. I’m getting drowsy just thinking about it…

FindingNoon is officially on holiday. See you August 25th. Bises!

Strawberries and cream

Screen shot 2014-07-03 at 10.51.59 AMLast weekend Mr French and I ran away to London for what the British call a Dirty Weekend, which ended up being the perfect name for our trip. We were going for a cocktail of business with pleasure, as his presence had been requested for a match at Wimbledon.

Wimbledon! Even for a tennis newbie like myself, the name is simply mythic. Even before my google search I knew that Wimbledon means grass courts and white tennis outfits. What I found out doing more research was that it also means strawberries and cream, which seems to be a very important tradition at the matches. A sporting event with sugar and fat? I was very, very excited about the trip. Actually, since I am usually excited to travel, I was over the moon for this adventure.

Screen shot 2014-07-03 at 11.33.49 AMGetting to Wimbledon couldn’t be easier. The town is a terminus, so its a direct trip on the District Line to Wimbledon, then you step out on to a enthusiastically decorated platform and follow the crowds. Formally clad “Honorary Stewards” guide you along the way while helmet topped Bobbies direct traffic. Ticket holders are directed to one sidewalk, non-ticket holders to the other. There are taxi that can be shared and I suppose we could have hired a driver, but why sit in traffic when one can be walking with the fans!

And there are lots of non-ticket holders because at Wimbledon they have the Queue, which is a long line of people waiting for Premium tickets that the tennis association does not sell in advance, reserving them for ardent fans who are willing to stand for hours for same day seats. When we arrived at the tube station they were announcing a 5 hour wait, with rain predicted later in the day. This didn’t seem to deter anyone!

Being a business event, we were in our most corporate casual, which meant I was trotting by the Queue, past several parking lots, up a hill and along the entire stadium in three inch heels. I was very pleased Screen shot 2014-07-03 at 11.35.10 AMwhen we arrived and were greeted by a polished waitress offering us a Pimm’s. I had first heard of a Pimm’s a week ago while reading a piece of British chick lit. In the novel, the heroine, a simple girl from the wrong side of the tracks (or in the case of this book, castle) had been invited to a society wedding and had gotten dangerously drunk because she hadn’t realized it was a cocktail, not a soda. Pimm’s is a gin inspired drink that is served with soda on ice, with a fresh fruit and herb garnish. It was a delicious welcome to the match.

We mingled in the marquee, meeting business people from across Europe before sitting down to a traditional British buffet, which included lamb with mint sauce and roast beef with horseradish and a curry. It was delightfully foreign, yet reassuringly familiar. And I needed the reassurance because I had no idea what to say to a team of complete strangers wearing suits for a tennis match. I jumped in, mentioning a recent article I’d read (not mentioning that it had been in a fashion trade paper!) about the blossoming African market. Were they seeing the same interest in their industry? What regions looked the most promising? What did they see as the greatest obstacles? Suddenly I was relaxed, enjoying myself, and learning a thing or two.

Screen shot 2014-07-03 at 10.53.20 AMFinally, it was game time! We headed out on to the grounds where there is a center court, another large stadium and a dozen open courts with nothing more than a few park benched around them. The benches were swarmed with fans, sitting, leaning, climbing to see the games, as rackets arched into the air and the yellow streaks of balls cluttered our peripheral vision. Tennis was happening all around us!

The stadium itself is beautiful, which you don’t expect from a sporting venue. It has been painted green, frosted with ivy and iced with baskets of flowing purple flowers. Inside, the roof was open, allowing a halo of sunlight to focus on the French Alize Cornet and the Canadian (Québecoise!) Eugénie Bouchard.

Screen shot 2014-07-03 at 10.52.49 AMWhen the French player lost, our English hosts cheered us with an invitation to return to the marquee for a consolation afternoon tea, and at last, strawberries and cream.

We had just started watching the English Murray trounce the S African Anderson when the heavens opened and it started to pour. The timing was perfect, as we had the opportunity to see the famous closing roof in action before grabbing our, uh, wait! We hadn’t brought along our coats. Or our umbrellas. So we ran out into the pouring rain, in a hurry to get back into London to catch the last Eurostar of the evening.

Fortunately, our hosts were used to foreign guest unfamiliar with local weather habits. They pushed an umbrella into our hand as we headed down the road, so that only my calves were covered in mud as we boarded our train home for Paris, the perfect souvenir of our  Dirty Weekend!

Beyond the classics in Chicago

Screen shot 2014-04-30 at 9.48.20 AMI have already lauded the wealth of art and culture in Chicago. I love this city and have yet to understand why it is known across the globe, yet so few people have actually been there on holiday. I say this without ever having visited when the weather was nice enough to enjoy the classic architectural tour along the Chicago river.

We had a special treat on this visit, being able to share a meal with Joseph the Butler. Ok, not just a meal, but crab cakes by the fire place in the cosy, wood paneled bar at Ralph Lauren on The Miracle Mile. Leave it to a butler to get you the best table in the house. Not only is it a pleasure to be with Joseph, but he shared some great local tips. Like, sending us to the Richard Grey Art Gallery on the 29th floor of the John Hancock Tower, turning me on to the insanely expensive, but eye candy-licious Ikram store/art gallery/restaurant, giving us a heads up about the regular, dependable programming at the Blue Chicago Jazz Club on Clark Street and reminding me to take Mr French to the Chagall wall. He also recommended taking the water taxi to Chinatown and cycling along the water. We didn’t get to see it all on this visit, but his ideas are at the top of my list for the next time we head west.

Screen shot 2014-04-30 at 9.47.49 AMWe felt super cool when we found ourselves in the hipstery hip Wicker Park neighborhood with its used record stores, haute couture bike bags and peanut flavored cappucinos. After not buying any albums in that part of town, Mr French went into some serious lp withdrawal, forcing us to hike through the (FREE and fantastic!!!) LIncoln Park zoo to Dave’s Records on Clark Street, where we also dove into a total dive called Frances’ that has been serving locals since 1938! When we whined that there were no desserts on the menu, the very charming girl next to us leaned over and and whispered, “Molly’s Cupcakes”, its next door. And so it was! Featuring très français inspired cakes like an eclair cup and a crème brûlée cake.

Screen shot 2014-04-30 at 9.51.34 AMThe one tour that has been on the top of my list since our first visit a year ago, is Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Robie house on the University of Chicago campus. This time we made it and I really recommend making the trip to Hyde Park for a visits. I then made a point of showing Mr French the gothic Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and the modern Mansueto Library. The library looks like a crystal Easter Egg buried in a luscious lawn, light streams into the reading reading room, enlightening the space as the books stacked below enlighten the mind. After the visit, we made a bee line for Obama’s favorite rib joint, Ribs N’ Bibs on S Dorchester.

On the morning before his flight, we took Mr French downtown to see the Chagall Wall Joseph had mentioned. Taking a Chicago classic (the downtown monumental art tour) Mr French made it an original by walking into random buildings, leading us to the reverent interior of the Chicago Tribune and the astonishing mosaics of the Marquette building.

The more we visit Chicago the longer the list becomes for our next visit; The Girl and Goat, Tru (another Joseph recommendation), and A10 in Hyde Park for restaurants, a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio in the ‘burbs, an afternoon at the beach with skyscrapers soaring above, and more spontaneous incursions into the lobbies of downtown’s architectural gems, as well as the art gallery district and the Pilsen neighborhood (and yes, those are my personal notes I am posting so it will be easy for me to look up the next time we are in Chicago, because there is sure to be a next time!)





Its easier to leave, when home is Paris

Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 6.54.30 PMThe next morning was all about the Mucem. Louis XIV built Fort St Jean at the entrance of the port, with a second fort guarding the other side. Visitors imagine that the forts were built to protect the city from sea-based invaders, but the cannons were aimed on the town, the king as distrustful of southerns as a modern Parisian. Today the fort has been renovated into a glorious cultural space with a marionette museum, a miniature circus display and lots of herbal scented outdoor space for play, picnics and lounging around.

Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 6.54.07 PM Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 6.57.02 PMA vertiginous pedestrian bridge connects the fort to J4, Mucem’s modern wing with a permanent exhibition on the Mediterranean region. The collection is, quite frankly, pathetic. There is no nice way of putting it. Cheap replicas are displayed in glass cases like valuable artifacts. The story, well, there is no story, logic or coherency. Which was great because it meant we could rush back upstairs and slurp down a few oysters on the rooftop terrasse before heading home to Paris. Oddly enough, neither Mr French nor I are major friends of the bivalve, but that was beside the point of the glorious, sun soaked rooftop area.

We were starving because before coming to the museum, which only opens at 11am, we had gone for a run, then tried to have lunch Chez Roger on the Old Port. Chez Roger specializes in seafood and all I can say is, “Do NOT eat Chez Roger. No matter how enticing the terasse may be, in full sun, with the port waters just a few metres away, do NOT eat there. It was, bar none, the worse seafood platter I have ever had in my life. The crab tasted like rotten eggs. Even the Pasits couldn’t was the horrid taste out of my mouth. Combined with horrid service and even worse clientele, this is a place to AVOID at all costs.

Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 6.54.53 PMThe settling in for the flight home was a lesson in cultural studies. The plane was packed and except for me with my olive oil, everyone had opted for carry-on. Mr French sat in his seat, the paper bag with the porcelain doll on the seat next to him. “Monsieur,” the flight attendant gestured, “the flight is full, you’ll have to store your bag in the overhead bin.” Mr French ignored her. She persisted. He finally acknowledged her existence, “Non. This package is very, very fragile, its not moving.” She explained, he refused. I sat between them, my head going back and forth like I was watching a  ping pong match.. In the end, she agree to put it in the front of the plane, in a closet reserved for crew.

I had put my tote bag in the overhead bin and after that, every time a passenger tried to shove it my bag aside to squeeze in their suitcase, the same flight attendant would jump over, to reprimand them for crushing my things, and would force them to the back of the plane with their bag. In the US, the flight attendant would have written us off as jerks, but here, Mr French had earned some major respect. We were flying home with considerable street cred’ and I was more confident than ever that life is full of surprises living with a Frenchman.

A quickie

Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 6.42.13 PM

The best view in town from La Residence du Vieux Port hotel

Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 6.40.04 PMMarseille has a horrible reputation. There is a popular joke in Paris, “Hey, did you hear what happened in Marseille this weekend??? A man went to a café for the morning, enjoyed his coffee and walked home safely.” It kinda makes you think twice before heading there. Especially as you follow a Jefferson County Sheriff car with California plates in to town…

But if you don’t read the news, you’d never know there was a crime problem in town. Our first night in town we pulled ourselves away from the stupendous view in our room at La Residence du Vieux Port and strolled that very same port out to the Fort St Jean. The pathway narrowed, Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 6.42.00 PMgrew darker, rounded a bend, and yet we felt totally safe in the warm balmy air, walking pass lovers and fishermen and joggers as we rounded walked around the corner and were dazzled by the astonishing set of the Mucem museum. A lace work of concrete, built to look like the ripples of water was lit a sapphire blue, reflecting in the sea below. We couldn’t wait for our visit the next day.

This guy made me run even faster...

This guy made me run even faster…

For an urban destination, a visit to Marseille can be physical. There is a great run along the Old Port; a flower market and a fish market line the way and you pass under the surprising Norman Foster designed Pavillion before getting to the Palais du Pharo gardens and up the corniche which follows the sea, the Count of Monte Christo’s Chateau d’If in view. It was lovely, and I was thrilled that on the return trip we ran through the odor of sardines before hitting the mimosa scented air. Then there is the hike up the Observatoire hill to the Notre Dame de Garde Basilica. I loved the mobiles with giant model boats that hung from the ornate, gothic ceiling. And I had a blast watching out of shape visitors as they trudged up the stairs as we headed down.

Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 6.41.11 PMMy body was telling me it was time for lunch. We headed to the beach where Chez Michel is known as the best place for boulliabaisse in the Marseille, which is known as the best place for bouilliabaisse in France. It was delicious and a well deserved break after all that running around!

As we walked through Le Panier and La Plaine, two dynamically creative neighborhoods full of young people trying to make a mark on the retail world with original merchandise in charming boutiques, we kept an marveling at what a great lifestyle was to be had at this very affordable city by the sea. But we also marveled at the number of abandonned shops and disenchanted store owners. And although we strolled the boutiques, Mr French had banned me from shopping still recovering from the shock of my purchases earlier in the week. Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 6.41.34 PM“Honey? You bought honey? As if you can’t find honey in Paris. And olive oil? Really? Now that’s the perfect thing to be packing in a suitcase for under a plane.” He was not impressed when I explained the apiculture had been a sweet old lady and the olive oil was rumoured to be some of the best in the region. So I satisfied myself with shooting everything in sight. Walls of colorful graffiti my target of choice and I was thrilled with the day.

As the sun was setting, we stopped in an antique store, and there, I spotted her. An 18th century doll that aristocrats used as models for the dresses they wanted to order, a delicate porcelain bouquet in her hands, nothing but wire frame and fragile (200 yr old) cloth below the bodice. I caught my breath at the beauty of it. Mr French asked the price. 60€. Even a fake would be worth 60€ but I didn’t dare ask. She was fragile and I had that pot of honey to schlep. “We’ll take it.” Mr French declared and I looked on in dismay as the antique dealer shoved her bubble wrapped form into a generic brown paper bag.

That night we were still full from our decadent lunch. We agreed on cocktails at the Intercontinental up the hill from the port. In an imposingly elegant 18th century public hospital, the hotel looks a palace. The bar is plush and modern, with great cocktails and even better live gypsy jazz music. We could have stayed all night. But we eventually rambled back to our room in the wee hours, the lapping waters of the sea below playing a lullaby as we fell asleep.

Just another day at the office

Screen shot 2014-03-24 at 12.19.50 PMSt Tropez is a charming little town, that is still home to a local fishing fleet, with fishermen selling the catch of the day from a tiny, very picturesque fish market, then crossing the street to have their morning shot (of booze, not espresso) at Screen shot 2014-03-24 at 12.19.31 PMLe Gorille, the once favorite haunt of Picasso. Sitting there, eavesdropping on their chatter about which fish were biting, you can see why Brigitte Bardot and her gang fell under its charms while filming And God Created Women….

I headed off, yet again, to explore the Ramatuelle, where the classic French film was made and then into the hills, to the famous perfume town of Grasse. A perched village of ochre and amber buildings, wasting away under an alluring patina, I was seduced by the town before setting foot into a perfumerie. Fragonard is perhaps the best known, with shops all over Paris, but Galimard is where is all began in the 18th century. Until then, Grasse had been home to the very smelly leather tanning industry and the got to place for aristocrats requiring fine kid gloves. Screen shot 2014-03-24 at 12.17.43 PMWhile soft, and gorgeous, the gloves stank. Galimard tested the idea of adding a bit of lower essence to get rid of the stench and sent them off to Catherine de Medici, starting a royal trend that gave birth to an industry.

I spent my day exploring and only returned to the port late in the day, discovering the very chic, trendy café Senequier. The Senequier is outrageously expensive, attracting the designer clad, yachting crowd. Exactly the kind of place I usually avoid, but I decided to go for it, because the tables had full sunlight, there was a great view and it was one of the few places open in the off-season. It was also 16h and I hadn’t eaten a thing all day, too excited exploring the region to stop, so this would be my one meal of the day and I felt like I could afford to Screen shot 2014-03-24 at 12.19.41 PMsplurge. Given my decadent feast at La Table du Royal, I still wasn’t hungry. I settled on a “simple” crab salad (45€) that came with fleur de sel flakes and artisanal olive oil. One of the best salads I have ever had. I don’t know if it was from having fasted all day, or the winter sun warming my face, but this salad was worth every exorbitant centime. And the crisp white wine was the perfect counterpoint of citrus flavour meeting savoury sea. Not hungry, but needing sweets, I asked for a preserved fruit from their pastry shop. The very friendly waiter explained that the fruits were not on the café menu, but he’d be happy to reserve my front row, sunset seat while I went in to get a few fruits to enjoy with my coffee. Not only does Senequier have a great location, with excellent food, but the staff is genuinely nice!

Screen shot 2014-03-24 at 12.18.40 PMAfter linner, I stopped at the boulangerie des Deux Frères to stock up on their incredibly deliciously, uniquely southern pine nut cookies before heading back to my room at the very cosy Hotel Pastis. The perfectly designed rooms are remarkably spacious, the perfect place for a post-beach nap before a night on the town, the peaceful, warm decor blending perfectly with the lovely provençal garden and aqua pool. I would have had a very hard time leaving, if it hadn’t been to meet Mr French in Marseille.


Zipping right along

Screen shot 2014-03-20 at 3.12.23 PMSO I am in this teeny, tiny, little car, zipping through forest of mimosa and having the time of my life. But I am also working, so the days are long and I am often tired. Checking into the Royal Riviera Hotel was like a balm for soul on my second day out. I walked through the large, open doors and I never wanted to leave. A warm wood staircase, a cool stone floor, this place was not as chic as many of the places I have been, yet considerably more elegant, making it just right for the mood I was in. I was sad when I had to head out for dinner…

Screen shot 2014-03-20 at 2.35.09 PMBut I was rewarded with one of those weird, incredibly wonderful dinners you can only ever have when you are on your own, because I was alone. There was not another soul in the rather large Ousin Bleu dining room. Just me, the staff and the coral. The manager, it turns out is a big fan of coral, the kind of fan that invests a lot of time and money into 500 litre tanks like the one I faced through out the evening. The stunning tropical fish were only in there to keep the algae at bay and protect the coral. This is museum quality coral, the kind of collection that has the team from the Musée de l’Oceanographie in nearby Monaco, coming over for dinner and advice. The food was fantastic, the company even better and loved having my inside scoop on a popular local joint (turns out there was a major soccer match that night and locals do not dine out on soccer night).

The next morning I used the 12km costal path around the Cape as my training ground for the Semi-marathon de Paris, running past a church, graveyard, lighthouse, the port and some of the most expensive real estate on the planet. It was spectacular, with the Mediterranean lapping just below. Hotel staff greeted me after my run and I sat down to a memorable lunch at La Table du Royal. The food was so good, that I quickly learned to trust the chef and his recipes to the point that I tasted tête de veau for the first time in my life! The gelatine texture is not my thing, and although he had breaded it into crispy goodness, I preferred the local wild fish with a jerusalem artichoke purée. Every dish was more delicious than the next, but what really sent me over the edge were his orange blossom marshmallows. Clouds on the palate.

I missed the opportunity to re-visit 7 stupendous gardens at the Ville Ephrussi and the stunning Greek Revival pieces of the Villa Kerylos on the Cap and at nearby Beaulieu sur mer, because, unfortunately, I had to rush off to St Tropez immediately after lunch. Doesn’t that sound divine? Unfortunately, I had to rush off to St Tropez?

Screen shot 2014-03-20 at 2.57.14 PMBefore heading west, I made a brief detour to Menton, for their Lemon Festival. I have such a thing for citrus fruit, I simple could not pass up the opportunity of seeing enitre floats made of lemon, oranges and tangerines to the theme of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. To be honest, I was a bit let down by the floats. They were too perfect, lacking exuberance, but I was thrilled to see that the town had ordered custom-made citrus colored rubber bands to secure the fruits to their floats.

Screen shot 2014-03-20 at 3.03.33 PMAnd because I was on my own and could focus my work what I like and how much I like it, I buzzed up to St Paul de Vence to visit the sculpture gardens at the Maeght Foundation, snubbing my nose at the indoor collection in a way that would have left Mr French a daze. The gardens are one of my happy places. I have been nearly a dozen times and I can not imagine being in the south without stopping by. You can feel the joy that Miro, Chagall, Calder and their contemporaries must have felt while decorating this space, their enegry still boucing in the air, where their work gets to hang out in sumptuous nature all day, every day, the scent of pine as bright as the reds in their art.

And while I could have stayed all day, I really did need to get to St Tropez, so I was off in my own good time, FIP radio keeping me company with their eclectic blend of jazz, classics and world beat music, the Alps to my right tumbling into the Mediterranean sea to my left and my future up ahead.




On my own…

Screen shot 2014-03-18 at 9.02.12 AMMy first international flight was to Paris. I was 16 years old and knew no one on the plane, but would be staying with a family who had a daughter about my age. In Silicon Valley, where I grew up, we lived in our cars. My life consisted of going from home to school to youth group without every running into a stranger. My entire being was alive with a sense of adventure. Nathalie, my Parisienne teen had had a very different life. Growing up on the Ile St Louis, she had spent most of her childhood roaming the streets of Paris on her own, which is what she did with me, for the entire summer. I loved the independence; the freedom it gave me to decide what I wanted to eat and when, what I wanted to explore, and for how long. When I wanted to see what was up a head, just around the corner, no one needed any convincing. I’d just go.

Nathalie had fallen in love with a policeman who spent most of his days standing outside of the Prefecture near her home. This was no summer crush, eventually they married and had three girls. I had also fallen in love; solo travel became a passion.

Screen shot 2014-03-18 at 9.03.54 AMWhen my husband decided it was time for us to start a family, he offered me a week to visit a close friend in Beijing so I could conquer that bug. Don’t ask me how, but I negotiated the week in Beijing into 10 weeks alone in East Africa. After becoming a Mom, I “needed” 6 weeks on my own in Vietnam. As I got into the rhythm of being a wife and a mom, the solo trips became shorter and less frequent. When I net Mr French, I lost the desire for solo travel and suspected that I had fallen out of love.

Leaving Monaco last month, I hopped into my adorable, mini-me rental car and sped out of town, my heart soaring as I rediscovered my love for the adventure of solo travel. (screaching noise here as we back up…) Actually, I didn’t speed out a Monaco, I drove around in an endless maze trying to speed out of Monaco, pathetically lost in a country smaller than my hometown. I couldn’t seem to get on the right road, or even decide exactly where in France I wanted to go, but I was having the time of my life, loving every minute of it.

Screen shot 2014-03-18 at 9.05.09 AMNo one was in the car with me, stressed out about being lost, no one needed a bathroom break, no one was bored, no one was worried that it was late, or that we may arrive at our destination after night fall, even worse, what if we never found our destination and had to spend the night in the car? I could stop by a museum and only visit the outdoor sculpture display. I spent an hour trying to photograph a humming bird. No one worried about what we’d be eating next, or when. I could have cake for dinner, if that is what I wanted. Nothing was a problem, anything was possible.

Traveling alone force a girl to entertain herself, test her skills, explore her boundaries. Where every you go, there you are, forced to deal with yourself, get to know who you are and define who you want to be. You are also more approachable, opening up the door to meeting strangers, being invited into their world and getting to know the place you came to visit.

I finally got myself on the right road for France. A winding, mountainous road called the Corniche. It was exhilarating to be zipping along, the villas of Bono, Tina Turner and Elton John looming above, the sea below. I turned a corner and caught my breath, as I faced a wall of vivid yellow mimosa in full bloom, the delicate fragrance I adore invading my car with a promise of spring time and great adventure ahead.

Shaken, or stirred?

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Louis XIV stands guard outside Louis XV. Superstitious gamblers touch his right leg for good luck, giving him an uneven shine!

My friend, Joseph the butler, tells me you should never order your martini shaken, the broken ice bruises the gin. Winston Churchill was so protective of his gin, he suggested his bartender merely look at the vermouth when making his martini. But as I walked into the Bar Américain at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo, I was worried that a tuxedo clad Roger Moore would disapprove, so I ordered a Cosmopolitan. I must not be the only one who gets confused, because the menu at the bar, offers to make your martini shaké!

I had been intimidated about a lot more than how to order my drink that evening. How does one dress for The Casino? Could everyone tell I was just a poser? How much did I risk loosing? How odd was it to be a woman alone at the bar? I hadn’t felt this insecure since I had been thrown back on the dating circuit after 20 years of marriage. I reminded myself that nobody cared what I wore, nobody was really even aware I existed, so it was time to start having fun.

When I am traveling solo, one of my greatest pleasures is people watching, so I settled in and got busy watching the remarkable normal looking crowd that surrounded me. A lot of casually chic Italians, a French couple with their 7 year old and some business men in the back. Daniel Craig, Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan were all absent and unaccounted for. I did so two dashing gentlemen in tuxs, clearly waiting to escort their ladies to an elegant but uneventful dinner at the Louis XV, Alain Ducasse’s 3 star restaurant in the hotel’s lobby.

My diner was upstairs at Le Grill, where my sommelier spoiled me rotten and I had a butter-laced lemon soufflé that was the ideal of sweet and sour. After dinner I headed across the street to the casino. I entered and was surprised to see Vegas style one armed bandits lining the halls. The room was virtually empty; a bartender, two dealers at 21 tables and a handful of clients. Most of them in jeans. The roulette tables were dormant. I headed towards the next room, where its sound like there may be more gamblers. This was the area for the more elegant crowd, but there were no tuxedos, or even a nod towards evening wear. Friday casual wear is all that’s required on a Monday night in the off season. The roulette wheel was spinning at two tables with minimum bets in the 5-10€ range.  A plump Asian lady, well into her 60’s was betting intently, a tall European man wearing a fanny pack was trying to decide between the two tables. This was not the sophisticated European crowd I’d been dreading. These were gamblers. My inhibitions melted away, as did any desire to place a bet.

The casino shares a lobby with the Opéra de Monte Carlo. As I left, a lively aria wafted into the large, open hall, echoing off the stone pillars and reverberating in the cold, virtually empty space. I got closer to the doors of the opera house and a handsome gentleman on his cellphone nodded for me to enter. Was he mistaking me for someone else? Was this a public performance? I did not wait to find out, I tiptoed in, sat down in the small theater and marveled at the scene before my eyes; the operatic version of Arthur and the Minimoys being sung in a room so ornate, it looked like an inverted jewel box.

The Prince Albert’s royal lodge loomed directly above, devoid of anyone, but full of promise. Monte Carlo was turning out to be as surprising as its myth.

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