Travel to Europe

****** UK and France are beautiful countries, British and ******
****** French are friendly people, in spite of what I say ******

Travel is not something I particularly enjoy. But staying with family is. Since everyone in the family is going, I am too. This time to London and Paris. We learned lessons from the trip to Japan a few months ago so before this trip, the two kids were not allowed to go swimming or eat anything we're not familiar with. Other than that, I've been learning French for one month now, not everyday though. Bonjour.com is a good web site. It even reads aloud the sentences for you. I have a hard time to say "r" in French and so just substitute "h" for it because that's what it sounds like to me. Speaking is not my priority anyway. I just want to understand some words when I walk on the street or read a sign, not fantasizing to be upperclass nobility.

20070714

London

Buckingham Palace: Big crowds of people gathered outside the palace and on the square waiting to see the guard changing ceremony. People in front near the rails were not reluctant to allow kids to get close. Some held their children, or even adults, on their shoulders. I let Crystal sit on my shoulder and asked her to tell me what she saw. (I call this a sonar periscope!) "The guards wear red jackets. They all look identical, like clones... When they stomp their feet, their furry hats wiggle a bit..." I told her to keep talking, non-stop, as if she was a news anchor. Some of the comments made the people around us laugh. The guards wore very thick furry hats. I wonder if there was some built-in ventilation to keep their heads cool in such weather. They were shouting some words. Neither of us could understand.

Royal Horse Stable (not sure what to call this, near St. James' Park): We saw a guard standing in a corner, very steadily, armored like an 18th century soldier, holding up a sword. Somebody wanted to take a picture with him but walked too close. The puppet-like soldier uttered "Stand off!" Ten yards away is the gate. On both sides were two guards sitting on horses. Since the horses were kind of restless, they couldn't be as steady as the standing guard. They all remind me of the artists in the squares of New Orleans in America, standing still on a podium, except that those artists pose with an exaggerated facial expression and don't suffer from occupational health hazard, I mean, captively smelling horse poo. The two horse riders were nice to allow visitors to be in kissing distance to the horses, who have been raised in royal families and are used to camera flash.

British Museum: Entrance is free! My wife Jian got the word that the British Museum is famous for mummies. So she spent quite a bit of time going through those remains, and listening to an old lady's lecture. Jasmine, 7 years old, heard through the entire lecture. But Crystal, 11, felt it was gross. To me, anything related to languages or paintings, instead of dead human bodies, impresses me. British Museum doesn't have much Chinese artwork though. Either I didn't find it, or they didn't rob enough more than 100 years ago, or the later generation gentlemen returned the treasures to China.

There was a half price bookshop on the way back. I'm a frequent treasure hunter at Half Price Bookstores in the US. So I went in. They had very old, I mean, ancient, books, published in the 17th century! Most books are history or literature. The kids read children's books for a little bit. They were more expensive than in the US. The salesman told me where to look for computer books but I didn't find them.

Canterbury: Canterbury Cathedral is the biggest church I've ever seen. It has some significance in religious history. I looked at the names carved on the wall near the entrance. The first Dean started his work at the beginning of the 10th century. So it was in time near the end of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, the heyday of China's interaction with other parts of the world including the Roman empire through the silk road. But the first archbishop was at the end of the 6th century, shortly before Tang in Chinese history. Obviously the western religion had no sign of influence from the east even during that 300 year period when China was heavily involved in trade and cultural interaction with the western civilizations.

Our friends live in Canterbury, with a tall teenage daughter. They moved here from Amsterdam a few years ago. The husband told me about his appreciation of the Dutch and its government and commented on the decline of this United Kingdom, going down even today. Another interesting comment is about why the Dutch are the tallest people in the world. He says it's because their milk has the best taste in the world.

20070716

Paris

I only actually said a whole French sentence once on the street in Paris, Parlez-vous anglais? [Can you speak English?] "Yes", said the man, who told me where to go in pure British, or even Londonian, accent. We were looking for a hotel for the next day because we almost always book hotels right before or at the beginning of a trip. And this time, the Best Western couldn't promise to hold us for one more night. It was raining. Calling for taxis was not easy. We happened to be near some embassies or French government buildings. I talked to the guards in very simple English asking where to wait for taxis. My wife kept telling me French soldiers and guards all look handsome. I think they are too. So are British guards, possibly with better fidelity if in wedlock.

Museum of Notre Dame: Not as complicated as Canterbury Cathedral. But Parisians know better about making money than the British, selling each candle for 2 euros or 5 if it's a bigger one. The Canterbury people sell it for 40 pennies. And there're much more items to sell at Notre Dame.

Eiffel Tower: After many "stupide! stupide!" comments along the crowded road, the taxi driver brought us to the foot of Eiffel Tower, truly a megastructure. To me, it looks rather like a giant splitting his legs wide open. You just walk under his groin. We didn't climb it because we ran out of cash and didn't want to wait in the long line.

Champs-Élysées and Arch of Triumph: The most famous avenue is of course Champs Élysées, where "Champs" in French means fields or places. Interestingly, currency exchange on this busy street has a much better rate for dollars than on small streets, and the closer to Arch of Triumph, the better. We went to the Arch, wanted to wait till sundown but gave up, because it was still too bright toward 10pm. The Arch was built for Napoleon's army. I read some engraved words with the help of a little dictionary. It gave solute to those that died in World War I. I carried the Langenscheidt dictionary of French-English and English-French with me everywhere I went. Highly recommended.

Louvre Museum: This is a truly amazing museum, on par with New York Metropolitan and surpassing British Museum. The oil paintings in here are definitely world class. For some reason, I always strongly prefer classical to modern art, either fine arts or music. (Whoever practices modern art doesn't really need much training in basic skills, and can get away with cheating on naive people's appreciation of the Emperor's New Clothes.) Here at Louvre, we see true authentic classical fine arts. Rigorously and painstakingly meticulous, like in the gongbi Chinese paintings, which have become extinct in Chinese landscape paintings in favor of fast-food shallow xieyi styles. By the way, did you notice that the people in those oil paintings all seem to have bulging eyeballs, as if they all had hyperthyroidism? Perhaps a relic from the medieval paintings in which people were deprived of any facial expressions? Also, we know many of these classical paintings have big areas of darkness, maybe too much even considering the fact that there was no electrical lighting back then. Today's artwork favors light, probably influenced by photography, for which light plays a critical role.

River Seine: It was a fresh breeze on the yacht cruising on the river, not when you were inside the room though. You can hop off and on at any of their docks with that day's ticket. The lady announced about the scenic spots in French, strongly accented English, and Spanish. River Seine is clean and full of ships like ours. Some are fairly big cruises. Artists sell their works or some books along the banks. Restaurants are a little farther away. We went to find a typical French restaurant to eat. Taste was good. The French know how to cook. But service was very slow. (I heard that they grow up eating snails. No wonder.) They must hate American's fast work style as well as the same unhealthy fast food.

Unlike lazy and fat Americans, the French as well as British people walk a lot, and heavily rely on public transportation. Trains are for people more than freight. But the French trains are kind of dirty, have no air conditioning or they do but it's not cool enough for me to feel it, and it only blows cool (if at all) air when the train is moving. Rest rooms or toilets at the train stations are a business. You pay one euro to get in, less if just to pee. (No wonder French has no word for "cheap", only "not expensive", "pas cher".) Did I say the French are clever at exploiting your body and soul to make money? Are they more socialist, or capitalist, than the British?

The French are more open about intimacy in public places. Pictures in ads are the same. Jasmine looked carefully at the Moulin Rouge show lady in the visitor information brochure and said "this girl is almost naked". Jian said when she visited a French factory, some pictures hanging in a room would be considered beyond unprofessional in the US. I often heard stories of infidelity when at least one French person is involved. They're good people just like you and me. But the culture changes their behavior.

The French women are known to beautify themselves with useless decorations. Centuries ago, they held umbrellas too small to block either sunlight or rain. Now they wrap tiny scarfs around their necks, good to absorb sweat perhaps. There're as many men and women smoking as doves on the ground or in the sky. I guess the men don't know cigarettes need Viagra as supplement, and women don't know or don't care the increased risk of breast cancer. Well, they don't have much breast tissue attached to their ribs anyway, so the cells potentially going cancerous are not many and baseline risk is not that high. Still, the smell coming from their mouths stinks.

20070719

Houston

Travel around the world is very tiring, especially within a week. Because simply stretching my body is not enough for me, I did push-ups on airplanes, when most people were sleeping, did the same at Charles de Gaulle Airport and Pudong Airport. Did people watch? A little bit. But it didn't bother me.

After 11 hours flight, we were in Houston, Texas. For many years, when I talked to non-Houstonians, I liked to say Houston is an ugly city, no mountains no rivers, except for some dirty bayous, with which the City attempted to apply for hosting an Olympic Games and failed. Now I'm back after only one year's leave. I haven't driven for a year. Everything on the road looks familiar and kind of heart-touching. I know exactly where there's a stop sign, where two lanes merge. I was honked once and didn't feel rage at all. Americans say hi or smile to strangers. Even if the smile is very brief, almost a fake one, after you get used to it, you'll definitely think it's a very friendly gesture. French don't do that. Japanese either. Not even the British.

Speaking of these minor culture differences, I also notice that Americans always cup their mouths when they yawn. French don't do that. They open their mouths wide like hippos, just as Chinese do. Well, the Chinese have much more ugly habits, unique to the Chinese incidentally, spitting on the ground, cutting in line, just to name a few to disgust you.

We drove straight to Staybridge Suites hotel near where we sold our house a year ago, found out there were rooms available and checked in. They have a new sign "Proud of being a smoke-free hotel". Can't imagine this in France. Then we went to Peking Cuisine for dinner. That's what many Chinese go for authentic Chinese food. The price is much better than at the expensive French restaurant and the taste is equally good. Thanks to the free Internet access and free computer use at Staybridge, I started writing this travel diary there during my jet lag. If this were in Paris, it would cost me an arm and a leg.



See also
Travel to Chongqing
Travel to Korea
Travel to Washington D.C. and New York
Yong's Chinese painting
Contact me

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