Monday, September 01, 2014

I See London, I See France, Day 6: Versaille, Brought To You By Extra Strength Tylenol Cold

I woke up that morning feeling like death warmed over. Improperly. In a microwave so that death explodes out of its Tupperware container and gets everywhere and all the food you make in that microwave for the rest of the day smells a bit like death and DERAIL OVER. I felt like crap.

I was far from the only one, but at least the other people in my group got to have FUN first. Me, I had a scratchy throat, running nose, and a sinus headache so bad my teeth hurt. I swallowed a pair of Extra Strength Tylenol Cold pills from my stash, and they turned out to be surprisingly effective after only fifteen minutes. Yes, I feel the need to promote Extra Strength Tylenol Cold because in a half hour I felt Woozy But Oddly Excited, which is a far nicer state to be in than Death. Unfortunately, I had no more of those pills with me. Want to know why? Because I gave the rest of them to Meagan (Patient Zero of the Contiki Clap) two days before!

Thankfully, on this trip I discovered that the pharmacy is the Starbucks of Paris. They are everywhere, on every street, on every block, with a bright, flashing green cross on the front so you can't miss them. One block from the Ibis, I went into a pharmacy and had probably my one and only True French Conversation of my Paris experience - one where I didn't forget my verbs and resort to Franglais and one in which the Parisian didn't ignore me or speak to me in English. 

Interesting fact about Paris - Parisians give no fucks about your desire to learn or practice French. If you can't speak it perfectly, they'll interrupt you in English. Because they just don't have the time to put up with you. And you know what? The more I learned about Paris, the more I empathized with the Parisians. Paris is the most visited city in the world and July is its peak travel time. If you've lived in Paris all your life, you kind of have to be rude (or at least brisk) and enforce boundaries if you want to live a normal life and maintain any kind of sanity at all in a city that is constantly being invaded by loud, needy strangers. 

ANYWAY, back to the pharmacy - I asked for cold medicine and kleenex in French and she handed me a box of pills called RhiAdvil and a huge-ass pack of tissues. She also explained to me how many times I should take the pills. I felt rather proud and French when I left, and even more French when I witnessed a Parisian letting her dog poop in the street and flouncing away. Paris!

I had just enough time to grab a cup of tea at the hotel restaurant before everyone had to get on the bus for our day trip to Versailles. Thankfully, I brought along a packet of PopTarts in my purse. Yes, PopTarts in Paris. Sue me. Also thankfully, the Abominable Australian had apparently gotten so drunk the night before that he stayed in bed and missed the bus. Unfortunately, in missing the fun at the French Irish Pub, I'd also missed seeing Anthony twerk. Curses!

After about half an hour, we arrived at Versailles. Versailles!
This was what I was hoping to encounter at Kensington Palace. The rooftops and fence posts glittered with gold leaf and the rough cobblestones wavered in 33-degree heat. Before meeting with our tour guide to explore inside the palace itself, we had an hour to explore the famous gardens.
I didn't do a lot of walking - the cold meds kept me alert and buzzed but physically I felt exhausted before I finished crossing that enormous courtyard. Mostly, I hung out with Lauren from Wisconsin and wandered amiably from shady spot to shady spot, soaking in the warmth, looking at the lovely flowers and shapes and existing while remaining upright.

After an hour, we wandered back to the entrance to begin the interior tour (a few other people decided to doze off their Franco-Irish hangovers on the lawn rather than join us). And that's when Versailles really wowed me.
Seriously, France left me with such a crick in the neck thanks to their gorgeously painted ceilings. Magnificent. Each of the public apartments had a theme based on their usage and the god or goddess painted on the ceiling. The Mars Room, the Diana Room, the Jupiter Room. A lot of it had been restored, but most of the furniture pieces were replicas (the real stuff had all been sold off during the French Revolution), but one of the chandeliers was original and so was the coverlet on Marie Antoinette's bed. It was here the tour manager informed us that queen size beds were actually always larger than king size - as the king was allowed to visit his queen as often as he wished, but not vice versa.

While crowded, there was plenty to look at and the tour guide set a nice pace (which was lovely, since Tour Manager Sophie confided that particular guide had been a bitch on wheels the last time). I just wanted to stare at all of it all day. The decadence, the grandeur, the artwork. Imagine living there all day - and in public. People would even be able to stare at the King and Queen as they ate breakfast. At the end of the trip, I picked up some postcards, magnets, and a large volume on Versailles' history. Gotta love those history books.

Once the tour finished, it was back on the bus. Next on the optionals was a trip to a French perfumery to see how their world-famous fragrances were created. I rejected this option as a) I was still caught up in a massive cold and b) perfume gives me headaches. A good half of our tour group did the same thing - probably because strong smells are not really conductive to overcoming massive Franco-Irish hangovers.

This left me without any serious plans for the rest of the day. I didn't want to spend all of it in my hotel room, and I wanted to socialize, so I followed Melissa and Lisa from Scarborough since they wanted to look at the grand Opera House.

A building, which was, admittedly, magnificent. The setting of The Phantom of the Opera is based on this building. It does have an underground spring. It does have a chandelier that fell and killed a person. Unfortunately, Melissa and Lisa only wanted to take pictures of it, not explore inside it. Well, okay. I could dig it.


Then they walked down the street to Starbucks. Starbucks ... in Paris. An almost ludicrously elegant Starbucks, to be sure (see photo above) - but still a Starbucks. And after that, they were planning on dashing down to the Champs D'Elysees to go shopping. Okay, so I did want to socialize and go with the flow, but I guess I'm an old soul at heart. An old soul who was not up to running, even though my foot was feeling strangely better. So I bid them farewell and went my own way.

But I still didn't have any other solid plans. I tried not to feel lonely and decided to just absorb the atmosphere. I bought a bottle of bubbly water and walked down the avenues back to the Louvre. I briefly contemplated slipping back in to catch a glimpse of Cupid and Psyche but I did not want to face the lines and crowds again. I just didn't want to deal with stress of any kind.

So you know what? I didn't stress out. I didn't tell myself that I had to see ALL the things in the hours I had left until we had to go back to the hotel for our Parisian supper. The heat was more than comfortable once I was in the shade, so I sat under the trees in the Jardin des Tuileries and wrote in my notebook and read my Versailles book for a few pleasant hours until I caught the bus back to the hotel.

On the way back, I asked Sophie what it was like to be a Tour Manager. The training involves a 66-city tour where you take all the options so you know what you're talking about, you never know where you'll be stationed next until four days before your current tour ends, you never see most of your coworkers until the big Contiki Christmas Party (which is always in a different country every year), and the recruitment process is brutal. Sounds like the opposite of a job I'd want, but Sophie loved it. My sister told me later that Contiki Tour Managers also get pushed out once they age past the Contiki limit (35!).

After a rest at the hotel and repacking my souvenirs, I got back on the bus with the others to go to our Parisian supper. The bus dropped us off in Montmartre, in front of an enormous set of stairs carved into a hill. Half our group braved the climb, while the other half (myself included) paid a couple of Euros to take a gondola. When we reached the top of the hill, we all took off for the restaurant.
The restaurant's vibe was ... enthusiastic. It was crowded, hot, and a woman sang "La Vie en Rose" and "Je Ne Regrette Rien" on a karaoke machine at an ear-splitting volume. The first ten minutes felt a bit like being at the France pavilion at Epcot, to be quite honest. It was clear this was a Contiki tourist hotspot - mainly because there was another Contiki tour group nearby taking up another table with an outrageously hot Tour Manager. This dude captivated everyone on our own tour as to his name and identity (Anthony: "I'd bend it like Beckham!").

Not pictured: obscenely hot Tour Manager.

We were then served by a waiter with a goitre the size of a cantaloupe on the back of his neck, who had to shout his orders so loudly to be heard over the singing that the veins bulged on his neck. I had escargot (I watched Christina eat it as my unwitting taster - if she didn't die, I wouldn't), boeuf bourguignon, chocolate cake, cheese, and delicious espresso afterwards.

However, about twenty minutes into the meal - all of us suddenly realized Lauren was missing! When last I'd seen her, she'd decided to fiddle with the gondola's ticket machine (despite it being in French) instead of paying for the tickets in person. She must have gotten on the second gondola, and by the time hers had reached the top, we'd forgotten and left without her! And none of us had known the address or even the name of the restaurant beforehand.

I felt ridiculously guilty - I'd hung out with Lauren a bunch of times over the course of the trip, but I'd totally failed to notice she was on the second gondola. All I could think of at the time was that if it had happened to me, and I'd been left alone, I would have cried all the way back to the hotel. I felt awful. Tour Manager Sophie bought a bottle of wine for Lauren, though, and told us the cost of the Parisian dinner would be refunded for her.

The dinner turned out to be quite pleasant - until the other girls started talking about the Goitre Waiter. As it turned out, he'd grabbed and touched a bunch of my tour mates in weird ways but none of them had spoken up about it at first because they figured, "It's just me, and it's probably just because he's French." Until they shared the stories at the end of the meal, discovered how many of us he'd creeped on, and realized he was actually just a disgusting handsy pervert who likely got away with this shit all the time with tourists under the guise of "when in France!"

Ugh. But after this, I FINALLY got to socialize with alcohol with the rest of the tour - albeit at the hotel bar. Yeah, with almost everyone due to catch a plane or a train the next day, none of us wanted to venture too far, so we stayed at the hotel. We met up with Lauren, apologized, and gave her the wine, and we just sat, talked, and drank. All very fun, although I still regret missing the Franco-Irish bacchanal after the Moulin Rouge.

At the very end of the night, I made two completely boneheaded realizations: a) the reason my foot felt miraculously better that day was because my French cold meds had IBUPROFEN in them (why hadn't I just taken that before?!), and b) my hotel room had a view of the Eiffel Tower the WHOLE TIME and I never realized it until I saw it lit up at night - by day it just looked like another ugly-ass crane. Ha!
Pictured: Ugly-Ass Crane

After that, it was au-revoir Paris, hello home! I am so glad I went on Contiki. I had no panic attacks or major depressive incidents at all, and I actually ate food! There was no stress because everything, including major meals, was arranged ahead of time. There were equal opportunities to see things in groups and to sightsee alone, and really just a fantastic group of people (Abominable Australian excluded).

If I had to be brutally honest - I adored London a million times more than Paris. I loved what I saw in Paris and I'm glad I saw it, but I'm in no great hurry to go back and see more. Meanwhile, I am in love with England (London and Bath, particularly), and I will definitely come back to explore that country more fully.

But that's the joy of Contiki - it's like a tasting menu for hesitant travellers. It gives you the highlights of amazing places within a safe group environment. I've been severely travel-phobic for the last couple of years, but this trip completely renewed my desire to travel to Europe and helped me deal with my anxiety. If you're between the ages of 18-35 and you're nervous about travelling (or at least travelling alone), I cannot recommend Contiki enough. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY TO ME!

Today's the Day!
My debut novel, The Duke of Snow and Apples, has just been released from Entangled Publishing TODAY.

Today was a good day. My mum sniffled over my dedication and showed a screenshot of her buying my book, my coworkers at My Paying Job threw me a pizza party, and my old stompin' ground Heroes and Heartbreakers posted a First Look of my novel!  

It means a whole lot to see the romance community that took me to its heaving bosom seven years ago now reading and talking about my book. I wish I could write more, but I don't think I have any words left, today. Too excited and happy and exhausted. Anticipation is exhausting!

Ah well. Back to Googling myself!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Farthing," by Jo Walton

The Corpse: Sir James Thirkie, the politician renowned for arranging the Peace with Honour with Hitler. Found in his bed, with a Star of David affixed to his chest with a dagger.

The Gumshoes: 

Inspector Carmichael: An up-and-coming investigator for Scotland Yard.

Lucy Kahn: A wayward daughter of the aristocracy whose Jewish husband falls under suspicion. She knows anti-Semitic sentiment will doom her husband if he's arrested, so she must find the real perpetrator first.

The Suspects/Secondary Characters:

Lady Thirkie: The deceased's flighty, shifty, newly pregnant wife.

Normanby: The deceased's brother-in-law, married to Lady Thirkie's sister Daphne. Has a shot at being the next Prime Minister.

Daphne Normanby: The deceased's sister in law - was married off to Normanby after a scandal in her past. A scandal that might have involved Sir James Thirkie himself.

Lady Eversley: Lucy's chilling, devious, class-obsessed mother, and one of the leaders of the Farthing Set.

David Kahn: Lucy's idealistic Jewish husband, who believes (or at least wants to believe) that England remains a just and decent country, immune to fascism.

The Word: How good was this novel? So good, I went out and got the next two books in this trilogy (Ha'Penny and Half a Crown). Consider me a new Jo Walton fangirl. This sinister, layered novel takes the luxurious discontent of an English country house murder mystery and wraps it within the increasing dread of an all-too-likely alternate history.

In this version of history, England ducked out of World War II by arranging the Peace With Honour with Hitler - a treaty which guaranteed England freedom from the war so long as they left Hitler to his own devices on the Continent. This peace was arranged by a loosely-connected group of politicians and aristocrats known as the Farthing Set - more specifically, by Sir James Thirkie, whose appeasement of Hitler made him a national hero.

However, not long after Sir James arrives at Farthing, the country seat of Lord and Lady Eversley (and headquarters of the Farthing Set), he is found murdered in his bed, a star of David pinned to his chest by his own knife.

The novel divides itself between the POVs of two characters determined to find out what really happened. The first is Inspector Carmichael, an up-and-coming investigator for Scotland Yard who is summoned to the crime scene. Thirkie died during a house party attended by all the closest and most influential members of the Farthing Set, so Carmichael knows he'll have to tread carefully in this politically-delicate situation.

The second is Lucy Kahn, Lord and Lady Eversley's black sheep daughter who scandalized high society by marrying a Jew. Neither she nor her husband David were expecting an invitation to one of her mother's parties - but now Lucy suspects her parents' olive branch may have been an intentional plot to set up her Jewish husband as a scapegoat. With anti-Semitic sentiment in England on the rise, she knows her husband will be condemned if he's ever formally arrested.

But who could have done it? And if it was a member of the Farthing Set - why kill the man responsible for their power and influence?

This division of the point of view is the novel's greatest strength. Carmichael and Lucy come from very different backgrounds and their separate observations contribute equally to the final picture of what really happened. Lucy, in particular, is a marvellous character. While she bucked convention to marry a Jewish banker (with whom she is madly in love), she's also very much a product of her privileged environment and upbringing. While more aware than most of the hypocrisy and bigotry beneath aristocratic privilege, she's not above its influence. She's been raised to think of herself as a rather flighty, not-too-clever daddy's girl, even though her tenacity and her loyalty ultimately reveal her to be a much stronger, smarter woman than she thinks she is.

Carmichael's investigations, meanwhile, reveal more about this alternate England. While Great Britain outwardly appears bucolic, prosperous and peaceful because it bowed out of WWII early, its decision to ignore Hitler rather than fight him has allowed the disturbing infection of Nazi ideology to take root in its populace. Lucy's idealistic husband David may believe that England is "safe" from the fascism of the Continent, but Lucy and Carmichael come to know better.

Jo Walton's brilliant novel is gripping, right down to the last page. The intricate mystery, the dynamic characters, and the disturbingly vivid alternate history combine to make Farthing a powerful, and powerfully addictive read.
A+

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"The Naturals," by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Protagonist: Cassie Hobbes. A teenage girl with an astounding ability to profile people who is recruited by the FBI to help solve cold cases.
Her Angst: Her mother was murdered and the killer was never found - could the FBI help her find out who did it?

Secondary Cast:

Michael: A preppy trust fund kid capable of reading people's emotions.

Lia: A bratty Asian punk girl who's a human lie detector.

Sloane: A hyperactive blond capable of memorizing data and analyzing patterns.

Dean: A brooding loner who, like Cassie, is an expert profiler.

Agent Locke: One of the FBI agents who helps train the Naturals in reinterpreting evidence.

Agent Briggs: The head of the Naturals Program.

Angst Checklist:

  • Dead parents
  • Overprotective Italian families
  • Child neglect
  • Child exploitation
  • Child abuse
  • Serial killers
  • Victimization of women
  • I embody serial killers for a living - but, like, not in a creepy way
The Word: Cassie has a gift. Thanks to her mother's training, she can look at people, assess their details, and successfully determine their backgrounds and guess their future decisions. Cassie also has a curse. Her mother - who travelled the country using her profiling skills to pose as a psychic - was brutally murdered by an unknown assailant when Cassie was twelve, and she's never truly gotten over it. 

Now seventeen, Cassie's approached by a mysterious boy who leaves a business card from the FBI. The FBI has started an experimental program that involves recruiting teenagers with raw, miraculous crime-solving gifts (dubbed Naturals) to help solve cold cases. A human lie detector and an emotion reader count among their recent recruits. Cassie agrees to join the program - partly to help people, but also to look for a chance to use FBI resources to find her mother's killer. 

As Cassie starts practicing her abilities and getting to know the deeply weird, deeply troubled fellow Naturals in the program, a mysterious serial killer with ties to Cassie's past starts stalking prey closer and closer to the Naturals' home base, making it difficult for Cassie and her pals to stay uninvolved.

I was hooked on The Naturals from beginning to end. It has an original and highly interesting concept (teenagers hired by the FBI to solve cold cases) that's backed up with a well-developed setting, entertaining background details, and razor-sharp pacing. The nature of the "Naturals" (teenagers with preternatural detection skills) also provides oodles of angst and dark pasts to go around. None of these teenagers developed their abilities in the happiest of environments, but it is incredibly fun to watch how Cassie and Dean determine a stranger's personality just by looking at her parked car.

That being said, the author doesn't spend time developing all these characters equally. Cassie is a wonderful and unusual protagonist. Despite being taken in by her father's loud and affectionate clan, she has trouble connecting to people, always feeling one step removed from the ability to return the love they lavish on her. She worries that she's too broken by her tragedy to love anyone back. Michael and Dean, the two other points of the novel's standard-issue Love Triangle, also get some backstories, but the other members of the team don't get much more than an introduction and a few scenes to air out their unique quirks. But there's every chance we'll get to learn more in the sequel.

There's also some pretty graphic violence - and sadly, it's all directed against women. Women are constantly victimized in this book. And while I realize that it's common enough in serial killer narratives to be a cliche, I wish the author had tried something different. Finally, while the big reveal is a nice surprise, it doesn't really hold up when put to severe questioning.

All told, however, The Naturals is a whip-smart, incredibly fun and original YA mystery.
A

Saturday, August 09, 2014

I See London, I See France, Day 5: The Louvre, the Moulin Rouge, and the Contiki Clap

Our first full day in Paris was our free day to sightsee - but not before we all got in the bus and drove to the Eiffel Tower for our Contiki group photo. On the way, we had a very entertaining ride around l'Arc de Triomphe. It's known as one of the world's most dangerous roundabouts, and a common joke is that it's so dangerous no insurance company will cover a car accident that occurs in it.

Once we drove through it, we understood why. We watched from the relative safety of the tourbus as cars jammed into each other and brave citizens on narrow scooters darted through every available space like minnows, proper lanes be damned. I saw at least one motorist on the side of the road angrily scribbling his insurance information onto the hood of another man's car.



Once our picture was taken, roughly 70 percent of the group signed up for the Fat Tire bicycle tour of Paris, and the rest of us (myself included) decided biking in 30-plus degree heat through a crowded foreign city where most of its native motorists instinctively hate you was a terrible idea. 

Today was the day I was going to be a social traveller. I knew the main bits I wanted to see, but I wasn't as invested in seeing everything in Paris as I was in London. So I teamed up with Trudy, Franco, Romio, Anthony, Sophie (the roommate), and Michael and headed for the Louvre. After safely dodging two urchins offering the Charity Scam, we made it to the "secret door" of the Louvre our tour manager pointed out to us:
Ooooooh, secret.

There are several lines at the Louvre. There's a line just to get in, and then a line for tickets, and then an uncomfortable shuffle through a crowded lobby before you get to the actual art. That side entrance there? To the left of the glass pyramid? That lets you skip the first line. 

Once we got tickets, I discovered the main members of our group were only there for the "Mona Lisa Dash" - which involves buying a ticket, rushing straight to the Mona Lisa, snapping a picture, and leaving. Which is the stupidest, most wasteful, tacky tourist thing I ever heard. I'm being fairly hypocritical, since in England I rushed through the 1000-year-old Roman Baths like a flaming racoon was chasing me just so I could see the Pump Room at the end. But still. What's the point of saying you went to the Louvre if you only saw one thing in it? Hell, the Louvre is a palace - the ornate ceilings alone are works of art.

I get it - there's so much in Paris to see and only so little time. And no one's capable of seeing everything in the Louvre in a couple of hours. So we walked through the Italian art wing, past the Winged Victory statue which I had never heard of before that day because I am a philistine. I refused to crowd in to see the Mona Lisa. I got a glimpse of her from the end of the room, and looked at all the dozens of other perfectly awesome paintings instead. I didn't take too many pictures - it's not the point, really. You can Google Image practically everything these days. BUT, I did snap some of the funnier religious paintings:
The Prophet of Sass. Work it! "Jesus is coming and he is fierce!"
The "Sears Portrait" of Virgin Mary scenes. "Have you finished the picture yet?" They just both look so bored and depressed.
Baby Jesus does not give a fuck. "Peace be with you, or whatever."

At Mikey's urging, we also explored some Greek and Roman sculpture, which was lovely - got to see the Venus de Milo. After that, the group decided they wanted to get some lunch. I was torn - I wanted to be social, but I definitely wanted to see more of the Louvre before I went home. So I compromised - the others were planning on seeing Notre Dame after lunch, so I told them I'd stay at the Louvre for an extra hour (and secretly eat a granola bar) and meet up with them there.

I spent that extra hour in the French art wing. That seemed appropriate. Lots of David, understandably. I was blown away by the enormous Coronation of Napoleon painting, and really fell for this self-portrait of Marie Antoinette's favourite painter and her daughter:
I have a particular fondness for realistic portraits that demonstrate emotions we can still relate to hundreds of years later - such as loving one's mum. 

It was only after I left the Louvre and wandered into the gift shop (bought magnets and a notebook) that I realized one of my favourite sculptures, Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss by Antonio Canova, was part of the Louvre, but by then I had no time to go back in and find it. Oh well. I'm not well-versed in classical art, but I've always loved that sculpture - it's so dynamic. Plus the Cupid and Psyche myth is the prototype for the fairytales Beauty and the Beast, The Raven Prince, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon

From there I decided to walk from the Louvre to Notre Dame. This required strolling along the Seine in the sunshine, past the (soon to collapse) lock bridge, past sellers of antique and secondhand books, jewellery, artwork, and souvenirs. I overpaid for a bottle of ice water because I couldn't understand the water seller and bought a compact mirror from one of the kiosks. The only thing marring this idyllic afternoon was my foot, now smarting with a vengeance.

I managed to hobble my way (barely) to Notre Dame. 
Sophie the Tour Manager said there'd be no line - that was not true. But the line moved quickly, and just as I neared the front, the rest of my group arrived! 
Notre Dame was amazing, and I really wanted to linger for far longer than my group did, but my foot was hurting and I knew it was time to quit (after kneeling and saying a prayer for my mum, first). I bought a simple wooden rosary (the Swarovski crystal ones made me feel guilty) and all of us shared a few cabs back to the hotel - and I just caught a glimpse of the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company as we passed by.

Back at the hotel, my roommate and I just chilled in the room. Honestly after all that heat and walking, it was nice to just rest, nap, and read a book in a cool, quiet room for a few hours. 

After that came the Moulin Rouge!

Now ... the Moulin Rouge was an altogether different experience. We were led into an enormous red-upholstered dining room and theatre and wedged into tiny tables - the space between the tables and the next row's railings were so narrow all the waiters had to crab-walk sideways. And of course I found myself wedged in between a metal railing and the Abominable Australian. 

While the lounge singers on stage went through songs so well-known and digested they were practically musical jello, my compatriots and I tried to eat off-tasting smoked salmon, decent steak, and a chocolate dessert without elbowing each other in the face. The staff provided us with two bottles of wine and a pitcher of water - I finished off the water in short time. I was suddenly terribly thirsty, and my throat was starting to hurt. 

The service at the Moulin Rouge was terrible. I had to ask four times, from four separate waiters for more water, and was ignored or lied to. Sophie (Tour Manager) managed to steal us one off a cart, and we made short work of that, but it wasn't nearly enough.

Then the waiters dropped off a bottle of Champagne, the dining room darkened, and the show began. The Moulin Rouge show is a burlesque, and it's very crazy and campy and random. Basically, gorgeous French women in showgirl costumes come onto the stage and dance through bizarre scenarios or skits while lip-synching to French pop songs. Either they'll all be topless, or the Three Obvious Starlets will be topless and the rest of them will wear diaphanous tops or jangling necklaces to make them look topless when they're really not (like Neytiri from Avatar). There were about a dozen male dancers as well (with an Obvious Hero sporting a square jaw straight out of a 1940s Marvel comic), but none of them removed so much as a stitch of clothing. A shame.

The scenes and skits were thus: pirate men seducing topless pirate women through dance, the patriotic can-can with a flexible but disappointingly fully-clothed male dancer doing high-kicks backwards and forwards, a 1940s boogie woogie number, an Arabian Nights number, a Kentucky derby number involving female jockeys in thongs leading real miniature horses around the stage, and a finale involving enough pink feathers to give Cher an aneurysm. I can only assume that Vegas showgirl performances are similar.

Of the two acts that stuck out to me, one was an Aztec Human Sacrifice number where a nubile girl was delivered up to the topless priestess by two topless guards in enormous headdresses. She stripped down to her nude thong, and as she did so, a clear swimming pool began to rise out of the stage. A clear swimming pool full of what looked suspiciously like live pythons. The girl dove into the pool, swam around the snakes provocatively (paging Dr. Freud), then Britney Spears'd herself a python necklace and climbed out of the pool to astounded applause.

The second was a circus number with a ballerina, a Conjoined Twin number (two girls wearing one dress), and a chorus line of topless female clowns. You read that right - topless female clowns. They wore the conical white hats and what I can only describe as the French lingerie version of saggy clown pants with suspenders. So if you're in the mood for the weirdest sex dream ever, this is the show for you.

In between the skits, a husband-and-wife tumbling act, a three-man tumbling act, and a French comedian would come out to give us a break from all the sequins.

I enjoyed the show, in a distant way, but I was distracted. I have a weird immune system. I don't get colds as frequently as other people do, but when I actually catch one, it hits me like a fucking freight train. And this cold struck me about five minutes after the show began. Within ten minutes, I developed a throbbing sinus headache, an overflowing runny nose, and I couldn't stop sneezing. I ran out of water and kleenex, folded as I was between an immobile iron railing and the Loudest Fucking Australian Ever, and unable to escape, I had to resort to snuffling and dabbing at my nose with the disintegrating remains of my table napkins.

When the show finally ended, I couldn't go out with the rest of the group to the Irish Pub directly next door (O'Sullivans). I'd planned to, I'd looked forward to it, but by the end of that show, I was a (likely contagious) wreck. Horrifically disappointed and embarrassed, I was the only girl to limp back to the bus and then the hotel. 

So maybe I had two low points on this trip - my 45 minutes at Westminster and this wretchedly painful and sleepless night, where I tossed and turned and imagined all the fun drinking shenanigans I was missing out on. My youngest sister (who's gone on numerous Contiki tours) describes this as the "Contiki Clap" - there is always one sick person on every Contiki tour who will spread their disease to several other people. In this case, I likely caught it from Meagan the Floridian Nurse. At least my cold caught me after London and allowed me to enjoy the Louvre.

Monday, August 04, 2014

I see London, I see France, Day 4: Crossing the Channel

Today, everyone packed their bags, ate their last English breakfast, packed everything onto the bus, and headed to Dover to catch the ferry to France.
There we ate some lunch, exchanged our pounds for Euros, and settled in on the enormous ferry. I spent most of the ride chatting with Lisa, Melissa, and Megan (a nurse from Florida who was sick with bronchitis) while suppressing my vague seasickness - but one of my tour mates won 70 pounds when he used his last pound coin in one of the casino machines!

As we drove through the French countryside (pockmarked by small villages, each with a sharp church steeple poking up into the sky), Sophie tried to give out the details for the Paris, Amsterdam, and Rome extensions for those on the tour who'd paid to tack extra days onto their trips - but she kept getting interrupted by the Australian. I won't say his name, but I dare say most of my tour mates who are reading this will know who I'm talking about.

He was big, bluff, Australian, and utterly obnoxious. How obnoxious? Even the other Australians disliked him (and a few found his Australian accent "off" or "funny-sounding"). His voice sounded like a foghorn designed by the Devil to punish hungover people, and he insisted on interrupting all of Sophie's announcements to make jokes lame enough to make dad-humour feel relevant. He'd already been to London before - and Amsterdam (he has family there), and couldn't stop himself from shouting his own recommendations and corrections and additions to Sophie's run-down of Amsterdam. Over and over.

Whenever he caught on to his own annoying behaviour, he'd chirp, "Sorry 'bout that. I'm an arsehole!" and treat this admission as a cleansing of the slate so he could start over again in his unbearableness.

Soon enough, we entered Paris, and that's when I felt my first stirrings of anxiety - not very much, but still. Paris is a very different-looking city from London. It's twisting and busy and hot and rife with graffiti. It also didn't help that the Contiki hotel (the Ibis Clichy) was this bland, rectangular structure set in the middle of nowhere. If I had to compare hotels, the London one beat the Paris one by a long shot - better looking, better location, better breakfast - not to mention the Ibis room only had two electrical outlets (thank God I packed a power bar). While the availability at the Imperial allowed me the luxury of a single room, we all got twinshares at the Ibis, and a bunch of the girls played magical chairs with their room keys so I wound up with a different girl - who turned out to be a very nice girl named Sophie (not the tour manager) from Australia who was enjoying a Contiki tour before meeting her friends for a month in Greece.

I also felt a little more anxiety about eating in Paris than I did in England, oddly enough. The "fanciness" of Paris food, as well as my uncertain French communication skills, made me much more nervous about what I was eating. And when we all sat down to eat at the Paris hotel, I wound up learning two of the coolest-seeming girls on tour also had fatal nut allergies and felt no compunctions about eating the bread at all. One of of those girls, Christina, actually experienced one of my absolute worst allergy nightmares - she remembers having an anaphylactic reaction in China after leaving her EpiPen in her hotel room and her tour guide had to rush through Shanghai rush hour to get it in time.

I can't imagine being so blasé about it, but I suddenly felt very ashamed of my food-avoidance issues. Not ashamed enough to actually try any bread or croissants or pastries in Paris, but enough to feel guilty and stupid about it.

Anyway, after an uncomfortable supper, we all got on the bus for the general tour of Paris.
Like Napoleon's tomb! Is was indeed fascinating to discover how planned and symmetrical a lot of classical Paris is.

After the tour, we were all dropped off by the Eiffel Tower. Now - I couldn't really care less about the Eiffel Tower. It's nice to look at, but that's about it. But I was determined to be social in Paris since I was far less interested in the city than my tour mates. I would just go along with what everyone else wanted to do.



Thankfully, I wound up with a cool group of women who did not want to wait two hours in line to go up the Eiffel Tower (thank God, what a waste of time). They bought ice cream, squee'd a bit about being in Paris in July in front of the Eiffel Tower, and we all sat in the grass looking up at it, waiting for 10:00 pm when the tower lit up and sparkled. Men came up every couple of minutes or so offering wine and cigarettes to sell. Afterwards, we shared a cab ride back to the hotel - but the cabbie dropped us off at the top of the avenue, a completely unrecognizable location, so we experienced a bit of an adventure as three girls trooped through the dark looking for our hotel. But find it we did, and I dropped off to sleep.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

I See London, I See France, Day 3: London Hobbling

Day three of our trip was the "free day" in London. Nothing was scheduled except for the West End show at 6:45pm. We were free to sightsee however we pleased in the meantime, and Sophie gave us all London maps and Tube guides and had us circle the important spots we wanted to get to. Sophie and Jan took some of us onto the tour bus to drop us off at important places.

I tried to rest my foot as much as I could the night before (by ... not walking in my sleep), but the moment I stepped off the tour bus at Westminster, pain shot up my right foot. Yowch! I could barely rest any of my weight on it. It felt like I'd hurt a bone. I started to limp, than hobble, past the Houses of Parliament, towards the bridge I would have to cross to make it to the London Eye.

Not pictured: my painful foot.

I tried to stay cheerful. It was a beautiful day, I was surrounded by beautiful, iconic buildings, and so what if I was walking slowly? But the voracious traveller in me was determined to see ALL THE THINGS. I didn't want to take time out of my day to rest or see a doctor and as I was unfamiliar with pretty much all injuries caused by physical activity (due to me shunning it most of the time), I had no idea what to do. I asked a couple of questions to my Twitter followers on my phone and limped towards the Eye.
A very, very, very long walk.

I made it to the Eye, realized I'd only paid for the "regular" ticket and not the FastPass, looked at the 40-minute wait in the hot July sun and went, "Oh, HELL no." Several pounds lighter, I skipped the line thanks to my advanced pass and boarded the London Eye immediately.

I freaking loved the London Eye. Yes, it's a very touristy thing to do, but it's not as cheesy to me as, say, going up the Eiffel Tower because the whole point of the Eye is to look out over the city of London from 360 degrees. It's an excellent and creative way to see the city, and for a pound they'll give you a handy circular map that points out all the buildings you're seeing. It's about a 30-minute ride, perfectly timed.

Once I had one and a half working feet back on solid ground, I hobbled back to the bridge towards Westminster Abbey. My Twitter followers recommended rest (nope), ice (nope again), or wrapping it up in an ace bandage (okay!). I tried to Google the nearest chemist but the closest one was a kilometre's walk away, due to all the crazy-old and famous buildings getting in the way.

I loved my time in England, but if I had to pick a low point, it was probably the next forty-five minutes I spent in Westminster, hobbling in circles trying to find a cross-walk (hint: it is never where you want a crosswalk to be), ultimately deciding to nix Westminster Abbey due to a 30-minute line, and limping towards the nearest Underground station. I was by myself in an area I didn't know at all, where I couldn't walk very quickly or without pain, and had no idea what to do next. But still - I felt frustrated and angry, but not anxious, panicked, or depressed. Huh.

After a convenience store clerk's terrible directions led me on a laborious, failed trek to find a Boots, I decided to take a page from the Little Mermaid's book (the Hans Christian Anderson version). I'd simply walk through the pain. I wasn't going to miss London (particularly the parts I'd already paid for in advance). I wasn't going to die. I could always stay in bed during the Paris part. So I descended back into the Underground and took the train to the Tower of London.

Which turned out to be the best decision ever. A little background - I work with case managers in disability insurance, and a big part of their job is determining if the claimant is legitimately too ill/injured to perform their job, or whether they just hate their current situation too much to put up with pain they'd normally be able to. 

As it turned out, I was the latter - the moment I approached the enormous fortress of the Tower of London, the throbbing in my foot faded to a mere annoyance. I'll be honest - I was extremely ignorant of the Tower of London before I actually visited it so I didn't know what to expect. I certainly hadn't expected this gigantic walled edifice with towers (both authentic and rebuilt in the 19th century) and moats and a medieval palace. It's even more surreal and impressive since it's surrounded by ultra-modern skyscrapers such as the Shard and the Gherkin. 

I had a blast at the Tower. I cannot recommend it enough. Despite being there at the height of tourist season, I discovered it's such a large attraction that there weren't too many lines for anything except for the Crown Jewels (which I skipped - I'm not spending 40 minutes in the sun just to see sparkly things). 

I explored the medieval palace originally built for Edward the First, I saw the preserved graffiti of various prisoners (lots of Jesuits, Elizabeth I's tutor, and a man tried for witchcraft) and the Traitor's Gate. Also went into the torture tower (because of course I did) - my favourite replica was the Scavenger's Daughter, which functions as the opposite of a rack. You make a man fold himself into a ball then put an iron hoop around him and screw it tighter and tighter.

Another thing I learned? The yeoman warders actually live at the Tower with their families. Bit of a shock to see a modern deckchair and flower pots by these beautiful stone buildings just beyond one of the major walls. Some of the residences are actually on the green, with only a single chain and a sign to indicate they're off-limits to visitors. I can't imagine living at such a popular attraction, but then, it's still technically a functioning prison and the home of 2.5 billion Euros' worth of jewellery. 

Eventually, even the joy of exploring a royal palace couldn't keep the pain of my foot at bay any longer, so I walked outside, bought a whole mess of fish and chips (the chips liberally doused in brown malt vinegar!) and ate it next to the Tower in the hot sun. Blissful - and probably the meal I enjoyed the most out of the entire trip. 

I saw everything except the actual tower of the Tower of London - the White Tower, and while I felt a bit sad about that, I wanted to see more of London before the West End show. I limped back to the Underground and rode the train to High Street Kensington station. I should also note that I loved the Underground - so convenient and easy. And a billion times more accessible and visible than Paris' Metro. 

At High Street Kensington station, I found a Boots! I bought an ace bandage - then realized I had no scissors to cut it with. I dragged myself five more blocks to Kensington Park and finally, to Kensington Palace.

SEE ALL THE PALACES!

Kensington Palace was where Princess Victoria lived, and is the official London residence of Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. I'm still baffled as to why no one has bothered to write a sitcom around this idea with a fictionalized Royal Family. But whatevs! 

There are four historical routes through the palace - the Glorious Georges through the King's Apartments, William and Mary's life together in the Queen's Apartments, a tour through Queen Victoria's life, and a section dedicated to the fashions of Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret. I enjoyed it (particularly the Victoria parts), although the part of me that was expecting the building to be kept up in the Georgian style was disappointed. I was rather hoping to walk in and pretend I'd time-travelled back to Victorian Britain but only certain parts of the palace were kept that way. The rest is a museum - and an excellent, well-organized one, but no longer a palace. It certainly made me want to rewatch The Young Victoria, though! 



When I go back to England (and I will!) I'll be sure to explore what looked like fabulous gardens, but once I made it out of the gift shop (bought: a classy key ring, the souvenir guidebook, and a history book on the Georgians), I knew it was time to drag my excruciatingly painful, blister-ridden feet back to the hotel in time for the show.

I made it with 15 minutes to spare. Some of my tour mates decided to skip the show (even though it was already paid for in the tour price), but for me, a guaranteed two and a half hours sitting down sounded like heaven. The show was Mamma Mia, and honestly where else can you book 50 tickets only a month in advance? The only things remarkable about it were a scene where the heroine's boyfriend is forcibly stripped down to his skivvies (and the whole theatre squealed like the studio audience for Saved By the Bell) and the actor who played Bill's horrific excuse for an American accent. But I got to sit down, the music was nice, and I was in good company. 

During the intermission, I made friends with Lisa and Melissa (from Scarborough!) and Christina (from Long Island). After the show, I decided (again...) not to go out to the bar because I was completely exhausted and a bit worried about what state my feet would be in when I woke up again.