A TRAVEL STORY INTERRUPTION. Back to the Beginning. The Skyr, A Scone and THE DUCK. 1984.

Boulevard Saint-Michel…a long time ago

I wrote this a month ago on my birthday. Have been trying to fix it ever since. I give up. Here it is. My first attempt to deal with all of those long-ago notes.

Today’s my birthday. I’ve daringly posted my real age on facebook so we don’t have to go into that here. How this relates to travel since this is a travel blog? The new passport that would allow me to begin my journeys to every-country-in-the-world-before-I-die arrived in the mail 25 years, 335 days and about 5 hours ago. I actually did not know that every country was my goal at the time—that I could possibly do that did not occur to me until a few years ago. When I first said it out loud it was a joke. I next said those words out loud was because I liked the sound of them but they were still accompanied by a skeptical chuckle. Then I said it again, “I’m going to every country in the world before I die,” after counting countries and dividing by likely lifespan. And meant it. Today I’m repeating my travel mantra because, like New Years Eves, birthdays are good times to renew resolutions, and to review where you’ve been.

Getting there is half the fun? I’ve always had a travel life—and a family and work and periods of political junkiness and baked a lot of cakes. But that is all in the memoir…this is THE BLOG. This every country phase began in July 1884. My best friend and I went to Europe…my first visit, her second. True, I had lived in the Philippines and traveled to Mexico and Canada but this was the beginning of something big, new and scary. Also addictive, expensive and life altering. Whatever it was…one hot summer day we were off!  Sue and I were youngish, single, pretty, and a little wild, neither of us apparently destined for wifedom, although we certainly loved our children and figured they made our somewhat brief marriages worthwhile.

We had planned, or rather I had planned, since Sue was not a person of lists and schedules—sometimes the planning turns out to be more satisfying than the actual trip but that was not the case here. Pre-Google, pre-email it was complicated but good challenging fun, with large paper maps spread out on the kitchen table, maybe several travel guides, faxes, phone calls, letters even. And budgets. Always the budgets. How many francs, pounds, lire, guilders per dollar—getting outdated currency exchange figures from a three year old travel guide or stopping by your bank for the current rates. Figuring out how much cash to take. Or Travelers checks. It was also a world without debit cards and cash machines. Amazing that we ever left our own shores. I look at my budget notes and figuratively weep—let’s see, the three nights in Paris were going to come to about $90 although the four nights in London would add up to $272. It didn’t quite turn out that way of course because Sue took one look at the claustrophobic garret I had booked in Paris, declared it a fire hazard and we immediately struck out to find a more standard (and pricier) hotel. But I digress. The hours of planning for the coming trip—for me—turned into dreaming about the next…and the next…. In my old notes, even as this itinerary (London, Brighton, up to Folkstone or Dover to catch the Hovercraft to Boulagne, France, down to Rouen for a night, then into Paris and back to Dallas and Albuquerque) is being is being developed there are already references to the following year’s proposed journey: Norway, Ireland, South of France and Italy….

Finally it’s time. We’re off! First I fly to Dallas, borrowing outfits and maybe a suitcase from Sue who must have had a better selection of both. For two days we giggled, smoked endless cigarettes with our endless cups of coffee and ironed (that was then) packed and repacked. Then Piedmont Airlines to New York. We had both been briefly to The City before but not often so we took a cab from Kennedy into the City for the few hours between flights, leaving our way-too-many-bags in a locker at the airport. Do you remember when that was possible! Those days of innocence—when lockers weren’t necessarily bomb containers—when the terrorists  were still mostly someplace else—like Beirut for example where the Marine barracks had been bombed just a few months earlier. (Although while we were happily strolling the streets of a mostly gun-free Europe, an American “survivalist” would murder 22 people in a San Diego McDonald’s.)

Sue and I spent a glorious sunny afternoon in Sheep Meadow where humans had long since replaced the sheep that Robert Moses moved to safer environs in the 30’s, afraid depression-hungry New Yorkers would munch them for lunch. That NY sun and those pretty sunbathers seemed so much more elegant than ordinary people lying about on the Albuquerque or Dallas grass. We enjoyed a perfect Central Park hot dog—dared a wine at the St. Moritz on Central Park South–I say dared because it seemed such an impossibly sophisticated thing to do. I had already traveled more than most Americans I suppose but never in what I considered the rarified circles of the travel elite–Manhattan, London, Paris. How did one act, speak, comport oneself in such urbane enclaves. At dusk, we headed back to the airport. Tired, maybe a little sweaty and rumpled, but we had already experienced one new world…how much better could it get!

Iceland. Icelandair is memorable because…it stopped in Newfoundland; the seating was as cramped as today’s steerage class (which was unusual then); the meal was delicious, eaten with silverware and accompanied by unlimited wine.  The ‘stewardesses’ were perky. And smoking was the norm, oh yeah, clouds of smoke, we could hardly wait until the no smoking sign went off.  Hard to separate good-food from bad-fond memories isn’t it?  And then Iceland of the endless summer day and woolly sweaters and dinner of white and buttery codfish and white and a creamy yogurt-like dessert called skyr (courtesy of the Vikings—who lived in snow-white landscapes, produced rosy-white babies, ate creamy-white food and who may have been forced to plunder, slash and burn just to add green and red to their sensory palettes.) I want to go back and drive Iceland’s rim on a trip like the one Mark Sundeen described in the June 18, 2006 NY Times Travel section, the “…830-mile Ring Road, where the scenery shifts from glaciers to geothermal pools to re-enactors dressed in Viking garb, all of it under the midnight sun.”   A road that “…feels like someone put the American West in a blender: California’s poetic central coast, the Nevada desert’s barren expanses, Alaska’s glaciers and Yellowstone’s geysers.”  I half regret having a goal like every country which means I do not have time to return to or linger in too many favorite places. However Iceland can be a stop once again, this time on my way to Greenland as soon as it is recognized by the ultimate authority, Lonely Planet, as a separate country.

I know, I know…Iceland is now the land of bankruptcy and the cause of very cranky airline passengers. I still want to spend a long long dark New Year’s Day there with my fellow Scandinavians drinking too much and eating white food.

England. Coming into Heathrow. One of those heart-in-mouth moments. I have no idea why setting foot on European soil (well okay, a British runway) meant so much to me. Didn’t feel that way upon landing at Clark AFB on Luzon or Mexico City…but political heritage does matter and all those history classes crediting my American birth to English parentage have had an effect… ‘Mom, Dad, I’m home’… Here’s what I wrote in my travel notebook:

London looks small and low and green—after New York and our own southwestern terrain. Really long escalators. Short cab ride to Flemings Hotel on Half Moon Street. Check in. Walk up Picadilly, Leicester Square, Picadilly Square, finally Trafalgar Square. Scone on way. Not sunny not cloudy. Trafalgar Square – Pigeons, lions, pale people everywhere. Around corner to Sherlock Holmes pub, meet New Zealandars and Dave. Dave takes us to other Navy Pub, we walk back, eat more scones. To bed. Already love London. It’s the 16th of July, 1984 when I am actually doing this stuff. On the 17th we walk to Parliament, by the Queen Mother’s House, Guard pinches Sue, Henry Moore’s, Changing of the Guard, millions of tourists. Pubs close 3 – 5 pm. Boat ride up Thames to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Boat ride not so great, grubby and touristy (in our minds we apparently were non-touristy tourists). Walking back among government buildings, can’t get to 10 Downing but look at it from short distance. Margaret Thatcher’s just stopped at gate and chatted with tourists. Guard doesn’t like Thatcher. On to Sherlock Holmes. Almost don’t go. Do, relieved the guys we’ve met aren’t there. Find an outside table. The boys arrive and invite us to the Royal Tournament. We go. Princess Anne is in the house.

I have the souvenir book to prove I was there.

And memories of a late boozy night with the new friends!

Those are the notes I took on this trip. Not good. No atmosphere. Just the facts ma’am. Let me share a couple of things I remember vividly from that visit using adjectives this time. Real scones are things of wonder. Flaky yet moist with smooth and tart-sweet rosy-red strawberry jam and real clotted cream—from real cows, British cows who’ve been grazing happily in a Turner landscape while listening to the cultured accents of lords and ladies and fox-hunting squires of the realm who lope by on fast and glossy steeds! You can tell London scones are very special. Warm grey weather, my favorite. Except the day we visited Stonehenge. Cold grey weather.  Next we visit Brighton where the seaside is civilized with elderly Brits in sweaters and sensible shoes decorously sunning themselves, and blonde and crazy Scandinavians swimming on the naked wild side. We had salty, creamy kippers in white gravy for breakfast and went to the Royal Pavilion, a grand place to tour because…well because it is grand and one should tour things on trips. You will always feel you did a good and necessary thing by going to see restored palaces whether this one or Versailles or another. They have brilliant colors and proper art and flocked wallpaper. However they really look uncomfortable. Such high ceilings. And those endless sculptures and mirrors. All neat. No books scattered about, newspapers in a pile. Coffee cups forgotten on a corner table. Do you suppose the royals lived that neatly? Well no, actually. They were mostly unbathed and all greasy from the roasted leg they gnawed at dinner and sweaty from the after-dinner orgies. All about was a profusion of guns, crossbows, dogs and bloody pheasants to keep Court artists busily painting and future museum walls well populated. .

France. No notes from Paris. A few unfaded memories must suffice. The ferry was almost a great travel moment. I feel sorry for today’s Chunnel riders missing the history of a Channel crossing: The wind’s in our hair and  “… bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover” in our eyes and ears, the beaches of Normandy nearby.

The outstanding French adventure was—THE DUCK. In my zealous planning efforts I  included one elegant dinner—to be in Rouen and consist of the famous duck dish, Canard a la Rouennaise (Duck in blood sauce). We wrote for reservations at a famous restaurant on the Market Square where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake—planning well we thought for the gourmet dinner of the trip. In olden times, in Europe on $25 a Day there were few details, only that the dish was duck. An old recipe. A very famous, very old recipe.

We dress up. We plan to NOT act like American tourists. We order Canard a la Rouennaise. A nice wine. Of course we stumble through the wine order but what we get tastes nice. Obviously by now we’re easily identified as American tourists from some outback like… well… perhaps Texas and New Mexico. I remember little about the meal in fact—except the duck. Large full plates are put down in front of us. Covered with slices of something outlined under dense black and grainy gravy exuding the aroma of fresh chicken (duck?) manure. Honestly. We stare helplessly at the disaster in front of us  for some time, trying to look neither confused nor disgusted. I scrape away a corner of the nearly-impenetrable dark glop but the pitiful little pink slices look raw and my determination to take at least one bite disappears. By now we notice sideways glances and small smirks from the few other diners who look to be townspeople—but they don’t laugh out loud. The French can be kind after all. In the end, we ate the crème brulee, paid the highest meal ticket of the trip and made what we hoped was a casual yet dignified exit. I think we ate that bag of smashed stale cookies from one of our suitcases that night.

About Canard à la rouennaise or duck in blood sauce, described as

“…an antique, spectacular, barbaric and sophisticated recipe you need to see at least once in your life. … it’s the most spectacular recipe of the classical French repertoire. [For which you need]…a Presse à Canard, a duck crusher  for which you would pay thousands of dollars if only you could find one for sale.” (Duck Tour d’Argent at the FXCuisine.com website). This is a great website with all of the gory details in large color photos.

Also: Rouennaise Duckling BASIC RULES (now from canardiers.asso.fr)

Today many restaurants in Rouen, in Normandy, but also in many countries serve the Rouennaise Duckling sometimes with variants but respecting the following basic rules:

  • the duckling has to be suffocated, (bolding mine)
  • it has to be cooked bleeding ( 17 to 20 minutes ),
  • the breasts have to be raised,
  • the carcass pressed to obtain the blood,
  • that will do thickening for the sauce(fond rouennais).

A better choice would have been to travel with Julia and Paul:

Extract from the book  “My Life in France” by Julia Child. Rouen is famous for its duck dishes, but after consulting the waiter Paul decided to order sole meunière. It arrived whole : a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top. The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, stepped back, and said : Bon appétit! I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish in my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection. … Along with our meal, we happily downed a whole bottle of Pouilly-Fumé, a wonderful crisp white wine from the Loire Valley. Another revelation! Then came salade verte laced with lightly acidic vinaigrette. And I tasted my first real baguette _ a crisp brown crust giving way to a slightly chewy, rather loosely textured pale yellow interior, with a faint reminder of wheat and yeast in the odor and taste. Yum! We followed our meal with leisurly dessert of fromage blanc, and ended with a strong, dark café filtre. The waiter placed before us a cup topped with a metal canister, which contained coffee grounds and boiling water. With some urging by us impatient drinkers, the water eventually filtred down into the cup below. It was fun, and it provided a distinctive dark brew.

That was then, this is now…Eiffel Tower still there

French lace

I loved Paris and have ever after—visiting many times for the dance, the walk along the river to the Eiffel Tower, the baguettes, the unexplainable sense of joie de vivre the city inspires, but mostly just for being in the streets and at the sidewalk cafes. Of course sidewalk cafés were best with a café au lait and a cigarette but over the years I’ve shed my bad habits and now I settle for a healthful glass of red wine.

Can't get a good baguette west of the Mississippi--only in Paris 1984 or 2009

Notre Dame

Somewhere in this part of our adventure Sue gets quite mad at me because I encourage a couple of inappropriate guys to pick us up. Next day I go alone to Versailles with a hangover. Later we shop on the Champs-Élysées, buying matching cotton casual things in different colors, mine was pink, Sue’s yellow and I still have mine. It has paint stains and is torn but I cannot bring myself to simply put it in the garbage. That and a few photos comprise proof.  I was. There. Then. Sue left her pricey French perfume on a bench as we strolled at dusk toward the Tuilleries. Sue, on all my Paris strolls, I stop somewhere along that lovely walk for a Crepe Marron, sit on a bench among the big shady elms and look for your perfume. But I am sorry about those guys. Just think they’re old men now!

My notes only pick up again on August 4th. They say my ex-husband visited and he and my son go for an adventure to Guam. And that my ex-boyfriend was here and went back to Portland. And that I went to Mexico as a cultural liaison. No question, ex-travel adventures have a much longer shelf life than ex-people-in-your-life.

Skip to 2009 and Patricia’s 16th birthday.

Birthday cake on the Champs Elysees

Birthday cake on the Champs Elysees

Time does fly--and it has been generally fun

Time does fly–and mostly it has been fun. With my granddaughter on Boulevard Saint-Michel!

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