Eco-luxury, wellbeing, relaxation and nature in the heart of the city.
Eco-luxury, wellbeing, relaxation and nature in the heart of the city.
I think I’m a wanderer at heart, a gypsy-spirit … no, I know I am. Truly happiest with a knapsack on my back and a camera slung around my neck. I could travel forever.
Do you want to know the number one reason why I live and work in France? Seven (7) paid vacation weeks a year was and still is the deal-clincher.
Strolling around the neighborhood near my hotel one sunny Sunday morning, I came across an inviting café-bookstore. Music-filled, lots of wood and divided into different sections, you could buy and read books, drink coffee and eat little cakes all day long. The place had such a pleasant laidback vibe, I returned every day for the rest of my stay in The Hague.
I sat in this cozy corner and read these two books (after purchasing them.) Cappuccino was brought to me on a little wooden platter.
What was funny was this name directly above my head (watching over me?)
Jongbloed in English is Youngblood. It’s the name my father gave to his publishing company (in Toronto). He would have been tickled pink to see this.
THE HAGUE – Just down the road from my hotel was a large-windowed store with people going in and out all day long. Sometimes there was a long queue of people waiting to get inside. “What on earth are they selling?” I thought to myself. And then I learned that it was a store selling hash, marijuana and other cannabis products. I was intrigued. In this small permissive country, you can legally buy pot. Rather than skulking about in dark alleys, trading is carried out in broad daylight. Even on Sunday mornings!
So every day I passed this shop, and every day I became “curioser and curioser”, to quote Lewis Carroll. One warm, sunny evening – my last evening in Holland – I stopped for a burger, beer and fries at a place near the hotel.
Sharing an outside table with a local Dutchwoman, we chatted. (If I haven’t mentioned it before, the Dutch speak perfect English.) I asked her about coffeeshops. She blithely said that she goes regularly (as if she were going to the corner store for milk!)
On my way back to the hotel I walked past the cannabis shop. My curiosity piqued, I stepped inside.
Here’s how the conversation went –
“So how does it work here?”
“You tell me what you want and we give it to you. Are you looking to buy hash or grass?”
“Errr … grass, I guess, but what’s the quality of it and where does it come from?” There was a really strong, funky, fuggy smell in the shop.
“We don’t know where it’s from, exactly, but the quality is good.”
I paused and looked hesitantly at the glass case behind the salesperson. He saw me wavering.
“Do you want to try just a single joint for starters?”
“Loose or pre-rolled?”
“With or without tobacco?”
I wimped out. “With tobacco.”
“And what effect are you looking for?”
“Oh, definitely mellow.”
“OK, well I recommend one of our best-sellers. It’s called Strawberry Kush and if you smoke half of it, the effect is the equivalent to drinking two glasses of really good wine.”
“Sounds good. But say, can I travel with this? Because I’m leaving Holland tomorrow.”
“Where are you going, back to the States? In that case, the answer is no.”
“I’m not American.”
“You sure sound American. Where are you from?”
“Oh, well,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “Same thing.”
Bristling, I replied – “Is Holland the same thing as Germany?”
“No, but Canada and the States is the same land mass …”
“The U.S.A. and Canada are two distinctly different countries.”
“Oh, yeah? How are they different?”
“Well, for one thing, we wouldn’t have voted for a dickhead like Trump. But changing the subject, I’m leaving tomorrow for Belgium and then back to France where I live. So, can I travel with this?”
“To Belgium, yes. You can legally carry 3 grams in that country, in Holland 5 grams. But in France, I don’t know.”
So I bought a spliff of Strawberry Kush. It cost six euros, 50 cents and came in its own little carrying case.
Packing in my hotel room the next morning, I must have put that spliff in five different places – first in my cosmetic bag, then in the inside pocket of my travel bag, then in my knapsack, then in my eyeglasses case. I didn’t know what to do with it, other than smoke the damn thing, but it was 10 am on a Wednesday morning.
My concern was that my bags would pass through a scanner on my way back to France, and it would show up on the X-ray machine. I imagined sniffer dogs, an alarm going off, border police frogmarching me into a little room where I’d be strip-searched and humiliated. And the worst, I’d end up with a casier judiciaire (criminal record.) You can’t be employed with one. I’d lose my job, I’d have to go on welfare, I’d end up on the streets, all my worldly possessions in a storage unit …
Stop! For god’s sake, Juliet, get a grip! I pulled myself together. I think I’ve seen too many movies. We’re talking about a single joint mixed with tobacco and two grams … two grams of marijuana! Surely the police have more important things to look for … like, er, terrorists???
Down in the lobby of the hotel, I googled “Legality of cannabis in France” and what came up was ILLEGAL ILLEGAL ILLEGAL. I was surprised. Wow. Chill out, France, what’s the problem?
Here’s what I learned – Possession of cannabis is illegal in France and can lead to severe punishments. In French law, there is no difference between cannabis and any other drug. Drug-related offences are taken very seriously and France is known for having one of the harshest drug policies in Europe.
Depending on the amount and the circumstances, you could be lucky to get away with just a slap on the wrist. But chances are, you’ll end up receiving a substantial fine, or even a prison sentence.
This was becoming far too sturm und drang. I could either go into the garden of the hotel and smoke the thing right then and there, or flush it down the toilet. Coz the thing was this: I had purchased the joint to smoke with my friend back in France, not on my own, alone in Holland. I headed for the lavatory.
A jewel in the heart of the city. The Mauritshuis is one of the reasons I travelled to The Hague.
Girl with a Pearl Earring is Vermeer’s most famous painting. A girl wearing an oriental turban and a large pearl earring. Johannes Vermeer was a master of light. This extraordinary work of art was painted 352 years ago in 1665.
The collection inside the Mauritshuis is made up of paintings dating from around 1400 to 1800. There are Flemish, German and French works, but the vast majority are Dutch dating from the seventeenth century. This was the Dutch Golden Age, a period of great prosperity boasting famous painters such as Rembrandt, Jan Steen and Vermeer.
Fans of Donna Tartt will enjoy this painting of the chained bird on its perch. Tartt wrote her last novel, The Goldfinch, around this little masterpiece. In 2013, on loan from the Mauritshuis and as part of a travelling exhibition, this painting and others travelled to the Frick Collection in New York City. Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, created in 1654, is a small but potent painting.
Well, they say that Vermeer was a master of light, but look at this splendid panel of artwork entitled Old Woman and Boy with Candles, painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1616.
This one I especially loved –
Luminous! (It’s actually brighter in real life than it appears here.) As if lit from within. Entitled View of Delft and painted by Vermeer, this is the most famous cityscape of the Dutch Golden Age. Looking at Delft from the south, the city has an air of tranquillity. Reflecting this in his composition, Vermeer made three horizontal stripes: water, city and sky. Look at the interplay of light and shade and the clouds, as well as the reflections in the water and the two women standing in the forefront. This painting, 357 years old, is a masterpiece.
Right beside the museum is a lovely restaurant and gift shop. Looking at all that art makes you hungry and thirsty!
Of course you have the world-famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with its own important collection of the Dutch masters. But what makes the Mauritshuis special is its smallness and intimacy (and of course those exquisite paintings.)
Note: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City also has a fine collection of Dutch paintings from the age of Rembrandt.
More to come …
These days, boarding a train at Paris’s Gare du Nord train station involves passing through a phalanx of machine gun-wielding policemen, sniffer dogs, scanners and metal detectors similar to those used in airports. However, in my line-up the scanner wasn’t working, so they just waved us through. And I thought, “What’s the point in having a luggage scanner if it doesn’t work?”
The reason for this heightened surveillance is primarily to dissuade potential terrorists from climbing aboard a train armed to the teeth with weapons, which is exactly what happened two years ago (the horror!)
In August 2015, a deranged 25-year-old Moroccan Islamist called Ayoub El Khazzani nearly opened fire on passengers inside a Thalys train travelling from Amsterdam to Paris. Thanks to the courage, strength and alacrity of three American men, two who were off-duty members of the U.S. Armed Forces, they tackled the terrorist and managed to subdue him. Later, these heros were awarded France’s highest decoration for bravery, the Legion of Honor, by then-president François Holland. This is worth mentioning because these brave men averted a possible bloodbath. Again, the horror! To think that you could be sitting on a European train, or a train anywhere for that matter, calmly flipping through a magazine or chatting with your companion when suddenly a crazed lunatic shouting “Allah Akbar!” and wielding an assault rifle bursts into your compartment is beyond terrifying. But this is what is happening today. Islamic terrorism in Europe (and elsewhere in the world) is defining the beginning of the 21st century. And it is tragic. Governments need to work harder to eradicate this phenomenon.
Seat prices are cheaper if you book months in advance. I booked myself a First Class ticket, Paris to Rotterdam, for 62 euros. Travel time is two hours and 37 minutes. A snack and lunch are included in the price of the ticket. If you’re travelling solo, ask for a “place isolée” or “place solo” (same thing) which means a single, window seat.
Below is a photo of the mid-morning snack I received. As I was drinking coffee and reading my book, I was listening with one ear to the four New Yorkers sitting across the aisle from me. In their late sixties or early seventies, one of them was telling the others that during her visit to the world’s largest genealogical library in Salt Lake City, Utah, she had been researching her family history. “My maternal grandparents came from Minsk,” I heard her say. Funnily enough, the book I was reading – East West Street – covers precisely that region and era.
“Have you read this book?” I said to them, explaining that I had overheard their conversation. Naturally, a discussion ensued and we chatted amicably for the rest of the journey. (As an aside, I only barge into other peoples’ conversations when I hear they’re North American (or Australian.) Europeans, including the British, tend to be more private and probably resent the intrusion.)
From Rotterdam I took a local train to The Hague (Den Haag), only a 20-minute ride. As I sat amongst the locals listening to the guttural Dutch language, I did a double-take. A man sitting across from me was wearing wooden clogs. Real, farmer-type clogs with a leather strap across the top of his foot. I had (mistakenly) thought that wooden clogs were a thing of the past. I wanted to laugh and take a photo, but that would have been too rude.
At Den Haag train station, I picked up a street map and meandered the narrow streets (dragging my suitcase behind me) in search of my hotel, the Parkhotel Den Haag. A 4-star hotel, it was perfection; better than I had expected. My room overlooked the inner garden and the only sound was the cawing of sea gulls overhead. Baffled at first why there would be sea gulls, I then remembered that Den Haag is a seaside town located on the North Sea coast. Those gulls were constant and at one point, days later, I imagined myself in that famous Hitchcock film. (I’m not a fan of large, uncaged birds.)
Here’s the hotel garden where I spent a few hours each morning (with coffee) and each evening (with a glass of wine) working on my memoir (rewriting some segments.) I have a new editor in Vancouver and he’s a taskmaster.
Be forewarned that Holland is a nation of bikes, and at certain times of the day crossing the road can be perilous. So stressed was I by the flotilla of bikes bearing down on me at breakneck speed, not to mention the clanging of oncoming trams, I was a nervous wreck on my first day.
Stay tuned for Part Two: the magnificent Mauritshuis art museum and the buying of cannabis in a legalized coffeeshop.
So I’m off to Holland and Belgium early tomorrow morning; well, Holland first and then stopping off in Brussels for a few days on my way back to Paris. I booked my train ticket months ago, a First Class seat on the Thalys fast-speed train. I love train travel, I find it very relaxing. I’ve got my brand new JBL wireless, noise-cancelling headphones for the train trip allowing me to read my book undisturbed. Haven’t finished that great book I picked up in London in June: East West Street by Philippe Sands. It’s funny, but I don’t read when I’m at home (too many other things to do), only when I travel. I’ve also got my ticket, pre-purchased online, to the Mauritshuis in The Hague, an art museum which houses mostly Dutch Golden Age paintings.
The other night I took some photos while walking up the rue de Rivoli at 10:30 pm. Here they are below. Stay tuned for my blog posts after my return from The Netherlands. Bye for now.
As for the title, I was just having fun with the title of the 1981 American movie, My Dinner with André, starring Wallace Shawn, if anyone remembers it. Another Louis Malle film (last week and following the death of Jeanne Moreau, I put up a clip of his 1958 film, Les Amants.)
So I arrived at the Café des Abattoirs in Paris’s first arrondissement, promptly at 7:30 p.m., and ordered my favorite apéritif, a Martini Bianco with lemon. Much deserved after a hard day at the office.
And then Andreas arrived and after greetings and chit-chat, we got down to business and studied the menu. Andreas and I met in 2003 (he’s Swedish). At the time, we were both working in a boutique law firm off the Place de la Concorde. The law firm still exists, but we’ve moved on, me to an investment bank and he as a CPA senior management consultant.
Getting back to the menu … “You take charge,” I said, draining my apéritif glass, “I’m tired of making decisions.”
And so he ordered a delicious red wine from the Languedoc region of France, a Pic Saint-Loup. Excellent choice! Rich, dry and full-bodied on the palate. A Valley girl myself, that’s the Loire Valley, I’ll pick up a bottle of Pic the next time I’m near a wine store (probably tomorrow.)
Pic Saint-Loup is evocatively and accurately named, with steep limestone escarpments stark in the Mediterranean sunshine of the hilly uplands to the north of Montpellier. It produces some of the finest wines in the Languedoc. To qualify as a Pic Saint-Loup, a wine must contain 90 percent Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. A good companion for grilled meats and cheeses.
The meat we shared was Black Angus Picanha, Brazilian for grilled and sliced rump steak. It was tender, juicy and very tasty, as if cooked on an outdoor barbecue. I rarely eat beef at home, so I do enjoy it when in a restaurant.
Leaving the restaurant just after 10 p.m., we headed towards the Tuileries Gardens at the end of the street to walk off our dinner. The last streaks of daylight colored the sky.
An amusement park with rides and attractions had been set up in the gardens.
And so we talked and walked through the Tuileries Gardens before parting at Louvre metro station, Andreas to head eastbound and me westbound. However, it was such a beautiful night I didn’t take the metro straight away. I decided to walk along the rue de Rivoli and grab the metro at Concorde. I took some rather gorgeous night photos that I’ll put up in my next blog post. Night photography is always a surprise, you never know what you’ll get.