back from Amsterdam, part 1


So so lucky with the weather. After a 4-hour train ride crossing the north of France, all of Belgium and the bottom half of Holland, my train arrived at Amsterdam Centraal at 2:30 pm on Saturday. The train trip back was only three hours. I returned to Paris at 7 pm this Monday evening.


Dragging my small suitcase across cobblestones, alongside canals and over bridges, I walked to my hotel located in the Jordaan district. I quickly checked in, then headed back out again. Everyone was out enjoying the beautiful weather.


I walked for 4 hours doing what I love best: wandering, taking photographs and popping into candy and cosmetic shops while enjoying the sunshine and vibe of this small city.


I don’t know what Jordaan district I ended up in, but towards 5:30 I spied a pizzeria called La Perla. Famished, I walked straight on in.


From my seat at the window ledge, I watched the street scene, drank ginger beer and ate my delicious pie.


Certain areas are what I call “feel-good” places. This district was one of them. If you could see the cute little houses with wooden benches out front, tulips adorning the windowboxes, and the general conviviality of the residents, you’d feel good too. I know I did. And then suddenly it got dark around 6:30 pm and the temperature dropped dramatically.

I scurried back to the hotel for a cocktail (in reverse order, as I had already eaten.) The bar at the hotel was warm and welcoming. I perused the cocktail list and chose a concoction of cognac, crème de framboise and champagne.


A nightcap on the house: espresso and Grand Marnier generously topped with thick fresh cream, not a jot of sugar. Yum.


And then upstairs to lie on my bed in front of the television.



My hotel room on the top floor was completely silent. Sometimes I wonder if one of the reasons I travel is to seek quietude.

More photos to come.

off to Amsterdam plus a great website for train travel in Europe

The other day I stumbled across a website for train travel within Europe. It opened up a plethora of possibilities. As I’m planning my May-June trip to Italy, I was wondering how to get from the Puglia region down south back up to northern Italy without taking a plane. And then I discovered Trainline. Italy has a high-speed train network (similar to France’s TGV (train à grande vitesse)) called Frecciarossa (“Red Arrow”), Frecciargento (“Silver Arrow”), and Frecciabianca (“White Arrow”). Frecciarossa trains are the fastest, reaching speeds of up to 190 MPH (300 km/h).

train italy

This means that from Bari or Brindisi down south (in the heel of Italy where I’ll be spending 7 days) I can jump on one of these shiny babies and head to any major city I want: Bologna, Genoa, Florence, Milan, Torino … before making my way back up to Paris. I’ve been to Bologna, Genoa, Milan and Florence but not Torino, so maybe I’ll go there. On the other hand, Florence is so beautiful and brimming with Art … Bologna was lovely … and Genoa is fascinating with its frescoes, palazzos, labyrinthine streets and medieval quarter … I can’t decide.

Called or, it connects to each country’s national railway system and facilitates ticket purchase.

I love travelling by train, it’s so relaxing and stress-free as opposed to airports and plane travel.

glorious weather, a weekend in Lille




After weeks and weeks of gloom, we’ve been enjoying glorious weather for the past week: cold in the morning, warmer throughout the day, and dry with brilliant sunshine. Friday after work I took the train up to Lille. The kids are on school vacation for two weeks.

The French word, “luge“, means sledding or toboganning. Despite the absence of snow, the city of Lille constructed this sled run for kids. My 6 year-old companion (soon to be 7) and I spent Saturday and Sunday at the Gare Saint Sauveur, a former train station (freight) converted into an exhibition center and recreational space. I’ve been taking the kids there for over a decade.


Inside there’s lots more to do: a giant chess game …


Le trampoline …


Le karting …


I have no idea what this is called, in French or in English …



Halfway across and treading on a single rope (like an acrobat) while holding onto another rope above, Soso stopped and said with a little trembling voice, “Tata, j’ai peur,” (Auntie, I’m afraid). What could I do, climb up and pluck him off the rope? With the help of a monitor while reassuring him that he couldn’t fall because he was attached by his safety belt, we talked him through it.



Le curling and le mini-golf …



All entirely free and paid for from the coffers (and taxpayers) of the city of Lille. Traditionally socialist, this northern city has had the same mayor since 2001. Martine Aubry is her name and the people of Lille are fond of her. Her father, Jacques Delors, was Minister of Finance under President François Mitterrand and also President of the European Commission.


Socialist mayor of Lille, Martine Aubry

She’s a no-nonsense woman and extremely efficient. Lille is a well-organized city and ideal for families. There are lots of activities for children and adults alike. After all his sporting activities, Soso announced that he was hungry and wanting lunch. So off we went to the on-site bistro, one of my favorite lunch spots, for a tasty, inexpensive meal. This is butternut squash risotto (delicious!). Soso had fish and chips.




Sunday was an equally beautiful day. Too nice to stay indoors. So off we went again, first to the park which was packed with kids, babies, parents and some grandparents.


boy on a bike (Soso)



After Ireland, France has the highest birth-rates in Europe. France’s family allowances for all (exempt from income tax) – what we used to call “baby bonuses” in Canada – are a contributing factor to this baby boom. Women are awarded a “birth bonus” for giving birth. The 2019 amount, for each baby born, is 941,67 euros. There are also September back-to-school allowances (example: 401,46 euros for a child from 15 to 18 years old), a moving allowance and other subsidies (chart below.)


Spring comes early here; the miniature daisies (marguerites) and crocuses (crocus) are out.



Next weekend I’m off to Amsterdam.

Here’s the French Social Security Family Benefits chart, in French, English and other languages.

my niece, Chiara: melody maker

She’s beautiful, she’s talented, and she’s performing as special guest this Friday night at Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts.

Best wishes to you from Paris.

Rising from Toronto’s bustling music scene is 26 year old upcoming pop sensation, Chiara Young. Comprised of a masterful lyricist, talented pianist and soulful vocalist, Chiara brings an electrifying new approach to pop music. Debuting her new single ‘Fallout’ from her upcoming EP, Chiara continues to build on the success of previous single ‘Look At You Now’, bringing her flourishing supporters a colourful combination of heart, soul and inspiration while delivering a memorable journey for all.

(extract taken from the Toronto Guardian’s “Five Minutes With Toronto Alt-Pop musician Chiara Young”, written by Joel Levy, October 9, 2018.)

beautiful music

Baroque music Marais 26 mars 2014 023

What better place to listen to 17th century music than in a 17th century church. 

The other night a friend and I went to the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux in the Marais to listen to a concert organized by the Venetian Centre for Baroque Music.

I love baroque music. And I love old churches. To combine the two was sheer delight. And the old church (built between 1685-1690) – full of atmosphere and lit only by candles – was an acoustic marvel.

Baroque music Marais 26 mars 2014 014Baroque music Marais 26 mars 2014 010Baroque music Marais 26 mars 2014 018Baroque music Marais 26 mars 2014 022

I tried to videotape a segment of the concert, but there was not enough light. Fortunately I found the same group of soloists on Youtube so that you too can listen to this sumptuous soothing music. Marc-Antoine Charpentier is the name of the 17th-century composer whose concerto they are singing. Enjoy.

Ensemble Correspondances, choir and orchestra – Sébastien Daucé, harpsichord, organ & direction

so I returned to Brussels in the Spring…

Brussels May 2013 053Brussels May 2013 037Brussels May 2013 028


In the end I didn’t get the job in Brussels. But a few weeks later I secured myself a pretty good job in Paris (located, literally, at the end of my street), so all’s well that ends well.

But I felt that I could easily live in Brussels. As I walked the streets, the words that popped into my head to describe the city’s vibe were “relaxed and loose” as opposed to “tense and high strung” that is Paris. There’s an appealing quirkiness to the place and it’s cheaper than France. Oh, and did I mention that Belgian beer is awesome?

So in the Spring I returned and stayed at the same B&B, The Sweet Brussels. Here’s my room, the bathroom and the building’s exterior:

Brussels May 2013 019Brussels May 2013 022Brussels May 2013 026

I wandered over to the nearby Marolles district to check out the flea market and the vintage furniture shops on the rue Blaes:

Brussels May 2013 041Brussels May 2013 029Brussels May 2013 036

The weather forecast predicted rain all weekend. It was the exact opposite.

The best fries!

Brussels May 2013 101


Belgian fries are awesome. Crisp, non-greasy and piping hot for 2 euros. I bought these from a food truck, called a fritkot, located on the Place de la Chapelle at the foot of a white cathedral. Belgians eat their fries with mayonnaise. I asked for malt vinegar but they didn’t have any, so I ate them plain, sprinkled with salt. Sit on a park bench, wash ’em down with a bottle of beer and life is good! It doesn’t take much to please this girl.


Brussels May 2013 067

From the Place de la Chapelle I walked straight down the boulevard de l’Empereur to the Place Albertine where I went in January. I wanted to see the park again. Look at the contrast between winter and spring:

Brussels janvier 2013 237Brussels May 2013 051Brussels janvier 2013 239Brussels May 2013 046Brussels May 2013 048

What a difference sunshine and warm weather makes. As the day drew to a close, I headed back to the B&B. A few doors up is a Moroccan pastry shop that makes pastilla: phyllo-pastry pie filled with shredded chicken, ground almonds, cinnamon and sugar. They also make Moroccan breads and pastries. I purchased some small fragrant cakes (flavored with anise and orange flower water) then retired to my room to sip herbal tea and watch a DVD.

It should be known that this neighborhood near the train station is kind of gritty (but relatively safe.) The advantage is that it’s within walking distance to everywhere.

Part Two, wintry Brussels

Brussels janvier 2013 048

The next day was warmer: minus five instead of minus eight. But the sun had disappeared behind thick cloud and the resulting gloom did not compel me to rush outdoors. So I lingered over a second cappuccino in the breakfast room while listening to classical music and and poring over the stash of design books, maps, and travel brochures made available to guests. Sofie and another woman came in and we chatted about the flea market and antique stalls in the nearby Marolles district. And this is why I prefer B&B’s to hotels; it’s like being in someone’s home….well, you are in someone’s home. The service is more personalized, you can pick up interesting tidbits of local information and when the place has more guests in it than yourself, cross paths with like-minded travellers.

The above photograph, for those who don’t recognize Tintin, was taken in the window of a comic book shop. Comic books are big in Belgium. The Adventures of Tintin sells more than a million copies a year worldwide and is translated into more than 50 languages. Tintin is a Belgian reporter aided in his adventures by faithful dog Snowy (called Milou in the French edition.) Every year Brussels hosts a Comic Book Festival where enormous balloon characters parade down the main streets.

On my last day in this lovely city I decided to wander further afield and visit the new Magritte museum and the adjoining Musée des Beaux Arts. There was also a lamp I wanted to buy. I spotted it, late yesterday afternoon, in the window of an interior design shop. It spoke to me. I’m a bit of a lamp fetishist, I’m afraid. I don’t really need another lamp, but this one is quite unique. Last year I completely redecorated my flat in Paris. Everything is white. White lacquer furniture, white curtains, white laminate flooring, white and pale gray walls. And this lamp, in the form of a shell, will be perfect on my credenza.

Brussels janvier 2013 183

Brussels janvier 2013 184

Heading outside, I walked the 15 minutes in a straight line to the Grand Place and veered right towards the Place Albertine. Trudging through snow and over the still ice-encrusted sidewalks (it appears that the city’s snow removal services don’t do sidewalks), I eventually reached this park: a pristine, public park designed in a neoclassicist, geometric style.  As if frozen in time, its petrified sculptures lay under a mantle of snow:

Brussels janvier 2013 237

Brussels janvier 2013 241

Brussels janvier 2013 242

Brussels janvier 2013 239

She looks cold.

Brussels janvier 2013 235

It was a pleasant experience walking through that silent, unpeopled park, the distant sounds of the city muffled by the snow. I finally reached the Magritte museum and spent the next hour wandering contentedly through its galleries, looking at and learning about the work of this Belgian surrealist artist (1898-1967):

The Great War
Castle in the Pyrenees
The Son of Man 

“Rene Magritte’s work has both philosophical and poetic content which corresponds to certain social and intellectual trends, particularly of the second half of the twentieth century. His work was not easy to approach at the outset, however, and makes a constant call on us to relinquish, at least temporarily, our usual expectations of art.  Magritte never responds to our demands and expectations. He offers us something else instead.”


And then, sadly, it was time to return to Paris. I reluctantly made my way back to the B&B. I didn’t have time to visit the Musée des Beaux Arts, nor a dozen other places of interest on my list. Collecting my belongings from the B&B, I walked the short distance to the train station only to learn that the train was delayed again due to weather conditions. I bought a hot chocolate and a waffle in the food court. I think I gained a few kilos which isn’t surprising considering I subsisted primarily on chocolate, fries, waffles and beer for two days. Once we got underway, the trip back to Paris was comfortable and speedy, just over an hour. Service on that route is operated by Thalys, the high-speed train operator jointly owned by French, German and Belgian national railways. I’ll definitely return to Brussels.

So what took me so long to discover the place? I guess I was busy discovering other places. What I particularly like about this city is its eclecticism – the blend of different styles and vibes ranging from Baroque to Art Nouveau, old-world to avant-garde, rebellious to conformist, flamboyant to austere, all with an underlying quirkiness.

Brussels janvier 2013 257

Brussels janvier 2013 258