Parisian Signs of the Times

Parisian Signs of the Times
Changing of the subway posters

Paris is a captivating city, particularly magical at Christmas time. Amongst the standard French city sights (mopeds zipping around narrow side streets and wide chaotic boulevards; a customer waiting for her highlights to set around midnight while a couple of hair dressers smoke cigarettes and drink champagne in the salon; a shopper crossing the street in a fur coat over her shorts and patterned stockings; newly engaged couples kissing along the Seine…), this time it was the signs that stood out at me the most.

As people flock from all over the world to join Paris’s two million or so inhabitants, there are some messages that just need to be put out there for all to read. Sometimes I couldn’t tell what was crazier – the signs or what I saw some few nutty people doing.

We started off in the Catacombs, the world’s largest collection of human remains, arranged below Paris’s sewers and Metro system:

Don’t touch the bones?!

Beforehand we had read online that Catacomb staff check bags when visitors exit, to be sure that no bones have been smuggled out. (!!) I guess this isn’t a high enough tourist season for that now, as we fortunately didn’t have this grisly but apparently necessary experience. We did, however, hear many tourists asking questions that were all answered on the audio guide that was included with admission: Whose bones are these? (Parisians that had been originally buried in cemeteries – all labeled – prior to the late 1700s.) I wonder what bones these are exactly? (Skulls and femurs.) Why are they here? (The city was short on burial space in the late 1700s and had previously built an extensive tunnel system while quarrying out limestone. Two birds with one stone, so to speak.)

What are you doing here? I’d like to have asked.

As we continued on to the world famous Louvre Museum, as for any museum, it should go without saying not to touch the art:

Don’t touch the art or eat (baguettes)!

Thankfully we didn’t see anyone breaking this rule here with any of the masterpieces, some of which were larger than our ever so cozy 12’x12’ Air BnB apartment. However, at the nearby Museum d’Orsay I saw a lady brushing her hand along one of the many sculptures that line the inner walkways. I guess she just had to know how it felt!

Museum d’Orsay: Look out, free standing statues!
Don’t step into the exhibit!

Liberty Leading the People may be one of the most famous paintings in Paris, allegorizing the French Revolution, but Panda Leading the People on this subway ad calls us to arms in the fight for the environment:

As expected, security was heightened for Midnight Mass at Notre Dame. The square before the cathedral was closed off and police officers performed a round of bag checks and metal detector swipes on visitors entering the area. Cathedral security performed a second bag search at the entrance. It was well worth the wait for organ and choir music inside the stunning Notre Dame, even standing all the way at the back.

Midnight Mass at Notre Dame

There was a little bit of a scare at the end of communion, when a small political protest against the Vatican broke out on the altar. Difficult to see or know what was going on at the front of such a large space, many people started heading toward the exit as three protesters waved flags and shouted in French. Well prepared, police swiftly handled the disturbance in an orderly way and immediately brought the three out. Mass concluded as planned.

Here, Charlie Hebdo’s commentary on the current state of security in the wake of the recent Berlin Christmas Market terror attack:

Celebration of Christmas: Extended 12 months

Fyi Paris’s Christmas Markets – which seem less of a French tradition than a borrowed German one – sell vin chaud (French Glühwein or hot mulled wine), as well as French delicacies like escargot, frog legs, and oysters.

We spent Christmas Day touring the Seine River on a fancy lunch cruise. Every step from meal preparation to service is, in France, carefully and elegantly carried out regardless of venue. Except maybe here:


There were no signs on our Christmas cruise ship but maybe there should have been, because we saw an American family walking off with a glass of wine and a poinsettia table decoration after we had docked. What?!

Christmas cruise on the Seine

Paris, I hope people treat you right in 2017! Joyeaux Noël!

Recycle your wine bottles here!

(Love Paris? Here’s my Paris Tribute from my first trip last year.)


Sounds of Silence

Silence comes from many sources, as darkness comes in many shades. Silence from those whose lives were taken or voices silenced. Silence through technology that brings people together by keeping them apart. Silence from commercialism that values things more than people. Silence from fear that has sparked new life to nationalism all over the world. Our world becomes ever smaller and ever darker.

And so on the darkest day of the year, listening to the sounds of silence, let’s remember that when all the evils from Pandora’s box were released, all that remained was hope. People may be the cause of these problems, but people are also surely the solution.


The Sound Of Silence
by Paul Simon

(Click here for my new favorite version of this song by Disturbed.)

Frankfurt Holocaust Memorial Wall
Jewish Holocaust Memorial Wall in Frankfurt

Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

Brussels cobblestone street

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone,
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp,
I turned my collar to the cold and damp

Dublin pub
Church behind McD’s and money exchange in Vienna

When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

Watching the light show through camera phones in Frankfurt (German Reunification Day)
Paris subway station

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

Downtown Dresden
“Welcome culture” for Syrian refugees caricature in Frankfurt

“Fools,” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

Frankfurt Red Light District
Red Light District in Amsterdam
Tourist season in Amsterdam

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming

Panier district of Marseille
Revolution mural in Leipzig
Graffitti-allowed wall in Prague

And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls

Signs of globalization in Bucharest
Political palindromes in a London underground station
Political palindromes in a London underground station

And tenement halls

Housing in Bucharest

And whispered in the sounds of silence”

Once Upon a Christmas Market

Brothers Grimm & fairy tale advent calendar in Hanau

Long, long ago in a land far, far away… or this past week in nearby Hanau and Kassel… there lived two fairy tale Christmas Markets. Each one was both as lively and cozy as the next and drew visitors from far and wide.

Yes – yet again! – we trekked along the German Fairy Tale Route, to two towns where the Brothers Grimm lived and worked. At this time of year, the famous brothers’ former home towns celebrate Christmas in enchanting fairy tale style. Hanau, an early home of the Grimms, turns the building behind the larger-than-life Brothers Grimm statues into an advent calendar, revealing a new story image each day until Christmas Eve.

Kassel Christmas pyramid

Kassel, where the two story collectors lived and worked for over 30 years, brings fairy tales to life all over the main square and themes the market annually. This year Snow White took precedence among the stands, represented in pictures and figurines. My favorite aspect of this market is the unique Christmas pyramid, whose every level features characters from beloved fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and, of course, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Entering the Kassel Christmas Market

For dessert, we went straight for the fairy tale-themed baked apples, which I had remembered well from our first visit to this market a few years ago. I let James get the marzipan-stuffed Snow White apple covered in vanilla sauce this time. Remembering how that story went, I opted for the chocolate-stuffed Rapunzel apple drizzled with eggnog and topped with whipped cream. As you can guess, we are living happily ever after.

Happy 4th Sunday of Advent from the homes of the Brothers Grimm!

Traveling Through History by Christmas Market

Traveling Through History by Christmas Market

This weekend, themed markets and historic cities took Christmas Market nostalgia to a whole new level.

We began in the Middle Ages yesterday, arriving at nearby Bingen’s medieval-themed Christmas Market. Here costumed artisans and merchants toiled beneath the impressive Burg Klopp, once a medieval toll castle and now a city administration building.

Meat on sticks, spit-roasted pig, and Glühwein in clay vessels accompanied the standard festival food fare. Arts and crafts included hand-dyed yarn, hand-smithed metalwork, wooden swords, leather accessories and furs.

A band of minstrels paraded through the streets with an assortment of pipes and drums. My favorite was the hobo-esque guy with a tattered hat who accompanied them wielding some kind of artsy ball.

Reichsburg Cochem towering over town of Cochem
Mosel River from the castle

Traveling back further this morning, we found ourselves in the midst of the first Christmas in Bethlehem – told at my favorite castle Reichsburg Cochem along the Mosel River. Whether intended as social commentary or not, a census official reminded Mary and Joseph, in their haste to register before the imminent birth, that “Order takes time.”

Shepherds heeded the Archangel Gabriel who pointed to a bright star (and lo, there it was!) for us all to follow. The angel’s work post was prepared behind the scenes for the day with a thermos of coffee or Glühwein. The children in the group were asked to think of a carol for all to sing to the angel (they chose “O Tannenbaum”) and could even ask for a wish. They were too shy today, but our shepherd guide told us once a child had asked to finally have a baby sister!

From here we encountered the Three Wise Men, who were also following the same bright star. After presenting their gifts to the Christ Child in the manger, they handed out chocolate gold pieces to children and adults alike.

The story ended on a somber and poignant note, reminding us that many children are still born in dire need. Visitors were asked to think of families in and from Aleppo, Syria and also given the opportunity to donate to a local children’s hospital before being ushered into the castle’s merry courtyard Christmas Market.

Porta Nigra in Trier
Porta Nigra in Trier

Finally, we ventured even further into the past to Trier, arguably the oldest city in Germany. Its incredibly well-preserved gate Porta Nigra stands as a reminder to the city’s days of Roman control –after it was taken over from the Celts – not long before the birth of Christ. Presently the gate ushers visitors into Trier’s charming and crowded traditional German Christmas Market.

Happy 3rd Sunday of Advent from the past!

Finding Hygge in Copenhagen

Finding Hygge in Copenhagen
Tivoli Gardens Christmas Market

Imagine you’re curled up inside in a big blanket sipping a cup of hot chocolate by the fire while a bitter cold, windy winter evening rages outside. Call this feeling what you will – comfort, coziness, zen, Gemütlichkeit the Danish word is hygge. Difficult to translate but easy enough to understand.

Last week we spent a long chilly weekend in Copenhagen in search of hygge, not difficult to find during the Christmas season, the hyggliest (is that a word?) time of the year. Here are the best ways to achieve this warm feeling in the delightful Danish capital:

  • Start your day with a Danish. I’m not actually sure if this is a breakfast food here or more of a dessert, but loading up on one of these sugary choices in the morning proved a sure way to get a happy burst of energy for the day.
    Jelly & chocolate/marzipan danishes

    Chocolate danishes & coffee
  • Tour the city by boat or bike. Heated canal boats provide a scenic view of the city complete with interesting guided tour commentary. Or to work up your own heat and hygge, be like most Danes and get around by bike.
    Nyhavn harbor
    Bikes galore

    If you’re on foot though, be sure to duck into shops or pubs for hygge along the way. Copenhagen has an extensive pedestrian area perfect for shopping (Black Friday has even migrated here), and is home to many quaint seafaring pubs.

  • Explore Danish history. While the wind whistles outside, you can peacefully enjoy learning about Denmark at the National Museum. Artifacts from the Ice Age to present day tell visitors fascinating stories of life, beliefs, values, and change over an extraordinary number of eras.

    After freezing outside during the noon changing of the guards at Amalienborg Palace, you can also find hygge inside the accompanying museum. Browse recreated studies and royal collections that reveal the history of generations of Danish royalty.

  • Get lost in fairy tales. Hans Christian Andersen – author of The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and many other well-known tales – hails from Copenhagen, so it’s only fitting that you should have a chance to interact with these stories here. From the comfort of the H.C. Andersen Fairy Tale House, you can walk through the famous writer’s life story and his works, listening to the tales along the way.

    Tivoli Gardens also has a ride named for the story of The Flying Trunk, where visitors can enjoy flying along in their own magic trunk through some of the most famous stories. Don’t get hung up on the sad endings to most of these stories; focus on the joy of hearing a good childhood tale told.

  • Eat street food on Paper Island. Inside a converted factory, hygge-seekers drink beer from plastic cups and choose grub from an exceptional variety of international street food stands. Groups of convivial food lovers chat around long wooden picnic tables, industrial spools, and even Plexiglas-covered foosball tables. This is one of the cooler places to socialize and eat well.


  • Go out in the Meatpacking District. If you can stand to make it out in the cold at night to the rather isolated old Meatpacking District, it makes the hygge all the more worthwhile. The factory buildings now house a hip array of bars, some even retaining pieces of the old meatpacking equipment, for a cool nightlife scene.

    Meat packing district
  • Enjoy Gløgg and Aepleskiver at the Christmas Markets. Don’t be distracted by the ice cream stands at the markets: Those are for Scandinavians only! You’re not at that level of winter expertise, so go for hot drinks like the pirate-sounding Gløgg, the Danish equivalent of Glühwein or hot mulled wine, with nuts and raisins added. Aepleskiver, balls of apple dough sprinkled with powdered sugar, are also a popular treat. (For more on Christmas Market drinks in general, see A Toast to Christmas Market Drinks.)

  • Huddle around a bowl of hot embers. While many Christmas Markets can be found in Copenhagen, our favorite was the largest one in Tivoli Gardens, full of good food, carnival rides and games, and general good cheer. Stands of hot coals scattered throughout the pine-scented gardens make for an ideal gathering place to warm up while enjoying the festivities.

    Warming up over hot coals
  • Be a Danish kid. Kids amble around stiffly at this time of year, bundled up against the cold in insulated snowsuits, boots, and pointy hats. Babies even get zipped into an extra layer of what resembles a fitted sleeping bag.

    Better yet, grow up in Denmark and become an adult. Lifelong acclimation to the Nordic winter apparently means you can walk around in a jean jacket or a sweatshirt. We even saw a middle aged man out for a jog in nothing but a t-shirt and shorts in near-freezing temperatures!

*Travel tip: All of the attractions with entrance fees mentioned here, including canal tours, plus public transportation are free with the purchase of the Copenhagen Card. It’s worth it if you plan to visit at least a few sights per day.

Happy 2nd Sunday of Advent and God Jul from Copenhagen!