February 21, 2008

Paris Travel Summary (Details to Follow!)

Posted in food, Paris, Samwich, transgender, travel at 12:16 am by Michael

Eiffel in the Trees

Our overall approach to Paris was to try to do it on foot as much as possible. Our fallback was the Metro (subway), which is very good here. I was imagining thoughtful strolls down wide boulevards and narrow streets, with the sound of classic French music lofting through the air, with the smells of baguettes and croissants not far behind.

Um, Paris is a big, modern city. Big.

We have walked a lot (primary mode of transport), which has been *fantastic* for learning our way around. We’ve gotten to see little small things that we’d miss if underground – smaller shops, architecture, small gardens and just people living their daily lives. I wouldn’t trade these things or change our approach at all.

We also had the fortune of having one of our friends refer us to her sister in law who is a Parisienne, who had dinner with us on Monday and Wednesday. We asked her to pick the places, and at the restaurants, we left the ordering to her and the waiter/sommelier. This was an awesome way to experience dining in the city. We were super fortunate that Marie-Pierre knows food, wine, and the local dining scene. She was amazing.

But yes, all of this goodness of foot travel comes at a cost. We have this independent, squirming, heavy (25 lbs+), brilliant, inquisitive little being that travels with us. We call him the Samwich. He needed to be carried – everywhere. Again, we used the Baby Ergo carrier, which I’ve written about before – its awesome – can be used as a front or backpack. Well, you dummies, why not use a stroller? Well, Paris, like Rome and most of Europe isn’t exactly stroller friendly. The streets can be narrow or crowded (or both), with lots of cobblestones, curbs, steps. The only people using strollers that didn’t look like they were about to go insane were those using the big-wheeled jogging strollers.

Because of the carry issue, my legs and feet (and Anh’s too) feel like we’ve done a long week of hiking (because we have!). This is not a complaint at all – but a tradeoff – see more, walk more, but your range is limited.

The other kid issue that we have had is around finding reasonable open spaces for Samwich to play. He now walks, but in that Frankenstein, crazy car (car that moves forward till it bumps into something, then turns briefly and repeats), uncommandable way. Our hotel room is small, as you would expect in a European city, and this being winter (Wednesday it rained as well), the outside parks aren’t always the best choices. We found that the best place to let him roam reasonably was in the Louvre. Its so big that he can walk around, but also the crowds are dispersed, and you can find a room w/o a lot of people so he doesn’t bug someone.

One little annoying thing that he discovered this week is the concept of an echo, and where said echo can be used to great effect. The parent in me both cringed an applauded this mini-science breakthrough. He’s Brilliant! He’s Annoying! He’s both! Walk into a big room – e.g. Pantheon, Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, and he starts echo-locating like a bat, except audible. Yes, very audible. “BAH!” Samwich, “Shhh….” “BAH!”. He’d get a big grin on his face, as he realized the ability to control his surroundings, but wow, it was annoying. We moved on from these places quickly. (Or in the case of the Pantheon, he found stairs to go up and down and up and down – that was his other major discovery of the week – Stairs. The subtitle for this whole vacation has been “Stairs – who KNEW how cool they were!”)

Oh the food – we’ve had *great food* (more on that later), but as in most major cities, there’s a lot of not-great food, and without a lot of research, and trust-able sources, its hard to find the gems within the non-gems.

A couple of Samwich related eating items for reference. First off, high chairs or boosters – we only saw them one time all week – the café at the Musee D’Orsay. I almost took a picture of them – there were five, all different, all bedraggled. Every single other place we went to – and these were not just high-end shi shi places – nothing. He sat on one of our laps. This was made more complex by the fact that given his developmental stage (reaches for everything and “Can’t control… fists of death!”) (oh, and that nice hot coffee felt SUPER good in my lap Sunday – love and kisses Samwich!) a large two foot diameter “Zone of Destruction” must be cleared in front of him or unintended merriment will in fact, ensue. The tables in general are also very very small. This means that when the waiters come with the food – they see this nice big open space to put it in, and Anh and I quickly would have to do the big shuffle to move plates before Samwich did. Lastly, on the Samwich front, no kids menus… we just gave him our food, and this was fine (he eats all kinds of foods at this point).

This is noted in virtually all of the guidebooks, but I’ll reiterate here. There are a number of types of restaurants in Paris. There are cafés, which are mostly coffee/snack/drinking places. There’s an interesting phenomenon here, as these places have both inside an outside seating. The outside seating is *packed* – even in the winter, in the rain, no matter. Inside seating – empty. Why? Recently passed indoor smoking ban. The outside tables aren’t covered, even if they are under cover, with the sides having plastic walls, and only the front open. As a result, the sidewalk cafés are very busy, and full of people enjoying their Galoises. These are NOT food places…

There are chains, brasseries, counter service places, etc.

There are the ever-present creperies – which do have very yummy crepes, made on demand (don’t even try the premade ones…). Great for a snack. We also saw a lot of gyro stands, advertised as “Grec’ or “Turkic” samwiches. These looked, as you would imagine, of varying quality.

Bistros or (Bistrot en Francais) are more food oriented, and the variety here is amazing. We went to one  (La Regalade) Wednesday night with Marie Pierre and it was *fantastic*.

Then there are the “Chef” or “Gastromic” restaurants. We went to one, again with Marie-Pierre on Monday (Pierre Gagnaires’s, 6 rue Balzac 75008), and it was an experience (more later).

Even if you go to a counter service restaurant – a carafe of wine with lunch is enjoyable (if you like wine!). It’s a great way to find less expensive wines, and to try them out. Virtually every table will have one on them – even businesspeople at lunch!

Which bring us to the lovely state of the euro v. the dollar. Euros are expensive. Paris is expensive. Expect to pay New York city prices (in euros) for virtually everything. Then add 40% for the exchange rate, and viola! No money left!

On the language side, Anh and I both can speak some French, so we can at least be polite. However, we get “read” as English speakers instantly, and generally get replies in English – not because the people are rude, but because they are being helpful. Sometimes though, we start in French, and ask what we think is a simple question, the answer to which that we can understand, but then get blown away by a wave of French that we have no hope of understanding.

We try very hard to be polite in French, and start that way out of politeness. Compared to Italy, where we found people to speak less English than even Japan or China, Paris has been amazingly language-friendly for English speakers.

That’s the short summary… I’ll fill in some more details shortly.

Oh, and the whole trans thing – it’s a total non-issue here. I still get “Mademoiselled” here most of the time, and the Crappy Look Counter hasn’t budged. If you are polite, people are polite back!

Today is our last full day in the city, and we have one more nice meal planned – L’Atelier du Joel Robuchon, which looks virtually identical to his place in Las Vegas at the MGM (which we love), so I’ll report on that when we are done! (plus detailed day-by-day info about what we did…)

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February 18, 2008

Paris Day 2 or “Look, That Kid Has No Head!”

Posted in family, food, Paris, Samwich, travel at 4:42 pm by Michael

It’s hard to write about Paris. What hasn’t been said? That triteness aside, let’s see what I can do here.

Overall, the theme for day 2 was “walking” and “closed”. Walking because we literally walked about 10 miles. Closed, because its Sunday, and many shops and restaurants, are well, closed. We, being total Paris neophytes, missed that and ventured to many places that were in fact, closed. D’oh!

Our day started off by walking from our hotel to the Eiffel Tower – where we found gigantic lines (more than an hour – even for the stairs). After deciding that this was a bit of a non-starter with an 11 month old, we decided to go to the Louvre, to allow Samwich some running room.

What is there to write about the Louvre that already hasn’t been written? Huge? Check. Impressive? Check. Full and I mean Full of amazing artwork? Check!

However, two things of note – one is that the “Gate of Lions”, on the south-west side – not sure how often its open, but the line there was non-existent, where the main line in the center was super long.

Secondly, Samwiches LOVE the air vents there. The air vents, well, only the Mona Lisa compares. The air vents are grates on the floor with air coming up – a la Marilyn Monroe.

Samwich was *fascinated* by these. For literally an hour, he played w/various vents – coming over, leaving – coming back over, etc.

If you are in Paris with a toddler, and want a place to let them roam – the art museums are where its at, especially if its cold or rainy. He was able to gets lots of room, plus see (if not appreciate) some amazing art.

After the Louvre, our plan was to walk back to a recommended spot near the Eiffel Tower. Closed on Sunday. The view of the tower was still worth it.

Eiffel Twilight

We went on a short boat trip on the Seine… short but fun!

Boat Trip

While we were walking near the gardens of the Eiffel Tower, we hear a kid say in English, re the Samwich – “Look, that kid has no head”. I can assure you that Samwich does have a head, and he’s well versed in using it. However, from this shot, given the backpack we carry Samwich in, you can see the root confusion.

Samwich No head

We ended then walking across town, back to our hotel, to find some sort of sit-down-creperie. It was a testament to how crappy our food luck has been that this was the best meal that we’ve had so far.

Oh well, it was good, and we had an amazing walking day… All and all, it was all good! (But since I’m writing this after day 3, and know how that went, the food luck turned – Stay Tuned!)

February 16, 2008

A Day in Paris, but no Good Food? (Almost!)

Posted in Identification, Paris, transgender, travel at 4:00 pm by Michael

After we arrived at our hotel this morning, we went out for a walk because a) it was only 10:30am, and too early to check in b) we didn’t want to fall asleep yet.

We are staying in the 6th arrondisement (neighborhood), near the Luxemburg Gardens, so we decided to go check that out, and get some food.

First off – wow – colder here than forecast. It was only in the mid-30’s, with crisp skies, and a brisk wind. The Weather Channel forecast was for the high 40’s to low 50’s. Uh, not the same! So, after a short time hanging around in the garden (which is a big park w/kid jungle gym stuff, large gardens, broad walkways, etc), we decided to look for someplace good for lunch. We had a guidebook from my co-worker Erin (thanks!), and we quickly discovered that L’Atelier du Joel Robuchon was only a 10 minute walk away. Score! Open for lunch at 11:30am too… double score!

Before we walked over there, we stopped to get some water at a little kiosk – we were all pretty dehydrated from the flight, and just not drinking enough. I was pleased that the three years of high-school French that I took enabled me to order two Evian waters in French, understand how much it was, and be polite in thanking the attendant. Here we had interesting trans/cultural moment #1 – he also called Anh and I “Mesdames” (“Ladies”) as he thanked us.

We walked over to our lunch spot, guided by the ever-present Garmin Nuvi 270. The Nuvi is *awesome* when driving. However, when walking, it has a hard time w/direction of travel, especially when the road gets narrow and the buildings more than three to four stories – this unfortunately is common in Paris. Oh well, we got there. We walk in, and we think SCORE! Its empty, we are definitely going to get a table. The maitre’d asks (in French) if we have a reservation, we say no, and then he says, no tables till 4pm. We say, sorry, but we can’t wait that long for lunch, so we say we’ll find something else, and thank him. Again, we get “Mesdames”’ed.

At this point, Anh and I, in our tiredness, broke one of our rules – always eat good food. We settled for a crappy café, and while edible, was not great. Oh well.

Walking back to the hotel, we found a kid’s clothes store that looked cool, so we went in, and found hats big enough for us both, and some knit gloves too. We were both super frosty at this point, but at least Anh had brought a hat and mittens for Samwich, or else he would have been a cold little dude.

We went back to the hotel, rested a while, and weren’t initially in the mood to go far for dinner, so we asked the concierge – he recommended a 3 Michelin Star place, that he said was good for kids. Huh. But, they didn’t serve for another hour, and we were hungry. We asked him for the next best bet, and he sent us to a place down the block that again, wasn’t great. It was ok – a bottle of wine helped – but not at all great.

Kind of discouraged, we went back to the hotel, and were deciding between going for a long walk, and going to bed. We decided to go for the long walk, which was one of the best decisions we made all day. We walked out to the Siene, and on the way saw all of these amazing furniture and kitchen stores. Most of the stuff was ultra-modern (or 60’s) designed stuff. I said to Anh: “I’d love to visit that furniture, but I’m not sure I could own it.” Too cold for our tastes…

The other interesting thing in many of the model kitchens was that next to the built-in microwave, there was often a built in espresso maker. I had not seen this before – but super cool!

We must have walked through kitchen world, because we came upon this amazing oven store called “Aga”. It was closed, but we took this picture through the window (sorry for the glare).

Cool Stove

They had lots of these old school looking stoves, and they were just beautiful. They also had an amazing collection of cast iron pots and cookery. We are definitely going back when it’s open! We may need some cast iron (cheap to ship I hear!)

As we came up to the river, and near the Musee D’Orsay (going there soon – my favorite art museum on the planet), we got a full view of the Eiffel Tower. Then, it started “strobing” with all of the small strobe lights.

Blinky Eiffel Tower

It lasted for about 15 minutes, I have no idea what was going on, but it was gorgeous.

We walked a little more, then headed back. On the way, Anh said she was on the lookout for a creperie, and sure enough, right before we got back to the hotel, we found one.

Best food of the day – Nutella, banana and coconut shavings. Yum! We all enjoyed.

It’s now just about 1am here, Samwich just fell asleep (he slept a lot on our walk – then got up just before we got back and was up for a couple of hours), Anh’s sleeping too – but I’m wide awake, I’m jet lagged, so the result are the last two blog entries.

Reflecting on the day’s whole sir/ma’am “French Edition” stuff, it makes me thing (and lots of folks have commented on this), that Sir’ing in the US is super common, but “Miss’ing” or “Ma’am”’ing isn’t. Here, that’s not the case. The language is more polite and far more “gendered” (e.g., even every noun has a gender) – so, its not possible to not be as “gendered” in France. It forces people, even when you are in the “whitespace” (like me) to choose. Today, I was at least 90% of the time, for the people who interacted with me, seen as female. I was honestly surprised about that (how high it was).

Anyway… as predicted, its an adventure, and always something new to experience.

Paris – Getting Here

Posted in Air France, family, Identification, Paris, Samwich, transgender, travel at 2:48 pm by Michael

One of the things that we have come to learn from traveling in general, but traveling with kids specifically is that direct flights are your friend. Sometimes you pay a little more, but its absolutely worth it.

Air France just started direct service from Seattle to Paris last year, so we decided that Paris would be a great destination for us.

This would also be our first “post transition” trip, and we are doing this with just Samwich, as Peri and John are with their mom this week.

We both had a little trepidation around if this would be harder than a domestic trip with the TSA, airlines, and also walking around in a new city.

Fundamentally, all of those concerns have been non-issues to date. So far, if anything, Paris has been even easier than other places we have gone.

First off, with Air France – you aren’t allowed to checkin electronically if you are going with a child under two – either on lap, or in a seat. So we had to check in at the counter. We all have passports (obviously), but I was wondering if the ticket agent would ask who Samwich’s dad was, and if he had consented to the trip. (We’ve had this question before when going both domestic and international with Peri and John.) We checked in, no questions.

On to TSA – three passports, three tickets, no problems.

When we went to Italy last year with all three kids (Samwich was five months then), we went with SAS through Copenhagen then to Rome. SAS is a very kid friendly airline. Rome as an airport (and their infrastructure in general) isn’t great – the baggage handlers had a work “slowdown” and intentionally didn’t give us one out of four of our total bags – we had to wait two days. But, the airline – top rate – best kid experience ever. I was curious to see how Air France did.

Like most airlines, they do early board for families with kids, and we did that. We have this super cool “convertible” stroller/car seat for Samwich that does this Transformers deal that allows it to go from stroller to car seat and back. It’s called a “Sit N Stroll” (I couldn’t find an active link for it right now… odd). Its FAA approved, we’ve used it a ton. The coolest thing is that (on some planes) you can stroll it right down the aisle (it fits in general), and then “convert” it at your seat. It is a little hard to convert it w/the kid strapped in, but my arms are long enough to do it. Anh has a harder time w/it – it’s not a strength thing – it’s a leverage and reach thing. Anyway, we get to the seat (I had to convert it early because the aisle was too narrow), and we have bulkhead seats – three in the middle (of four – it’s a 2/4/2 configuration – an Airbus A330-200), but in the bulkhead the armrests are permanently down (to allow for video screens to come out of the armrests), and the seat is too narrow for the car seat. Dammit! Turns out that we tried it the row back, and it was ok – there was just enough space to get it in.  There were two flight attendants (female) in the cabin right there, and they were super helpful. We ended up swapping seats w/some folks three rows back, and it worked out just fine. The flight was uneventful, and they even had baby food (apple sauce and some other veggie/chicken thing) that usually Samwich won’t touch, but he did eat the apple sauce and was great. I’ve never seen an airline automatically carry jar baby food before. Super impressive. They also gave away little toys to the kids (age appropriate), but didn’t give out infant life vests, which SAS and Northwest both do. I kind of think this is no biggie, as quite honestly, when was the last time that *anyone* was saved by an airline life vest, or there was a survivable ditching of an airliner in the ocean – the 50’s?

Getting Samwich up at 2:30am the night before helped him to time-adjust, and he slept for half the trip. We got in at just about 9am (left at 2pm Seattle time – 9 hour flight, 9 hour time difference), and on to the next test – customs.

Again, a total non-issue (remember, my passport says “Megan Jenna Wallent”, but has an M for gender). The customs agent, who spoke English (thank you!), even greeted and said goodbye to us using the plural feminine French term (Mesdames).

We had a car service arranged, that worked flawlessly too, and we got to the hotel, even with customs, checking bags, and a thirty minute drive by 10:30am. Not bad!

February 15, 2008

On to Paris

Posted in Identification, transgender, travel at 5:56 am by Michael

Paris!

Later today, Anh, Samwich and I are going to Paris for the week.

Our plan, which is not as much of a plan as a non-plan is to “hang out”. Walk around, eat, go to museums, etc. Take pictures of Samwich in front of all they key landmarks. Maybe he needs a beret?

We are all super excited for this, and this was one of our things to look forward through as we got through my transition. This is our first international trip since, and I’m honestly fascinated to see how it goes.

This will be Samwich’s second international trip – we did go to Italy last summer for our big vacation – but with Peri and John as well… that was incredibly interesting and fun, but he was barely beyond the protoplasm phase at that point (5 months) – he ate some local food, but that was about it. This should be different with him now, as he’s a mini-gourmand, and he’s walking.

I did get my new permanent “Megan Jenna Wallent – F” license in the mail on my birthday, as well as my new Amex card with my name on it.

I had applied for a new passport back in mid-December, paid the expedited fee, and got it in less than two weeks, which was awesome. However, due to State Department rules about gender specification on passports, I’m still “M” on that.

I expect security at SeaTac to be the same as the other times that we’ve traveled – no biggie.

However, what will the passport control be like in France?

Will I get “read” more or less there?

Will we be treated differently on the street, in restaurants, in shops?

We are planning on going to some pretty high-end restaurants with a local while we are there (sister of a local friend is a Parisienne – SCORE!) – what will that be like?

My expectation: no biggie – same as here.

Smile and Wave, Paris edition….

February 8, 2008

JetBlue Rocks!

Posted in travel at 11:04 pm by Michael

I was on the JetBlue flight again from Boston to Seattle. These guys are by far my favorite domestic airline (SAS is super cool internationally – and is really nice w/kids…). I love having the pilot come out and talk to the passengers from the front of the cabin, and the flight attendants, especially on my flight tonight, are just awesome.

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