France: Paris Landmarks – Religion, Risqué, and Really Yummy Hot Chocolate

I love movies. Who doesn’t? And many of my favorite movies take place in Paris, one of the most romantic and photogenic cities in the world.

To prepare myself for Paris, I watched The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Moulin Rouge, two of my favorite movies of all time, knowing that I would try to visit the locations featured in each respective movie. I didn’t go into either one (for very different reasons), but I did manage to photograph each one to prove that I had at least been there.

Notre-Dame from the side.

Notre-Dame from the side.

I had a hard time not singing songs from the movie the entire time I was there.

I had a hard time not singing songs from the movie the entire time I was there.

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Same story at the Moulin Rouge.

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Another highlight of Paris’s film scene is the hot chocolate bar/teahouse called Angelina. Though it has never been the subject or location for a movie, it has been frequented by the likes of Audrey Hepburn, which put it on the glamor map.

The entrance to Angelina.

The entrance to Angelina.

The place was absolutely adorable, though the tea room was a little run-down and in need of some new paint. It had a gift shop in front with the tea room behind it, which was where my friends and I headed for a mid-morning treat. We ordered two pitchers of the signature hot chocolate as well as some pastries, and we were far from disappointed. The hot chocolate was incredibly thick and rich, almost as if they had simply melted down chocolate cooking squares and poured it straight into a pitcher for us to drink. We couldn’t finish all of it, but I wish I could have brought some home with me or posted a taste of it to this blog so you could experience it for yourselves.

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France: Paris Landmarks – Museums

I have never been a good patron of art museums. I think it’s because there is often such a huge amount of art to see in any given museum that I instantly become overwhelmed and can’t handle it. This dates back to a family trip to Italy, when my dad dragged us to so many art museums that my brother and I (ages 10 and 12 at the time, respectively) decided that our Gameboys were far more interesting. To this day, whenever I see a Renaissance painting I have an overwhelming urge to play Pokemon Yellow.

That said, I knew I would have to set foot in at least one art museum in Paris. It’s practically a requirement. For the casual art observer, which is even a stretch of a title for me, there were basically two options: the Louvre, which holds mostly the Italian Renaissance art that I so sarcastically adore, and the Musée d’Orsay, which contains Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist works. Being far more interested in the latter, I chose the Musée d’Orsay for an actual viewing experience.

The Musée d'Orsay.

The Musée d’Orsay.

Obviously, I wasn’t allowed to take any photos of the art, but I found it an overall pleasant experience. The museum is located in a former train station, which automatically gives it a certain coolness factor. Plus I actually enjoyed looking at the art, at least until my feet started to ache in my cute-but-not-conducive-to-walking flats and I started getting sleepy.

I think what attracts me to Impressionist art and other similar styles are the brightness of the color palette, the use of light, and the variety of subject matter. It’s much more cheerful to look at than Renaissance art, and each individual painting tells a completely different story. Sorry Italians, but there are only so many versions I can handle of Mary and the baby Jesus.

Anyway, after exploring the Orsay for a couple of hours, I crossed the Seine to hit the other major museum landmark: the Louvre pyramid.

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The Louvre is far more photogenic than the Musée d’Orsay, and obviously a much more famous sight as well. As I had no interest in seeing the artwork inside (except the Mona Lisa, and I didn’t feel the need to pay for a whole admission ticket just for that), I came simply to take some photos of the pyramid, and indeed I got what I came for.

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I even got to sit down for a few minutes and stick my sore feet in the fountain. La vie Parisienne est bonne!

France: Paris Opera House

From the day I found out I was going on this trip, I was determined to go to the Palais Garnier, also known as the Paris Opera House. You know, the one haunted by the Phantom of the Opera? Ohhhh, that Paris Opera House. Turns out there actually is a need to make a distinction, as the actual Opéra National de Paris performs at the Bastille, not the Palais Garnier. The latter mostly hosts ballet performances now, but it is the historical home of the opera, as well as the fictional home of the poor misunderstood Phantom.

Sadly, it didn’t work out that I was able to see a performance (either opera or ballet) at the Palais Garnier, but I was able to spend a few hours touring the building and envisioning myself as an operagoer in the nineteenth century, complete with elegant evening gown on the sweeping staircase. Ooh la la! I’ll let the photos do (most of) the rest of the talking.

We came out of the Métro station and... there it was!

We came out of the Métro station and… there it was!

Ceiling and chandeliers in the main foyer.

Ceiling and chandeliers in the main foyer.

The grand staircase. Glad I at least wore a long skirt so I could pretend it was a gown!

The grand staircase. Glad I at least wore a long skirt so I could pretend it was a gown!

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The artwork on the ceiling in the main foyer was all made up of scenes from various operas and ballets.

The artwork on the ceiling in the main foyer was all made up of scenes from various operas and ballets.

Box Five, the Phantom of the Opera's box.

Box Five, the Phantom of the Opera’s box.

Balconies all around the main foyer.

Balconies all around the main foyer.

Chandelier in the Refreshment Room.

Chandelier in the Refreshment Room.

The Refreshment Room, where operagoers could enjoy food and drink before, during, and after a performance.

The Refreshment Room, where operagoers could enjoy food and drink before, during, and after a performance.

The Grand Ballroom, or Great Foyer, or something like that. I call it the Gold Room, for obvious reasons.

The Grand Ballroom, or Great Foyer, or something like that. I call it the Gold Room, for obvious reasons.

It's hard not to feel like a princess in that room.

It’s hard not to feel like a princess in that room.

Aïda's wedding dress.

Aïda’s wedding dress.

A costume made especially for and worn by Luciano Pavarotti.

A costume made especially for and worn by Luciano Pavarotti.

Armor of the gods in Wagner's Ring Cycle.

Armor of the gods in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

France: Champagne Tasting in Reims

When I first saw the itinerary for our trip and noticed that we had a full free day in Reims, I thought, “Really? Why couldn’t we have an extra free day in London or Paris? What is there to do in Reims?” Now, having never been to France, my inner voice clearly could not be trusted to know anything about what there was to do in Reims, and she turned out to be, not surprisingly, very wrong.

Nothing to do in Reims? Hardly.

First, there was the cathedral, Notre-Dame de Reims. Yes, another Notre-Dame. They all look the same on the outside.

They don't all have scaffolding on them though.

They don’t all have scaffolding on them though.

To be honest, I wasn’t super excited about the cathedral. After falling in mini-love with the Église Saint-André the previous night, Notre-Dame de Reims seemed huge, cold, dark, and impersonal. There are only so many Gothic cathedrals you can check out before they all start to look the same. One interesting feature, however, was this triptych of stained glass windows by Marc Chagall.

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After the cathedral, there was the shopping. Really, any town worth visiting in France will have stellar shopping, but this was where my friends and I really had fun. I bought a denim jacket (yes, I’m fashionable now), two pairs of colored shorts, two v-neck t-shirts, a long faux pearl necklace, and a pair of white leggings. Nothing outrageous, but all the same it was fun to be able to come home with clothes from France.

And then… there was the champagne.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Reims is one of the capitals of champagne country, in fact the Champagne province. Add to that the fact that this was a college choir trip, and you can bet that champagne tasting was high on the list of activities for our free day.

Marianne, our courier, recommended Taittinger, so that’s where we all went first.

Friends approaching the Taittinger visitor center.

Friends approaching the Taittinger visitor center.

Gorgeous bottles on display in the lobby of the visitor center.

Gorgeous bottles on display in the lobby of the visitor center.

The price of each ticket included a tasting as well as a tour of the “caves,” or the underground cellars where the champagne was made… literally, they were caves dug out of the chalk under the ground. We descended a tight spiral staircase and ended up about twelve meters, or almost forty feet, below street level. It was dark and cold down there, perfect conditions for letting the wine age.

Champagne bottles lying on their sides during the aging process.

Champagne bottles lying on their sides during the aging process.

Bottles of various sizes. For reference, the second bottle from the right is a normal-sized bottle of champagne.

Bottles of various sizes. For reference, the second bottle from the right is a normal-sized bottle of champagne.

I wish I had been able to take notes or something on the process, because it was actually really interesting. The history of Taittinger was fascinating as well… the site the winery is on now used to be a monastery, and the monks were the ones who dug out the chalk caves and made the wine. During the world wars, production was temporarily halted while the caves were used as massive bomb shelters, but they have since been restored to their former purpose (and aren’t we all glad for that). In honor of it having been a monastery, those of us from our group who were all on the tour together sang an impromptu performance of one of our Latin motets down in the deepest cave.

Of course, we had to come back up to the surface eventually to do what we had all come for: the tasting.

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Our group.

Members of our group.

Our director and me.

Our director and me.

After Taittinger, we headed to Pommery, another winery (champagnery?) nearby.

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In conclusion, any visit to Reims = champagne tasting. Please, for your sake, don’t miss it.

France: Église Saint-André, Reims

After our… interesting… stay in Amiens, we loaded the bus once more and headed to Reims, a slightly larger town in the heart of (drumroll please) champagne country! France’s Champagne province is the only area in the world that is legally allowed to call their sparkling wine “champagne,” though it has become a generic term across the world, much like “Kleenex” or “Band-Aid.” Regardless of what it’s called where, this girl is a huge lover of champagne, so I was determined to do some tasting in Reims, along with most of my colleagues.

First, though, we had a concert. Business before pleasure, right?

We checked into our hotel, which was rather inconveniently located outside the city center, but very conveniently across the highway from a McDonald’s and a place called “Flunch,” which apparently was short for “fast lunch.” Flunch, which was somewhat cafeteria-style, turned out to be fantastic. You could grab sides, desserts, drinks, and a la carte items, then order your main course and pay at the cash register. Then, if you ordered a burger like I did, you took your order ticket over to the grill and waited for your food. It was all unsuspectingly delicious, including the chocolate mousse I had for dessert. I wish I had taken a picture of the place.

After Flunch, we headed into town for our rehearsal, dinner, and concert. The venue was a church called Église Saint-André, and compared to Notre-Dame d’Amiens, it felt very intimate.

The steeple of Église Saint-André, Reims.

The steeple of Église Saint-André, Reims.

Those pock marks all over the façade are bullet holes. World War I and II history is everywhere in this area.

Those pock marks all over the façade are bullet holes. World War I and II history is everywhere in this area.

Upon entering the church for rehearsal, the French gentleman who let us into the building gave us a short, informative history of the church. Compared to some of the churches and other landmarks we had already seen, Église Saint-André was relatively young. It was built in the mid- to late 1800s, and as you saw in the above photo, it was badly damaged during World War I. In fact, only one of the original stained glass windows remains. I wish I had taken a picture of it to show the difference between it and the rest of them, which were installed after they were bombed out during the war.

One of the new windows. The one remaining original window is composed of much lighter pastel colors and more delicate designs.

One of the new windows. The one remaining original window is composed of much lighter pastel colors and more delicate designs.

Looking to the back of the church and the rose window.

Looking to the back of the church and the rose window. Again, very modern design and colors.

I felt a strange sense of connection and warmth inside this particular church. It may have been that my subconscious noticed the lack of tons of Catholic icons inside… not that I have any issue with Catholic churches, it’s just not what I’m used to or familiar with in a church. It may have been the natural light that streamed in multicolored through the stained glass windows. It may have been the smaller size that instantly made it feel more friendly, welcoming, and personal. Whatever the reason, this particular church touched me as I sat down during the other choir’s rehearsal and could vividly imagine the war damage being done just barely 100 years ago. When you travel to Europe, you see tons of Renaissance art and buildings that were constructed in the twelfth century, but it’s much easier to connect to history that happened within the lifetime of some people you know (okay, maybe not World War I, but definitely WWII). It’s a perspective I never really considered on my previous Europe trips, but one that adds a whole new later to my appreciation for and love of Europe.

Of all the concerts we performed on this trip, I felt that this one was the cleanest. Because the church was on the smaller side as European cathedrals go, the sound didn’t get sucked up into the high ceiling, but actually reverberated and came back to us. Personally, I was able to hear much better, and because it wasn’t freezing like the night before in Amiens, I was able to focus much better as well… perhaps surprisingly, because we had eaten dinner before the concert and it didn’t even start until 8:30 PM. Again, though, the audience loved us and we received a standing ovation.

That night we were all sort of confined to the hotel, as we were twenty minutes outside the city center and there was nothing to do in the immediate area. I sat down to a glass of champagne on the patio with our director, the other choir’s director, and a couple of friends, which turned into a giant party with most of our group showing up at one point or another. Drinks abounded from the hotel bar, and some brave souls even crossed the highway to pick up large amounts of chicken nuggets from McDonald’s. We were even joined by a cat that was clearly a frequent hotel patron, as he made himself quite comfortable in the arms and laps of a few different people. A good night was had by all, especially him.

France: Amiens

I wish I had more to say about the little town of Amiens. However, a) we were there for less than 24 hours, b) those hours spanned Sunday afternoon to Monday morning, and c) those exact hours are considered the weekend in Amiens and all the businesses are therefore closed. All that to say that this should be a fairly short post.

Anyone who has been to both England and France on the same trip knows that in order to get from the British Isles to mainland Europe, you have to cross the English Channel. With the building of the Channel Tunnel, or Chunnel, in the late 20th century, this is now a fairly easy journey. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly pleasant experience, at least when you’re on a bus. Our driver drove the bus straight into a train compartment that was barely bigger than the bus itself, with no windows and a walkway on either side of the bus that was just wide enough for one person. Not to mention it got really hot and stuffy really quickly since the driver had to turn off the bus and thus the airflow, and both the train and the bus were rocking at different rates. I don’t suffer from either claustrophobia or motion sickness, but after the 25-minute ride, even I was feeling less than stellar. If you have to make that trip, I strongly recommend taking the passenger train instead, as I imagine it’s much more tolerable.

When we emerged onto the highway, we found ourselves in the countryside in northern France. Marianne came on the microphone and explained to us that much of both World Wars I and II had been fought in this very area. We passed through Flanders, which is the subject of a significant amount of World War I-era poetry, and as I watched the green fields roll by, it was hard to imagine that the pristine landscape had once been torn up by trenches and littered with the casualties of war.

Flanders fields.

Flanders fields.

After stopping for lunch at one of France’s fancy rest stops and successfully ordering “un baguette de jambon et fromage” from the deli, we continued on to Amiens. Upon arriving, it was a quick turnaround from checking into our hotel to changing into our concert clothes to walking across the street to Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens. Every city in France boasts a Notre-Dame cathedral, it seems, and this particular one was incredibly impressive. In fact, according to my colleagues who had been to Paris before, the famous cathedral there was nothing compared to the Amiens cathedral of the same name.

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Of all the concerts we performed on the trip, this one felt the least tight to me. I found it difficult to hear anyone but myself, and I think this was because the ceiling was so high that instead of sending the sound back to us, it simply sucked everything upwards. It was also freezing in the giant stone building. Nevertheless, it was a successful first concert in France, and the audience loved it and requested an encore.

From there we changed clothes and headed out to dinner. Remember how I said all the businesses were closed for the weekend? I believe the restaurant we went to had opened just for us, and they didn’t seem particularly thrilled to have us. In the end we weren’t particularly thrilled to be there either, since the pre-ordered meal was some sort of sausage that proved to be completely inedible. Some people even got sick to varying degrees after cutting into it and discovering unspeakable things.

Needless to say, none of us were too upset to be leaving Amiens less than 24 hours after arriving.

England: Evensong and the “New Kensington Singers”

Being on a choir trip to England, it’s hard to ignore the historical choral tradition in the UK. Almost every cathedral in England boasts its own resident choir, usually made up of young boys all the way up through older gentlemen. Sadly, the tradition does not include girls or women, but it’s easy to get over that because the sound of a British choir, particularly the boy sopranos, is breathtaking.

Several of my colleagues and I were fortunate enough to attend an Evensong service at none other than Westminster Abbey. An Evensong service is a church service where almost all of the scriptures and even some of the liturgies are sung by the choir and/or the congregation, and there is no sermon. They are held in the evening (hence “even” song),  and this particular one was on our last evening in London. It was clearly a popular service because we had to line up almost an hour in advance, but it paid off because we got to sit in the choir stalls on either side of the men and boys of the choir. For reference, if you watched the royal wedding a couple of years ago, the choir stalls are at the altar end of the main aisle, so we would have had a prime view of Will and Kate.

The main focus of the service was, of course, the choir. I’m always amazed by the homogeneity of sound produced by men and boys of so many different ages, and this one was no less impressive. One thing my colleagues and I agreed on afterwards was that we were sitting so close to the choir, almost literally in their midst, that it was easy to hear the small flaws in balance, diction, timing, etc. that we wouldn’t have noticed had we been sitting in a different section of the cathedral. We would have heard a much more unified choral sound instead of individual voices, though they were all wonderful.

I was also able to take some very sneaky pictures from the choir stalls using the reverse camera on my iPhone.

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On the subject of singing in England, I can’t write about this trip, and this day in particular, without telling you about the truly special evening that followed the Evensong service. After our large group dinners every evening, smaller factions inevitably broke off to go seek out adventures, and this day was no different. It started with my friend Jelly and I deciding to go off on our own to get away from some clashing personalities, and then one or two people decided to join us, wanting to go find the London Disney store. Then a few more people joined, and suddenly there were eight of us walking down Gloucester Road into Hyde Park.

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It was already about 9:00 at night, but the sky was far from dark. Finding ourselves unexpectedly in one of the most beautiful areas of London, we changed our plans and began to frolic. One of the results of this evening was the following panoramic photo, in which every member of our group appears, yet we asked no one to take the picture for us. Magic!

Impressive, no?

Impressive, no?

You may notice the giant palace in the background of the photo. That’s Kensington Palace, which is surrounded by (you guessed it) Kensington Gardens. Naturally, we said, “Let’s go explore!”

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This was the point at which the night became really memorable. As you saw in the last picture, there was a kind of arbor in the garden, and we paused there for a little while. I don’t remember which one of us had the idea, but someone (probably half-jokingly) suggested that we sing something. Between the eight of us, we had all four choral parts covered, so we picked one of our choir songs, took a pitch, and started singing…

And we sang in a circle inside that arbor for an hour.

We sang through several of our tour repertoire, at least the ones we had memorized and knew we could cover the parts on, and then we moved on to rehashing old songs from earlier in the year, improvising harmonies to hymns, and even learning a short barbershop tag. All the while, people walking through the gardens and Hyde Park passed us and complimented us, but I don’t think it meant nearly as much to anyone as it did to the eight of us. It was a completely random group of people who just happened to end up walking through the park together, but we bonded and shared this intimate moment, and we all recognized that that’s ultimately why we do what we do. Music has this magnetic power to bring people together regardless of backgrounds, demographics, nationalities, or really anything else, and that’s why I feel such a need to be a part of it.

Oh, and the title of our little ensemble? Well, at first we dubbed ourselves the Kensington Singers, but upon doing some research we found out that there actually is a group called the Kensington Singers, so we went with “New Kensington Singers.” Turns out we are also the members of the Fellowship of the Ring, but that’s a post for another time…