It has been months since our halls boomed with the incantations of witches, but the late arrival of a post on the subject is fitting because Jason and I were slower eradicating Halloween this year than ever before. Usually, our crows and maggots are stored away prior to Christmas, but it’s February, and they were only just barely caged. Yes, this year, much more than others, our party experienced some lags.
This year, Jason and I dressed as Victorian circus performers. I was Marvelous Mabel, Tightrope Walker Extraordinaire, and Jason was Leopold Leotard the Great.
Knowing we would be in Europe for half of October, Jason and I wisely started our party preparations extra early. Then, in a momentarily lapse into idiocy, we decided to transform our basement into a wizarding world, a process that required new props and the imaginative rethinking of space. Why this year of all years? Floating candles don’t just float themselves into existence. (Do I need to roll for a sanity check?) Thankfully, we had some transformation help. Over the years, decorating for our event has almost become an event in of itself. On an evening or Saturday afternoon, friends gather and catch up over pizza and creepy scene setters. The conversations are lively, and the assistance is enlivening. This year, Adam even popped in from Washington to put up a few cobwebs; bedecking our spooky halls is that thrilling. Thanks Lee, Drew, Simone, Jacob, Rowley, Adam, and Keith for lending us some of your mystical brainpower and pushpin skills!
Constructing floating candles out of toilet-paper, paper-towel, and wrapping-paper tubes sounds like a short task- it wasn’t.
Jason and I attempted to recreate Hogwarts’ charmed ceiling by painting a long strip of gossamer.
Beyond the hefty task of decorating, fashioning the favors for our party always represent a different type of challenge. Trying to guess the correct combination of adult, teenager, and kid gifts needed is difficult. So, this year, Jason and I opted to give our guests plenty of options from which to pick what they favored, with some appealing to multiple age groups. We assembled 36 kid bags, 12 wizard wands, 24 gothic toiletries, and 20 tween grabs.
The adult favors this year were gothic toiletries from The Bubbling Cauldron, which I dressed up in black.
It was Jason’s brilliant idea to tie the tween bags with rope nooses.
Jason and I arrived home from Europe only days before our get-together. We had pretty severe jet lag the night of our party, so we almost nodded off while tallying the costume contest votes. It’s kind of comical having 85 guests in your house while you can barely stay awake.
We created a selfie spot for Azkaban’s most wanted.
Professional photos are available at our event, so attendees can capture their magnificent costumes.
Not everything was more complicated this year though. Dinky Donuts took some of the common headaches out of catering for us. Their desserts were hot, fresh, and yummy. Better yet, this food truck arrived on time and was ready to handle orders precisely when anticipated. Yeah! That’s a first for our food-truck luck.
The Bingo table is always packed with players.
The preferred craft this year was customizable Harry-Potter-themed potion necklaces- a Rachel original.
Cleaning up the piles of cups and sticky crumbs after our shindig also went much quicker than normal thanks to some kind helpers. Benson, Rowley, Milo, Drew, and Simone all pitched in. You know you’ve mastered the universe when He-Man vacuums your house for you.
We added shelves to a wall and topped them with all the makings of great magic.
Throwing our annual Halloween party is always exhausting, throwing it while experiencing jet lag was almost laughable. A big thank you to the assistants that graciously lent a hand or wand; you are more enchanting than a Scourgify spell. And a thank you to our friends and family that have made this shindig a fall ritual; it wouldn’t be a 17-year-and-still-running tradition without you.
Provence, a region in the southeastern part of France, was the last stop in our scholastic escapades around Europe and a relaxed, sunny escape from Paris’ congestion and crowds.
L’Occitane is surrounded by the terra of Provence.
The very earth in Provence reflects its cultural divergence from France’s busier areas. There, white limestone cliffs jut out beyond waving hills silvered with olive groves or lined with vineyards. Tradition permeates everything, and even time seems hesitant to spoil the splendor of the tranquility with change.
Aix-en-Provence is known as the City of a Thousand Fountains.
Directly after arriving in Provence, we did a business tour at the cosmetic company L’Occitane. Afterward, we headed into Aix-en-Provence, our base for the area. That evening, we ate dinner at an outdoor cafe in one of the town’s squares. The whole plaza was packed with clusters of hodgepodge tables from different restaurants; it looked like a scene from a movie.
Every one of Aix-en-Provence’s many fountains is unique.
The next day, we visited Chateau Virant, a 320-acre winery and olive farm. During our tour, we entered the chateau’s cellar, which was built in 1632, through tunnels constructed hundreds of years ago. There, oak barrels filled with Dionysus’ harvest waited patiently for their moment of perfection. Pretty cool.
Chateau Virant’s cellar fit my imaginings perfectly.
Aix-en-Provence’s town hall dates back to the 14th century.
In the afternoon, we went on a walking tour of Aix-en-Provence and touched the same stones that built Rome 2,000 years ago. Later, we sampled calissons, the local version of marzipan, and walked 50 minutes to buy a community of santons, Provence’s unique hand-painted terracotta nativity figurines. We ate dinner at a restaurant called La Bouchee. In its small space, we felt like flies on a French wall as the only non-French patrons. We sat in a corner taking in the genial interactions between couples and groups of friends while enjoying our yummy cheese ravioli and its truffle cream sauce. It was Jason’s favorite meal of our entire trip.
The Mediterranean Sea looked like a frothy sapphire.
On our last day in France, we spent the morning strolling Aix-en-Provence’s famous Saturday market. There, we bought citrus fruits and scarfs while appreciating the general bazaar ambiance. We encountered bent old men with canes taking home huge bouquets of flowers, a weekly ritual probably performed most of their lives.
In Cassis, brightly-colored boats bobbed just beyond colorful cafes.
In the afternoon, we went to Cassis, a petite town situated picturesquely on the Mediterranean Sea. The coral, lemon, and apricot-colored cafes and shops were charming. We savored a lunch of seafood and pasta at one of these restaurants while the Mediterranean sunshine curled around us like a sleepy cat. We walked along the breezy waterfront and took a boat ride through the crevices of the coastline before heading back to Aix-en-Provence. Our flight for home departed the next morning.
The Calanques, slender inlets bounded by jagged limestone cliffs, are fascinating fingers.
Before closing this traveling trilogy, allow me to pass along two more of our French discoveries: 1. All French beaches are nude beaches whether they indicate so or not. While nothing official labeled the small beach in Cassis as “nude,” that didn’t stop the beachgoers from removing their clothing as convenience dictated. As we walked by, we saw a man pull off his swim shorts and several topless women taking an invigorating stroll together. There were kids playing soccer on this same beach, so, obviously, nudity is considered family friendly in France. Expect accordingly. 2. Despite claims to the contrary, not all of the pastries in France are amazing. Yes, you can find many fantastic bakery delicacies in France, but don’t just pop anything in your mouth expecting it to be worth the calories. Choose selectively.
Cassis felt airy and welcoming.
This busy trip came with a significant amount of cultural revelations, including some discoveries about our own culture. With nearly 40 students in our group, cliques formed over the course of our trip where few preexisted. It was interesting and disturbing to see them develop over just two weeks. Jason and I purposefully avoided being cliquey and invited everyone to come sightseeing with us without exclusions. Come on people, cliques weren’t even cool back in high school. Haven’t we moved past that asinine elitism as adults?
Jason insisted I include this selfie, despite my drool strings.
We came back from Europe depleted within days of our Halloween party, a topic I will address next week without further delay.
Paris is a city of contradictions, as its picturesque boulevards streaked with urine puddles attest. Our experience there was one of contradictions also; it validated some French stereotypes for us and disproved others.
Like a life-giving artery, the Seine River flows through the heart of Paris.
We got right to sightseeing when we reached Paris. Our tour bus took a circuitous route to our hotel, so we could promptly begin our oohing and aahing. We ate lunch at Galeries Lafayette, the oldest department store in Paris and the fanciest retail space I’ve ever seen. (Even the ones in NYC can’t compete.) We circled the Palais Garnier, the famous opera house that’s the setting for The Phantom of the Opera, and stopped to gawk at the Eiffel Tower.
“Love locks” have been a problem in Paris since an Italian novel for young adults popularized them a decade ago. On one bridge, 700,000 locks, the weight of 20 elephants, had to be removed when the fencing began to collapse. That’s not love.
After checking into our hotel, most of our group took the metro back into the center of Paris. There, we walked by the Hotel de Ville, witnessed the glow of Notre-Dame, ate crepes at a cafe in Notre-Dame’s shadow, meandered along the Seine River by Parisians picnicking in the dark, and passed by the Louvre’s unconventional pyramid. It would have been a tremendously-romantic stroll if it weren’t for the 18 students accompanying Jason and me.
Versailles’ most famous water feature, Apollo’s Fountain, was made of gilded lead in 1670.
We spent the majority of the next day completing business visits, but no need to feel bad for us; these weren’t with common corporations. At BNP Paribas, we saw where Napoleon and Josephine got married. We toured the American Embassy at the Hotel de Talleyrand, gilded halls that once welcomed emperors and kings. In between, we ate French onion soup and crème brulee at the first restaurant in Paris, Le Procope, with representatives of another company. This eating establishment used to be frequented by Ben Franklin and is now home to Napoleon’s hat.
The fountains at Versailles still use centuries-old plumbing.
During our free evening, we took a boat ride on the Seine River and saw the Eiffel Tower twinkle like a 1000-foot sparkler. Afterward, we got sociable with some of Paris’ most enduring citizens. The bushes along the river were literally crawling with rats that fine night. On the positive side, they were cuter than New York City subway rats.
The rats in Paris are nearly as common as the croissants.
The following day, we spent the morning and afternoon at Versailles, the largest palace in Europe. Most of the main building was packed with Asian tourists. The opalescence was impressive, but the crowds were oppressive. The nearly-2,000-acre gardens were far less peopled. These grounds, monuments to man’s mastery over nature, seemed boundless. We walked through them for two hours and only saw some highlights. If you go to Paris, don’t miss Versailles’ gardens.
Climbing the Eiffel Tower is just something you have to do when in Paris.
The Eiffel Tower is something you have to do in Paris whether you really want to or not. That evening, we crossed that “must” off our you-have-no-choice-but-to-do-this bucket list. Going up the Eiffel Tower involves a series of lines. The whole process of waiting in one line after another took us a few hours. The views were pretty cool though… and you HAVE to do it. Afterward, we ate dinner down the street at Café Gustave. There, one of the members of our group got her first “French” kiss from our frisky waiter, much to the amusement of the rest of us. He was relentless in his pursuits, despite her lack of enthusiasm. I laughed so hard I hit my head on our table. I guess that French stereotype has some truth to it.
We planned appropriately to see the sun disappear in an orange haze from the Eiffel Tower.
Our last day in Paris, Jason and I got up early to reach the Louvre before things got too crazy there- they were still crazy. We did the “Welcome to the Louvre” tour that covers many of the museum’s most popular pieces like the Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, and Mona Lisa. The tour was a good intro, but the museum was so busy that we could hardly see some of the masterpieces discussed. The Mona Lisa, a small painting, was the most disappointing. We couldn’t even get within about 20 feet of it due to the crowds. Also, there were way too many aggressive Asian tourists in the Louvre. Jason got pushed, elbowed, and shoved by them for no reason. (The old ladies were particularly belligerent.) So, while the building is beautiful, and the collections are overwhelmingly magnificent, the Louvre isn’t my favorite museum. I prefer Eugène Delacroix without an elbow. In contrast, at the MOMA in New York City, you can get close to such works as The Starry Night without having to put someone in a half nelson.
The creatures of Notre-Dame have been watching over Paris’ boulevards for hundreds of years.
After that artsy insanity, we took sanctuary amongst the grotesque chimeras and gargoyles of Notre-Dame. Notre-Dame was enchanting, and we preferred its views to those provided by the Eiffel Tower.
Jason’s back seemed abnormally hunched during much of our Notre-Dame visit.
Following our Notre-Dame refresher, we gave the Louvre another try. It happened to be one of its open-late days. We had heard these evenings were the best time to visit the museum as most tourists are unaware that its hours are occasionally extended. Those claims were correct. We had a much better experience without the distracting and discourteous throngs.
The views from Notre-Dame’s balcony rivaled the Eiffel Tower’s.
So, which rumors about the French and Paris are true and which aren’t? True Facts: 1. Paris smells like urine. 2. The French have a pride in their heritage that borders on elitism. 3. Ratatouille is real. 4. The French are casually affectionate in ways that some Americans might find inappropriate. Untrue Myths: 1. The French are rude. We found the opposite. A random lady on the metro saw our confused faces and came to our aid unsolicited, speaking in English, when we couldn’t figure out which platform to get on. 2. The French won’t even try to communicate with you if you don’t speak French. Plenty of Parisians were happy to converse with us in English. 3. The Eiffel Tower is the best part of Paris. No, visit it if you must, but Notre-Dame and Versailles are more impressive.
The magnitude of the masterpieces at the Louvre was completely overwhelming.
Next week, I will discuss Provence, a quaint region that has been a tourist destination for two thousand years, dating back to its days as a Roman spa retreat.
Jason and I traveled to Europe with 35 other master’s students back in October. Over 11 days, we visited Amsterdam, Paris, and Provence. This was a packed and productive trip filled with both sights and school work. We came home exhausted and jet lagged just in time to do the final preparations for our Halloween party. But that’s a story for another time; here’s the story for this time.
At the Aalsmeer flower market, trains and carts of flowers zoom around the world’s fourth-largest building with a nerve-racking rapidity.
As Amsterdam was the first stop of our travels, we took a direct flight to that city. This plane ride wasn’t too awful, but why is it that the snoring guy sleeps just fine for half the flight while everyone else only manages to doze for an hour or so?
Rembrandt’s house has been superbly restored.
Upon arriving in Amsterdam, we wandered the streets a bit and succeeded in staying up until 8:00 PM, after being awake for almost 30 hours. With a little ZzzQuil, Jason and I were able to sleep reasonably well until 5:00 AM the next morning when we had to rise for a business visit. Since this trip was part of my master’s program, seven business visits were scheduled throughout it to help students understand the cultural nuances of the region. We toured two businesses that morning while experiencing a hefty helping of jet lag, including the largest flower market in the world at Aalsmeer. There, in the fourth-largest building in the world, 20 million flowers are traded and shipped worldwide every day. The pace of it was remarkable and dizzying, especially to those suffering from a circadian desynchronization.
The Grote Kerk has dwarfed Haarlem’s market square since 1550.
The Grote Kerk’s showy organ has attracted many famous musicians over the centuries, like Handel and Mozart.
Since Jason and I visited Amsterdam just a year ago, we didn’t feel a need to see the “main attractions” with the rest of the group. Instead, we went out on our own in the afternoon and visited the St. Nicholas Basilica, Nieuwe Kerk, and Rembrandt House Museum. The “We Have a Dream” exhibit at the Nieuwe Kerk on Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela was interesting, and I loved walking up the coiling steps Rembrandt once wandered. After that long day, we slowed down for dinner at a yummy Indian restaurant. (Yes, Dutch Indian food is surprisingly excellent.)
Zaanse Schans is an idyllically-preserved piece of Dutch countryside.
On our final day in the Netherlands, the whole group went to Haarlem, Zaanse Schans, and Volendam. Haarlem’s famous church, with its prestigious organ that once attracted talented musicians like Mozart, was magnificent. Haarlem was also holding its weekly town-square market that day, the same market it has held since the Middle Ages. I felt pleasantly foreign as I watched locals buy their fresh produce, breads, and fashions from little tents in that cobblestoned plaza. Zaanse Schans was much the same as the last time we visited it a year ago. However, the sails of The Cat windmill were moving at an even brisker pace and grounding chalk with a playful enthusiasm. We had just enough time in Volendam to visit the Volendams Museum and eat frites on the quaint shores of the IJsselmeer.
The IJsselmeer, the freshwater lake bordering Volendam, was created by the industrious Dutch from an inland bay decades ago.
The next day, we were on a high-speed train to Paris. In my next post, I will discuss the urine-streaked grandeur of the most romantic city in the world.
Our vintage dancing group was asked to provide the historical background for a Studio C skit last summer as extras decked out in our own handmade Regency robes. This skit, “One Last Dance,” aired in November. Being involved in a production like this was an interesting experience- both in good and bad ways. We learned a few things about the film industry; the adjective “ridiculous” applies to many of those discoveries:
Like most members of our dance group, I did my own hair for the shoot. I still got some time in the make-up chair though.
- The film industry takes hierarchies to ridiculous heights. The chain of command is long and inflexible. During our filming, the director would pass his instructions onto the assistant director. The assistant director would belt them out to the group. A background director was the only one that spoke to us, the lowly extras, directly. Even the meals were hierarchical. We weren’t allowed to eat lunch with the rest of the crew even though they had plenty Mediterranean fare to spare. Instead, we got to munch cold pizza by ourselves in another building. Maybe that’s normal for the film industry, but it felt pretty ridiculous to us.
- Filming is hot. Literally, hot. Cast and crew members are crammed together while bright lights blast them. It’s not overly comfortable.
- Filming gets foggy. Fog machines spewed out haze endlessly during our shoot. This was to give the setting a dreamy effect, or so we were told. It made me feel like I was in a gambling hall rather than a dancing hall.
- Filming takes a lot of people, most of which are never on camera. Our set was packed with crew doing all sorts of things with ladders, cords, lighting, cameras, wardrobes, and makeup. Plus, a whole lot of people sat around watching screens the whole time. To be honest, I have no idea what they were all watching for.
- It takes a ridiculous amount of time to shoot scenes over and over from every possible angle. The filming of this 2:55 skit took over 13 hours. Every second of material required almost five minutes of production time. Wow! That seems pretty inefficient to me, but compared to industry norms, maybe it’s amazingly productive.
Cords and crew littered the set.
The main cast members were brought water and lip gloss every few minutes.
Although this was a fascinating educational experience, I don’t think Jason and I would be too eager to stand around fanning ourselves in a stuffy, smoke-filled room for hours and hours again. This may have been our first and last dance with Studio C.
This was the only time the main director talked to us extras.
If you’d like to see how expertly we portray ball attendees from the Regency period that believe the alphabet is the most exquisite conversation topic imaginable, I’ve included a link to the correct Studio C episode. Our skit starts about 12 minutes in. You may notice that I wondrously appear on both sides of the room at the same time; that miraculous maneuver meant I didn’t get a break like almost everyone else did.