REVIEW: “To the Wonder”

TO WONDER POSTER

Terrence Malick is a filmmaker that marches to the beat of his own drum. To be honest, that’s one of the things I like the most about him. We say this often but here it unquestionably applies – you know a Terrence Malick movie when you see one. Malick has a distinct style of lyrical and visual storytelling and you either respond to it or you don’t. Personally I love it. Now sometimes his style is more impressive than his finished products, but for the most part Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers. In fact, his last film “The Tree of Life” was my clear favorite film of 2011.

Malick is a director who takes his time and only makes a film when he’s ready. This is evident by the fact that he has only six movies on his directing resume. His latest, surprisingly only two years after “The Tree of Life”, is another exercise in lyrical and contemplative style. It’s one of my most anticipated films of 2013. It’s called “To the Wonder” and for me it’s another soul-stirring gem that throws the textbook on conventional moviemaking out the window. Instead Malick is making another deeply personal film, possibly his most personal movie to date. It’s also his most romantic, most spiritual, and most tragic film all at the same time.

The movie follows a young couple as they navigate the unquenchable joys and the devastating heartbreaks associated with love. We first meet Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in Paris, France. The two are madly in love and Malick expresses it through a rhythmic series of romantic and absorbing scenes in such beautiful Parisian settings such as the Luxembourg Gardens and the banks of the Seine River. There’s also a majestic sequence with the two outside of town at the gorgeous Mont Saint-Michel. Neil and Marina can’t seem to be able to control their affection for the other. There’s a strong focus on touch in these scenes whether it’s holding hands or running a hand across the shoulder blades. The romance between Neil and Marina is sublime and beautiful and I never doubted its authenticity.

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Marina, a Paris native and single mother, decides to move with her daughter to the States in order to be close to Neil. They land in midwestern Oklahoma where Neil works as an environmental safety inspector. The contrast between the energetic and vibrant Paris and their sparse and sometimes empty Oklahoma community almost serves as a metaphor for their relationship. The two who were as passionate as the French city they consumed now battle creeping bouts of emptiness and an emotional wedge that we watch grow and grow. It becomes painfully obvious that their relationship is hurting but neither seems to know what to do.

Then there’s the story of Quintana (Javier Bardem), the local priest in Neil and Marina’s area. Quintana is a troubled man. He has a deep love for the Lord but he feels disconnected. He’s dying to have the intimacy with God that he once had. He visits the sick, the poor, and the needy. He shepherds his flock. Yet there’s still a void in his soul that he desperately wants to fill. But he’s also a lonely man bound by the shackles of the priesthood an its strict rules. Watching Bardem’s solemn face and lonely, tired eyes really drew me to this character. It did surprise me how little he had to do with what seemed like the main focus of the film but Malick shows some moving similarities between his struggles and those of Neil and Marina.

Their stories do begin to connect and we watch as everything plays out. But don’t expect a tight narrative with a fully disclosed ending. Malick is more interested in having us observe and experience than being baby fed an entire story. He wants us to feel, to sympathize, to grow angry, and to meditate. Our time is spent observing and Malick lays his canvas before us. On it he explores inner conflicts, poor and costly decisions, and revived hope. It’s presented through an artistic machine that utilizes everything including the stunning score, the beauty of nature, a graceful camera, and the natural ambiance of the world surrounding his characters.

Affleck and Kurylenko are transcendent. The film features little to no dialogue with the exception of voice-over narrations therefore the two lead actors basically perform off of each other or in scenes alone. Neither ever seem aware of the camera and both get lost in their performances. Affleck was a great surprise. He’s quiet, sincere, and a stout and strong contrast to Kurylenko’s subtle elegance and grace. And speaking of Kurylenko, I think she gives an awards worthy performance. But while the performances are key, a Terrence Malick film is usually made in the editing room. Don’t believe me? Just ask Rachel Weisz and Jessica Chastain. Both shot scenes for the film but all of them ended up on the cutting room floor. Regardless the editing is sensational and the film moves like a page of good music with the exceptions of a few patches of repetition in the second half of the film.

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As with his other movies, Malick uses his visuals to draw us in and also tell the bulk of his story. His sensational command of his camera and his artist’s eye for capturing beautiful shots are essential to his success. His camera is constantly moving and it always seems perfectly positioned. I was absorbed in what I was seeing and his fluid and poetic transitions from shot to shot kept me that way. Even for those who don’t respond to the film as a whole, they’ll be hard pressed to not be fascinated with Malick’s visual artistry.

There will be plenty of people who can’t latch onto “To the Wonder”. It will be perceived as slow, confounding, and lifeless. I couldn’t disagree more. I loved the film and while it’s certainly not as challenging as “The Tree of Life”, it’s still a captivating piece of cinema. It doesn’t answer every question. It doesn’t adhere to a conventional storytelling formula. It asks the audience to think and to feel. If you’re not open to that you’re probably not going to respond well to this film.

In his final review before his unfortunate passing, the late Roger Ebert said this about “To the Wonder” : “(Many will) be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply.” I think he’s right and some early reviews have shown that to be true. But I believe Malick has given us another standout picture that takes a real (sometimes uncomfortably so) look at relationships, faith, and the quest for love in both. Yet it’s all told through an artist’s lens with entrancing metaphoric imagery and a steady grace that could only come from a Terrence Malick film. I know many are going to struggle with this movie but for me it’s the first great film of 2013.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

Visiting the Locations of “Midnight in Paris”

It was only a little over a month ago that my wife and I made our first visit to Paris, France. Obviously this amazing city has tons of history and culture to offer and its sheer beauty, natural vibrancy, and great food make it a destination that shouldn’t be missed. But as a movie fan, and in this case a huge fan of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”, I saw our visit as an opportunity to see some of the locations he chose for his film (as well as several other Paris movies). We wandered all over the city from Montmartre to the Latin Quarter, from the upscale 7th arrondissement to Les Marais, and along the way I ran into several of Allen’s spots. So I thought it would be cool to share them here, not just as another way to drool over Paris (something I could easily do), but as a chance to share the great experience I had as a movie fan.

MUSEE RODIN

Early in the film we get our first real glimpse into Paul’s true pseudo-intellectual self absorption as they visit The Rodin Museum. As the four are admiring Rodin’s popular sculpture “The Thinker”, Paul flexes his faux knowledge of Rodin until he is corrected by the guide as well as Gil. Paul will have none of it and goes as far as to argue with the guide. Gil later returns to ask the guide for a favor.

I loved our visit to Musee Rodin. The inside collection was fabulous but for me the true treasures were in the beautiful gardens and wonderfully placed sculptures none better than “The Thinker”. While much smaller in scale than the Louvre or the Orsay, the Rodin Museum still managed to be a favorite spot of mine in all of Paris.

PLACE DAUPHINE

In one of the most romantic scenes in the movie, Gil and Adriana take a nighttime stroll and end up on the terrace at Restaurant Paul’s in Place Dauphine. It’s here that Gil gives her the earrings and then pours his heart out to her before a carriage comes to transport them back even further in time.

The cool thing is that Restaurant Paul isn’t a fictional place. It sits right in the cozy Place Dauphine. Unfortunately due to the time of day the restaurant was closed but we did get a chance to take pictures and admire the cool setting for what was one of my favorite scenes in the film.

SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY

There’s a brief scene in “Midnight in Paris” that shows Gil walking out of Shakespeare and Company. It’s certainly not a pivotal scene but it shows Gil on one of his strolls admiring the city that he truly loves.

I loved Shakespeare and Company! We stumbled on it after walking around the Latin Quarter. There is such a great feel of history as you approach the cool English bookstore. The narrow aisles inside house an amazing assortment of titles and going upstairs takes you right back to the days of Hemingway, Joyce, and Sylvia Beach. I bought a copy of “The Great Gatsby” and got my Shakespeare and Company stamp on the inside. I left one happy traveler.

QUAI DE BOURBON

After Gil is picked up by the old-time classic car, it takes him back in time to a  lively party on Quai de Bourbon. It’s at this party that Gil notices Cole Porter singing and playing the piano. It’s here that he also meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the film we see the street as the car drives up and this was Gil’s first taste of the Roaring Twenties.

Quai de Bourbon winds around the tip of Ile Saint-Louis. We crossed over from the Notre Dame cathedral and came across the street by mistake. In fact at the time I didn’t remember the name but I most certainly recognized it from the film. It was a great moment of discovery and I couldn’t help but reflect back on the film as we walked down the street.

QUAI DES ORFEVRES

Quai des Orfevres appears in the movie on two different occasions. One of the scenes has Gil walking along the Seine clearing his mind and soaking up the city. Later in the movie it’s here that Gil and Adriana comes across a distraught Zelda threatening to jump into the Seine.

We came across this lovely location on a number of occasions. It was a gorgeous cobblestone walk along the river lined with trees and featuring some beautiful views of Paris. When you see it, it’s so easy to see why Woody Allen chose to include this particular location in his film.

SQUARE JEAN XXII

After buying an old book written by Adriana at a riverside book seller, Gil convinces the guide from the Rodin Museum the translate it for him. The two sit on a bench at Square Jean XXIII with Notre Dame standing tall in the background. It’s here that Gil finds out that there is a true connection between him and Adriana.

After visiting Notre Dame we spent a little time in the lovely Square Saint Jean. It’s here that you get the best views of Notre Dame’s buttresses and really highlights the Gothic architecture. The park is lined with benches, trees, and play areas for children. They also have bathrooms that you have to pay to use! No thanks.

PONT ALEXANDRE III

While it also appears in Woody Allen’s opening montage, the bridge known as Pont Alexandre III is also in the final scene of the film. Gil has broken up with Inez and is wandering around the city when he bumps into Gabrielle again on Pont Alexandre III. It’s here he tells her he’s staying and Paris. He offers to walk her home just as the rain starts to fall. It’s a wonderful ending.

After leaving Les Invalides we made our way to Pont Alexandre III. The beautiful ornate bridge was a sight. Tourists were snapping photos and brides were having wedding pictures made. We walked under it and over it admiring the River Seine and the wonderful architecture of the bridge itself.

There are so many wonderful locations in the city of Paris and Woody Allen takes advantage of so many. We visited several other places that you can see in the movie and missed out on some as well. Looks like we already have our excuse to head back to what I believe may be the world’s greatest city.

“Need to Drop 5 Pounds? Go to Paris!”

While my wonderful wife – for reasons that, in the interest of personal safety, I refuse to divulge – will vehemently refute the validity of my discovery, I feel compelled to share it nonetheless. In the United States, people make all kinds of New Year’s resolutions, join an assortment of gymns or diet groups, and spend loads of money to lose weight. Diet regimens and food supplements have become big business yet people are constantly let down by results and are left looking for the next fashionable weight loss plan. That’s where I come in. At the risk of sounding like the most tripe and scripted salesman, would you like to drop 5 pounds in only one week? Take a trip to Paris.

Hopefully by now you’ve finished sighing, rolling your eyes, or laughing out loud. But as preposterous as it sounds, I’ve witnessed this most satisfying weight loss miracle first hand. After a week in Paris enjoying the sights, the city, and of course the food, I was hesitant but curious as to how much weight I had gained. Now I’m not the skinny rail I was in high school. In fact, I’m the guy who recently had to lose 50 pounds after the verbal bludgeoning I received from my doctor over my weight, laziness, and eating habits. In other words, I’m one who can appreciate dropping some extra pounds. But like so many other ills of the world, Paris holds to solution.

When we returned home from our week-long adventure in the world’s greatest city I had to take time to face that thorn in the side of every weight conscious individual – the scales. But to my surprise it shared some good news. I had lost 5 pounds. It didn’t take long to reflect back on the things we did in Paris, particularly the things we ate while there. We didn’t scrimp on our meals. French food was something that we intended to make a big part of our trip and boy did we! So how could I have dropped 5 pounds. Well the obvious answer from the traveler like me, blinded by his utopian love for Paris, would be that the “City of Light” is pure, unadulterated magic and within the city of Paris miracles do happen. On the other hand, much more stable minds would say there’s a more reasonable and plausible explanation.

The Streets of Paris

First, Paris is a city made for walking. Unlike in the United States, Paris is your prototypical European-styled city whose structure is tied directly into its history – a history that preceded the introduction of the automobile – therefore making walking not only an acceptable but enjoyable mode of transportation. In the states, we have become car dependent. We drive to work, we drive to get groceries, we do drive-thru banking, drive-thru fast food – our vehicles are a substantial part of our daily lives. In many ways – and my own life reflects this – we can’t function without our automobiles. That’s not the case in Paris. Be prepared to walk, burn calories, and enjoy it.

Parisians seem to move in a rapid yet fluid state of motion, zipping along through the arteries, veins, and capillaries of the city with confidence and purpose. Regardless of what part of Paris you’re in, the sidewalks are filled with fast walkers and no slow traffic lanes. I remember thinking to myself “We’re walking a lot faster that we would back home” yet we were being passed on both sides. In a way I felt like a street sweeper blocking rush hour traffic. So sometimes taking a walk down Rue de Rivoli or Boulevard Saint-Germain while keeping pace with the locals can feel like an extensive aerobic workout.

But don’t misunderstand me, it’s not as if walking in Paris is a headache. In fact it’s quite the opposite. While sometimes the Parisian pace can be hectic and rushed, there’s also plenty of walks in Paris that you simply can’t miss. It’s as if each and every street has an interesting story and a new discovery that you would never encounter if you chose to wage vehicular combat through the city’s streets (what we Americans call driving). The pedestrian market streets, the Seine-side sidewalks, and the beautiful green gardens are just some of the treasures awaiting those willing to navigate the city afoot. In other words, Paris invites you to walk and failing to do so would be like missing out on one of the greatest experiences the city has to offer.

The Paris Metro

Even using the Metro is a stringent workout in itself. Aside from keeping up with the fast-moving flow of people, the Metro is an impressive labyrinth of hallways and concrete stairways that are sure to burn off a few of those calories added by the morning’s ham and cheese crepe. And if you have to switch trains in one of the busy underground hubs, you can count on even more walking. Again, it’s not a headache, it’s just another method of maneuvering around Paris that encourages walking and provides more exercise than some of us get in a week.

Besides walking, another more logical reason for losing weight in Paris is the food. Now I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking our French cuisine experience consisted of a strict diet of leafy green salads and fresh fruit. On the contrary, food was a key part of our trip. Parisians love their food and that was one element of their culture we had no problem diving into headfirst. We had our fair share of pastries and we most certainly threw ourselves into the cafe scene. We ended each day with lovely meal at a nice restaurant trying all sorts of local favorites such as duck, herring, lamb, shrimp, escargot, beef, and more. We ended our evening indulgences with a delectable assortment of chocolates, ice creams, and cakes.

Some of Paris’ many treats

There are several noteworthy things about food in Paris. First, unlike in the United States, it doesn’t take long to notice the absence of fast food places. They do exist. I mean there’s a McDonalds plopped right in the middle of the Champs Elysees. We saw a Pizza Hut stuck down a small side street in the 7th arrondissement. We were almost ran over by a Domino’s bicycle delivery guy. We even saw a poster advertising Kentucky Fried Chicken. But these spottings were extremely rare. Instead almost every street in Paris has a cafe, bistro, or restaurant serving an assortment of food of a higher quality than a Whopper with cheese or a Double Quarter Pounder. Of course you have to enjoy stops at the patisseries and the chocolate shops. And how can you not make Les Deux Magots’ pitcher of thick hot chocolate a part of your every week? Still, even though we ate a lot and ate good, I couldn’t help but feel I was eating better.

So while the romantic in me wants to credit the alluring and enchanting forces of Paris with my surprising five-pound drop, the realist in me has a more grounded understanding. But even though it’s not as dramatically fantastical or storybook, you can’t argue with results and even though I know the real reasons, I choose to credit and thank the mythical transcendental aura of Paris. Regardless, if given a choice, you can keep your magic pills, chalky diet shakes, and carb-free dinners. I’ll take a trip to Paris – a true miracle in weight loss.

OUR PARIS TRIP JOURNAL : Day 7

On Sunday morning, I woke up a few minutes before our 7 AM wake-up call. We were leaving Grand Hotel Leveque by 8 AM to catch a taxi to Charles de Gaulle airport. In other words, our Paris adventure had come to an end. I have to admit I was a little depressed. I reflected on the amazing things we had seen and the food we had eaten. I thought about the joy of sharing it all with Jacki. But Paris had left more than just a vacation-like impression on me. It’s a marvelous city that I had completely fallen for. I could stay there forever except for two very good reasons – our children. This had been the longest we had been away from our two wonderful kids and I was itching to see them. I laid there concocting make-believe scenarios that allowed me to go pick them up and bring them back. But the reality was I couldn’t have it both ways and, even though I love Paris, the desire to see our kids easily won out.

Pont Alexandre III

Soon Jacki was getting ready and packing the last of her things in her carry-on bag. I opened up our windows to hear the morning sounds of Rue Cler one more time. As luck would have it the skies were bright blue and the sun was beaming down. We had only one day like this during our stay and we laughed at it being such wonderful weather on the morning we were leaving. Soon our bags were packed and it was time to leave. Grand Hotel Leveque had been the perfect place for us, certainly not luxurious, but clean, comfortable, and with a street side view that I was already missing. We took the tiny glass elevator down and turned in our key. We left our Paris abode and just stood on Rue Cler for a moment. As silly as it sounds, it was like saying goodbye to an old friend. Rue Cler has more personality than many people I know and it was hard to part ways.

Paris, France

Before leaving Rue Cler we thought it fitting to stop back by the Artisan patisserie for breakfast to go. It was one last croissant for me and a pastry almost too pretty to eat for Jacki. We decided to take them to the Taxi stop and eat them while waiting on a cab to arrive. When we arrived in Paris one week earlier I still wasn’t sure the best way to get back to Charles de Gaulle airport. But in the days that followed I really felt comfortable with our neighborhood in the 7th  arrondissement. We had traveled Rue Saint-Dominique, Avenue Bosquet, Rue de Grenelle, and Avenue de la Motte-Picquet multiple times. We had learned where the restaurants, supermarkets, metro stops, and taxi stands were. In other words, we knew our little neighborhood in Paris.

Tuileries Garden

We arrived at the Taxi stand on Avenue Bosquet but didn’t have the time to eat our warm pastries. Two cabs were waiting. We got in a middle-aged man’s new Volkswagen where he immediately let us know that no eating was allowed. As we took off we both watched Paris pass by through our backseat windows – the lovely streets, beautiful buildings, and ever-present cafes. The Arc de Triomphe stood high, Paris’ final wave goodbye to these two first time European travelers. Just a week earlier, Napoleon’s stunning monument met us and introduced us to its city. Now it was the last of Paris that we watched disappear from sight. What an incredible adventure it had been.

Bistrot Le P’tit Troquet

We arrived at the airport and found seats to sit and enjoy our breakfast. It was still warm and flakey after all that time. We drudged through all of the processes required to get ready to board the plane. As we sat in the terminal awaiting our call, I thought back on all that the city of Paris had given me. Unlike the golden tan left from a Caribbean cruise or a week at the beach, Paris left no physical evidence of a vacation with the exception of blisters on my feet. But the mental and emotional impressions left on me by the “City of Light” can’t be described with mere words.

The Champs Elysees

Paris was magical but not just because of the city’s physical beauty and rich history. I found myself drawn to the culture itself. Parisians love their city. They take pride in it. They keep it clean. It’s part of their very identity. Parisians are social people. Meals aren’t just hunger cures, they are social experiences. Parisians enjoy their food but they enjoy their company more. Time spent in the local park is one part relaxation but it’s also about social connections with families, friends, and neighbors. Cafes can be found on almost every street, another testament to the Parisian’s willingness to stop and talk. It’s just part of their makeup and their happiness in being a Parisian is evident (maybe with the exception of riding the metro where obviously a “no-smile” code is strictly enforced).

From “Midnight in Paris”

So many other parts of the culture had won my heart. Even though we’ve been home for exactly one week as I write this, the thoughts of having a fourth floor apartment in the Latin Quarter or Marais District still cross my mind. I still daydream of going down to the nearest market street, much like Rue Cler, and picking up the incredibly fresh produce for the night’s meal. Or how about stopping at a local cafe after a day’s work and unwinding over some hot chocolate and people-watching? I say it again, wouldn’t it be great to live there? I wouldn’t trade enjoying Paris’ monuments, museums, and history for anything. But they’re just a part of what makes the city so grand. It’s those big things laced with the magnificent culture that had me realizing that I want to go back. I have to go back. 

The Pantheon

Soon we were in our seats jetting across the Atlantic ocean. Jacki slept for most of the 8 1/2 hour flight. I was glad. She needed it. Navigating through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was an arduous task. But our stay there was short and soon we were in Little Rock, Arkansas. We found our vehicle, paid the absurd parking fee, and headed out for the 80 minute drive. We were tired but a special treat was just ahead. The reunion with our children was nothing short of amazing. They literally ran to us with huge smiles and some of the biggest hugs we had ever received. We shared pictures, experiences, and of course souvenirs. I miss Paris but this sweet, sweet moment reminded me that I was HOME.

Cafe de Flore

Our journey was complete. This half-baked plan that started as a surprise Christmas gift to Jacki for Christmas had come and gone. All the nervousness and anxiety, which had been overtaken with excitement and anticipation, proved unnecessary. Our study and preparation paid off and Paris treated us to the time of our lives. We also got a good taste of the joy of marriage and the joy of travel. But the big question remains : “Where to next?” My Vote? Paris!

OUR PARIS TRIP JOURNAL : Day 6

It was a Saturday and I woke up a little less enthusiastic than the previous mornings. I guess you could say that the realization that this was our final day in Paris had set in. Jacki was already up getting ready. I opened the windows, laid back down, and just listened to the rhythm of the street below. It had become almost a routine, a routine that I truly loved. The sounds of Rue Cler made the street feel alive to me. The sounds were it’s pulse. The people were its lifeblood. And they had become a cherished part of my morning. I was really going to miss it.

Artisan

We finally left the hotel a lot later than intended. First on the docket was a visit to Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides. As we walked down Rue Cler we decided to eat on the go. We had passed a lovely little patisserie called Artisan several times, always admiring the delicious looking treats but never stopping. What a fine time to try my first truly French croissant! As we walked, I gobbled up my soft, flaky piece of heaven, constantly making time to grunt “mmmm” for everyone to hear. Silly, I know. Before long we saw the gold dome housing Napoleon’s tomb. It’s impossible to miss.

Les Invalides

We grabbed some great outdoor photos and made our way in just as it started to sprinkle rain once again. There’s no doubting which tomb belonged to Napoleon. At the center of the building directly under the gorgeous fresco-adorned dome lied a huge tomb made of red quartzite. Jacki made the humorous comparison between Napoleon’s well-known short stature and the mammoth tomb his ashes lie in. The entire building revolved around Napoleon’s resting place. Several other significant tombs were present including Napoleon’s brothers and faithful generals. It was well worth checking out.

From Les Invalides we moved east towards something I was really anxious to see, the Rodin Museum. At first I had a hard time getting my bearings. An uninterested yet self-confident pigeon led me in the direction of a pleasant policeman who got us on the right track. A few minutes later we were admiring some of Rodin’s greatest works. We walked through the indoor collection highlighted by the stunning “The Kiss”. Once in the outdoor gardens, we were immediately greeted by the sculptor’s greatest work, “The Thinker”. I was so excited to see “The Thinker” and not even my steady barrage of camera flashes could distract this troubled man from his deep thoughts. This was a true masterpiece.

“The Thinker” – Rodin Museum

The gardens at the Rodin Museum were nothing short of fabulous. Many of the sculptor’s wonderful works were placed right in the middle of the perfectly manicured grass and rows of beautiful trees. Unfortunately the overcast skies hid the sunshine which I know would have lit the gardens up with some of the brightest shades of green. Also the rain showers had the benches wet making it impossible to just sit and enjoy the beauty. Still, the Rodin Museum was fantastic and was one of my favorite stops on our adventure.

After leaving we were both pretty hungry. Our afternoon plans focused on Saint-Germain-des-Prés  and another visit to The Latin Quarter. We hit the nearby metro stop and soon found ourselves on one of the most popular streets in Paris, Boulevard Saint-Germain. After consulting our trusty map we headed west towards the famous dueling cafes. From the moment I started planning this surprise trip I knew I wanted to eat at either Les Deux Magots or Cafe de Flore. The two cafes have been rivals for years and both stake claims of being the intellectual’s cafe of choice. Both were frequented by Earnest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and now Keith and Jacki Garlington.

Les Deux Magots

We literally stumbled up on Les Deux Magots. The gorgeous cafe is situated right in the bustling Place Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Only a small newsstand separates it from its chief competitor next door, Cafe de Flore. It was equally attractive and equally busy. So which would we choose? We decided on Les Deux Magots for no other reason than our children have fun saying it. Now we could tell them we have been there. We were lucky to get a good table. The intermittent sprinkles had caused the patrons to skip the front row of tables and grab the dryer ones under the awnings. We sat there, just taking in this perfect picture of the Paris cafe scene. Jacki had an interesting chicken salad that she loved. I had the best club sandwich I had EVER tasted, overpriced but delicious. We topped the experience off with Les Deux Magots’ famous hot chocolate. OH MY GOSH! Thick chocolate goodness!

Hot Chocolate from Les Deux Magots

We hated to leave our cozy little table and our wonderful view of the energetic Boulevard Saint-Germain but we had other things to see before our final day in Paris ended. We crossed the busy street and headed further into the Latin Quarter via Rue Bonaparte. Up ahead was the Saint-Sulpice church. What I was even more excited about was the square in front of the church and its tremendous fountain. This was one of Paris’ fountains I was so excited to see. As we rounded the corner and approached the square, we noticed an ocean of white tents completely surrounding where the fountain should be. As it turned out, they were having a local literary festival. People were selling their books and guest speakers were attracting crowds. We shouldered our way to where the fountain stood bone dry. Apparently they shut it off for the festival. I was pretty bummed out.

I was amazed at the architecture of the fountain even if I didn’t get to see it in action. But all was not lost. The Saint-Sulpice church stood tall and mighty overlooking the square. The church is one of the largest in all of Paris, second only to Notre Dame. It had a truly unique exterior accentuated by it’s two mismatched towers that greeted us as we headed to the front door. In we went. As it turned out, Saint-Sulpice was right up there with the mighty Notre Dame in my book. The interior was filled will stunning sculptures and amazing frescos. Eugene Delacroix’s brilliant murals, including the amazing “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”, decorated a small side chapel. I could have admired them all afternoon. But we continued through what would be the last church visited on our trip, gazing up at the high gothic ceilings, taking in the array of incredible art, and looking in awe at what’s called one of the finest organs in the world. I was so glad we didn’t miss Saint-Sulpice.

Sainte-Sulpice

After leaving the church and sharing one last grumble over the waterless fountain, we headed south towards Luxembourg Gardens, the last actual thing on our itinerary. The short walk there was great, but the reality of our short time left in Paris was setting in for me. The thick gray clouds had their way all day and as if God were ending our trip with a smile, the sun begin to peak through just as we entered the gardens. We walked hand-in-hand along the west side of the park enjoying the carefully cut shrubs and strategically placed sculptures. The park was lively, filled with kids, the elderly, snugglers, and readers. Parisians love their parks and we could see why. We came up on some Boules players and I had to watch. The popular French game resembles horseshoes in a way but instead it uses metal balls. I loved just watching these Parisians engaging in a key part of their social culture, a culture that over the last several days I had grown to feel a part of.

Jacki finally got me away from the Boules game. She had a special fountain on her mind that she was dying to see. Time wasn’t on our side so we hurried through parts of the park we would have loved to admire and skipped an entire section. But when we came out at the center of the gardens we had to stop. Down some steps was a huge square of beautiful green grass, every blade the same perfect length. The grass was outlined by gorgeous yellow and white flowers, planted with precision. The amazing Luxembourg Palace stood in the near background. It looked like a postcard. Chairs surrounded the entire grass square and they were filled with people enjoying the day. We did find two seats with the perfect view that we couldn’t pass up so we sat down and melded in with the locals. Almost on cue, the sun beamed it’s brightest of the day leading to a lot of smiles and shed jackets. I didn’t want to leave.

Luxembourg Gardens

I had another one of my “I wish I lived here” moments. I daydreamed of having an apartment nearby.  How great would it be to lounge at Luxembourg Gardens after a day’s work and before heading to a local cafe for an evening meal? The French culture had really effected me. I was certainly no expert but my exposure to the alluring Parisian way of living had left an indelible mark. After watching some girls hand feed some birds we decided we better get moving but not without finding Jacki’s Medici Fountain. It was a  fountain with a relaxing tree-lined pool in the front. It was yet another lovely ingredient to this delectable garden.

Medici Fountain

As much as we hated to, we needed to head back to our hotel. We had to checkout early the next morning and would need to get a head start on packing. We admired some more of the garden’s flowers and got a great look of the Pantheon from the east gate. We walked north through another fabulous part of the Latin Quarter and soon were on the metro heading back to the 7th arrondissement. Following our routine, we arrived at our hotel, cleaned up, and rested before heading out for our final French dinner. I really wanted the final meal to be memorable. I chose to take Jacki to La Billebaude, the smallest little restaurant we visited but one that received great reviews from Trip Advisor. My only fear (since we had no reservations) was that we wouldn’t get a seat.

La Billebaude was located on the small street Rue Exposition. Once there we were met by the lone waiter who showed us to a table close to the front door. We had our seats, what a relief. I’ve used the word cozy a lot during these blogs but La Billebaude was the picture of cozy. The one small room was nicely decorated and held about ten tables at the most. Soon the restaurant was full and the one waiter worked each table like a well-oiled machine. He was amazing to watch. He was also very nice and very French yet he spoke good English. We ended up choosing the herring as our starter. It was very good and it was a meal in itself. For the main course Jacki ordered steak, I decided to try the lamb. This was my favorite meal of the entire trip. My lamb was tender and tasty and the creamed potatoes were the best I think I have ever had. Jacki finished her meal with an ice cream souffle while I went with the cheesecake. Unbelievable good!

La Billebaude’s Lamb & Potatoes

We finished our two-hour dining experience gazing out at the street and talking about our amazing adventure. We talked about Paris, the people, and all that we had learned about both. It was sad to think that we would be leaving the next morning. We got up and had our final night-time stroll through the streets of Paris. It was a beautiful night and I was trying to savor ever single step. We walked onto Rue Cler, seeing it at night for the last time. When we reached our hotel we hesitated before going in. We looked down both ends of the street. We adored our temporary French home and missed it already. We went in Grand Hotel Leveque and up to room 32. We opened the windows and once again soaked up the late-night ambiance. I missed the city already yet there were two really big reasons that made leaving easier. We packed a bit then headed to bed. The next morning would be our last in “The City of Light”.

OUR PARIS TRIP JOURNAL : Day 5

After a gorgeous sunny Thursday, Friday greeted us with a thick, gray overcast sky. But that didn’t stop Rue Cler. I opened up the windows to hear it moving at top speed. The cobblestones glistened from a pre-dawn rain shower and the steady French chatter of market owners and school kids filled the air. This was my street and I felt right at home here. Like before, I could have spent the day just walking the street and watching the locals. But we had some big sites to see so we cleaned up and headed out.

Like old pros, we headed into the metro and made our way to the Odeon station near the Latin Quarter. As I looked around I was again blown away by this new Paris neighborhood with its own unique flavor but with the same enchanting beauty. We walked up Rue Danton and came to Place St. Andre des Arts. Wow! The small square is literally filled with lush green trees and trendy cafes. This was the Latin Quarter and I loved it. We moved on up the street and right ahead was Place Saint Michel and its incredible fountain. This was Christmas morning for a fountain fan like me. The huge fountain dating back to the 1850’s features Michael the archangel slaying a demon and two water spitting dragons. It caps the corner of two avenues that serve as the Latin Quarter’s gateway and several other tourists joined us on this busy hub in getting our picture made in front of it.

Place Saint-Michel

I pulled out the trusted map and noticed we were really close to Saint-Severin so off we went down Rue Saint-Severin. The cramped streets were loaded with charm even with the number of cheap souvenir shops wedged between a variety of cafes. While some shops were most certainly aimed at tourists, the tight architecture hearkened back to the area’s medieval history. It was a wonderful place to explore. Right at the other end of the street is the gothic-styled Saint-Severin church. We walked alongside of it admiring its gargoyle water drains and classical design. Unfortunately the church didn’t open it’s doors until 11:00 AM. We had 30 minutes to kill so we explored the area. We came across another old church and right in front of it was a pretty little garden with a view of Notre Dame that made us stop in our tracks. Picture time. After several photos we sat on a bench and just admired what we were seeing. Have I mentioned I love the city?

I told Jacki that one of my ‘must see’ places, the Shakespeare & Company bookstore, should be reasonably close. It wasn’t marked on our map so I cranked up the Trip Advisor app. Lo and behold the bookstore was just around the corner from the garden,  mere steps away from where we were sitting! Thinking back to the store’s appearance in the movie “Midnight in Paris”, I had to get my picture made there. Jacki was a good sport and snapped photo after photo as if I were a swimsuit model even though she was anxious to get inside. With me finally satisfied, we headed into the quirky store with a great history. We could have stayed there all day. We browsed all sorts of books before going upstairs for an amazing little flashback to the days of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Stein. I settled on a copy of “The Great Gatsby”. I paid the cashier and got my official Shakespeare and Company stamp on the inside. I left grinning from ear to ear.

Shakespeare & Company

By that time Saint-Severin’s doors were open so we backtracked a couple of blocks to check out one of the oldest churches on the Left Bank. The inside was even more impressive than the outside. The tall spiraling pillars and high gothic ceilings supported some of the prettiest and most vibrant stained glass I had seen. As was customary for our Paris church visits, we sat for a bit just admiring what was around us. I thought about the history of the church and the number of people who had throughout the centuries sat where I was. But there was another little church on the day’s agenda so we left Saint-Severin to grab a bite to eat before heading to Notre Dame.

La Sainsev in The Latin Quarter

The walk through the snug cobblestone streets of the surrounding area was a delight, a true trip back in time. We checked out the posted menus of several cafes and small bistros. We were still a little early for lunch by Parisian standards but we were ready to eat. We came upon Le Sainsev, a quaint little cafe with a good menu and a prime location for people-watching. Yet another friendly French waiter showed us to a nice outside table. For an entrée I had boiled eggs and mayonnaise. Yes, I know it sounds ridiculously simply but it was quite tasty. Jacki chose the onion soup for the second time on the trip and she loved it. We both chose the beef flank steak with pepper sauce, baked potato for Jacki and fries for me. I finished my meal with chocolate mousse that our waiter made sure to point out was homemade. As we sat, the streets filled up as if someone had rung the dinner bell for the locals. Parisians flocked to a little deli across the street for a quick “to go” lunch. Some even found time to slip into the fancy chocolate shop next door to satisfy their sweet tooth.

With full stomachs and smiles on our faces we got up and headed towards the Seine River. I hated to leave this little taste of the Latin Quarter. I loved it there and had another one of my moments – “Wouldn’t it be amazing to live right here?” We took a lovely little side street (which made me want to stay even more) and came out facing the Seine River. The Seine was lined with green metal contraptions that when closed could be mistaken for dumpsters but when open they revealed small riverside stores where vendors showed their wares. As we walked we stopped at each one, thumbing through old books, trinkets, photos, and paintings. We crossed over to Ile de la Cite, the island center of Paris. Some say Paris’ roots can be traced to the island dating back as far as 50 B.C. But we had no time to think about that because right in front of us stood the jaw dropping Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame

The square in front of Notre Dame was filled with strained-necked fellow tourists gazing up at the cathedral’s astounding architecture. I wanted to walk around and take it all in but the line to get inside was actually fairly short. We took advantage of it. As we walked in I was overcome by the sense of history. I thought about the construction of the cathedral which began in 1163. I thought about walking in the same church where Napoleon and Josephine’s coronation was held. It was a surreal experience. The French gothic design was a sight to behold. Bible stories and historic figures were depicted through etchings, sculptures, paintings, and stunning stained glass. The only distraction was the buzz from the steady flow of sightseers which made it feel a bit more like an attraction than a church. We sat for a few moments and took it all in. Again we talked about the amazement of being where we were.

Notre Dame Stained Glass

We went outside and admired the equally impressive appearance of Notre Dame’s exterior. The amazing sculpting of the last judgement, the 28 kings of Judah, Saint Denis, and the temptation in Eden only begin to cover what’s found on the facade of this structural masterpiece. We headed around the left side to see about going to the top of the cathedral. But the line was long and it wasn’t moving. I really wanted to get an up close and personal look at Notre Dame’s famous gargoyles but we both agreed that the 1 1/2 hours of line time could be better spent elsewhere. We went to the little garden behind Notre Dame and enjoyed a little time on a bench. Right behind the garden was a small bridge that went over to Paris’ other island, the small but chic Ile Saint-Louis. Off we went.

Notre Dame from the bridge

Crossing the bridge we ran into street musicians and aspiring painters. The first street we came to was Quai de Bourbon and I immediately recognized it from “Midnight in Paris”, another “must take” photo for me. Ile Saint-Louis is small but it packs a lot of charm. We didn’t have a lot of time but we knew we needed to hunt down Berthillon. Berthillon is a world-renowned ice cream parlor and there’s no way we were going to miss it. Jacki chose a dish of Mango and Chocolate. I stayed traditional and went with Vanilla and Chocolate. Oh my goodness!  I swear to you, if I lived close by I would weigh 500 lbs! It was so good and I’m not a big ice cream guy. It was getting late so we hopped back over to Notre Dame and made our way to Sainte-Chapelle.

Sainte-Chapelle had the longest line and most thorough security of any place we had visited. The wait was long but while in line we did meet a charming older couple from Australia. They had been traveling through Europe and stopped in Paris for a few days. We talked about Paris, our families, and our countries. The gentleman had visited Sainte-Chapelle before and his excitement to see it again was infectious. After finally getting through security we made it inside. The bottom floor was pretty but the real treat was up a spiral staircase on the second floor. There we saw stained glass that put all others we had seen to shame. It was indescribable. Our Australian friend must have seen the amazement on our faces. He walked up to me and said “Didn’t I tell ya?”

The Breathtaking Sainte-Chapelle

We left and did a little more exploring of the island finishing up at Place Dauphine. After checking out another “Midnight in Paris” location we crossed over to the right bank. While walking towards the Louvre Batobus port we did a little shopping from the street vendors. The port turned out to be farther that anticipated and when we finally got there we were worn out. The river cruise to the 7th gave us a little time to recharge. Once there we headed to the hotel to clean up and then decided to go back to Pasco for dinner. As ridiculous as it sounds I ordered the exact same thing as the night before. It was quite good.

When we left the restaurant it was dark and a light rain shower started. We walked arm-in-arm under one umbrella and I loved every minute of it. Can you get any more romantic that a nighttime walk in the rain in Paris, France? We had been in the city for five days and our trip was slowly winding down. One more full day in the city of lights. That realization started to set in. I wasn’t ready to leave. I had fallen for the city. But the time had almost come so we better make the next day count.