My Favorite Hike . . . So Far

My wife and I have had the good fortune to walk and hike in some spectacular locations over the last ten years including England, France, and Italy. I have written a few posts about our treks in Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California. I maintain that some of the best scenic walks or hikes in the United States are in California: around San Francisco, along the Pacific coast, and in the wine country, just to name a few. If pressed to choose my favorite hiking experience to date, that distinction would have to go to Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Yosemite Valley is the most familiar destination in this region to so many visitors, but Yosemite National Park covers 1,200 square miles. First protected in 1864 by the federal government and the state of California, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and vast wilderness.

We were at Yosemite for several days during July, 2013. A close friend who lives in California frequently visits Yosemite to relax, hike, and take fantastic photographs — a hobby that has in recent years almost become a vocation. She was generous enough to be our guide, taking us to some of her favorite places to hike and witness the beauty of this amazing place. We stayed in a comfortable cabin about 45 minutes south of the valley near the village of Mariposa. For our first outing, we explored the meadows around the Merced River between Sentinel Beach and Cathedral Beach, which offered stunning views of the rocky cliffs of El Capitan and Cathedral Spires. The meadows with their lush riverbanks are large enough to provide some privacy and a good place to escape the crowds that gather near the camping sites and the more popular attractions in the park. We spent the early afternoon taking photographs and wading in the cool waters of the Merced River where it pools in the numerous bends as it winds its way through the valley.

Wading after hiking at Yosemite
Wading after hiking at Yosemite

On our second day, we spent some time at two of the most familiar waterfalls in the valley. Bridalveil Fall is the thin, tall spray that is visible on the right from the famous Tunnel View, the place where Wawona Road exits the tunnel and the place where most visitors get their first glimpse and photographs of the breathtaking vista of Yosemite Valley. There is a trail that leads to the base of the fall, where the water crashes against gigantic boulders and disperses a fine mist over an area about an acre in size. The best time to view the falls at Yosemite is the spring, when the melting snow creates the largest volume of water spilling over the soaring rock cliffs. Even in July that year the water was still running enough to make for a spectacular performance. We also walked up to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, and then treated ourselves to afternoon cocktails in the courtyard of the Ahwahnee Hotel, now called the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. While sipping our drinks under the umbrellas, my eyes were drawn upward to the cliffs rising from the valley floor. Our friend identified the peak as Glacier Point, and I asked, “Can we get up there?” She explained that Glacier Point Road takes off from Wawona Road and leads to an observation point with a picnic area and restrooms. We decided that we would have enough energy by the next morning to explore the hiking trails around Glacier Point.

When we arrived at around 9:00, the crowds had not yet started to gather at this famous lookout point, which offers one of the best views of Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome rock formation. We wandered around the site, experiencing the valley from a completely different perspective than the previous two days. Similar to standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, words fail to describe the spectacle. Even explorers like John Muir had difficulty. Our friend, who is twelve years our senior, challenged us to take the hike from Glacier Point up to Sentinel Dome, which rises about 900 feet from the trail head and peaks out at over 8,100 feet above sea level. “I won’t be happy unless I’m at the top,” I said. We strapped on our backpacks, which included our lunches, and headed up the winding trail through the evergreens toward the summit. When there were breaks in the trees, the views along the way were fabulous. The last hundred feet of the trail opened up to bare rock and was fairly steep. The reward for making it to the top was well worth the effort. Sentinel Dome presented far-reaching vistas in all directions: to the west down the valley to the Merced River canyon and to the north the massive expanse of El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. At this elevation, the peak of Half Dome is in clear sight and is only 700 feet higher. I couldn’t resist hopping up on the large rock that crowns the dome for a selfie with Half Dome to commemorate the occasion.

On the peak of Sentinel Dome at Yosemite
On the peak of Sentinel Dome at Yosemite

To employ poor puns to the fullest extent, how do you top such an uplifting experience? On our way back down the trail, we stopped for lunch on some large rocks at an opening looking out to the east. We could just make out the remaining snow on the High Sierra peaks in the distance. Below our perch across a considerable expanse, we could see Nevada Fall making its contribution to the Merced River. At the brief intervals when there was no wind through the trees, we could just barely hear the distant roar of the water crashing down the crag to the huge rocks at the fall’s base. With tired legs and sore feet, we refueled on sandwiches and fruit, realizing that we were totally immersed in one of those wonderful moments where friendships, nature, and a deep appreciation of life converge to present memories that never fade. My wife and I continue to travel and look for opportunities to hike, especially at locations where we can enjoy beautiful scenery. Perhaps at some point I will have an outdoor encounter that impresses me even more than the morning at Sentinel Dome did. I truly look forward to it.

Nevada Fall at Yosemite
Nevada Fall at Yosemite

Our Mountain Getaway

In the early 1970s, my parents purchased a small, three-bedroom house a few blocks from the downtown section of a sleepy little hamlet in the north Georgia mountains.  They intended to use the house as a vacation spot for their family, relatives, and close friends.  The house was about seventy years old and had been abandoned and neglected for quite a long time. As a skilled electrician and carpenter, my father was able to take what was an almost uninhabitable shack and, with the help of family and friends, turn it into a comfortable summer cabin. With all her characteristic love and gentle kindness, my mother turned the cabin into a second home.  When my parents first bought the house, there were two large oak trees growing in the front yard, so they decided to call the place “Twin Oaks.”  Even though one of the trees had to come down several years later, the name had already become so associated with the house that they decided to keep using it. 

Over the years, Twin Oaks provided four generations with a great place to escape and relax, to enjoy the beauty of the Georgia mountains, and to have SO much fun.  My sister and I continued to maintain the house and property as best we could after our parents could no longer make the trips to the mountain getaway.  Unfortunately, a house like this one was never intended to last for a very long time, and as a new century approached, Twin Oaks began to suffer from wear and tear and too many cold winters. In the fall of 2015 my wife and I, as the current owners, decided to demolish our little mountain vacation house and build something new in its place. I wrote a post in December of that year about our decision titled Letting It Go. We had some apprehension at the time, and it was not an easy decision to make. But, there was no doubt that we loved the location and wanted to continue having a place of our own for family and friends.

We contracted with a builder who is also a family member to construct a three-bedroom, two bath house, which was completed in December, 2016.  The wood frame house with a rock foundation is built basically on the same footprint as the original house.  It is still conveniently located within walking distance of the ever-expanding and vibrant downtown area.  However, this house came with a few significant upgrades: central heat and air, modern kitchen appliances, wireless Internet, and DISH TV.  It can be enjoyed year-round and doesn’t have to be “put to bed” for the winter. For over four decades, Twin Oaks was a place to create wonderful memories.  That tradition continues with a new house — Twin Oaks 2! 

Twin Oaks 2
Twin Oaks 2

When the Splurge Is Worth It

Most Americans are not wealthy, unless compared to the millions of people who live in less-developed countries around the world. Although there is a vast household income spectrum in this country, most of us have limits on our discretionary spending. We have to make choices, especially about our wants as opposed to our needs. Some folks are truly prudent and seek savings that other families pass up: driving small, fuel-efficient vehicles; eating at home or taking lunch to work; shopping around for insurance; or even selecting generic products over name brands. Americans are among the most consumer-driven individuals on the planet. We love our stuff! We crave gadgets, electronics, toys, and a whole host of disposable products. We will spend hard-earned money on the most useless objects to occupy the limited time we have away from our jobs. The latest obsession that comes to mind is the fidget spinner, ranging in price on the low end from $3 to $10, but going well over $400 for the designer models. Millions have been sold across the country in 2017 (and in other countries as well). What is the function of this incredible device? It spins. That’s it. Oh, and it is branded as a remedy for everything from boredom to Attention Deficit Disorder.

I have absolutely no issues with what people choose to buy with their money, as long as they are paying their own way and taking proper care of their dependents. I certainly do my part when it comes to blowing money on the absurd too. However, as I look back over the decades, I regret a few times that I didn’t make certain choices that would have afforded me with lifetime experiences and memories. One example that comes to mind was during the summer of 1984 when I was studying abroad in England. Pop music has been an important influence in shaping my world view since I was a child. Some of the lyricists and musicians from the 1970s had the effect on me that poets and painters have on others with more sophisticated taste than my own. I was and shall always be a huge fan of the music of Elton John and his long-time collaborator, Bernie Taupin. That summer in 1984, Elton John was on his “Breaking Hearts” tour and played a concert at Wembley Stadium in London. As a graduate student who depended on the sacrifices of my parents and the funds from two grants, I was on a tight budget. Still, I could have found a way to purchase a ticket, but I didn’t. There would be plenty of other opportunities to see Elton John in concert, especially in the states, but it would not have been the same. That chance came and went but left its mark on me.

Since that summer in 1984, I have made countless spending decisions — most were fairly routine but some were certainly significant. I am thankful to have more discretionary income now than I did as a graduate student! My wife and I love to travel, and even though some trips can get a bit pricey, I never regret the money we spend this way because of the incredible experiences we share during our journeys. In recent years, I have taken advantage of opportunities to attend concerts with family and friends because I never want to miss out like I did that summer so many years ago. My older son and I saw Bob Dylan a couple of years ago — who knows how much longer this musical icon will be around? We also saw Pearl Jam in the band’s hometown of Seattle a few years earlier. I understood about 2% of the lyrics that Eddie Vedder sang, which is absolutely irrelevant. My son is a huge fan of the band and the whole grunge movement, and I was so glad we could take the trip.

My wife tells a proverbial story from several years ago when she was stressing over the decision to spend extra money on a wonderful hotel for a trip we were planning to Rome. She asked the opinion of a good friend and mentor, who wisely said, “Five years from now you won’t remember how much you spent on the hotel, but the two of you will never forget the experience of staying at that place.” She was such a wise woman, and we followed her advice with absolutely no regrets. In that same spirit, we have attended several concerts in recent years and have seen some incredible shows, including Fleetwood Mac and Earth, Wind & Fire. In 2012, The Rolling Stones announced that they were coming to Newark, New Jersey and to New York City for a 50th anniversary limited tour. Thinking that the band might be announcing their retirement, we jumped at the opportunity to see them. We bought plane and hotel tickets and made it a long weekend in NYC, which was expensive. Do we remember how expensive now? No. Will we ever forget the moment Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie Watts walked out on that Prudential Center stage? Can’t imagine. Of course, we couldn’t have known then that the Stones would end up touring several cities in the U.S. the next year and are still making appearances around the world. Again, no regrets.

The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones, 2012

One more example should be enough to make my point here a tad more convincing. The Eagles are a band that helped define the music of our generation. They have a tumultuous history of substance abuse, infighting, breaking up, and reemerging from the ashes. They also created some of the most memorable music of the rock era. Their harmonies were close to perfect, their lyrics spellbinding, and their performances were almost legendary. They have won almost every major Grammy and at least five American Music Awards. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. When the band announced the “History of the Eagles” tour for 2013, we paid an additional fee to grab early tickets and the best seats we could afford. Their concert in Charlotte on November 15, 2013 was truly the best show I have ever seen. The vocals, instrumentation, stage presence, lighting, acoustics, and video production were just outstanding. As a reporter for the Charlotte Observer wrote, “The Eagles didn’t just give fans a typical concert Friday at Time Warner Cable Arena. It gave generations of fans a musical history lesson from its 1971 formation to its 1994 reunion.” As thrilled as we were at the end of that phenomenal evening, it would be just over two years later that we truly appreciated how fortunate we were to have been there. The news on January 18, 2016 of the unexpected death of Glenn Fry, the band’s front man and one of its founders, sent a shudder through the world of popular music. It also drove home to us the realization that, whenever possible, we need to take advantage of every one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that comes along.

The Eagles
The Eagles, 2013

 

Museum of the Cherokee Indian

My mother loved Indians. More accurately, she loved the traditional characterization of the Indians in American arts and crafts. It was a romantic view of the people who were inhabiting North America when Europeans began to migrate west and “settle” on the continent. My mother was not interested in bows and arrows, spears, or war paint. She collected inexpensive artwork (prints, plates, figurines, etc.) featuring lovely brown-skinned people in traditional Indian attire as they were portrayed by Hollywood, for the most part. I would be the last to criticize her taste because some of the pieces she decorated our house with were indeed beautiful. She probably didn’t know much about the history of the numerous nations and tribes that were scattered all across North America, and she didn’t need to in order to appreciate her image of the Indian.

When I was young, one of our family’s favorite vacation spots was Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a tourist mecca in the Great Smoky Mountains with attractions, miniature golf, sky-lifts, and shops selling everything from taffy to stuffed black bears. To get to Gatlingburg, we had to go through the smaller town of Cherokee, North Carolina, which is also the home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. We always stopped in Cherokee because, in the 1960s, it was a place of wonder where local residents used about the only thing they had, their history and heritage, as a way to scrape out a living. The town had live bears wasting away in cages, shops filled with Chinese-manufactured Indian souvenirs, and the occasional celebrity walking around the town to be photographed with visitors. I had my picture taken with Jon Provost, whose name probably means nothing to most folks today, but to a young lad in the late 1960s, he was an almost grown-up version of a television hero: Timmy Martin, the boy who had a dog named Lassie.

I also remember that, along the roadside passing through Cherokee, there would always be local men, young and old, dressed up like Hollywood Indians. They wore leather loincloths and moccasins, were often shirtless, had their faces decorated with paint, and usually had full feather headdresses (for the record, the Cherokee traditionally did not wear full feather headdresses at all). Vacationers were expected to pay them for a photograph, and looking back, I can only hope that this type of enterprise was not their only source of income, although it certainly may have been. The town of Cherokee today still has a vestige of the tourist trap atmosphere of the mid-20th century, but much of the most deplorable exploitation I remember from my childhood is gone. Some would argue what has taken its place is just as bad. The tribe owns a fairly large casino resort in Cherokee operated by Caesars Entertainment under the brand Harrah’s. The Eastern Cherokee do not live on a reservation, which is defined as land given by the federal government to a tribe. They own 57,000 acres of land which they bought in the 1800s and which is now owned by them but held in trust by the federal government.

There is an attraction in Cherokee that has moved away from the trappings of my childhood memories and beyond my mother’s fantasies of the “noble savage.” It is a temporary refuge from the slot machines, the gift shops, and the traffic. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian offers a cultural and historical overview of the people of the southern Appalachian Mountains going back 13,000 years. Contrary to popular opinion about appropriate nomenclature, it is actually more acceptable and accurate to use the term “American Indians” than “Native Americans” when referring to the tribes that occupied the western hemisphere before European exploration began. Combining interactive video with intriguing displays, the museum invites visitors to take a self-guided tour complete with computer-generated imagery, special effects, and an extensive artifact collection.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The museum’s interpretation is divided into two permanent exhibits: “Story of the Cherokee” and “Emissaries of Peace.” The first exhibit follows the history of the Cherokee from the early origins when mastodons roamed the region, through the Woodland and Mississippian periods, contact with Old World explorers and conquerors, the tragic Trail of Tears removal, and up to the present day.  The second exhibit tells the story of Henry Timberlake’s visit to the Cherokees in 1762, and how he took Cherokee leaders to London to meet with King George III. These narratives are told through animation, audio-visual presentations, life-sized figures, artwork, and priceless artifacts.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is not a tourist trap designed only for entertainment or to perpetuate stereotypes about Indians portrayed in early motion pictures. It is managed by knowledgeable professionals who care about the Cherokee people’s heritage and dignity as an independent tribe. The executive director, James “Bo” Taylor, earned a degree in anthropology with a minor in Cherokee Studies from Western Carolina University. He has learned the Cherokee dances, which he performs regularly, and can read and write the Cherokee language. Taylor also teaches the Cherokee language in intensive ten-day immersion classes. The museum’s education director, Dr. Barbara R. Duncan, earned her Ph.D. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982 and has lived in the southern Appalachian Mountains since 1983. She has written and edited award-winning books about Cherokee history and culture, including Living Stories of the Cherokee and Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook (with co-author Brett Riggs).

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

In addition to exhibits, the museum offers workshops, performances, guided tours of the region, publications, and classes. The museum archives is a repository of thousands of books, photographs, manuscripts, personal papers, and digital collections, all of which are accessible to museum members and qualified scholars. Visitors to the museum can spend an hour or two strolling through the halls, or a day or two becoming completely immersed in the displays and collections. This facility is a real treasure and not to be missed by those who are truly interested in the story of the Cherokee Indians, or as they originally called themselves, Aniyunwiya, “the principal people.” Enjoy the casino, but take a break from the tables and check out the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and make sure to use part of your winnings to purchase a souvenir from the museum’s gift shop.

Yes, Viva Las Vegas, Because It Is So American

Europeans moved into the Mexican-held area of what is now Las Vegas in the early 1800s on expeditions to open trade routes between New Mexico and California. “Las Vegas” is Spanish for “the meadows,” which described the grassy area in the desert that was fed by a series of springs. By the mid-19th century, this valley region was a part of the United States. The railroads came through in the early 20th century, but southern Nevada was still very much a frontier region. Everything began to change in 1931 with a huge project that would completely alter the physical and cultural landscape of the valley: the construction of Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Thousands of workers needed entertainment, and they found it on the city’s only paved road, Fremont Street, where gambling houses and saloons began to pop up with their signature flashing neon signs made possible with the plentiful electricity generated at the dam.

Vegas Vic from the Pioneer Club
Vegas Vic from the Pioneer Club

As mob money funneled from the east began to pour into the city, the funds went from playing the tables to building casinos, and even legal investors became interested, including the Mormon Church. By the mid-1950s, millions of tourists were making their way to the city, driving up the demand and the supply of casinos, hotels, and night clubs. The Old-West character of the city was replaced by massive, more modern resorts in the 1960s with the interest and influx of cash from big players like Howard Hughes. Into the 1980s and 90s, investors such as Steve Wynn pushed the envelope even further with the introduction of the Mirage and numerous resorts popped up with international themes from places like Paris, Venice, Egypt, and Rome.

Las Vegas resorts
Las Vegas resorts

With its reputation for providing an endless supply of legal amenities around the clock, such as gambling, striptease shows, and alcohol, along with the not-so-legal activities of drugs, money-laundering, and prostitution, Las Vegas has earned the nickname “Sin City.” It is the premiere destination for self-indulgence, excess, and over-the-top entertainment for adults. Over the decades the city has produced a distinctive sub-culture and has inspired hundreds of cliches, myths, and jokes. It attracts more than 41 million visitors each year from every state in the union and all around the world. Seventeen of the twenty largest hotels in the country are in Las Vegas, and they are all luxurious.

Las Vegas night life
Las Vegas night life

Both historians and sociologists have observed that among the advanced countries in the world, America is still like a reckless, impetuous adolescent — full of energy and life, always on the run, flashy and even gaudy, a little out of control, and perhaps a bit naughty. If this is a fair assessment, then Las Vegas is an exhibition of America to the extreme. Visitors come to the city for many different reasons, but most of those reasons revolve around the entertainment options available. Certainly, Vegas is not everyone’s cup of tea, and many people find it shallow, gratuitous, or even repulsive. Be that as it may, this city undeniably presents us with an honest and vivid reflection of an important part of the American spirit. We are a nation driven by sensation. We love to be dazzled, impressed, shocked, and amazed. Las Vegas never fails to deliver.

Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino
Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino

San Francisco Hiking

For those who enjoy hiking, perhaps the first places that come to mind for the activity are wilderness sanctuaries offered at national and state parks or through the U.S. Forestry Service.  Surprisingly, there are also some major metropolitan areas that provide hiking opportunities both inside the city and in the surrounding countryside.  Inner-city parks are great places to enjoy nature and leg-stretching.  Sometimes, just walking the streets can end up being a good cardio workout, especially when cities are built in hilly sections of the country.  One of the best destinations for hiking in the U.S. is the San Francisco Bay area.  The city is characterized by steep hills and valleys, and there is an abundance of parks and wilderness all around the bay.

Transamerica building in San Francisco
Transamerica building in San Francisco

The city of San Francisco is built on a peninsula in a grid pattern with a collection of over forty hills, some of which reach a height of nearly 1,000 feet.  There are plenty of books and websites devoted to urban hiking for San Francisco, and there are groups organized specifically for walking in the city for health, recreation, relaxation, social interaction, and learning about the history of the area.  There are even companies that offer guided walks, such as Urban Hiker San Francisco.  Most walks are a moderate challenge to people in fairly good health, and some of them have the added bonus of stellar views of the city.  For example, the 40-minute loop trails at Bernal Hill crisscross 26 acres of pathways, some of which lead to the summit with 360-degree views of San Francisco all the way to Daly City, Oakland, and Berkeley.

Once you get outside the city, there are loads of hiking options to the north, east, and south.  The California Coastal Trail is very popular and yields spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged cliffs along the California Coast.  There are also nice trails with beautiful bay vistas and distant views of the Golden Gate Bridge in suburbs such as Point Richmond to the east.  Located along the rocky cliffs to the south and overlooking the ocean, Lands End is easily one of the most popular spots for a scenic walk.  The trails are accessible from a parking lot just north of the world-famous Cliff House and directly in front of another major San Francisco attraction — the ruins of the Sutro Baths, a former swim palace built in the 19th century which featured the world’s largest indoor swimming pool at the time of its opening.  The waves crashing against the giant rocks on the beach at Lands End is like something out of a movie!

Land's End waves crashing on the beach
Lands End waves crashing on the beach

Looking for a more traditional hiking experience?  Just a short drive north of the city is Muir Woods National Monument.  Named for the adventurous naturalist who devoted so much of his life to preserving the wonderful natural resources of the west, this National Park Service property is home to a primeval forest of old growth coast redwoods, cooling their roots in the fresh water of Redwood Creek and lifting their crowns to reach the sun and fog.  The diversity of flora and fauna at Muir Woods is incredible.  The redwoods themselves dominate the scene, but the humble Steller’s jay, ladybugs, ancient horsetail ferns, and the banana slug hold their own beneath the canopy.  Plants adapt to low light levels on the forest floor, while whole plant and animal communities bustle in the canopy.

Muir Woods
Muir Woods

Of course, the bay is the true centerpiece of this portion of the Pacific Coast.  With an average depth of only 12-15 feet, this large body of water looks more like a massive inland lake than a gateway to the ocean.  The main body of the bay covers about 400 square miles.  Approximately 40% of California’s water systems drains into the bay.  Most visitors to the area probably take in the view of the bay from Golden Gate Bridge, but to truly appreciate its size, the perspective from the surrounding hillsides is best.  My personal favorite vantage points are along the east side at Richmond and from the north at Muir Woods.  Hiking is a great form of exercise, but what we see along the way makes the experience so memorable.  With that objective in mind, San Francisco is a hiker’s dream.

San Francisco Bay from Muir Woods
San Francisco Bay from Muir Woods

Want to Really Experience Paris? Bon Appetit!

After visiting a city like Paris, most people when they return home will talk to friends and family about the famous sights they saw.  Why not?  Paris is filled with internationally-famous landmarks, museums, churches, historic places, and all kinds of other attractions.  My wife and I took our first but hopefully not our last trip to Paris during the summer of 2016, and as anyone would expect, we spent plenty of time planning our visit to ensure we saw as much as possible during the short week we were there.  Several weeks before we left for Paris, we were talking to a colleague about our upcoming trip and all the sightseeing we had planned.  He had been to the city more than once, and as a travel veteran, he gave us some valuable advice.  He told us to schedule plenty of time to sit at a sidewalk café and soak up the Parisian atmosphere – the people, the sounds, the smells, and of course, the flavors.  At the time of our conversation, I was thinking “we have too much to see to waste time sitting at a table sipping wine.  We can do that anywhere.”  I was wrong.

As is the case in many European cities, a meal in Paris involves much more than eating and drinking, especially in the evening.  It is an opportunity to relax, reflect on the day, participate in engaging conversation, and enjoy some of the best food anywhere.  There is absolutely no rush.  The wait staff is not the least bit concerned, as in America, about turning the table.  There is no sense of urgency to order as soon as you are seated, but getting a drink to start things off is certainly not a problem either.  Depending upon the establishment, its location, the time of year, and the weather conditions, you may prefer to dine inside, but almost every bistro has sidewalk seating.  We had some of our best meals in Paris at tables set just outside the door of bistros.  There were a few exceptions, such as the Metropolitan, located in the section of Paris called The Marais a couple of blocks from where we were staying.  This cozy little restaurant lives up to its name with wooden benches and other interior décor that are reminiscent of the train platforms from the early years of the Metro transportation system in the city.  Chef Paul-Arthur Berlan, a semi-finalist on Top Chef in 2011, creates a limited but impressive collection of dishes.  The menu was printed completely in French, and we were clueless.  But, when we asked our attentive waitress for help, she was so gracious and said, “Even French people have trouble with our menu!”  The food was excellent, and the atmosphere in the restaurant was perfectly reflective of what we observed about Parisians in general: they are such happy and vivacious people.

Metropolitan Restaurant
Metropolitan Restaurant, Paris

A significant part of the adventure of visiting a city in a foreign country is trying something new, and for me in Paris, this meant eating escargot for the first time.  Someone told me that ordering escargot is simply an excuse to eat lots of garlic butter.  I’m fine with that!  Actually, the snails reminded me of another mollusk, saltwater mussels, that I have eaten many times on the Atlantic coast in the U.S. – incredibly delicious.  Another important aspect of dining in Paris is the variety of cuisine you find there, which is usually the case in most cities with such ethnic diversity.  One of our best meals was at a Roman bistro on the sidewalk under a large canopy within sight of the Arch de Triumph, where we feasted on grilled chicken over pasta with the lightest and most flavorful cream sauce I have ever tasted.  Magnifique!

One day around noon after taking a dozen photographs of the Eiffel Tower, we wandered across the Pont de Bir-Hakeim (a bridge crossing the Seine River near the Tower) and up a series of steps just beyond the Passy Metro station where we discovered what was once a separate village known as Passy before it was incorporated into Paris in the 1860s under Napoleon III.  At a round-about intersection, we walked up to a bistro to have lunch.  We didn’t know at the time, but the place is called Le Passy.  We had scrumptious salads at a small sidewalk table, and I indulged in a Mojito (or two).  We were fascinated watching people walk by, coming from local markets and stores with packages in their arms. Other patrons were also having lunch, reading, or chatting. We were doing exactly what our colleague back home had suggested, immersing ourselves in a neighborhood of Paris and soaking in the culture of the place. To my way of thinking, this kind of experience makes the difference between touring and traveling.

Le Passy Bistro
Le Passy Bistro, Paris

I cannot end this recollection without mentioning our favorite breakfast spot, a small bakery just a few blocks down from our apartment.  Miss Manon is not unlike a hundred other bakeries all around the city, but this one was so convenient, and the chocolate-filled pastries were exceptional.  The women who manage the shop (could one of them have been THE Miss Manon?) were patient with us, even though it took us a few visits to understand the proper dine-in protocol: patrons look at the mouth-watering selection of goodies in the glass cases, make their selection, then find a seat and wait for the staff to bring their food to them.  I think they told us several times, but here again, we don’t speak French, and their English was limited.  We still got along marvelously.  It was a bit cool in the early mornings, so we sat inside.  It was fascinating to hear the interaction of the women out front with the men who were baking in the back and bringing out trays of fresh pastries, breads, baguettes, and tarts.  At times the women sounded irritated with the men, but then they would laugh and shake their heads, and greet the next customer with a cheerful “Bonjour!”

Miss Manon Bakery
Miss Manon Bakery, Paris

We were able to learn about Paris from tour guides, museums, books, maps, and videos.  We saw the amazing attractions, walked through the churches, strolled around the gardens, and wandered through the streets to experience so much of what the city has to offer.  Even then, we did not get the sense that we were connected with the city. Only when we stopped, sat at a table, ate and drank, and watched and listened did we begin to hear the heartbeat of this enchanting place.