Let’s Go To Venice!

Venice, Italy has been on my Bucket List since I was a little kid. I have always wanted to see it in person. Since Venice is only about a three-hour flight from Paris, it’s VERY doable as a weekend trip! Hallelujah!

We had Easter weekend free this year, so we decided to head southwest to where the Old World meets the Adriatic sea. Our goals were simple: to eat beautiful Italian food and to watch the world glide by — while we relaxed in the sun and sipped Soave. It was going to be a quick trip, but I wasn’t worried. I’m a girl who knows how to plan.

Our flight landed at two in the afternoon, and we immediately took a water taxi to the hotel. Sure, there are other ways to make your way from the airport: cab to the train, then a train to the island…even a water bus. But when your time is limited, there’s nothing that gets you into the mindset of Venice faster than a private water taxi. You fly across the water at top speed from the airport to the entrance of the city. Then your boat slows to a crawl, and everything changes. It’s like being transported back in time. There are no cars, no motorcycles, no bicycles. You hear almost nothing but the waves lapping up against your boat, the low hum of the now-quiet motor, and of course, the gondoliers singing Italian arias and playing accordions as they float past you along the canal.

The moment you make the turn onto the Grand Canal, you see Venice exactly as it is in the movies. The view takes your breath away, and that boat ride makes you feel like an old-fashioned film star. What’s more, before you’ve even unloaded your bags, you’ve already had the perfect introduction to Venice, cruising along the Grand Canal like people have done for centuries.

As we eased over to the dock of our hotel, we were greeted by the concierge. The Hotel Canal Grande is named for the canal on which it sits, and we chose it very carefully. It’s about a half hour walk from where most tourists stay, so it’s quiet and peaceful. And of course, it’s beautiful: an ancient building decorated with classic antiques and pale silk fabrics. The people at the hotel are kind and completely charming. In particular, the manager was amazing; his name was Alessandro. (How sexy it that?)

When we arrived, he told us that he was upgrading our room…HIS TREAT. I had been emailing him back and forth, asking for ways to make our short visit more fun: private tours he recommended, restaurants he loved, etc. Long story short, he ended up giving us the only room in the hotel with a private terrace. This sweet little space sported two chaise lounges with a gorgeous view of the Grand Canal, and it even came with a bottle of Prosecco on ice. Needless to say, I fell in love with Alessandro, the hotel, AND Venice immediately.

I had never stayed in a room with a private terrace before, so I had no idea what I had been missing, but it absolutely MADE the trip! Whenever we came back to the hotel in the afternoon, we’d sit out there for an hour or so, resting our feet while we sipped Prosecco or a cappuccino. And every night before bed, Leon would ask the bartender for a snifter of Sambuca for him and a pot of hot tea for me. We’d lie out there under a big blanket, staring at the stars and the beautiful marble bridge across the canal while we watched gondola after gondola pass our way. It was heaven!

Venice is simply gorgeous. It is a collection of 117 small islands connected by 409 bridges. Now, I feel compelled to point out something about Venice that no one ever tells you. Walking there all day is like doing 12 hours on the stairmaster at the gym. Every 100 feet or so, there’s a bridge, which you expect. What you don’t take in to consideration is that almost every bridge is a flight of stairs up and a flight back down. Sometimes on the bigger canals, it’s more like two or three flights up and down. I hurt in places I didn’t even know I had. But it was totally worth it!

One of the few things I booked for the trip was our own private gondola tour of Venice — with the only female gondoliera in the city: Alex Hai. We took her Romantic Sunset Tour. This private tour is scheduled for 6pm, to allow you to watch the sun set from the boat while you sip Prosecco from crystal flutes. For a slightly higher fee, she even agreed to extend the normal tour from one hour to an hour and a half. We cuddled together in the gondola underneath a big, cozy blanket while we glided through the city. By the time the tour was over, we felt like we’d been on vacation for a week! We’d explored not only the Grand Canal, but also many of the smaller canals that are less traveled, and somehow she avoided all the gondola traffic jams that other tourists complain about. It was marvelous. As we floated along the water after sunset, we watched the city grow dark and the street lamps begin to glow pink. Do you know why they glow pink? It’s the gold dust. All the street lamps in the city are made from glass, hand blown in Murano, and the gold dust that’s blown into the panes tinges them a light pink. What a fairy tale!

Alex kept quiet most of the time so we could enjoy the romance of it all, but whenever we passed something especially interesting or had a question, she would explain the history of that part of the city. She even pointed out the building where George Clooney got married, and I had my very own moment of silence – to mourn the loss of one of my favorite singletons. At the end of the cruise, she handed me a long-stemmed, red rose and wished us a lovely night, which, of course, it was.

In all honesty, just the gondola ride and sitting on our terrace would have been enough to make this one of our favorite vacations, but then there was the food. The first night we ate at a place called Bistrot de Venise. There were no reservations available, but the owner, Sergio, told me to come at 9:30 and he would fit us in somehow.

Since we knew we didn’t have to be at the restaurant until 9:30, we wandered over to Saint Mark’s Square to listen to the live orchestra at Cafe Florian. I sipped some of the world’s best hot chocolate and Leon had one of his favorites, Lightning Sambuca. The night felt absolutely magical, and we hadn’t even had dinner yet. At around 9:15 we headed back over to the restaurant, figuring the place would be empty by then, but boy were we wrong. Sergio wasn’t kidding, there wasn’t a table available anywhere; they had reservations scheduled until 11:30! But true to his word, they gave us the very next table — one in the corner of a romantic room lined in red velvet. I had a bellini while Leon chose red wine, and we feasted on tempura calamari and shrimp that dissolved on your tongue, homemade linguini with scallops and baby asparagus, and for dessert, white chocolate torte with rose gelato. We strolled back to the hotel (and…you guessed it) spent the next hour star-gazing from our terrace. (Thank you, Alessandro, for the best room in the world!)

The next morning was Easter, so after breakfast, we made the long walk to Saint Mark’s Square for our pilgrimage to the Basilica. Standing there in front of that gorgeous cathedral on Easter morning, listening to the bells peal and echo throughout the square, I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. It felt sacred. I prayed for all our friends, our families and just for everyone on earth. I prayed that each of us would take moments in our lives to realize how blessed we are just to wake up each morning, just to be part of this beautiful world for the time that we’re here.

Later, we took a tour of the Doge’s Palace to study its art as well as its history. As we walked across the Bridge of Sighs to the prison, we learned how seriously the Venetians took their politics. If there was a politician who ended up being bad at his job, not only was he killed, but so were all the people who voted for him! The result? The minute a politician did anything wrong, his own supporters killed him. And we think American politics is cut-throat!

After the tour, we sought out a hidden little gallery with a glass blowing shop upstairs. There were no slots available in any of the exhibitions that day, so they made an exception and fit us in between two tour groups, giving us our own private glass blowing lesson and tour. It was fascinating.

We chose a little place called Trattoria Povoledo for lunch. It was right across the Grand Canal from our hotel. The maitre d’ Roberto, had reserved a table for us right on the water. The people were friendly and welcoming. The food was light and delicious. and the view was so gorgeous that we ate there three times in two and a half days! We sat in the sunshine, sipping Soave right on the Grand Canal, and ate beautiful, grilled, flakey white fish, homemade pasta and real Italian pizza. All the while, our adorable waitress, Ivanka, gave me Italian lessons. I couldn’t have loved it more.

Afterwards, we wandered back to our beautiful hotel – to our tiny, private terrace to drink our final bottle of Prosecco and gaze out at the Grand Canal. What a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.

And Venice…What a wonderful way to travel back in time.

* If you want to learn more about our beautiful hotel, the Canal Grande, click here: http://www.hotelcanalgrande.it
* If you want to learn more about Venice’s only female gondoliera, Alex Hai, click here: http://www.gondoliera.com
* If you want to look over the menu of the wonderful Povoledo restaurant, with its huge outdoor dining room on the Grand Canal, click here: http://www.trattoriapovoledo.com

April 1st – Poisson d’Avril


Did you know that the idea of April Fool’s Day actually originated in France?

In fact, the tradition dates all the way back to the 16th century.  Since then, the French have laughingly referred to the first day of April, not as April First, but April Fish (or “Poisson d’Avril”).

Why fish? Believe it or not, because of the Christian tradition of Lent. Giving each other a paper fish on the first of April was a way of gently poking fun at all the fish one was required to eat over Lent, having given up red meat until Easter.

The most popular trick played on this holiday is very old school. You cut out a piece of paper in the shape of a fish, and then stick it on the back of one of your friends. It’s that simple. The cut-outs can be plain or elaborately-colored and ornate. And the application of these fish can be anything from a good old “slap on the back” to much more elaborate plots in order to apply the cut-outs as sneakily as possible. When other people notice the fish on the person’s back, they point and shout “Poisson d’Avril!” Roughly translated, that means “YOU…are the April Fish!” School children in particular get a huge kick out of this game. They stick all kinds of paper fish on the backs of their friends, and sometimes, even their parents.

There are other pranks played throughout the day as well, of course. One of my favorites is done by the rail system in Paris. All day on April 1st, Homer Simpson tends to make the public announcements at the train station. Cute, right?

Of course, no tradition in France is complete without a food to commemorate it. And for Poisson d’Avril, it’s fish. All throughout Paris on April 1st, you’ll find plenty of chocolate fish to help you enjoy the holiday. Every chocolatier, boulangerie and patisserie has their own versions. If you would rather have real seafood, every restaurant in the city offers a fruit de mer special of the day as well.

Ever since the United States borrowed the concept of April Fool’s Day from the French, we’ve had to suffer through our friends’ practical jokes. My question is this. WHY, OH WHY, didn’t we steal the idea of chocolate fish too?   Ah well!

Bon Poisson d’Avril!

Valentine’s Day — Ten Years Later


Our move to Paris got put off so many times, we thought it might never happen. After 18 months of negotiations, the deal finally came through. I knew our moving to Paris was a “God-thing” when it turned out that just by chance — the day we finally moved here to live as man and wife, was ten years to the day after Leon proposed to me on the Champs Élysées. In fact, our new apartment was just an 8-minute walk from the very spot where he popped the question way back on Valentine’s Day in 2005.

Now, this isn’t going to be a big, over-the-top Valentine story like the day we got engaged, but to me at least, it’s just as beautiful and every bit as romantic — in a different way.

We should probably start this story on the afternoon of February 13, at about 3 o’clock. That was when we left our home in Dallas to make the big move to France. We loaded up the car with six large suitcases, six carry-on bags, two coats and, of course, our two little furbabies, GizMo & Molly, and we headed off to the airport. Then the flight got delayed…and delayed…and delayed. About three and a half hours later, the plane finally took off, winging its way to Paris. Thank goodness we had the dogs to cuddle with because I was a nervous wreck at that point. I didn’t speak French at all at that point, and we were headed to a new apartment which I had not yet seen — a place where we hadn’t signed the lease, or even been given a key. The realtor was going to meet us there once we landed to handle all of that. If she didn’t show up, we were going to have a very bad day.

But all turned out well. Leon phoned the realtor when we landed at around noon. She was waiting at a café around the corner from the new place, (huge sigh of relief.) When we pulled up to the building, she met us and helped get all of our bags upstairs. (We must have looked like the Beverly Hillbillies hauling all of that luggage, I swear.)

Leon was proud of having landed us such a great apartment, so he wanted to be the one to walk me through it for the very first time. Wow, did he ever hit a home run. It is ENORMOUS…at least by Parisian standards. There’s a foyer with a walk-in closet, a huge salon and dining room with a marble fireplace, two bedrooms (both on a quiet little courtyard) and an adorable and totally tricked-out, little red kitchen. Every room has those beautiful floor to ceiling windows so common in French architecture, and the apartment is completely furnished, with basic, but very comfortable things. The best bit? It has eight closets with custom built-ins. I have to admit, when I saw those closets, I swooned. My husband really knows how to nurture my inner organizational goddess. Like I said earlier, total home run.

We signed the papers, got our keys and started unpacking — for five and a half hours straight. We even went to the grocery store and stocked the pantry and the fridge with everything we needed to start cooking together. After that was done, we took a walk with the babies to get them used to their new neighborhood (which we all fell in love with immediately).

Then Leon told me about his surprise. He knew we couldn’t leave the dogs alone in a strange apartment all night after they’d been trapped on an airplane for 14 hours, so he had arranged a Valentine’s dinner for us AND the dogs, at our favorite Parisian hideaway, Mon Bistrot.

When we walked into the restaurant, the kissing started. First Yann, the chef and owner; then Julien, our favorite waiter; and finally, Martial, the sommelier who always demands four kisses from me whenever I go there. By the way, they even kissed the dogs. That’s how sweet they are. Then they walked us to our table, and I laughed out loud — It was a table for FOUR. How adorable is that? After Julien pulled out my chair for me, he ran back and got a bowl of water for the dogs because he thought they would be thirsty after their long trip. (Didn’t I tell you he was the best?!?) The dogs laid right down and slept all through dinner –never even moved a muscle. (I suppose jet lag is just as tough on dogs as it is on people.)

I felt like I was in a romantic comedy. We were so exhausted we were giddy. I couldn’t believe it. We were finally here. We actually lived in Paris! (Only for about six hours at that point, but still.) It was a wonderful night: funny and fun, and romantic and well, in a word, perfect.

Now, Mon Bistrot’s dining room is always beautiful. The walls are painted this dreamy, robin’s egg blue. There are massive, gilt-framed, art gallery originals lining the walls — vintage ads for liqueurs and absinthe; I lust after them every time we have dinner there. As if that weren’t enough, in one corner, there is a huge crystal vase simply packed with cherry blossoms. The flowers float across the ceiling in the corner of the dining room like a giant canopy of pink butterflies. And every table was awash in candlelight. (I think that’s a requirement for any restaurant on Valentine’s Day, but Mon Bistrot does it especially well.)

That night, we had one of the most beautiful meals I’ve ever eaten in my entire life: champagne, truffles, duck breast with balsamic reduction, and a chocolate dessert that I still have dreams about to this day. Then we went home…to our perfect little apartment in Paris. Best day ever. It’s still one of my favorite memories of Paris — or anywhere else for that matter. Life is good.

Our First Valentine’s Day In Paris


Believe it or not, the very first Valentine’s Day that Leon and I ever spent together was actually here in Paris. We’d only been dating for about three months at that point, but Leon had some work to do here in February of 2005, so he asked me to join him in Paris for two weeks over Valentine’s Day. I agreed with one condition. I made him PROMISE me that he would not ask me to marry him while we were here. I know that sounds crazy, but I was afraid we would both be swept up with the romance of Valentine’s Day in Paris, and I didn’t want us to rush into marriage before we were absolutely sure we were ready for that.

You see, I’m not a “fly by the seat of your pants” kind of girl at all. I’m much more of a plodder. Since Leon was used to my inner control freak at this point, he happily agreed to that condition. He promised me that he wouldn’t propose, and we flew here for the holiday.

The weather in Paris for the month of February can be cold, dark and very rainy. But for those of you who want to visit, rest assured that there is no time of year, nor any weather when this city is not romantic. It’s magical that way. When people are coming to Paris for the first time, they tend to worry that the weather will be bad and spoil their trip. My reply is always the same. “Rain or shine, Paris is still Paris.” There’s just something in the air that floats over everything, leaving a rose-colored haze of romance in its wake.

Given that it was February, we were especially lucky with the weather. It was sunny and gorgeous every single day — but one. You guessed it…Valentine’s Day was dark, dreary and achingly cold. There were so many black clouds in the sky, it felt like twilight even at noon. Not to be deterred, Leon came up with a plan for the day. We would visit the Arc de Triomphe and then wander down the Champs Élysées doing a little window shopping. (A Texas girl getting carte blanche to shop all day? The man is a genius.)

When we arrived, we just huddled there under the shelter of the Grand Arch for a while and thought about how great this trip had been. Each day was better than the one before. As the clouds grew darker, we started walking down that beautiful boulevard, just peeking in shop windows and enjoying the day. Suddenly, in the window of a little jewelry shop, I spotted a gold Eiffel Tower pendant and squealed like a little girl. I thought it would be a perfect gift for my mother. But seeing how excited I was, Leon changed my mind. “Nope,” he said. “This is going to be for you.” Then he led me into the store.

We chatted with the sweet man behind the counter, and Leon told him that he wanted to buy the pendant for me. Then the little guys eyes started to sparkle and he rummaged around until he found a beautiful, red leather jewelry box etched in gold. He placed the pendant inside and wrote out some sort of certificate. (I have no idea what that was about. It was all in French.) When we stepped back outside into the darkness of the afternoon, I giggled and said, “Show me! Show me!”

Now, hand to God, this is the absolute truth. As Leon brought up the box between us and opened it to show me the pendant, suddenly one of those dark clouds split apart, and a beam of sun burst through. It was like a spotlight about ten feet across — with us in the center of the circle. The timing was so surreal that we both just started laughing. Then Leon caught my eye, smiled and said, “I know I promised, but it ain’t getting more romantic than this. So always remember this is where I asked you, and this is when I asked you. And you can answer me anytime you like.” At that point I got all weepy.

But of course, my inner control freak kicked in. I must say, I came up with what I thought was a brilliant compromise at the tiime.

Me: “OK. We can be engaged for 24 hours. That way, we can have the big, romantic Valentine’s evening, but we aren’t committed to anything when we get home. What time is it?”

Leon: “Four o’clock.”

Me: “OK then, we are engaged for the next 24 hours. And tomorrow at 4 pm, it evaporates.”

Leon (laughing): “Whatever makes you happy, honey.”

Me: “I love you so much.”

Leon: “I love you, too.”

And then we went on with our lovely day. We had a beautiful dinner in a quaint, out of the way restaurant that actually had a live accordion player just like you see in old French movies. We walked arm in arm along the Seine, cuddling together to stay warm and stay close. Later, when we got back to our hotel room, we stood on our tiny balcony and stared out at the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower while we talked about life. It was a perfect day.

The next morning, Leon took me shopping at Galeries Lafayette in search of a ring suitable for a 24-hour engagement. We found one. I still have it and still love it. Anyway, as we were riding on the escalator, Leon looked at his watch and said to me, “Well, it’s 3 o’clock. In one more hour, you’ll be free. How does it feel?” I thought about it for a minute and said, “Hmm. Not as good as I thought it would.” And that’s when he fist pumped the air with both arms and shouted “YESSSS!!!” at the top of his lungs. I really do think that was the moment I knew I was all in.

We’ve had other Valentine’s Days, of course. And I’ll tell you about them some day, but this one is still my favorite. Because this was the one where even though I was afraid, I knew I couldn’t let him go. That was the moment when I found my faith…and my future.



Chandeleur: Feast of Candles (and Crêpes!)

When the nights get long and the mornings grow dark, when the days are overcast and somber, the French have a wonderful solution: a celebration marking the return of light – La Fête de Chandeleur. It takes place forty days after Christmas, on February 2. This holiday marks both a Christian tradition (in honor of the day Jesus was presented at the temple) and a more ancient, Pagan one: the procession of the candles, to celebrate the time when the sun begins to lengthen the day, and light returns to France.

And as beautiful as all that sounds, it gets even better. The official food of this lovely holiday? Crêpes!

Why crêpes, you may ask?  Well, the color of the crêpe and its round shape symbolize the sun. So, today on Chandeleur, the nation of France eats crêpes…lots and lots of them: savory crêpes filled with goodies like ham, mushrooms, cheese and egg, or dessert crêpes just dripping with nutella, chocolate, strawberries or apples, even Grand Marnier with Chantilly cream.

I love many things French, but a holiday devoted to the eating of crêpes!?!?!   Hallelujah!  Vive la Chandeleur!  Et vive les crêpes!