From Two to Six

Day 305 (9th of January 2017) – London, U.K.

A good start to the morning.

Sitting by the window, it instantly struck me that this part of London, Paddington, was considerably quieter than I had expected. That comes with it being a mainly residential area, I guess. But then again, I also think that London isn’t the city of hustle-bustle that it’s built up to be. It certainly has the population and commerce to warrant it, but the place manages to maintain a very level-head in so much of its architecture and streets. That’s what I love about it, though. It’s so much like Sydney in the most minute of ways (the footpaths, the humour, the pubs) that it feels very familiar, unlike the foreign chaos of some of the Asian metropolises I’ve visited.

We were off after our one-night stay at the Park Grand Lancaster Gate. With the London Underground still closed due to strike action, we caught an Uber to our accommodation for the coming week.

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It was, without exaggeration, one of the most impressive apartments I’ve ever had the privilege of staying in. Situated right on the Thames, this three bedroom Chelsea property was as much as anyone could ask for when staying in London.

As briefly mentioned in the last blog post, Aimee and I were very lucky to have been offered to stay here by some family friends, Annie and Colin. Out of her own generosity, Annie made sure that everything was prepared for us before our arrival and guided us through it all. We instantly started brainstorming what sort of gift could possibly be adequate to thank the pair for letting us stay in their apartment while they were offshore.

After gawking at the impressive views of the Albert Bridge out front, we left to explore Chelsea properly.

Our first stop was Kings Road, the main street of the district. After some quick Googling, though, we quickly switched to Chelsea’s other main street of Fulham Road for a nice lunch.

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It was here that we ran over our already-drafted plans for our London experience: a day in Chelsea and its surrounds, a day at the main sights as well as Mayfair and SOHO, a day at the zoo and nearby markets, and finally a day visiting Aimee’s childhood home of Chorleywood.

As soon as we finished eating, we got started. We set off for our first item, passing through some impressive streets along the way.

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Aimee’s a bit of a museum girl. I’m not always as passionate, I must admit, but there is one particular museum in London which always sticks out in my mind as being one of the better museum experiences I’ve had. That’s the Natural History Museum, the colossal and magnificent-looking building infused with the irrepressible Victorian spirit of collecting, cataloguing and interpreting the natural world.

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We completed most of the museum’s exhibitions in order starting with “Human Evolution”.

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It was here that we identified the roots of some of my more peculiar physical features.

Next was the animal kingdom, which brought us through seemingly endless hallways of taxidermies of animals, many of which neither of us had ever seen.

I found the most interesting section of the animals to be the marine life.

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This wasn’t only because I find the sheer scale of what is under the sea to be impressive, but also because this part of the museum formed my clearest memory of my first visit back in December 2012. I recalled a picture Elijah had taken of me in front of the narwhal from last time, and endeavoured to snap a replica some four years later.

The next bit we saw was the part of the museum which I was most looking forward to – the dinosaurs. Despite never going through an obsession with these creatures when I was young, I have since come to appreciate just how different the Earth’s wildlife once was.

What I found most interesting wasn’t facts about the dinosaurs themselves, but rather how those facts were ascertained. For example, how we know that triceratopses formed defensive circles, or how we know that Tyrannosaurus Rex ate Triceratops.

The last part of the Natural History Museum which we visited before leaving was the section on anatomy. Most of our time was wasted glaring at the creepy enlarged foetuses.

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By the time we had emerged from the museum it was dark.

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We began walking along King’s Road to the east until we found a local pub – the exact sort of introduction to London which the both of us were looking for. Despite not being allowed to order a drink because our Australian driver’s licenses were not adequate, we still enjoyed our meals.

We didn’t make it all the way up King’s Road to Sloane Square since we were too tired, so we returned back to our Chelsea abode for a good night’s sleep.

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Day 306 (10th of January 2017) – London, U.K.

Happy birthday to Anneke!

We were up at 7:30am this morning to prepare for our breakfast. We were meeting up with Ally Musson and her boyfriend, Graham. Ally, the daughter of Dan Musson, is a good family friend who I have very good memories of growing up alongside. Although she’s a little older and me, her and her brother Jayden always took care of Bianca, Anneke and I when we would visit at a young age.

Dad called up from afar to insist that he would shout this morning’s breakfast, saying that as the Godfather of Ally it was his “duty” (he also insists, by the way, that Ally addresses him as “The Godfather” at all times).

Ally arrived at Nell’s in Chelsea sporting her classic smile and made for an entertaining meal as she always does. With her boyfriend being South African, he had plenty to talk about with Aimee. Ally and Graham have both moved to London to find some work and fulfil a lifelong dream. I can’t hide how jealous I am of them. They’re both in love with the city. Aimee and I are too – I don’t think either of us want to leave.

We took full advantage of Dad’s generosity with breakfast and parted ways.

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It turned out that for much of the end of breakfast Aimee was holding back some sickness which we returned back to our place to sort out. It became evident that a nap was in order, and so she caught some shut-eye while I worked on the blog and adjusted our plans accordingly.

A few hours later, Aimee was recharged and feeling much better. We headed straight for the bus to Buckingham Palace. The red double-decker buses are an icon of London, the novelty of which never seems to fade.

After disembarking at Victoria Coach Station, we decided to walk the rest of the distance. We marched alongside a Palace horse and cart.

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There she was.

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We also saw “The Mall”, the street down which the Royal Family has paraded for events such as the Golden Jubilee, the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

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Buckingham Palace was built in 1703 for the Duke of Buckingham, replacing St James’ Palace as the monarch’s official London residence in 1837. When she’s not delivering her trademark wave to far-flung parts of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II divides her time between here, Windsor and, in summer, Balmoral (not the Aussie one, unfortunately).

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Despite not being as much of a royal family nut as Aimee is, I still found myself fascinated by how this place is a functioning piece of history rather than a relic of the past.

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From the Palace we decided to walk right to London’s other most famous sites – the Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Along the way we walked through St James’ Park, spotting squirrels and even a playground which Aimee recalled playing at during her youth.

Just past the park were the Churchill War Rooms, where Winston Churchill coordinated the Allied resistance against Nazi Germany on a Bakelite telephone.

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It turns out that a memorial for victims of the Bali Bombings is also located here.

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It wasn’t a long walk from here to the Thames which is bordered by London’s most famous icons.

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I remember thinking the same thing when I last saw the Big Ben: it really is big. This clock tower, officially known as Elizabeth Tower, is the 96 m tall symbol of the U.K. It gives off a particularly stunning golden glow in the sun which makes you appreciate the intricate designs on each face.

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I made sure to capture a cliché shot of the Underground sign alongside the world-famous clock.

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The best view of the Houses of Parliament was actually not from the Thames, but from the direction of the sun.

It’s pretty unbelievable to think about some of the history which has occurred here. The failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in 1812 and the Provisional IRA’s 1974 bombing are among the more harrowing events to have occurred here. One interesting fact I found out about the Palace of Westminister, as it is officially known, was that Members may not eat or drink in the chamber; the exception being the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who may have an alcoholic beverage while delivering the Budget statement.

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We began making our way to our first Monopoly property – Trafalgar Square. On the way, though, we were stopped in our tracks by one of the most stunning pubs the two of us had ever seen.

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The inside was cosy and had views of the Big Ben. The hygge levels were through the roof.

We just had to get another meal here.

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I also got a drink on the house all for registering a spam email account to their mailing list.

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By the time we were over at Trafalgar Square it was dark, but the crowds had come out to play.

Like my Natural History Museum attempt, Aimee also recreated a shot from her youth.

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From Trafalgar Square and with a quick stop at a Starbucks, we continued on deeper into our Google Maps cluster of sites in the area. Next was a long walk to Covent Garden, passing by the National Opera Theatre and Lyceum Theatre along the way.

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We spotted yet more cosy pubs along every street.

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It prompted us to Google just how many bars there actually are in England, and we found this map.

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Over at Covent Garden it was a very different feel from when I last visited. It was quieter, largely due to the construction works, but things were also closing up. We quickly snapped up a gift for Annie, our London host, and moved on further into the pedestrian parts of London’s city centre.

As we walked on, the Monopoly squares seemed never-ending.

Piccadilly and London’s West End.

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Oxford Circus.

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Regent Street.

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We dipped our heads into each shop, gawking at the things we couldn’t afford and dreaming that we someday might (that’s Capitalism at work for you).

The most interesting part of Regent Street was exploring the smaller alleyways. We found an outdoor restaurant which tempted us to abandon our original plan for dinner, but we decided to continue onwards.

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My favourite part of this Mayfair/SOHO part of London was Carnaby Street, recommended by Dad for its quality dining and shopping.

Unfortunately, it was on Carnaby that the low of our London visit occurred. I was sitting on a store’s window sill recovering from a bad case of travel legs. Aimee and I were just chatting, and I put my bag and camera on my lap while we did so. Then, after willing myself to stand up and continue walking, I forgot what was on my lap. The camera tumbled over, smashing into the cobblestone ground lens first.

I flipped the camera to reveal its destroyed lens, dented out of shape by the force of the drop. I was suddenly on a tight time schedule – I had to replace the lens before Dad would arrive and see what I’d done to his baby.

Aimee and I spent the next hour walking into every camera store we could find, and we were turned away each time on the premise that “this lens only comes with the camera, we don’t sell it separately”.

Eventually, I had to just order a new one from JB Hi-Fi for the family to bring over to me. So, a few hundred dollars later, everything was fixed.

My mood grew much better once I had some quality food in my stomach. Aimee has been doing most of the food research this trip, and she delivered again tonight with an excellent quality hamburger restaurant (not fast food, I promise). We sat outside and enjoyed the cool winter chill.

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Day 307 (11th of January 2017) – London, U.K.

We boarded a red double-decker bus in the mid-morning on the way to our first stop of the day – Camden Markets. The bus ended up becoming a tourist route, passing by Harrods, the Marble Arch, and a number of other well-known locations.

It was actually just two blocks away from Harrods in Knightsbridge that our family stayed the last time we were in London, so I was able to spot it during the commute.

We disembarked the train in Camden, London’s most popular market. What started out as a collection of attractive craft stalls by Camden Lock on the Regent’s Canal now extends for hundreds of metres.

Within five minutes of walking, we had already seen a pizza place which tickled both of our fancies.

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We were in Camden more for the atmosphere than the actual shopping, but there was no doubt that we were tempted by some pretty cheap goods a lot of the time. Camden had too much of an edgy feel for either of us to relate to, but we still found it fascinating visiting some of the hyper-alternative stores “filled with more beards per square metre than a viking convention”, to quote Rob LeBusque. Among the more hipster places was Camden Lock Market, which we found better for its smoothies than its clothing.

Aimee declared at the beginning of our European adventure that visiting London Zoo was a compulsory for her. Being an open animal-lover and caring for three pets at home, she’s always had a soft spot for these places. Though it wasn’t my first pick for a visit, I couldn’t complain. After all, London Zoo certainly has a good name for itself.

We walked to the zoo from Camden along Regent’s Canal, enjoying the calm views and admiring the canal houses.

Over at the zoo, we found out that it was closing in an hour (much earlier than Google Maps had suggested to us). We made the split second decision to enter anyway and see as much as we could in the time that we had left. We finished a surprising amount, starting with the monkeys and gorillas.

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Then, we moved on to the butterflies…

Bigger cats…

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And Aimee’s favourite, the penguins.

Like any good zoo visit, we stood awkwardly as the animals humped, hoping nervously that the children around us didn’t understand what was going on.

In the spider section, the zoo also had a mock-up of an Aussie dunny to create a realistic environment for our spiders from Down Under. I wasn’t sure if they were trying to pay us out, but their model was scarily accurate.

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We abandoned our initial plans to head back to the centre of London via Portobello Markets after realising that it was too late in the day. Instead, we headed to the city. Exiting the tube station, we passed right under the Shard and News Corp’s alternative, the Baby Shard.

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Exiting here gave us the opportunity to take a walk down the windy shore of the Thames, heading from the London Bridge to the Tower Bridge.

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It wasn’t far from here that we found our destination for the evening after a quick meal at Pret A Manger – Ye Olde Mitre. This 1547 pub is probably my top recommendation for anyone visiting London. Despite not having a restaurant, it is by far and away the best venue I visited in the city to relax with a coffee or beer.

While at the pub, we researched how to get home on the tube or bus. It turned out that ferry was the most convenient option, and we jumped at the opportunity to cruise down the Thames as a commute rather than a tour cruise.

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The ride took us under all of London’s famous bridges, ending at Albert Bridge, the glowing suspension bridge (which also happens to feature in one of the Bridget Jones movies) situated just outside of our apartment.

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Day 308 (12th of January 2017) – London, U.K.

Today was a really special day. That was because we were visiting Aimee’s childhood home.

When she was five years of age, Aimee’s family moved to Chorleywood. As part of his medical training, Aimee’s Dad decided to take up a placement in England, and chose this town. This village in the Three Rivers district of Hertfordshire is just over an hour’s drive out of London. It actually has a station on London’s underground.

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We arose early in the morning for the long journey out to the town, making our way to Victoria Station for our train.

Upon arrival, the skies exhibited a classic English drizzle. But somehow, this weather made Chorleywood’s positive and quaint aura even more striking. It’s the town’s claim to fame after all – it was voted as the happiest place to live in England in 2004. That happens to be when Aimee was living there. Coincidence? I think not.

Just look at Lower Street, the main road.

Aimee didn’t recognise any of the stores on the street, so we took our best guess at a café for lunch.

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After enjoying the local vibes and eavesdropping on the banter with the barista, we continued on our walk around the village. Aimee had marked her old home on Google Maps. It was down Old Shire Lane. How English.

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We were mid conversation when Aimee stopped dead in her tracks and pointed to the side of the road.

“That’s it! That was my home!” she exclaimed.

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The Kippens lived in the front flat of this house, and I’ve seen many a picture of them all on this very porch. The house (despite its incredible size) was still smaller than Aimee remembered, no doubt a direct result of how much smaller she was when she was last here.

Aimee never would have thought that she’d be back here. Let alone without her family as an 18 year old. Let alone with a boyfriend who, as a five year old, she didn’t know she’d have.

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From the house, Aimee gained all of her bearings. She led me a few hundred metres away to Piggy Lane. Yes, Piggy Lane. Not a childhood name, but the street’s actual title. It felt like we were walking through the set of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Just near Piggy Lane was the Kippens’ local – The Stag. It’s questionable as to why Aimee remembers this one.

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One of the other nostalgic things we passed by was Chorleywood Primary School where Aimee attended year one.

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What I enjoyed most about Chorleywood, though, was just walking through the residential streets. It gave an excellent insight into what an average, happy life looks like in England. It all seems very ordered and familiar. An excellent alternative to Australia.

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We boarded the train back to London after we’d seen all that the village had to offer.

The rest of our afternoon was reserved for exploring two of London’s most iconic department stores: Selfridges and Harrods.

Selfridges was first. We perused the exquisite food hall and both emerged with a few treats.

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We took our time seeing everything that the store had to offer, before settling for a coffee on its top floor. It was raining fairly heavily outdoors, and it wasn’t in our interests to do too much walking outside.

Eventually we did brave the wet, though. It was worth it for this next store.

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Harrods, the luxury department store founded in 1834, has only one location at Brompton Road in Knightsbridge. The shop is of extraordinary scale, with 330 departments and 90,000 m² of floorspace. It has an annual revenue of around £750 million, and sees over 300,000 visitors on peak days.

The extravagance made you feel like you were walking through a palace rather than a store.

Although Harrods’ interior has always been grand, it makes even more sense now that it is owned by the State of Qatar.

By the time we left, it was snowing.

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Aimee and I cracked open some Harrods gummy bears for the warm bus ride home away from the cold.

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We weren’t at home for long, though. We had organised to have dinner with some friends. We definitely scored with the quality of our company. Noah Vaz graduated from Riverview two years before me, but we have been close friends for a number of years. Kiera Fahey is the older sister of Aimee and I’s close friend Sian, and we had always known each other for various reasons. It just so happened that the two of them were in London at the same time as us. To make things even more coincidental, Noah and Kiera became best friends during the Riverview French Exchange – the very same one which Bianca is on right now.

We all decided to treat ourselves and met at Maze Grill, a Gordon Ramsay restaurant in Chelsea. The waiters and chefs were all extremely professional, treating us to one of the best dinners which Aimee and I had experienced on the trip so far. When booking, I was asked whether we were celebrating any special events. I decided to bring Aimee’s birthday forward by three days in the hope that we’d get a cake. We did get a special happy birthday dessert, but a gluten-free cake turned out to be no cake at all.

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We enjoyed the dinner and our company so much that we all decided to continue on to a nearby pancake restaurant for some more dessert. It worked out well with plenty of options being on offer for Aimee.

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We enjoyed a drink with Noah and Kiera, relishing over many unexpected connections and funny stories. Noah will go on to study this semester at King’s College London while Kiera will be studying out of Paris. Both have exciting futures, and I’ve no doubt that we’ll continue to be close over the coming years.

Aimee and I made sure to enjoy the view for our last night in this beautiful London apartment. We will miss this place.

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Day 309 (13th of January 2017) – Paris, France

Off to Paris.

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It was an early start to have time to clean up the apartment and get out to St Pancras International Station at King’s Cross. We had chosen to catch the Eurostar after turning down some very tempting $35 airfares to get to the capital of France, figuring that the more expensive mode of transport would be was worth it due to the convenience of station’s location. Nonetheless, security and border control was still as tedious at the airport. Before too long, though, we were on board.

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Aimee pointed it out when we crossed the English Channel and arrived back on the main European continent – we had arrived in the same country as Bianca. I felt closer to home than I had in a long time.

Arriving in Paris, we raced to check-in to the family’s AirBnB and get first pick on bedroom.

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With Mum, Dad and Anneke arriving tomorrow, we had booked a loft apartment in Le Marais. Checking in was an interesting experience, especially given that the host only spoke French. It certainly gave my basic French a run for its money. I found that I struggled greatly with speaking French after not having practiced it for over two years, but my comprehension ability had not changed. That was promising, at least.

The apartment was a generous size considering its location.

We hadn’t been at the apartment for very long until I received a message from Bianca. She had a free day on her school exchange in France, and we had organised that she come to the house with whoever else so we could see each other earlier than planned.

I raced down to the street to meet her. With her were her friends Luke and Thomas, but they were quickly brushed aside when she ran to me with tears of joy. It felt pretty good.

I brought Bianca, Luke and Thomas up to see the apartment. Waiting for them there was Aimee – another familiar face which Bianca was very relieved to see. Together, we headed off to a walkabout lunch at Marché des Enfants Rouges. Along the way, I learned all about B’s adventures with the Riverview group in Toulouse and Paris. She seemed to have enjoyed it immensely despite her fair share of homesickness (to be expected on your first trip overseas without family). Most importantly, though, her French had improved and she had made a group of lifelong friends, Luke and Thomas being among of them.

Over at Marché des Enfants Rouges, we all selected the meal we wanted. Luke, Thomas and I opted for the galette sandwiches. We trusted that the long line was a promising sign of good food, and we turned out to be right.

While we were waiting, Aimee and Bianca caught up over a bowl of pasta in one of the food tents on the other side of the market. Marché des Enfants Rouges is the oldest covered market in Paris, having been established in the early 1600’s. The name in English translates as “Market of the Red Children” and refers to the children clothed in red (the colour of charity) who were cared for in a nearby orphanage.

After finally getting our meal, Luke, Thomas and I all went to join Bianca and Aimee. So that there would be enough space, we had to create another sitting area by using the seats of a stall which had closed. This worked well for a few minutes until the owner walked past, clearly fuming. He yelled at us in French, and we quickly got the message that he wanted us to move the seats back to their original place. We did in haste. While picking up my second stool and putting it back in its original place, I miscalculated how high it was off the ground and dropped it from a few centimetres up, creating a bang. I sensed the owner flaring up in the corner of my eye, and my instincts told me to run. That turned out to be the right move. A stool clattered behind me as the owner hurled it in my direction. Luke started trying to argue back to the owner in French while everyone else ran, spooked by what had just happened. We retreated and decided to call it an end to our visit to this market.

Instead, we enjoyed ourselves as we walked slowly back to the apartment, enjoying catching up for the first time in a long time. The last time that Aimee and I saw B was in July 2016, so it was a momentous occasion.

Soon after making it back to the apartment, Aimee and I decided to make our way out to Paris to see some of the essential sites. It timed well with Bianca, Luke and Thomas’ need to return to their hotel in time for roll call. We said our goodbyes until we would see them all again tomorrow.

Aimee and I had decided that it would be best to see the main tourist attractions of Paris before the rest of the family arrived, especially since the others had already seen it all. We started by catching a bus from Le Marais, heading through the rainy streets towards the Île de la Cité.

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This is one of two remaining natural islands in the Seine where the medieval city was refounded. It contains three particularly famous parts of Paris: Notre Dame, Pont Neuf, and the Eales family’s accommodation in their 2012/13 tour of Europe. Aimee and I were mainly interested in Notre Dame, the medieval Catholic cathedral completed in 1345. Notre Dame has overseen many significant parts of French history, including its desecration in the 1790’s during the radical phase of the French Revolution when much of its religious imagery was damaged or destroyed.

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Interestingly, Notre Dame houses some of Catholicism’s most important relics, including the purported Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails.

We walked from the Cathedral to the Louvre, enjoying the Seine along the way.

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At the back end of the Louvre we saw Saint Germain l’Auxerrois.

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When the Louvre was a royal place, Saint Germain l’Auxerrois was the King’s church. The bell, put up in 1529, was infamously used to signal the beginning of the massacre of the Saint-Barthélémy in 1572.

Over in the Louvre’s main courtyard, we admired the incredible history of this place.

Originally built as a fortress in the late 12th century under Philip II, it was eventually converted by Francis I in 1546 into the main residence of the French Kings. In 1682, Louis XIV chose the Palace of Versailles for his household, leaving the Louvre primarily as a place to display the royal collection. This function continued even past the French Revolution when it was decided in 1793 that the Louvre should be used as a museum to display the nation’s masterpieces.

Walking through the main doors, we got a glimpse of the world’s largest and second most visited museum.

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We stood here for some time, admiring the sheer scale of the 72,735 m² museum. We decided not to visit the museum since there were other museums in the city which we decided interested us more.

We boarded a bus to Champs de Mars, just under the Eiffel Tower.

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The Eiffel Tower always astounds me – it’s something which not only lives up to its reputation, but actually surpasses it. It has a mammoth size coming in at 324 m tall, and its colour is a striking chrome which you’ll be sure to never forget.

The tower’s size is accentuated no more than when you’re beneath it. Aimee and I enjoyed strolling around underneath in the icy cold wind, gawking at what was above us.

From the Eiffel Tower, it was a fairly lengthy walk and then a short metro ride to Charles de Gaulle Etoile, the closest metro station to the Arc de Triomphe.

The Arc de Triomphe stands at the western end of the Champs-Élysées at the centre of Place Charles de Gaulle. It honours those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, with the names of all French victories and Generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces. Beneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.

 

We ascended the 284 steps up to what I consider to be the best view of Paris.

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From above, the glowing veins of the city emerged from the buildings below. Each street was split perfectly between a flood of white and red from the hordes of cars.

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What we enjoyed the most about being atop the Arc de Triomphe was witnessing the chaos in the roundabout below. Aimee and I stood for what must have been at least 30 minutes, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at each near miss. It is said that no insurance company covers incidents in this roundabout because of how common accidents are. You can see why – it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

By the time we were finished watching the real-life action movie, we were ready to head home. On the way we bought some Thai food to enjoy in front of the TV. Much NCIS was watched that night.

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Day 310 (14th of January 2017) – Paris, France

We arose before 6am, because we were on a mission.

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Today we were picking up Bianca from her school exchange. Aimee and I arrived at the Best Western just outside of the Cadet metro station at 6:45am sharp, just as asked. A flood of nostalgia washed over me as I entered the lobby – it was the very same one in which so many memories had been sewed during my own French exchange.

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Here’s a picture of me in that very lobby.

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I said hey to many of Bianca’s friends who I’ve met in years past. Before we knew it, Bianca was leaping for joy as she left the school group into her family’s arms.

We returned straight away to the AirBnB. The rest of the family had landed from their connecting Abu Dhabi flight and would be meeting us before too long.

Back at the Le Marais apartment, I had a more complete breakfast while Aimee used Deliveroo to get something even better. We all sat and chatted while we wound down the time to everyone else’s arrival. Not long after 8am, I received a message saying that Dad was out the front. Bianca and I rushed down to meet the family’s car.

On the way down, Bianca “shotgunned” the first hug. That was unacceptable, I thought. After all, it had been 172 days since I’d last seen everyone as opposed to Bianca’s 36 days. All my reputation as a chivalrous older brother who puts his sisters before himself was thrown out the window – I was getting the first hug. We agreed that we would both stand in front of the car as it arrived and let it happen by its own course. I secured pole position just in front of the side door. Sure enough, Annie emerged into my arms first. Xavier 1, Bianca 0. I owe her one for that.

It was a delight to see everyone. Aimee was excited to see everyone too; it was no doubt the closest taste to home she’d had on this trip. We carted all of the luggage upstairs before sitting down for our first proper conversation with everyone. We also exchanged presents from Christmas and missed birthdays. I received some nifty shirts and books from the family. I was proud of some of the presents I gave too, including a lolly-making kit in the design of sushi for Annie and a Roger Federer hat for B (she’s a massive fan).

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Without too much delay, we headed off for our day’s activities in order to combat the inevitable jet lag of Mum, Dad and Anneke. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the first thing on the agenda was shopping. Not shopping just anywhere, but at Galeries Lafayette Haussmann.

And of course, from this point onwards, the camera was no longer mine.

We began at the food hall, biting into our first ham and cheese croissants of the French trip. I bought myself a wasabi-flavoured macaroon, appreciating the underlying flavour of the ingredient without the spice kick on top.

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Then, the girls split off to go clothes shopping. I was a little shopped-out already, so I went with Dad to investigate buying new bags to replace some which were broken. We picked up two suitable ones, and I zipped back to the apartment to drop them off before the others had finished their shopping. On the way back, one of the bags became caught in the exit gates which clamped down hard when I was exiting the metro. It wasn’t until after a few minutes of tugging that an attendant came to help me out so that I could carry on my way.

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It was while walking back to the apartment on my own that I was first able to capture the stunning white buildings of Le Marais against the crisp blue sky.

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Back at Galeries Lafayette, the family had wrapped up their shopping and were ready to move on to the next destination which I’d slated in the itinerary: the Latin Quarter. We jumped on a bus heading that way.

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The Latin Quarter was the centre of Bohemian Paris at its height. Recent gentrification has taken away much of the original remnants of student culture and famous Parisian intellect, but the district still maintains allows you to do what we all love most in Paris: getting lost. Its winding alleyways draw you in and have you salivating at the mouth with each new restaurant.

It was freezing cold, and so it wasn’t long until we’d found a restaurant just off Notre Dame to warm us up and satisfy our appetites. We walked past Place St. Michel on the way out of the Latin Quarter, the location of some of the most important events in the French resistance to the occupying Nazi forces.

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After a lunch of skate and the first good wine I’ve had in months, we continued deeper into Paris, this time along the Boulevard St. Germain.

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Saint-Germain-des-Prés has it all – it’s simultaneously a classically Parisian neighbourhood and an upscale artistic hub. Here, it’s all about the people-watching and the window-shopping – something which our family’s certainly good at.

What we enjoyed most about St. Germain were the back alleys, filled with the sort of graffiti and street art which doesn’t make you think of crime.

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While Mum and Dad made a stop at the wine bar, everyone else continued on to the grocery store to pick up what we’d need for the coming week. Along the way, we passed the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the twin towers of Saint-Sulpice Church.

Returning back to Mum and Dad, we regrouped and continued towards our destination for dinner. Along the way we passed this place by complete accident.

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This was where the other Eales’ (John, Lara, Elijah, Soph, Lily and Evie) stayed on our trip to Europe together in 2011/12. Most of us remembered it well.

The most exciting event of the day was yet to come. It was also the other Eales family who first introduced us to the restaurant “Relais de l’Entrecôte”. This legendary eatery serves nothing but a salad along with all-you-can-eat steak and chips. But this isn’t just any steak. It is, by Mum’s estimation, grass-fed steak (because she can taste the difference from grain-fed, apparently).

Before securing our spot in the line, we waited to meet with Thibault Fourçade. Thibault was my French Exchange student from 2013/14 on the very same exchange that Bianca has just completed. He strutted into the room looking as suave as ever, sporting that trademark Thibault bouffant. It was a joy to see him. Everyone gave the big man a hug and gawked at how much his English had improved, especially when compared to the gradual decline of my French.

We moved on to dinner together to continue our conversation.

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We all devoured our rare steaks and pushed through as many more as we could eat, all while catching up over the years we’d missed. It turns out that Thibault is currently in ‘Classe Preparatoire’, a sort of program between high school and university which gains you entry into certain degrees. In Thibault’s case, that degree is engineering. He’s got more guts than I do! We no doubt overstayed our welcome at the restaurant – everything was just too nostalgic. We even had new memories to discuss with Bianca having visited the Fourçades in December on her exchange. Eventually it was time to leave. Thibault made his way to a party, as he always does, while the rest of us called it in for a night’s sleep.

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Day 311 (15th of January 2017) – Paris, France

Happy 19th birthday to Ms Aimee Kippen! And what a place to have a birthday – in Paris. Because as Audrey Hepburn famously said, “Paris is always a good idea.”

We had a stellar day organised, catered completely to her interests. Aimee has always loved her palaces and gardens, and so we figured that today was the perfect day to visit Versailles. But before we got going, we gave Aimee our gifts. Aimee’s skin will be looking as good as ever from today – I bought her as many bundles of her favourite face masks and cream as she will ever need, and the rest of our family bought her an Urban Decay “Naked” palette (which is apparently a big deal).

With Versailles being around an hour outside of Paris, we embarked on the train journey towards the town. Everyone was coming except for Bianca and Mum, since B had already seen it. The journey started at our location metro station which was adorned with the classic Hector Guimard entrance sign.

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During the train journey, Aimee introduced us all to the iPhone game “Bonza”, which we quickly became addicted to, passing the time before arriving at Versailles station.

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Versailles is a small village dating from the 11th century. What it is most famous for is the Château de Versailles, the seat of political power in the Kingdom of France from 1682.

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After suffering through the lengthy queue despite having already booked tickets, we made our way into the museum. It was here that we learned about the riches of Louisa XIV when he moved to Versailles. We walked past just a small selection of the palace’s 700 rooms, more than 2,000 windows, 1,250 fireplaces and 67 staircases.

Especially grand was the appartement du roi

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And the Hall of Mirrors. The setting for many of the ceremonies of the French Court during the monarchy.

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For years my Dad has been telling me to “take a walk down the Hall of Mirrors and have a good, long, hard look at yourself”, and finally I was able to do just that. And I looked damn good.

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The obscene wealth on display in this Palace is indicative of the inequality of the time. In fact, Versailles was abandoned by the royal family in 1789 within three months after the beginning of the French Revolution, making the site famous not only as a building but as a symbol of the failed absolute monarchy.

Included in the Palace museum is the royal collection of art, a group of hallways which extend as far as the eye can see.

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At the end of the hallway was a restaurant where we stopped for lunch before viewing the Palace from the outside.

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In my opinion, the gardens of Versailles are even more impressive than the Palace itself. It is considered one of the finest extant examples of the the “Jardin à la française”.

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The grounds are massive. In fact, they cover a total area of 800 hectares.

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We all enjoyed getting lost in the mazes.

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Soon enough, travel legs got the better of us. We returned to the train station after viewing the main sections of the gardens. This time, sudoku occupied us on the way home rather than Bonza.

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While we were at Versailles, it seemed that Bianca and Mum were also enjoying their day by the photos they sent through.

We all agreed to link up at Les Cocottes, the special restaurant which we had organised for Aimee’s 19th birthday celebration. But Annie, Aimee, Dad and I found ourselves with some time to spare before the reservation. We wound down the time in classic Parisian fashion – people-watching with a coffee and ice cream under the Eiffel Tower.

Before too long it came time to go to the restaurant. We sat and browsed what was a superb menu – definitely fitting for Aim’s birthday. I had the potato stuffed with pig’s feet, and Aimee opted for the pepper beef fillet.

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And of course, what’s a birthday dinner without a birthday cake (or the closest alternative).

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A very happy end to the night overall.

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With today having been Aimee’s 19th birthday, and the first one spent away from family, she felt that she’d like to write something on the blog to add her two cents about the day. This is a blog first – a guest writer. She’s been a character in this journal all year and particularly in the last two months, so it’s only fitting. Take it away, Aim:

The day was really enjoyable, especially experiencing the opulence that is Versailles. To cap off an amazing day spent just outside of Paris was a delicious dinner at a beautiful restaurant. I really can’t thank the Eales family enough for giving me such a fantastic 19th birthday, it will certainly be one that I will remember!

A much better writer than I am, clearly. I promise you that she didn’t write that at gunpoint.

Overall, a great launch back into Paris and a dreamlike way to reunite with the family. What a week.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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