Saturday, July 15, 2017

Life Is Beautiful

It's been 7 months since my last entry - the longest hiatus since I started this site.

Lack of time and energy was a major contributor, but let me assure you that I remain strongly invested in this blog, though I can't predict how often I'll write.

I decided to finally sit down and type something because of my recent trip to London and Paris last month - a 16-day adventure that transported me to a cloud of euphoria, the likes of which I haven't experienced since I visited France in 2010.

It was my second time in both cities - a 23-year absence from London, and 7 years for Paris - so I dispensed with the typical sightseeing itineraries and opted for a more laid back, off the beaten path type of schedule.

London has changed immensely, as expected, but not for the better. After 9/11, many areas now feature heavily armed police officers, with stringent security checks at all the major attractions. I was especially saddened by the barricades around Buckingham Palace's main entrance. 2 decades ago, I remember standing right outside the gate, even stretching my hands through the metal fence to snap photos of the guards within the compound. Now, you can't get beyond the Queen Victoria statue, and can only gaze at the palace from afar.

The Borough Market / London Bridge terrorist attack occurred the night before I left, and as I replied to many messages asking if I was safe, I felt a mixture of sadness and anger.

I spent an entire week in London running around with my mum, visiting the National Gallery, Madame Tussaud's, St. Regent's Park, Kensington Palace, Covent Garden, the Thames and the Mall. We mixed with the locals on a daily basis and met wonderful Britons everywhere we went. In particular, I appreciated how they treated my elderly mother, who's petite and sometimes walks very slowly because she has a phobia of falling. The Brits always made way for her, opening doors and giving her a warm smile. Singaporeans have so much to learn!

The same happened in Paris. I named it my all-time favourite travel destination back in 2010, and it's still at #1 after this trip. People may not understand why I love it so much, but all I can say is, there's something I find positively magical about the place, which no other city comes close to replicating. The museums, the monuments, the gardens, people, food and music - every day was perfect!

For my 42nd birthday, I spent the morning at the gorgeous Luxembourg Gardens, soaking in the festive atmosphere ( it was a public holiday and the gardens were swarming with people ) and admiring the beautiful marble statues and fountains. Mum was also quite inspired by the place, walking up to a guard at the Luxembourg Palace to ask about the building and offer compliments about President Macron. The guard - a very handsome young man wearing sunglasses and a beret - was the epitome of French charm, flashing her a dazzling smile, conversing patiently in lightly accented but perfect English.

This was followed by lunch at a nearby French cafe with my Parisian penpal, E, whom I first met in 2010. Thanks to email, Facebook and WhatsApp, we've kept in touch over the years, and we had no difficulty chatting during our reunion. I've always found E fascinating - intellectual, well-spoken, humourous in a quirky way, and extremely curious about the world. He's well travelled but has never been to Southeast Asia, so we spent quite a bit of time discussing Singapore. And where else would I meet someone whose hobby is book-binding, and who plans to learn sewing next? I really hope he visits my country soon. I can't wait to hear what he has to say. :)

That evening ( yes, it's still my birthday haha ), mum and I attended a Bruno Mars concert at an arena that's about the size of the Singapore Indoor Stadium. It was truly unforgettable, partly because it's a bucket list item, but mostly because Bruno and his crew were spectacular! Watching him 'live' is completely different from seeing him on TV and on YouTube, but better still, I got to hang with thousands of French fans, which was unbelievably fun. Surprisingly, they knew all the lyrics, singing along in English despite not being able to speak the language fluently ( the reason I know this is I spoke to a French lady next to me to ask about a celebrity in the audience who was causing quite a stir, and she had to use Google Translate to communicate with me ).
Then at the end of the show, confetti rained down on everyone, and I thought to myself: Best. Birthday. Ever! :)

The next highlight came during the weekend, when we attended the French Open women's and men's finals. I couldn't get tickets through the FO website and went through a French sports event company instead. The tickets cost me an arm and a leg, but they're worth every cent. Meals were provided in VIP access lounges, with personalized service from on-site staff, toilets reserved only for VIP package holders, and excellent seats in the stadium.

We met a lovely American couple on day 2, and the husband told me the French Open is the best of all the Grand Slam events. Now that I've actually been to the FO, I can understand why he said that. Like the Bruno Mars concert, I once again witnessed French exuberance on full display. It's definitely very different from what you see on TV!

First, we were not prepared for the heat. The matches began at 3pm, and temperatures were around 30 degrees Celsius. You'd think Singaporeans wouldn't have a problem with this sort of weather, but when it's a cloudless sky, there's no breeze and you're baking for more than 2 hours, you really start to sympathize with the players. I wore protective gear like a hat and sunglasses, but even these weren't enough when my arms started to burn. I ended up loaning my scarf to mum, and those sitting around us also used various items ( jackets, towels, etc ) to cover up.

Second, ball speeds subjectively double or triple when you're at the stadium. Maybe it's because everything looks much bigger in real life. The power of the serves and volleys drew regular gasps from the crowd. A huge thrill for me as well!

Third, the breaks also feel a lot shorter. I don't know how the players manage to endure the heat AND continue playing with almost non-existent rest. It's mind-boggling!

Fourth, it was a huge pleasure to be with the French people again. We were surrounded by locals, who were all friendly, polite, and slightly amused by / curious about the two unaccompanied Chinese ladies. Special mention goes to the handsome Frenchman who sat next to my mum at the men's final, who kept apologizing profusely whenever his phone went too near her. E.g. "Oh, I'm SO SORRY!" *big smile* I should've switched places with her, lol.

I was hoping to see Federer, but was equally glad to catch Nadal and Wawrinka, although the latter didn't seem to put up much of a struggle, succumbing in three quick straight sets. I have a small suspicion the match was rigged to give Nadal his 10th French Open title ( the king and queen of Spain were in attendance, so what do you think? ) but if it's true, then I hope that Stan at least received generous compensation for his cooperation.

The rest of the week was spent visiting the Musee d'Orsay ( beautiful! ), the chateaus in the outskirts of Paris ( The Man In The Iron Mask was filmed at the Vaux-le-Vicomte! ), taking a leisurely stroll along the Seine and the Champs-Élysées, and just, you know, enjoying the moment.

The morning we left for the airport, as our taxi drove out of the city, tears welled up in my eyes and I literally felt pain in my left chest. I didn't want to come home.
Something similar happened in 2010 as we travelled from Giverny to Versailles. I told my mum, "I don't want to go back to Singapore."

Perhaps one day, I'll get to cross off another bucket list item: migrate to France when I retire. Heh heh. :)

I probably won't go to London again, but Paris, I promise to return in the next 3-4 years. There's still so much I haven't seen or done. Shall I go to the French Open again??? ;)


In other news, I'm now a Netflix subscriber. Finally gave up on the other sites and need my fix of House Of Cards. But I'm discovering other great shows too, like War Machine and Gypsy. Narcos and Outlander will be back in September as well.

Will try to blog more consistently if I'm able. Thanks for reading, and please keep the comments coming!

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