Murder on the Italian Express

Busy few days!

For our last day in Milan, hubby went back to the trade show and the toddler and I headed back downtown on the tram. Through one of the tourist magazines I found in our hotel room, I discovered it’s possible to take an elevator up to the roof of the Duomo for some interesting bird’s-eye views of the city.

Il Duomo


The tickets to go up cost a very reasonable 8 euros, and the experience was pretty awesome. You take the elevator up to the back corner of the roof and wind your way among the spires and gargoyles, up and down stairs around to the front. Eventually, you emerge into a flat space in front of the very tallest spire where you can simply breathe and take it all in. I can’t even describe how magnificent it is to commune with all that gorgeous architecture up close and personal. Just put it on your agenda if you’re ever in Milan.

on top of the Duomo!

The last supper in Milan Tuesday night was our farewell visit to Il Pavone. My meal was a delightfully light and pillowy gnocchi with a rich gorgonzola cream sauce and a few toasted walnuts scattered around the plate for good measure.

Il Pavone gnocchi con gorgonzola

I think hubby had a pizza diavolo, but I was too focused on my own food to care much. The three of us split what seemed to be the Italian equivalent of a crème brulee for dessert and bid the beautiful Maria a fond arrividerci.

the lovely Maria

Because I hate to fly so much, we had determined to take an overnight sleeper train to Paris Bercy, departing Milan around 11:30 p.m. Packed up and ready to go, we grabbed a taxi to Milano Centrale train station and waited for our ride. I thought it might actually be, dare I say it, a fun adventure. Silly, silly me.

I had a sinking feeling when I bought the tickets the day before that this trip may not go quite as planned. I couldn’t get my point across to the guy behind the counter, but he gave me reservations for beds for two adults, so I knew we’d have some sort of place to rest our weary heads at the very least. Or so I thought…

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but having taken very nicely appointed trains elsewhere around Europe, I figured this journey would be fairly similar. Ho ho ho.

The train pulled in and we waited to embark among a large, milling crowd. It looked old and rather run down from the exterior, not at all like the nicer ICE trains I’d ridden before. I grew more nervous with every passing minute.

Finally it was time to board. The narrow passage proved a tight squeeze for all our baggage plus car seat plus stroller plus baby, so hubby lugged it all in piece by piece while I kept watch over the little guy outside. Every time hubby reappeared to grab another item, the looks he gave me grew more and more ominous. I quickly began to realize that this decision was going to be a mistake of colossal proportions.

The toddler and I climbed aboard. Fortunately, our beds were in the very first group of berths, so we didn’t have to go far. Unfortunately, the space was so tight, our largest bag wouldn’t fit into the “room.” We had to leave it in the hallway, and we were warned by the train staff not to leave it unattended. The hallway itself was narrow as well; people literally had to climb over the suitcase if they wanted to get by us.

Tickets are available in various classes — first class for a private section of berths, and peon classes where you may or may not find yourself sleeping with people you don’t know. Which do you think I’d managed to procure? Yep. You guessed it.

Our room, if you will, consisted of six bunks packed in like a sardine can, three on each side with well-worn, not-so-clean upholstery. When we came in, some fellow travelers were already there, two 40-something Asian ladies claiming the middle bunks. Our reservation denoted that we were to occupy the top two. Not exactly smart when there’s a two-year-old in the mix. The women were kind enough to trade us beds and immediately made themselves comfortable in the top bunks. Oh, did I mention the entire car REEKED of mothballs? I found myself mouthbreathing so I wouldn’t gag.

Everyone got settled in and we started to roll. Keep in mind, it was well after midnight by now. The toddler, who so graciously fell asleep in the taxi and stayed asleep right up until we boarded the train was now completely alert and ready to party like a rock star. The Asianettes hunkered down to sleep, yet the toddler was singing round after round of “Wheels on the Bus” and “Old MacDonald” at the top of his lungs. There was no hope of getting him to lie down without an all-out screaming tantrum; we just had to wait him out.

We eventually took the toddler out into the hallway so our companions could get some rest and hubby took a seat on top of our lonely suitcase. The looks he was giving me went from ominous to murderous. The vocal stylings continued as the toddler then launched into an enthusiastic rendition of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” followed by “Farmer in the Dell,” the Wonder Pets theme, “ABCs” and whatever else came into his little brilliant mind. At least the Asianettes didn’t mind, hubby poked his head in to get something and found them snoring like buzzsaws.

Hoping to wear the little guy down, hubby took him for a walk to find the dining car. Service was closed for the night, but at least it was empty and gave the little dude room to run around and play without disturbing anybody. I stayed behind to keep watch over the bag and tried to read. An hour later, they came back, hubby looking utterly defeated and pissed off. The toddler was still singing, and now skipping. Knowing I had some penance coming my way, I jumped up and took my lumps. The toddler and I headed back to the dining car again, weaving our way through six or seven other carriages full of quiet berths. I looked longingly at the private “suites” as we passed and mentally punished myself for not being able to convey that’s what I was after when I bought the tickets. Dammit.

After another hour or so of full-on hyperactivity, I managed to get the toddler to sit on my lap long enough to relax. Not sleep, mind you, but wind down enough to the point that when I asked him if he wanted to go lie down with daddy, I actually got a “yes.” Back we went, me trying to carry the toddler and not fall off the train in between cars, when I realized that I had no idea what number our carriage was. I figured we’d see hubby still sitting on the bag in the hall, but he was nowhere to be found. Uh oh. I’d come to the last car of the train and just stood there, holding a weary toddler and wondering what I was going to do. I didn’t even have my phone to send a text; I’d left it in my purse back on my bed, wherever that was. Just as I was contemplating lying down in the middle of the dirty hallway and praying someone would find us in the morning, the interior curtains in the compartment parted right where I was standing and hubby motioned us inside. By some stroke of sheer luck, we were standing exactly where we needed to be.

Hubby had managed to wrestle the remaining suitcase into the middle of the floor in our room and squeezed himself into one of the middle bunks. The toddler went right to him without complaint when I handed him over and settled down to sleep. I climbed into the other bunk across. Thank GOD no other passengers showed up to the claim the two remaining beds on the bottom, I can’t imagine how two more people could have possibly fit into that room.

I closed my eyes and hoped for the best, trying not to touch anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary and praying I still had a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my purse. The motion of the train was quite lulling, really. The jet-plane decibel snoring emanating from the bunk above me was not. I could not believe the noise this woman was putting out. Seriously, I was convinced at one point she was doing it on purpose. There is no way she could make that kind of a racket without waking herself up or choking to death in the process. I checked my watch. 3:45 a.m. Sigh. I closed my eyes and could literally feel the waves of resentment coming off my non-sleeping husband a few feet away. At least the toddler was depleted enough to get a solid stretch of shut-eye.

The Asian Rip Van Winkle finally woke up around 7:30 a.m., and she and her buddy started jabbering away in a language I didn’t recognize. The train conductor came by to check our tickets again. We knew we were running late, but when hubby asked him how much longer and he said another three hours, my jaw hit the floor. We were originally due in to Paris Bercy station at 8 a.m., leaving us plenty of time to take a cab to the rental apartment, drop our bags and shower before heading to the airport to collect my mother-in-law, who we’d arranged to fly in and stay with us for the weekend. As it was now, we’d be pushing to get there by the time her flight landed at 1:30 p.m. By that time, I was so exhausted, I did manage to fall into a somewhat fitful sleep for an hour or two. Really, there was nothing else to do.

At long last, we pulled into Paris around 11 a.m. I was never so glad to arrive anywhere in my entire life. Hubby told me not to speak to him unless I absolutely had to, which I respected, knowing I was totally in the wrong for this comedy of errors. I’d apologized a handful of times and didn’t know what more I could do or say to make things right, silently pledging to drug myself stupid next time and agree to get on whatever airplane might be available. I asked hubby if  he thought we’d look back on this experience someday and laugh. He said no.

Anxiously keeping an eye on the clock, we cursed some more when we saw the line for taxis extending halfway down the sidewalk outside the station. (And I wonder where the toddler recently picked up “Shit!”) Somehow by the grace of God, we eventually got a cab and made it to the rental apartment to meet the lady from the service who let us in. Hubby dashed off on his own to the airport, arriving with about 30 minutes to spare to meet my mother-in-law’s plane. Whew.

The two-bedroom Marais-situated apartment we’re renting is lovely, small but charming, up four flights of narrow winding stairs that are guaranteed to give me buns of steel after a few days. After a much-needed shower, the toddler and I ventured out for a bite of lunch at the first decent café we came across. Quiche Lorraine, salad, orange juice and a café crème fit the bill quite nicely. We managed a quick trip to the supermarket for a few essentials, then back to l’appartemente to meet up with hubby and MIL.

After a short rest, we all took a stroll around our old stomping grounds near the apartment where we stayed two years ago, stopping in for dinner at Cafe Rempart. Hubby had a traditional French croque monsieur – a devilishly rich open-faced toasted sandwich of ham and cheese with béchamel sauce. MIL enjoyed pomme frites, salad and a delicious-looking burger (which she ate in spite of the cheese. She hates cheese. This does not bode well for her enjoyment of French cuisine, I fear.) I was still somewhat full from my late-lunch quiche, so I went for a lighter dish of entrée Salade Rempart, composed of greens, carrots, tomato, fried potatoes (!), thin slices of proscuitto-ish country ham and cheese toasts. The whole thing was topped very lightly with French salad dressing, which is not at all like the unnaturally orange Kraft stuff you find back home. Here, it’s a light tangy Dijon mustard vinaigrette.

This morning, we headed to another café and partook of coffee served in clever small bowls (LOVE this, I want to find some of these to take home), and stuffed ourselves with all manner of bread and pastries.

the perfect petit dejeuner


Gotta love the French… A great way to fortify ourselves for a boat ride on the Seine, a visit to the Eiffel Tower and a walk through Notre Dame. A bientot!


This little piggy went to market

Ah, another day, another market… you’ve gotta love Paris.

We saw the stands being erected for a street market on one of the streets shooting off from Bastille while we were walking around in search of Valentine’s Day dinner. Sure enough, the next day it was teeming with vendors and throngs of shoppers. This market was a little more spacious than the one we came across up by the Eiffel Tower the other day, but no less busy or impressive.

We spent a happy half hour or so wandering up and down the stalls, checking out the wares. Mountains of sumptuous strawberries, oceans of fish the likes of which we’ve never even heard of, bins of olives, honey, hats, purses — you name it. It’s too bad the weather isn’t a little bit warmer, I found myself yearning to assemble the perfect picnic and seek out the nearest garden.


the Bastille street market

the Bastille street market

As an quick aside – Even the terms of endearment here are food-related. One such example, people call their children and loved ones “mon petit chou,” which literally means “my little cabbage.” How cute is that!

Earlier in the morning, the baby and I hoofed it over to the supermarket to pick up some rations and supplies. As we passed a high school tour group, I heard two of the girls catching sight of us and cooing about what a cute little French baby I had! The ultimate compliment! Could we really be passing for locals?!?!

I’m afraid I committed a cardinal sin – I stopped into Starbucks. Hubby cringes as I write this. As a seasoned traveler, it is nearly unforgivable to him to frequent an American chain establishment when there are so many local authentic French cafes in proximity. I justified my actions by reasoning that I just wanted a cup to go on the way to the store. Plus, I knew the coffee would be consistent. Starbucks, alas, is the same everywhere. Disappointingly, quite a few cafes seem to serve coffee out of a machine, not the good perked kind you’d expect. 

So anyway, I ordered my grande latte and asked for directions to the supermarket, then went on my way. However, in wheeling the baby stroller over cobbled stones and streets, half of my coffee ended up sloshing out all over the pram. Divine justice, perhaps?

After a spin through the market, hubby offered to take the baby off my hands for a few hours so I could enjoy a visit to Sacre Coeur. My favorite sight on my last trip to Paris four years ago, I was really looking forward to a return visit to the scenic spot. I’d really hoped hubby would want to join me, but he declined and in retrospect, I’m glad he did. The stairs and crowds would have been difficult to navigate with the baby in tow. So, I hopped on the Metro and was on my way. 

Coming off the Metro in Montmartre, I got a little confused. For starters, the exit itself entailed about three flights of stairs up a narrow winding staircase. Ugh. By the time I and my fellow Metro-ers emerged into the daylight, we were huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf. The spiraling stairs disoriented me and I didn’t immediately see any directional signs to the cathedral, so I ended up setting off in the wrong direction. Fortunately, a big looping turn through a pretty residential area (more uphill climbing) deposited me where I needed to be. 

The white domes of Sacre Coeur gleam from the hillside like a sentinel, and although it was slightly hazy, I imagine that in the sunlight they shine as if they’ve been kissed by heaven itself. As noisy and thronged as the exterior of the cathedral is, the interior is reverent and quiet the second you step in the door. The sanctuary literally took my breath away, it’s hard to believe this kind of beauty actually exists. The sun streamed through the stained glass windows to illuminate the faces of the visitors below. Talk about a religious experience in the truest meaning of the word… I’m not Catholic, but it’s impossible not to feel in God’s presence here and I found myself reciting a silent prayer. I lit a candle in honor of my mom and one for my father-in-law as well and left feeling spiritually renewed. 

Once you step back outside into reality, the commercial side of Paris tourism slaps you in the face. The crowds here are unbelievable – groups of people in all shapes and sizes speaking every language under the sun, cameras and tour guides in hand. A duo of Polish wannabe rappers were accosting the eardrums of passersby with their boom box and their self-promoted street show, which as far as I could tell consisted of a few So-You-Think-You-Can-Dance-style hip thrusts, some juggling, and a lot of hype.

Hungry, I made my way slightly off the main souvenir shop drag into a cafe for a snack. The Six Nations rugby tournament was this weekend, and I found myself seated next to a table full of enthusiastic and loyal Scots, both the men and women decked out in kilts. I ordered a Croque Monsieur sandwich and my first Coke in about a week. Croque Monsieur is another French menu mainstay; you can find them in almost any cafe or bistro. It’s basically a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, but this being France and all, they find a way to make it richer and more decadent. The cheese is added on top of the bread, along with a little bit of creamy bechamel sauce, and then the whole thing is broiled. When’s the last time you had a grilled cheese that required a knife and fork? Delish. You can even get it topped with a fried egg, in which case it becomes a Croque Madame. (A reference to ovaries perhaps??)

Unlike in America where your food often arrives with a whole slew of condiments, the standard food adornment here is mustard. Servers bring a little carrier to your table that contains salt, pepper, and a small jar of spicy Dijon. And when I say spicy, I mean SPICY. This stuff will clear your sinuses and make your eyes water if you take too much. It’s yummy in small doses, though. Also, there seems to be one kind of salad dressing here and one kind only – a creamy tangy dijon vinaigrette. Don’t even think about asking for Ranch.

Hubby and I decided our tummies and our wallets needed a little break from dining out, so I embarked upon operation Cook-At-Home tonight, a real adventure in a kitchen the size of a closet. Two electric burners and a tiny cutting board made cooking here feel like a Top Chef challenge, but I managed ok. The knives, pots, pans and tools here are sparse, but what we do have is of the highest quality, so that helped matters quite a bit.

I’d stocked up at the store for spaghetti with a sort-of Bolognese sauce. The electric burner took about 20 minutes to boil a pot of water for my pasta, but that was the most difficult hurdle I had to overcome. I jazzed up a bottle of store-bought marinara sauce with some hamburger, mushrooms, zucchini and tomatoes. With a side salad and some fresh baguette, it wasn’t bad. It felt good to cook, but I really found myself missing my arsenal of spices from back home. I had also picked up a bottle of Cotes du Rhone at the grocery for 2.40 euros, and was pleasantly surprised to find the quality on par with much of the wine we drink back home at three or four times the price.

our first home-cooked meal in Paris

our first home-cooked meal in Paris

As I sit here writing this, it’s cold and misty outside, yet here I am, safely ensconced in a cozy little cafe with a cup of cafe au lait cooling on my table and a view of the Bastille monument just outside the window. At the table next to me, a stylish older woman feeds a small Yorkie terrier tiny pieces of sausage off her plate.

Ah, les Francais….