Twisted by Jessica Zafra – Pumping irony since 1994

Archive for the ‘Traveling’

How to understand the French Revolution

November 09, 2014 By: jessicazafra Category: Design, History, Places, Traveling 2 Comments →


Visit Versailles, the former royal palace, 30 minutes from Paris on the train.

Noel, it makes you look like a minimalist.

Seeing how the absolute monarchs of France lived while their people starved is more effective and visceral than any history book. Sheesh, we’d cut off their heads ourselves.


The ridiculously wealthy (and those who wish to be identified, however mistakenly, as such) ought to think hard about flaunting their possessions in society magazines and other media. The people might get ideas.

Into the woods in Altwartenburg

November 07, 2014 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Places, Traveling No Comments →


The plan was to take the train to Salzburg (You say “ZAHLZborg” in your best Terminator impression) early so we could visit Mozart’s house (and ignore the places where they shot The Sound of Music), but we got lazy.


We took a walk instead, in the very Grimm Brothers forest by the house.


Our host was James Hamilton-Paterson, the author of three of the best books about the Philippines: Playing With Water, America’s Boy, and Ghosts of Manila. James should be the most famous English writer on earth, but that would be his definition of horror. He is usually referred to as reclusive.


We have the great privilege of being able to pester him in the sticks. It is like visiting your wizard uncle. Last time it was in Tuscany, where the nearest neighbor had a crazy dog who barked at jet trails.


In the woods are the ruins of a castle owned by the local count, who built another castle nearby in the hopes that the Kaiser would use it as a hunting lodge. The Kaiser did visit, and he stayed the night.


Some years ago rock concerts were held in the ruins, but the residents complained of the noise. It must’ve drowned out the sound of their neighbors’ refrigerators from a mile away.


While tramping around in the mud, we asked James about other writers he has known. J.R.R. Tolkien was his tutor in remedial Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. He didn’t learn anything. He hadn’t read The Lord of the Rings, either, so he wasn’t particularly awed. Professor Tolkien never gave him tea (much less Barliman’s Best ale from The Prancing Pony) unlike another tutor who introduced him to Glenmorangie.


James had attended the ancient King’s School in Canterbury, the same school that expelled Patrick Leigh Fermor for holding hands with a grocer’s daughter. Another alumnus, W. Somerset Maugham, had visited the school and James, being their literary hope, had been assigned as Maugham’s guide. “Don’t let him get too close to you,” James was warned, in case the old writer had a taste for spotty 17-year-old boys.

Maugham gave James this bit of advice: “Don’t trust typewriters, my boy. They can’t spell.”

Things to do in Normandy

November 06, 2014 By: jessicazafra Category: Drink, Places, Traveling 2 Comments →

fresh air
1. Overdose on fresh air. We’re in Villedieu-les-Poeles, founded by the Knights Hospitaller during the Crusades. The name means “City of God of Pots and Pans”, though if you mispronounce it sounds like “City of God of the Naked.”

2. Go fishing. Our friend’s place is called The Mill in the Forest. Because there’s an old mill and a forest. (“Trouble at the mill.” “What kind of trouble?” “I don’t know, I wasn’t expecting a kind of Spanish Inquisition.” “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Every time we hear the name we have to do this.) There’s also a pond teeming with carp. Does anyone know about carp? Does the pond have to be cleaned? Isn’t it a self-regulating ecosystem? City slickers need help.

3. Recreate the Allied landings. Which happened on another beach, but close enough. This trip is turning out to be a WW2 retrospective, backwards.

4. Befriend a direwolf. This is Gaspar, the biggest German shepherd we’ve ever seen. He guards the calvados (apple brandy) distillery.

5. Drink calvados (KAL-va-dos). It cures sore throat instantly. They also make cider and pommeau—cider and calvados.

6. Do not get freaked out by the silence. It’s so quiet you can hear the neighbor’s refrigerator, and the nearest neighbor is a mile away.

7. Sleep early in your cozy attic room, because tomorrow you’re going to Gondor.

minas tirith
The island fortress of Mont-Saint-Michel was the model for Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Our new happy place: Galignani, the oldest English bookstore on the continent

November 02, 2014 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Places, Traveling 4 Comments →

Galignani, 224 rue Rivoli. From their website.

We were mourning the death of the Village Voice, the English bookstore on the Left Bank, when we stepped into Galignani for the first time and our tear ducts dried up instantly. (Shakespeare and Co is fine but we hope they have vacuumed.)

Galignani near the Tuileries is the oldest bookstore on the continent, and one of the most elegant we’ve ever been in. We hyperventilated, collected ourself, sank into an armchair, and began to time-travel.


After days of looking, found one novel by Modiano in an English translation—The Search Warrant, a.k.a. Dora Bruder.

In the cemetery where Truffaut lies buried

October 30, 2014 By: jessicazafra Category: Art, Cats, History, Movies, Places, Traveling 3 Comments →


There’s a Francois Truffaut exposition and retrospective at the Cinematheque Francaise. Like the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Patrick Modiano (whose books are in every bookshop window, taunting us), it exists to make people who don’t speak French feel bad. “But we’ve seen The 400 Blows lots of times, we already know the plot, so we can watch it anyway,” we consoled ourself. But The 400 Blows and the Antoine Doinel movies aren’t showing this week. Noooo!

In the meantime we visited Truffaut’s grave at the Montmartre Cemetery. We’re staying at our friend’s apartment, which is within spitting distance of Sacre Coeur, but only if you’re on the hill or if you’re an Olympic-level projectile spitter.

van gogh

On the way to the cemetery, we stopped at the house where Vincent Van Gogh lived with his brother, Theo. (There’s a plaque on the side of the building.) Sad story. In your lifetime your devoted brother, an art dealer, can’t sell any of your work, and then after your death your paintings go for zillions.

Still, the letters the brothers wrote to each other are wonderful. Read them. Vincent not only had the eye, he had the ear as well. One of them.


The map at the cemetery entrance lists the famous dead on the premises: Theophile Gautier, Edgar Degas, Hector Berlioz, Edmond Goncourt and so on. Even if we have no sense of direction, we couldn’t miss Truffaut’s grave.


Visitors leave their metro tickets on it. The Last Metro, get it? Granted, it is easier than leaving 400 Blows or a piano player with a bullet through him.


We like cemeteries, they’re quiet. A fat stray cat walked in front of us, but refused to be photographed.

* * * * *

Cat of the Day: Prince, of the Del Fierro-Bouyers.Tried to eat our cake because it had lots of butter.

The hearty quiche and the saucy menu

October 28, 2014 By: jessicazafra Category: Cats, Food, Language, Places, Traveling 12 Comments →


We expected to pass out any minute from jet lag, so we had dinner in the neighborhood. Our friend took us to a restaurant called L’été en pente douce. Meaning “Summer on a gentle slope”—slope, as in the side of the hill, which requires climbing these stairs. (A second flight of stairs takes you to the basilica of Sacre Coeur. A week or so of this and we should have quads of steel.)


The restaurant serves a very good quiche, which is a meal in itself. We had champagne, this being our welcome dinner. A glass of champagne is only slightly costlier than 6 ounces of Coke. Around here Coke is more expensive than the house wine, so have the wine.

Even before the quiche arrived, we were royally entertained by the menu, in French and English versions.

ass of summer

According to various translation apps, the title means “the pot-gossip of summer” or “the pewter-pot summer”, but according to a native it could also be interpreted as “the ass of summer”.

personal of room

The translations, though perhaps overly literal, sound very grand. The French menu even asks: “Do you have an emptiness?” Why do restaurants back home never ask us existential questions?

dry so very dry

Who could resist “a dry wine, so very dry for a muscat that it causes raised eyebrows among wine connoisseurs”?

We were so fascinated by the menu that we had to ask for a copy. The waiter feigned hurt and said, “If you’re just going to laugh at it…” but we assured him that it was the laughter of genuine admiration. The menu doesn’t just offer specials, it proposes them. (“We are the only restaurant to offer this” becomes “We are the unique restaurant to propose this.”)

montmartre cat

Outside, a cat waited to be served.