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up plitvice lakes without a paddle

I planned this little three generational Croatian adventure. Airlines, hotels, car rental, ferries, you name it. The only place I hadn’t nailed down at least a month in advance was Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. The three huge hotels in the actual national park are handled through the national tourist office and I was told by email, all booked. But “with my patience, they will give me some ideas for other accomadations.” What they didn’t tell me is that I’d have to be patient until the moment we get here.

Nobody I ever met has even heard of Plitvice Lakes. How can it be booked? It’s about four hours from Rovinj, south and inland to Plitvice National Park and World Heritage site. It’s sort of in the middle of nowhere, so the risk is high. It’s supposed to be spectacular. I’m not a woodsy type of person, but for some reason, I mus see Plitvice Lakes. Somehow it will all work out.

After four hours in the car I’m getting a little panicky. There sure are a lot of empty tour buses driving out. Does that mean nobody came or they’re all staying at one of our hotels? What if it’s another three hours to Plitvice the hotels are all booked and we have to find a place to sleep in the dark? What if we can’t find a place and have to sleep in the car? Someone please just throw me off this spectacularly gorgeous waterfall now! Hey, we’re in Plitvice.

They weren’t lying. The place is beautiful and the three huge ugly hotels with separate parking for tour buses really are booked.

Which leaves us two options: go to the tourist office and find lodging or drive through the valley haphazardly looking for houses advertising sobe, zimmers and kamere for the night.

Of course, we make the obvious choice and spend the next hour on the road, discussing the various merits of places with sobe zimmer and kamere signs as we drive past them.

Then we decide that this isn’t really furthering our cause and venture into a few of the nicer looking driveways. Only to be rebuffed. Sometimes they hold up a “No” sign. Sometimes they shake their head and glare. We even get chased down one driveway. We can’t help but take it personally, even though the places really do look full. My mother takes to muttering “yeah, well, screw you, too!’ as we beat our retreats.

This leaves us no choice. Somebody is going to have to get out of the car and talk to a Croatian.

I’m tired and blame not having reservations here on Croatia. And I blame mom and dad, of course, because this whole trip is their fault. If they weren’t paying for this trip, we wouldn’t be in this mess.   Let them deal with it. I’ve dealt with everything else. I’m too frazzled and frail and delicate to cope any more. Katherine stays in the car in solidarity with my frazzled, frail delicateness…or maybe just to stake out her spot in the car to sleep tonight.

When mom and dad emerge from the tourist office looking triumphant, my heart leaps in hope. “There’s a house with two sobes with bathrooms and everything. Right over there” (they wave vaguely in a direction). My heart sinks in despair.

Our lodging is supposed to be about 20 minutes outside the park, way up a winding road on cliffs we could easily fallen to our deaths from. I’m happy to say we don’t die and find the place relatively easily.

It’s almost disgustingly picturesque. A small farm with a vegetable patch, some chickens, ducks geese, pigs, turkeys, goats, kitties, dogs and a brand new litter of three rolling puffs of fur. It’s a veritable petting zoo. We’re overlooking a gorge or valley or some other natural formation I don’t know the name of. I’ll tell you one thing, no tour bus could get up here.

The rooms are fine. Probably 1/2 star.   There are some ants but we give them a good splashing of pure Croatian lavender oil and hope they’ll go away, The environment is a lot nicer than the groddy hotels that rejected us. And everyone knows that the scent of lavender is balancing and soothing.

The smiling proprietress gives us a short tour in Esperanto. She points to herself and says “Mama”. She points to my mother and says “Mama”. She points to the puppies’ mother and says “mama”. We now know everything we need to know and settle in for the night.

I take a deep breath of the lavender scented room.   As long as these aren’t flesh eating ants, I think we’ll be okay.


the real housewives of elysee palace

Lately, the President of France and his First Lady have been in the news.   Rumor has it, the First Lady is having an affair with a popular (and quite unattractive pop star).   The President is allegedly soothing himself with a lover of his own.   I decided to investigate the first family’s background.   I can’t say I learned much about the alleged affairs, but I figured out why reality television isn’t as popular in France as it is in the US.   They’ve got the Sarkozys.



The current first lady is Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.   She’s the daughter of a rich Italian industrialist…well, that’s what she thought.   She found out in her 30’s that she actually had another father and was the product of a six year affair her mother,  a concert pianist,  had with a Brazilian grocery magnate (at the time he was a classical guitarist).   The family moved from Turin to Paris when she was nine.   She attended a swiss boarding school, and then studied art and architecture in Paris until she dropped out to become a model.

As a top model, Carla is probably best known for breaking up Mick Jagger’s marriage with Jerry Hall.   She also dated Eric Clapton before Mick stole her away.   Her only child, Aurelien (a boy, hard to tell with that name), is the product of her union with Raphael Enthoven, the son of publishing magnate Jean-Paul Enthoven who she was living with at the time.  Up until recently, she claimed not to be a fan of monogamy as she found it boring.  Clearly.

Raphael Enthoven, Jean-Paul Enthoven

As a side note, at the time of Carla and Raphael Enthoven’s affair, Raphael was married to writer, Justine Levy (Bernard Henri Levi’s daughter).   The affair and the ending of her marriage were inspiration for her  book “Rien de Grave”  (Nothing Serious).

She met the newly elected Nicolas Sarkozy (aka President Bling-Bling) at a dinner party.   At the time, he was recovering from his divorce from his second wife, Cecilia, and Carla was in between partners.   They fell in love immediately and married within months.

In addition to her job as First Lady of France, she’s now a singer/songwriter and will appear in Woody Allen’s next feature (if she’s not cut).  Is she a talented musician?   You be the judge.

More Carla pictures


The first First Lady is Cecilia Ciganer-Albeniz Martin Sarkozy Attias




You gotta love her.   She was Sarkozy’s wife when he was elected President.  She had this habit of disappearing for prolonged periods.   Turns out she was “hiking the Appalachian trail” with a Moroccan advertising executive, Richard Attias.

Sarkozy has described Cecilia as his strength and his Achilles heel.   Pretty poetic, I must say.

They met when Sarkozy was mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine.   At the time, he was on his first marriage to Marie-Dominique.   As Mayor,  he officiated the marriage ceremony of Cecilia (who was eight months pregnant), to popular (late) TV host, Jacques Martin, who was almost twice her age.

Jacques and Cecilia with Marie Dominique and Nicolas

Sarkozy immediately fell in love with her and the two families became close (some members closer than others).   Their affair was discovered by Sarkozy’s first wife, Marie-Dominique when they were on vacation together and she walked in on them.

After the resulting divorces, Cecilia and Nicolas married and had one son together, Louis.

They had a turbulent, infidelity-filled 10 years of marriage before they divorced, shortly after Nicolas became President.   She married Attias in 2008.   She now heads a foundation for women’s issues.

It’s hard not to notice a striking resemblance between Cecilia and Carla.

Marie-Dominique Culioli Sarkozy

Marie-Dominique Culioli-Sarkozy with Jean Paul and Pierre

Marie Dominique Culioli Sarkozy with Jean and Pierre

Poor Marie probably had the roughest go of it, as far as being married to Sarkozy is concerned.   A religious girl from a working Corsican family, she met Nicolas while she was studying at the Sorbonne and he was an up and coming politician.   They married and had two sons, Jean-Paul and Pierre, before he acquired a taste for Rolexes and towering brunettes.

As mentioned above, she discovered her husband’s affair with her friend Cecilia after a few years.  He vacillated back and forth between the two women and finally asked for a divorce.   She fought it and the case dragged on for almost eight years.

She moved back to Corsica for awhile to get away from the prying eyes of the press, but has recently returned to Neuilly-sur-Seine to help with her son Jean’s burgeoning political career, which seems to be taking a similar course to his father’s.   He is councilor in the town of Neuilly.   Marie-Dominique now refers to herself as Madame Sarkozy.   I suppose she sees herself as some dowager empress.

She’s forgiven Nicolas, but will never forgive Cecilia.   She never remarried.

President Bling-Bling

Initially, due to his physical stature (5’5″) and huge ambition, he was called President Napoleon.   But as his showy, model-loving, rolex-wearing, celeb-courting, press-seeking, America-loving (even Bush) showed itself,  the moniker changed to President Bling-Bling.

He’s the first French president who didn’t come from the “ruling class.”By our standards, he’d be considered a moderate, but by French standards, he’s a right wing elitist.

He is said to be unable to be without a woman.   History bears this out.   He waxes poetic about his heartbreak at being cuckolded by Cecilia and it sounds sensitive and heartbreaking if one forgets his own faithlessness.   But I’ll say one thing for him:   I don’t think he’ll be caught with 15 tattooed stripper porn star escorts with huge fake knockers.  He seems to like intelligent feisty women.   A lot.

To be fair, this sort of behavior is not entirely new for French Presidents.   Hell, Mitterand had a secret second family.  And Chirac was known as a bon vivant with many dalliances.   What is new is that it’s being reported.    French law dictates that the personal life of Presidents be kept private.   But Bling-Bling laid it all out for them (he likes the fame?).

Can you imagine if our politicians behaved this way?   No…let me rephrase that.   Can you imagine if we found out our politicians behaved this way?   No…let me rephrase that.   What would happen if we found out that President Obama is sleeping with Beyonce while Michelle is bonking Usher?   Would we (gasp!) start acting like the French?

Well, at the last Presidential election in France, 88% of eligible voters turned out to vote versus 56% in the US.   Maybe we’d pay more attention to politics, stop watching so much reality TV and get a decent healthcare system into place.

The Sarkozy boys

Louis Sarkozy

Jean Sarkozy

Pierre Sarkozy

The current alleged lovers

Benjamin Biolay

Chantal Jouanno


international political summit

My ability to discuss politics in French intelligently is seriously hampered by my inability to discuss anything in French intelligently. Up until now, I’ve pretty much limited my political ravings to blaming the Bush administration for the weather.   Obama still gets the benefit of the doubt.   I’ve been hoping that hope thing pans out.

I decide to use my next French/English session with Carole, my neighbor to discuss what’s happening on the geopolitical front.

We settle down with our drinks, pens, paper and dictionaries for a deep discussion of the world political situation… in the others’ native tongue

Carole Poletti-Blot, France

Lesley Stern, USA

Moi: Aime-tu Sarkozy?

Carole (making a face):   You no longer have Bush.   Now we have Sarkozy.   We have exchanged shames.

Moi: Ah, mais Bush est un grand, grand…shame (flipping through dictionary) HONTE.

Carole (correcting):  Bush ETAIT un grand, honte.

Moi: Etait.   Bush etait un grand, grand honte.   Huit annees de honte.   Mon Dieu!   Et Sarkozy?

Carole: He pretends…pretend? he possess the world.

Moi: He thinks he owns the world.

Carole: (repeating) He thinks he owns the world.

Moi: or   he’s an entitled asshole.

Carole:  Say this again?

Moi (simplifying): An asshole.   (trying to explain it in shitty French)…Iil est un grand ane.   Ou …le hole…qu’est ce que c’est hole… (flipping desperately through dictionary) de derriere.

Carole: Connard!   I’ll est un connard!   Un trou de cul.    Oui.

Both Carole and I scribble our newly learned words down furiously.

Moi: (repeating to self) trou de cul, trou de cul.  Connard. Connard.

Carole: (repeating to self) asshole, asshole, asshole.

Me: Oui tout les politicians …comme que dit suck?…Mauvais, mais plus mal…(thinking) .Les politicians est putains.

Carole laughs at my use of the curse word.

Carole (correcting): Sont putains.

Me: Les politicians sont putains.

Carole: The word again, please?

Moi: Suck.  All politicians suck.

Carole starts scribbling down the phrase

Carole: Please spell “suck”.

Moi: S…U….C….K.

Carole (reading what she just wrote): All politicians suck.

Moi (applauding her): Oui! Tout les politicians sont putains!

Carole (reading from her notes): Sarkozy is an asshole!

Moi: Oui! Tous les politicians sont connards!

Now that a consensus has been reached, we relax a bit, proud of all that we’ve accomplished. I certainly feel better having gotten all this off my chest and that my French partner and I have found some common ground. We move on to other pressing matters of the day.

Moi: Ou est se trouve en bon homme ici?

Carole: There is not a good man in the world.

We laugh together conspiratorially.

I think we may be on to something. This trying to speak in the others’ language without translators could be a good thing for international relations. Sure, our political conversation was a little limited. But when you get right down to it, I’m sure we resolved much more and found more common ground in an hour than the UN has in years.   Heck, maybe the US senate should try it.

if it’s 7pm tuesday, it must be belgium (again)-roadtrip to brugge, the shocking conclusion

I leave Ternuezen fortified by a full tank of gas, wafflenstroopen, chocomel and a good strong brew from the local coffee shop.  Any sense of direction I had when I arrived has mysteriously vanished.   Even with the vast North Sea guiding me, somehow I manage to take a turn that puts me on an exit-free path to the tunnel under the vast grey expanse orwater. This is particularly frightening since I can’t see any land where the end of the tunnel emerges.    But what really mortifies me is the possibility that there might be a toll on the other side of the tunnel.

My mind races hysterically as I hurtle towards the tunnel entrance.    I consider pulling over and waiting for the whole thing to blow over.   Or maybe a helicopter rescue.    Then next thing you know, I’m in the tunnel.   The first thing I think of is Princess Diana and slow down.   But there are no other cars in this tunnel and I’m in a hurry to get to Brugge, so I speed up.   It feels like I’ve been in this tunnel for years.   And frankly, the scenery sucks.   And I see no indication this tunnel ends anytime soon.   Dear God, what if this is some timewarp and I’ll end up back in 13th century England.   Or another planet.   Maybe I took a wrong turn and this is the Chunnel.   Maybe I’m dead and the vast expanse of water I’m driving under or through is the River Styx?   What if I’m the last person on earth?   What if I never make it to Brugge?   Who will take care of the kitties?

After what seems like an eternity, I spot the light at the end of the tunnel (or is it a mirage?).   Once I hit daylight, all I want to know is how to get off this thing.   And it looks like my only hope is the toll ahead.   I stop and tell the woman in uniform my plight.   I don’t want to be in Zeeland.   I took a wrong turn.   I want to go back (I point in the opposite direction my car is headed.   And I don’t want to pay the toll.   She takes my passport and tells me where to exit to get back on the highway.   They will give me my passport back when I get to the toll going the other direction.   It works and I’m back on the right side of the water again, looking for  a sign that I’m heading in the right direction.

I cheer when I pass a sign that tells me I’m back in Belgium. My anticipation builds as the kilometers to Brugge displayed on the signs dwindle down to a sign that says “Brugge”, followed by long stretch of road flanked by beautiful, shady green trees. The scene beyond is golden fields dotted by little oasis of trees and cute homes. I wait for the sign “centrum” to guide my way. And wait. And wait. I start to pass little hotels. A parking area, that I assume is for tourists. But no centrum sign. I see a church looming and figure this must be centrum. Old European cities always have an old church at centrum. But as I grow closer to the church, it looks cute and quaint, but nothing like the pictures I’ve seen. Where are the canals?

I know by now that I must resist every instinct I have to stop, turn around, consult the map, so I keep driving. I’ll know when I hit the Bruges I’m looking for. But this is quite a build up. It’s near 6:15 and I’m getting panicky. I keep going, cursing the Belgians again. But this is the freaking suburbs. Where the heck is Bruges? All these signs say this is Bruges, but where the hell is the damn Bruges I’m looking for? Just as I’m about to weep, I look ahead and see several towering, ornate church spiers like a mirage in the distance. Buses pass me with routes displayed that indicate I’m actually heading towards centrum! Oh happy day!

The old city of Brugges (zentrum) is actually a surrounded by a river .   Little cobbled bridges cross from new to old and I dare not cross them in a car, because even if cars are allowed in there, the streets will be very narrow and I don’t want to scrape my rent a car on some ancient building, so I find a place to park around the perimeter.   I head towards the bridge that crosses over to the fairy towers.

I cross over and enter the enchanted kingdom.   I stagger towards what I hope is the center of town, lightheaded with joy that I’ve finally arrived.   As it turns out, the lightheadedness is hunger. I need food. NOW! And though I’m weak and feeble with hunger, I do know for sure that I want to eat somewhere outside so I won’t have to miss a precious moment of daylight in Bruges. That caveat doesn’t narrow the choices down much. Once again, the important decision of where to eat ids determined by which establishment I almost faint in front of.

I collapse at the nearest table and face another decision my hunger leaves me too frail to handle. What to order.. Even though I’ve been fantasizing about Belgian waffles with maybe some strawberries, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, my metabolism currently screams out for some sort of protein. And lots of really cold, fizzy, sparkling refreshing beverages. A beer would actually be good now, but if I have a beer I will definitely die if I try to drive back home afterwards.

I pathetically order a croque monsieur, frites, some fresh orange juice and soda water. The only word I can find that describes my dining experience is “hoover.” I wait for the protein and carbs to kick in. It was an act of desperation. So American of me.

The young girls at the next table are talking and blowing smoke in my face. Now, thanks to my experience shifting and driving at the same time, I have the coordination to hate the girls, and watch the floor show that is Bruges simultaneously. It’s like a dollhouse. Not like Amsterdam where there’s a gritty looking bum or two amongst the picture postcard scenery (or a fat naked pseudo-chick in a window). It’s just pure picture card scenery. Even the people are all pretty. And more stylishly yet tastefully dressed than what I’ve seen in Paris or New York. This would be a great place to be rich and slightly innocuous. Hmmm, maybe this is where I should search for my new love interest. Hell, I’ll marry anyone who can offer me a life of wealth and innocuousness.

I love Bruges but I don’t LOVE it. But I do wish I could spend the night. At over E300/night, it’s not even a consideration. It’s almost 8PM now, growing cloudy and I begin to worry how to find my car since I have no idea how I got here. Either I must find a husband immediately, or start thinking about heading south.

I pay the waitress the E16.00 for the grilled cheese sandwich, fries and juice and figure I’m entitled to enlist her help. I don’t know what language these people speak, but it sure as hell isn’t French. I describe the entrance I used to enter Bruges and she gives me a map and draws some circles. Luckily, words like “fairy castle” and “moat” bridge the lingual chasm.

I take one last stroll, noticing among other things that my second favorite cookies in the world (Jules Destrooper, cinnamon butter biscuits)  that happen to be made in Bruges cost 15% more to buy in Bruges than they do in Auvers. What is wrong with these Belgians anyways? How can it cost more NOT to transport them? This place is really expensive. And E.30 every time you pee can really add up. Maybe that’s why it’s so pleasantly untouristed. Until now I just chalked it up to bad advertising. Or it could be a plan to keep the riff raff out. Which reminds me I have to leave.

At 9:30, I decide it’s time to head back in the direction the waitress and I believe the car is. I don’t want to drive when it’s dark, but am resigned to it. Miraculously, I find the car easily. Finding the right road back to Lille is another story. I’m halfway to Brussels before I realize I should have turned off at Belgian Gent. Obviously towns named Gent of any nationality town are a thorn in my side.

I head back towards Gent, cursing the Belgians yet again.

The rest of the ride back to Auvers is pretty uneventful. I drive towards a big storm which looks really cool with the cracks of lightening in the distance. But the actual stormed misses me by miles…no, kilometers. Trucks light my way. I piss off a woman at a rest stop for almost killing her children by mis-shifting (what a bitch!). I don’t get lost again and make it home by about one thirty in the morning. All in all, I think I drove about 6 hours longer than I had to, essentially doubling the road time. But I didn’t die. And I’m pretty sure the car is unscathed.

As a short side note, One difference in the three countries I visited could be seen clearly in my rear view mirror. The response to my driving mishaps and general slowness in France and Holland was generally tolerant amusement. In Belgium I could see a lot of inpatient finger tapping and “tsk”-ing going on. Occasionally a horn would burst forth. I reacted like any good American and flipped those drivers off. But I never once resort to headlight butting, at least not on purpose.

After a good night’s sleep, and some major dawdling, I return the car which has been a source of freedom, but also an incredible burden.

When the guy at Europcar finishes inspecting the car and tells me “c’est bien” I feel a burst of pride and accomplishment mingled with relief. It’s a heady combination. I leap up in the air, pump my fist a few times and shout “oui!, OUI.” The way I’m cheering, you’d think I just won the World Cup.

Tunnel notes: Turns out the tunnel I was trapped in is called the Westerschaldetunnel and at 6.6km (approx 4.1 miles).    It only seemed like the longest tunnel in the world.   The real longest tunnel in the world is the Laerdal Tunnel in Norway at 15.2 miles.

One last word of warning: Those passive aggressive Belgians have one final trick to get the rest of us totally lost in their country.   Some of the highway signs indicate the old time dutch name for Lille (Rijsel), rather than “Lille”.    Beware!   Lille=Rijsel.

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