Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hyde and seek with French littérature

Knowing I needed to get some reading done in London but reluctant to miss out on playing tourist, I compromised with a leisurely morning in Hyde Park and its neighboring Kensington gardens. After roaming the grounds, I bought a latté at a lakeside café and dove into Maupassant (a 19th century book I really enjoyed, about a man from humble origins who takes advantage of the fact that he has an irrisistable moustache--seriously!--to seduce numerous rich/powerful women).

The park itself was nice; a little less manicured than Parisian parks and but still full of fountains and memorials, and even memorial fountains! My favorite find was a Peter Pan statue that was apparently commissioned by J. M. Barrie and installed in the middle of the night to appear as if by magic for children in the morning.

Later in the day I wandered through some posh neighborhoods and past a pub frequented by Voltaire (I suppose during his post-Candide exile?) over to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Like D.C.'s Smithsonian, all London museums are free, so I went on in and began browsing their collections of British artifacts. The museum itself was pretty interesting, housed in a building that mixed the old and the new, with a traditional dome in the lobby paired with a strange modern glass sculpture. Its open, two-story wings allowed you to look down onto the exhibition floors of castings from above, which was a cool perspective. The museum's contents were a strange mix as well, ranging from European antiques and artwork to less traditional museum fare like ironworks, early digital art, and even a wing celebrating theater via a collection of costumes, props and lighting. The definite highlight was the impressively lifelike rhino costume (but is it an Asiatic or and African?) used in Ionesco's Rhinocéros, which has remained my favorite absurd theatre piece since I read it for a course a few years ago. Brilliant.

Eye spy, musicals and markets

Our first real day in London was devoted to the more standard tourist fare. Luckily, since I'd been there before, Tom was spared the Parliament/Buckingham Palace/Westminster Abbey part of the itinerary, but he was appalled that I had neglected to ride the London Eye. We rectified that pretty quickly, and I have to admit that the view of the Thames and Parliament and the crescent-shaped aquarium from the Ferris wheel pod was totally worth it.

The other big thing I hadn't done last time was go to see a show in West End. Buying half-price last minute tickets was much easier than in New York, and the area was much cuter, more compact and more pedestrian friendly than Broadway but with no less energy or neon. Despite my reservations about seeing a show set in New York whilst in London, we settled on Avenue Q, a parody of Sesame Street complete with muppets, songs and animation, that chronicles the quarter-life crisis following college graduation. I thought the vocalist that played Nickie/Princeton was a little weak, but overall it was a good production and a hilarious show.

Saturday was market day, so we headed first to Notting Hill to browse the antiques and other wares for sale on Portobello road. (In case you're wondering, the picture is of a collection of antique sewing machines). We listened to street musicians as we noshed on a vendor picnic of chorizo sandwhiches, marinated olives and dried fruit, then headed over to the more counter-culture markets of Camden. The crowd there was an odd mix of hippies and goths, dreadlocks and mohawks, but overall a very friendly, easygoing group. With its squat, waterside brick buildings, Camden reminded me a lot of Baltimore (I wonder if B-more's look was inspired by Camden?) We bought a pint of ale from a lock-side pub and drank it under the willow trees beside countless other 20-something couples and friends.

We met up with a couple of Tom's college friends just as the sun was setting for a stroll along the Thames, followed by dinner and cocktails. Perfect weather, perfect day.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A lovely time in the English countryside

We spent Sunday on a day trip an hour's train ride North to the idyllic town of Saffron Waldon, in the East Anglia region on the outskirts of Cambridge. To me, the address (and on Mt. Pleasant Road, no less) sounded almost unbelievably quaint, and I had remarked to Tom before we arrived that the lit nerd in me was half expecting to find either a dystopic paradise à la Stepford wives or the isolated spiritual retreat of Thoreau's Walden. Of course, it turned out to be exactly as Tom had described: nothing more or less than a cute countryside town.

Tom's family entertained and fed us all afternoon. The menu was exquisite--it's easy to see where Tom gets his kitchen expertise--and his parents were warm and welcoming in an adorably British way (which is to say so calm and understated that I might have apprehensively misinterpreted their reaction as kind boredom if I hadn't had several months with Tom and various friends to prepare me). Tom's dad is a former literary nerd and both mum and dad are internationally-minded and well-traveled, so we were never short of conversation topics. On top of that, Tom's house was pretty amazing--an ancient, fairly narrow building that spans four floors and has all the quirks you'd expect from an English country house: a bell system to alert the kitchen help, a dinner gong, a garden with a bridge and pond, sloped-ceiling attic bedrooms, bathrooms with sliding doors hidden in the middle of staircases and multiple sets of stairs leading to a single floor. It's furnished with a mix of objects picked up on various international vacations and the childhood remnants of raising two boys (example: all the doors are propped open by plastic dinosaur toys), all of which makes for a fascinating place to explore. It was also fun, as it always is meeting friends' parents, to see Tom nagged in his "son" role and laugh at the childhood photos on display, and entertaining to watch him stoop to hug his mother in the same way that he has to with me.

Tom took me out for a between-meals walk around the local manor house and through the surrounding forests and sunny fields. The town and its residents seemed cheery but rather sleepy. After a day, I could see how Saffron Walden would have been a pleasant place to grow up (I kept picturing Anne of Green Gables skipping about) but I could also understand why both Tom and his brother feel drawn to urban life as adults. And me too, apparently--I used to fancy myself more of a rural-person, but exposure to Paris has changed my mind. A vacation in the country is definitely relaxing (and part of me will always mourn the absence of pine trees and the ocean when they're not in my life) but there's something to be said for having food, drink, entertainment and people always at your disposal, and after a happy dose of family time I was content to return to London.

I'm back, ol' chap

So I'm just back from our trip to London, which was (happily) unaffected by all the chaos surrounding English travel after the Eyjafjallajokull volcano grounded flights (I totally copy-and-pasted that from another site...I bet news rooms all over the world have reference notes posted on the wall reminding reporters how to spell and pronounce that ridiculous Icelandic name). I had a jolly old time across the Channel, and have revised my opinion of London from a sort of "meh" European city to "I would totally live there some day". I'll be making a few more posts this week to give some pictures and recap of various experiences I had, but for this first one I'll just give my general impressions of the city.

Let's start with the basics: the London Underground (or "Londerground," as it should really be called). If you read this blog often you'll know how much I both love and am critical of public transportation. The last time I was in London I found their system overpriced, run-down and not at all user-friendly. The improvements between then and now blew my mind. The Tube is undergoing major construction (or, for the Brits, "improvement works") and it is now cleaner, brighter and more efficient than the Paris metro. Stations don't smell like piss, ads come in flatscreen TV form, and "Oyster" cards facilitate the day-pass payment process in a way that ends up being pretty cheap (at least if you ride the metro a lot in one day). Trains have also come a long way towards being more accessible--"lifts" (elevators) are still few and far between, but their availability is well-marked on maps, and all trains have a clear voiceover reading out the direction and stops. The downsides: it's still unnecessarily confusing, with line transfers often poorly marked and maps not at all to scale. All the works also mean that they take advantage of commuter weekends to essentially shut the whole system down, leaving you without many alternatives other than the iconic if slow double-deckers to get around town. Whenever I started to get frustrated, though, I was able to find humour in the utter Englishness of it all--from the "mind the gap" and "this train will wait on the platform to even out the gaps in the line" warnings, to the strange names the lines carry. Rather than using colors (like D.C.) or numbers (like Paris), the English opted for rather more arbitrary system of names, some self-explanatory ("Central", "District", "Northern") and some place-based but hilarious ("Bakerloo", "Jubilee", "Hammersmith and City").

The stereotype of the polite Englishman is all too true, and it was charming to be apologized to instead of trampled during rush-hour. London is also delightfully diverse, however, and while it's easy to find pasties, meat pies, fish and chips and tea, they might well be served with a foreign accent. The number of French-speaking Londoners everywhere was incredible; language-wise it didn't feel that different than Paris. Judging purely by accents heard on the street, there also seemed to be a pretty sizable American population (which I suppose explains why the English don't find my accent nearly as 'exotic' as I do theirs). The availability and quality of foreign cuisine was also great, and we had delicious, non-English dinners pretty much every night.

Food and clothing seemed much cheaper in general in London than in Paris (although hotels and housing are apparently much more expensive). Since the pound is at a record low against the dollar right now I spent some of my time while Tom attended his conference on London's famous Oxford street, a shopping mecca with all the major chain stores represented (sometimes multiple times!). I bought some new summer wardrobe fare and also picked up a few choice items that are either non-existent or exorbitantly-priced in Paris (cheddar cheese, Crunchie chocolate bars, sunscreen, toiletries...)

Overall, my favorite part of London was the literary/film/theater associations it brought to my arts-minded brain. Passing through Paddington (the bear) or King's Cross (Harry Potter) stations made me smile, and walking around Fleet Street (Sweeney Todd), Portobello Road (Bednobs and Broomsticks), Notting Hill (the movie) and Baker Street (Sherlock Holmes) put me in the same sort of fantasy world (albeit not that of Madeline, Notre Dame's Hunchback, and Amelie) that Paris used to evoke before it became so quotidienne. Parliament had me pondering Guy Fawkes, and Big Ben Peter Pan, and I found myself chanting "oranges and lemons..." and "London bridge..." and other nursery rhymes under my breath almost constantly. I'm slowly realizing that I must be a little bit crazy to constantly be zoning out and making the connections that I'm so apt to. No matter, though--it's cosy in here.

(That odd-shaped building is affectionately known as "the Gherkin." Tee hee hee)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nantes Jaunt

I spent this past weekend exploring another corner of Bretagne (Brittany). By "exploring" I actually mean "eating my way through", à la Eric Carle's very hungry caterpillar. This trip was organized by our French office assistant who has a taste for the gourmet, so we took full advantage of all of the fresh fish, kouing aman pasteries, salted caramel, crêpes and non-Parisian prices the region had to offer.

We started in Nantes, the capital of Bretagne and the 6th largest city in France, which was cute if rather bland. With a tram system, a small "ethnic" quarter, a medieval center and six-floor white buildings with wrought-iron balconies, it felt basically felt like a smaller, cleaner Paris with less people and wider streets. Highlights were visiting the little fortified castle in the town center, where you could see an old German war bunker from the WWII occupation as well as the site where the Edict of Nantes was signed. Before leaving Nantes we payed a visit to the Île des Machines exhibit, a "robotics" museum/workshop where one can see/interact with mechanical wood artwork vaguely inspired by the imaginary universe of Nantes-ian writer Jules Vernes. The coolest robot by far was an enormous wood and leather elephant, which is big enough to fit 40 passengers for a short jaunt around the square.

Next we hopped on a bus and continued on to a Muscadet vinyard on the edge of the Pays de la Loire Departement. The couple that owns and single-handedley runs the vineyard gave us a tour of the still rather dead-looking vines and the production facilities of their award-winning wine. I learned about wine production I hadn't known previously. Apparently you don't leave the grape skins in wine (too sour) and red grapes can therefore be used to make white, rosé or red wine depending on the delicacy and time-frame of the juicing process (for example, apparently all "authentic" Champagne comes from red grapes). Even if they don't do much for the taste, however, the skins are the source of the yeast, which ferments the wine by converting sugar into alcohol until such a point that it dies from the alcohol concentration it has created. (The difference between grape juice and wine is therefore simple pasteurization, which kills off the yeast before they get a chance to start making alcohol.) Afterward the wine-making lesson we were treated to a wine tasting of a young 2009 Muscadet (sweeter, almost bubbly, and more acidic) and an older 2003 one (drier, smoother). I liked both, but opted for the older as my souvenir.

We spent the night in La Baume, a small coastal town that was pretty, though pretty much like any Maryland or Delaware beach town in the off-season. The water was still a little cold for swimming but we enjoyed a stroll along the sand to find some shells, and our five course dinner was in a restaurant literally on the beach.
Saturday started with a trip to the marshes of the Presqu'il de Guérande, where the famous "fleur de sel" sea salt is harvested by hand from seawater channeled inland and concentrated in a series of canals and shallow pools. We toured the salt pools, then visited a co-op to purchase some local food products: jams from local berries, a seaweed tartar (also harvested from the swamps), Bretagne's famous salted caramels, and of course, salt. The salt looks like greyish rock salt and is valued by gourmet chefs for its delicate flavor. I'm not going to lie, I don't quite "get" it, but considering that a wholesale bag was only a euro I figured I'd give it a try.

A later boat ride through the swamps made me nostalgic for the Chesapeake Bay, whose shallow waters, grassy duck blinds, herons and crabs are surprisingly similar to those in Bretagne (although, of course, better--Maryland pride!). We ate lunch in the fortified medieval town of Guèrande, then walked around the picturesque village of Khérinet to see the rustic houses with roofs made of swamp grass. By the time I finally got back I was gorged with gourmet food, exhausted, and highly satisfied: both to have seen a little more of the "real" France beyond Paris and to have that feeling of returning "home" attached to Paris on the train ride back.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

It's official...

...I'm staying in France for the next year! Heard back about the French language teaching assistant gig--got an offer for Paris, which are often hard to come by, so I'm excited in spite of the shitty pay. Also have a lead to apply for a position with a study abroad company, I just have to get my application together. Oh yeah, and look for an apartment. But before I get bogged down in the details I thought I should get this off my chest:


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Tourisister, day sept

Our plan for Nicole's last day had been to visit the catacombs (what better way to celebrate Christ rising from the dead than with a stroll through piles of bones, eh?) but alas, they were closed. Instead, we went North to the hill of Montmartre and its voluptuous cathedral of Sacre Coeur (seriously, it has always struck me as an extremely feminine and sensual building, especially compared to the harsh Gothic towers of Notre Dame). Nicole liked the view over the city but was even more entranced by the street performers and portrait artists. After buying her some scarves (so that she would stop threatening to steal mine, which she had been wearing all week) we continued on to the last stop on our tourist hit list: the Arc de Triomphe, its flame honoring the unknown soldier, and its surrounding asterisk of grand boulevards radiating outwards in the shape of an étoile ("star").

I accompanied her to the airport this morning (early, early this morning) to see her off. Unfortunately, with the new security measures I couldn't follow her any further than the line for the passport station. Left to pace behind velvet ropes as I watched my kid sister pass through to security alone, I understood why saying "bye" to me at the airport has always been a heart-wrenching affair for my mother. "Have a good flight," I said, "and a good rest of the school year." She hugged me: "have a in Paris?"

I relished that remark on the train ride home --my life in Paris--as if my sister saying it had made it real. When I arrived in September, it was with a nomadic, "this is temporary" mindset; my academic year in France was a mere a blip in the trajectory of my path before I start Real Life. At the beginning, I bought as few dishes and linens as I could manage, I neglected decoration, and I packed lightly, always conscious of being able to easily erase the traces of my time here and bring stuff "home" to the States. Hosting a visitor made me appreciate how much this city has really become my own over the last few months, and how at home I feel here--to the point that I'm beginning to plan a life here beyond my Master's.

As if determined to prove my French-ness, I stopped at a boulangerie on the way home to pick up a baguette and some breakfast pastries for Tom and I to share. Later we took advantage of the lovely day and warm weather to take a stroll through the blossoming tree-lined streets of the "Chinatown" area in the 13th arrondissement, stopping for some pho and frogs legs at a Vietnamese place. Verdict: they taste similar to chicken (which is to say vaguely meaty and salty, I suppose) but have a texture more like white fish... the muscle kind of flakes apart inside the crunchy outside, and you end up with a cute little pile of frog bones. Dinner: left over ratatouille and a whole kilo of fresh spring strawberries. Vive la France!

Tourisister, day six

Feeling lazy, so tonight's tourist diary is going to be heavy on pictures and light on narrative. Tom had a friend from Oxford in town for the day, so Nicole and I met with them at Angelina for yet another decadent hot chocolate (much to the delight of Nicole, aka "the dessertaholic"). After gorging ourselves with chocolate, we browsed through the wall-size Monet works in the Orangerie museum in the nearby Tuleries garden. Arriving home later than expected, we grabbed a crêpe from a vendor to tide us over until a late dinner that would take place after a trip to the movies for 3D Alice in Wonderland. (Verdict: surprisingly not as dark as expected. Enjoyed the real world/wonderland doubling and the jabberwocky references, but kinda "meh" as a whole.) Dinner later, at Nicole's request, was Tom's homemade ratatouille. As the French would say: miam miam! ("yum yum")

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Tourisister, day cinq

Nicole has spent the day dissecting basic French sentences and talking about taking French classes when she gets home. Her reasoning? Paris is the first city she really likes, and she thinks she could totally see herself living here if only she spoke the language.

I'm not sure if that's a win for me or for France, but I'll take the the credit either way.

Today we took the RER C train to the end of the line to admire the decadent luxury of the Versailles Chateau that was home to the last kings and queens of France. (Back story: fearful of pissed off Parisian peasants, the King decided to relocate his palace from central Paris, the building that currently houses the Louvre, to Versailles, a castle in the country where he was still close enough to the capital to be useful but far enough to fritter away tax money without being bothered by his citizens. Rather than fear hostility from the nobility, the king brought them along, too, gave them housing in his gilded castle and made them a part of the lavish ceremonies surrounding his personal life. Alas, all of this only served to delay the uprising, and the royal line was beheaded a short while later.) The chilly, rainy weather prevented us from wandering too far into the extensive gardens, although we did get a good view of the main fountain and hedge patterns from the windows in the upper floor. Nicole's favorite parts were the over=decorated bed chambers of Louis XIV and Maire Antoinette. Mine was the celebrated "Hall of Mirrors" which was fully restored and operational for the first time during my many visits--in fact, here's a picture!

We took a late afternoon coffee break at my favorite café to sample some macarons (a French delicacy cookie made of cream and meringue). Nicole loved them so much that she's determined to buy a small box before she leaves as her "souvenir" to eat on the plane. She also learned how to grocery shop à la française as we picked up ingredients for a make-your-own-pizza dinner and Saturday morning brunch. In other words she learned to use a small cart, weigh and price her own vegetables, bag her own groceries in environmentally-friendly reusable sacs, and only buy as much as can be comfortably carried home.

For an after-dinner treat, we headed out to Trocadero for the outlook over the Eiffel Tower and its reflecting pool, popping a bottle of "Champommy" (a sparkling cider with a champagne cork) as the tower sparkled at midnight. In the company of countless other young people who were celebrating with more than cider, she also got a lesson in flirtatious French men--luckily, she had me there to tell them to "va-t'en."

Friday, April 2, 2010

100 posts and going strong

This post marks the 100-post anniversary of this travel blog. Woohoo! I thought I'd celebrate with a photo post. Taken with the camera in my cell phone, here are some moments captured in my day-to-day life around Paris. To start off with, here's a picture of my friend, Lucy, on our walk home from a café and the grocery store. I thought she looked very French:
A weird iron grill on a building I found walking around the 7th:
An awesome hat, observed in metro hub Châtelet-Les Halles:
A view up boulevard Général LeClerc from Alesia:
And the nearby fresh fruit and fish markets:
A woman rocking some strange boots outside a café where I was reading and enjoying a café crème and a tiramisu macaron:
One of the best close-up shots I've been able to get of the ubiquitous Space Invader graffiti (most of them are too high for me to get close to):
A cool street musician band we ran into in the St. Germain area. Called "Texas CousCous", they feature 18 members, mostly on brass instruments, and play jazzed-up covers of pop songs:
A 100-euro bill. I should have taken a photo of it next to another bill. For anyone who hasn't handled euros before, the size of the bill increases with the denomination, so these are comically big:
A poster highlighting the gender wage gap. Woohoo!
An old Frenchman on WiFi outside a cafe:
A cute dad, giving his toddler a shoulder ride inside the Metro. He had the art of ducking when entering/exiting a car down...didn't scrape her little head once.
The NYU metro stop (Passy) in the swanky 16th arrondissement. Taken on my way home one particularly clear night:
Zombie baby:
This is kind of blurry, but I think it's funny that the regular type of Durex here (by far the most popular condom, like the Trojan of Europe) are called "jeans" (I guess to evoke associations of comfort? They're definitely nothing like denim) and that the XL size has a tape measure. Subtle.
And last, some cool cow art at a smoothie bar on the way to Paris VII. It says "Life is a dream: achieve it!" Why thank you, Ms. Cow. I do believe I shall.