May Musings

It’s already May… CUE FREAK OUT! Negative: I’m going to be stateside once again in less than one month. Positive: There are tons of random holidays in May in France, so lot of my classes have been canceled. Booyah. Also, the weather is FINALLY improving. Sunshine and warm temperatures make finals studying quite difficult.

Here’s some of what I’ve been up to since April vacation:

-Got my haircut. It’s super short, just in time for summer.

Un nouveau coup de cheveux- a new hair cut!

-Saw that new movie, The Avengers. (It was in English with French subtitles.) Sarah was very excited because were were sitting in the same row as somebody famous. I would have never known… but apparently we brushed by this guy as we sat down in the theater.

-Went to see Les Liasions Dangereuses, a play about manipulation and relationships. The movie Cruel Intentions is based off of this story. I followed about 90% of what was going on… but you don’t really need to speak French to know that things are getting weird when there are people without clothes on prancing around the stage…! Oh, France.

Les Liasions Dangereuses

– Visited Père Lachaise cemetery with Clément, Matt, and Cara. This was after Clément gave us a driving lesson (in French!) in his manual car. I haven’t driven a car in SO long! I had an edge on the other two Americans since I’ve had a few lessons in manual cars even if I’ve never driven on roads before.

Creamatorium at Père Lachaise Cimitière

-Went to a party the night after the presidential election whose theme was: Let’s NOT talk about the election.

-Celebrated Cara’s 21st birthday with a great brunch at “Breakfast in America”, a cute diner that’s well-known in expat circles for great pancakes, milkshakes, burgers, eggs, coffee, etc. It was fun to have a taste of home! The plan was to blindfold the birthday girl and lead her to brunch, but the blindfold had to come off when I accidentally led blind Cara up a hill in the opposite direction of the diner… whops. Anyone who knows me should not be surprised by my total lack of direction…! Birthday celebrations continued that night with apératifs, champagne, and birthday cake among friends!

Joyeux anniversaire!

To be continued…

-A

A New President for France

As of 8 PM on Monday, there’s a new president of the Republic. Nicholas Sarkozy was beaten out by François Hollande, the socialist.

My host family and I watched the elections being announced through an online streaming site. We all gathered around the computer in the kitchen and drank champagne (everyone except for the baby!) as the female anchor announced that Hollande has won!! My host dad even teared up a little! He was fourteen years old the last time the goverment was left-wing under François Mitterand.

At 8:01, cars in the street started honking loudly. We went to the balcony to investigate. No traffic jams, just joyous citizens celebrating! It was really cool to be in a city for such a tremendous shift in goverment. I can’t imagine how crazy the Bastille (where Hollande’s camp was congretating) must have been. The honking near me lasted well into the night. I heard some as I was going to bed around midnight.

It’s hard NOT to follow the election, for the names and faces of the candidates have been plastered all over Paris for weeks. It’s certainly interesting to see how another country goes through the process of selecting a president. There’s an old expression in France regarding the “first tour” in which the pool of candidates are narrowed to two, and “second tour” in which France choooses between the final two candidates. Simplified, the old adage says:  Pour un premier tour, on choisit avec le coeur. Pour le deuxième tour, on choisit avec la tête. We choose with the heart for the first tour, and choose with the head for the second tour. Even politics are romantic! Another semi-romantic fact: all the votes are counted out by hand. None of that electronic business that we use in the States.

A whopping 80% of France voted. Time will tell whether Hollande will be able to help France navigate the Euro crisis. Dun dun dun! Vive la France!

-A

Les Vacances: Amsterdam

Amsterdam street art

Cheese for sale at a market

Amsterdam in a nutshell: bikes, canals, coffeeshops, pancakes, walking, walking, walking, hispster grunge fashion, red lights and almost-naked women, great gouda and hard cheeses.

Two American girls, three days in Amsterdam! I boarded a train bound for Amsterdam early Tuesday morning with my friend, Becca. We stayed in a fantastic hostel that was just outside the red light district.

I loved meandering the streets, admiring the canals, and dodging bikers and the trams as they vazoomed by. Amsterdam has a distinct vibe. It’s more casual than Paris. Becca and I explored the many vintage shops and outdoor markets. The layout of the streets makes sense- it’s somewhat grid-like but also circle-like, with the grid fanning out.

We struck up conversation with a friendly elderly man in the first café we went into. He told us much about the city and circled his favorite spots on our little touristy maps. We giggled as he pronounced the foreign-sounding street names.

Map of Amsterdam

We spent our first afternoon browsing the shopping district (known as the 9 streets). And of course, sampling local cuisine! We also stopped by the “Heineken Experience,” an extremely touristy tour of the original Heineken brewery. I learned a lot about how beer is brewed- the mash, the hops, etc. I also never knew how highly acclaimed Heineken beer was/is! It has won many international awards… go figure. We got to taste two week old Heineken- SO DELICIOUS! Much lighter and tastier than the bottled stuff! Part of the “experience” also included a short boat tour, so that was also fun!

That night we tried out dutch pancakes, the “specialty” in Holland. I would describe these pancakes as a cross between crêpes and American pancakes. Dutch pancakes can be eaten with meats and cheeses, like a crêpe. I was glad I tried them, but they weren’t my favorite.

My favorite food in Amsterdam would have to be stroopwaffles- caramel-filled waffle cookies. Yum.

Stroopwaffles, caramel-filled waffle cookies

Some more food for thought: a friend told us to get appletaart, apple pie, at a restaurant called Winkel. AMAZING. I’ve been pining for apple pie for a while (it’s one of my favorite desserts and is usually the birthday cake stand-in on September 22, my bday.) While French apple tarts are good, they don’t hold a candle to the apple pie we tasted at Winkel’s… buttery crust and cinnamon and apple deliciousness on the inside. Feast your eyes.

Appletaart at Winkel’s

A highlight of our trip to Amsterdam was our visit to the Anne Frank House- the secret annex where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis in the 1940s. The house is located on a nondescript street right in the center of Amsterdam. The building looks no different from the surrounding ones. We climbed the stairs only to find the rooms in the annex completely empty. Very eerie. Anne Frank’s father (the only survivor in the Frank family) wanted to keep the annex as it was after the Nazis took away the contents of each room. Photos recreate what the rooms used to look like. Even though I never read the famous diary, I enjoyed touring the building and reading the snippets of Anne’s diary that were sprinkled around the museum. Her maturity astounded me! Only thirteen years old, and quite contemplative regarding her horrible situation.

On our last day, we took a boat tour of the city. It was nice to view everything from the perspective of the water! There are a bunch of houseboats along the canals that are quite cool. I learned that apartments used to be taxed by the width, meaning that builders made very narrow buildings. Also, there are hooks at the top of most buildings to assist in moving large furniture to each floor. Too funny!

Pretty canals…

Becca and I walked A TON! We managed to make the most of the dodgy weather. Sometimes raining, sometimes sunny- Amsterdam kept us on our toes. By the time it was time to leave, our feet were sore and our tummies happy.

Becca and me in the Amsterdam sun

-A

Les Vacances: La Loire

And the adventures continue~! After returning from Istanbul, I had a day in Paris before roadtripping down to the Loire Valley with Sarah and her mom, Catherine. On the agenda: visiting four chateaus in the Loire region.

We left Friday afternoon and drove down south in a misty haze. The Loire is actually only 2 hours from Paris. We settled into a CHATEAU called Château Laloin for the night.

After a sumtuous breakfast of tartines, croissants, OJ, coffee, yogurts, I was STUFFED and more than ready to walk off all those cals by exploring some ancient French castles.

First up- Chambord. Most notable part was the famous double spiral staircase that links the three floors. It looks kind of like a strand of DNA.

Cool staircase at Chambord

Next, we visited Cheverny, a magnificent chateau that served as inspiration for Hergé, the author of Tintin. Apparently the most famous castle in his comic books (Marlingspike Hall)  is based on Cheverny. Beautiful interior and exterior of the castle, colorful gardens, and a dog kennel too! There were tons of beagles cooped up in this outdoor kennel! Dogs were necessary for hunting back in the day, and the current owners still keep dogs around. Woof!

Sarah and I at Cheverny

WOOF!

Gardens of Cheverny

We got lost finding our chateau for Saturday night, but luckily the locals of the Loire were extremely nice and helpful. Our chateau was AMAZING. In the morning, we hung out with Rudy, the resident pig who is 150 kilos. He’s also blind.. d’aw.

150 kilo pig named Rudy

On Sunday we visted Chenonceau and Amoise. Chenonceau is on the River Cher. I felt like I was a princess with the lush gardens sprawling across the land. French gardens are very geometric and well groomed.

Chenonceau

Catherine and the gardens at Chenonceau

Lunch time: cider served in bowls and galettes, buckwheat crepes

Next, we visted Amoise, a medieval fortress and royal residence of King Charles the 8th up to François the 1st. The kings often invited European artists to stay at the castle, and Léonardo de Vinci (french spelling… where’s the DA) spent several years here! He is buried on site, so I got to see his grave in the castle chapel. Wooo weird to think of de Vinci’s ghost flying around in the wind.

I think Amboise was my favoirte castle, since it was located on a large hill and provided the best views of the Loire Valley.

Amboise

Amboise, garden, and view of Loire on the right.

As you can see in the picture, there are huge clouds on one half of the sky, and clear skies on the other side. Pretty much sums up the weekend weather. One second it was raining and gross, the next it was sunny. I was switching between umbrella and sunglasses constantly! Too weird.

On our drive back to Paris, we were treated to a beautiful rainbow. A fairytale ending to my princess-y weekend! Merci beaucoup à Sarah et Catherine pour un weekend incroyable!

-A

Les Vacances: Turkey

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Istanbul has everything you could want in a city- there’s a beautiful body of water (Bosphorus Strait), interesting architecture, delicious food, fascinating history, friendly locals, fun bazaar shopping, and a forgiving exchange rate… I’m in!

Three friends and I spent five days in Istanbul. I’ve uploaded a sampling of photos from the trip (there were many more, but I don’t want to overwhelm you!)

Two words could probably describe my experince in Istanbul: SENSORY OVERLOAD. Smells, colors, tastes, sounds… Istanbul streets are constantly bustling with life. Even deserted streets have interesting street art or stray animals scavenging in garbage cans.

I loved walking up and down the hilly streets, ducking into little shops full of clothes, bags, soaps, jewlery. Lining many streets are fruit shops displaying colorful pineapples, oranges, pomegranates for fresh juice. Little street food stands sell bagels, kabobs, and other goodies. The smell of roasting meat for “donner” sandwiches was constantly wafting around. Our group of four fell in love with a little coffeeshop, Cherry Bean Coffees, near our apartment. Little dinky French expressos can’t hold a candle to rich Turkish coffees and satisfying frappuchinos! Yum. Other food highlights: sweet and sticky baklava and fresh fish.

The weather in Istanbul continuously surprised us. Torrential rain, sunshine, wind, clouds… the ever-changing climate reminded me of New England. If you don’t like it, just wait a few minutes and it will change!

We were lucky enough to have a few sunny days, which we spent admiring the Bosphorus by boat. Wind whipping through my hair, I loved sitting in the sunshine and admiring the European coast, and then walking to the other side of the boat and checking out the Asian side. Being near water definitely put me in a summertime mood. I was surprised by how green and lush Turkey is. On one boat cruise we hopped off on the Asian side of Turkey and hiked to the top of a hill. We were treated to an amazing panorama of Turkey…. so cool! On our second boat cruise, we decided to go to one of the Princes Islands, four islands off the coast of Turkey. Even on the island, there was still an abundance of stray animals… very sad to see kittens and puppies curled up near trash bins. There were tons of strays in Istanbul.

Visiting the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia were highlights of the trip for me. We visited these two sites in the same morning, and I was struck by how different I felt at each place. While the Hagia Sophia is now considered a museum, the Blue Mosque is still used by practicing Muslims. Everyone must remove shoes before entering, and women are supposed to cover their heads with a scarf. I don’t usually think of feet as particularly spiritual, but it felt peaceful to pad across the red carpet in bare feet! The mosque was stunning, with beautiful script writing on the walls and geometric designs spanning the ceilings.

Hagia Sophia, on the other hand, was first a church of Constantinople, then a mosque, and is now a museum. Arabic script and geometric designs were prominent, but there were also a few illustrations of Jesus on some walls. Interesting mix. I loved climing to the second floor and looking down at the large main open room. There was also a spectacular exhibition on arabic calligraphy. Such cool aesthetics, with just words! Too bad I can’t read Arabic

Our group got our shopping fix by visiting the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largests covered markets in the world. Wikipedia says there are over 3,000 shops and I’d believe it. There’s a labyrinth of stores displaying scarves, tapestries, porcelain bowls, sunglasses, jewlery, antiques, and more. Lots of “evil eyes”, blue eyes that symbolize protection against bad luck and/or evil. We had fun haggling over items with dramatic store owners who frantically typed on calculators and would pretend there was no way they could budge from their high prices.

Istanbul is certainly a different flavor than Paris. A little spicier, hipper, less poised and “Western.” While headscarves for women are explicitly outlawed by secular France, burkas are acceptable and prevalent in Istanbul. I also noticed a cultural difference regarding men in Istanbul. It is socially acceptable for grown men to link arms as they walk down the street! In a clearly platonic manner. I’ve never seen this in the US or in France. It’s so cute!

I felt a little college-like living in a shared space with three other girls. Since I live in a host family in Paris, it has been quite a while since I’ve spent so much continuous time with people my own age. Getting ready together, eating meals and laughing, and taking an obnoxious amount of pictures made me think of living in the dorms at school, even though Istanbul is a far cry from central NY. I’m glad I had such great travel companions while visiting Istanbul. Spicing up my time in Europe with this trip was the perfect amount of culture shock combined with relaxation.

-A

 

Quatre questions: Passover en France

“How is this night different from all other nights?”

It’s a Passover tradition for the youngest child at a Passover seder to ask 4 questions during the seder. Two weekends ago I celebrated Passover AND Easter in Paris. I’ll recap my Passover/Easter weekend in question form!

1. Why is it that you can find brown sugar in any grocery store in the US, but only  large crystals of brown sugar in France? 

Matzoh Crunch!

Answer: I DON’T KNOW! All I know is that I spent a good 30 minutes meandering around the local Carrefour supermarket, searching high and low for some light brown sugar. I volunteered to make dessert for our Saturday night seder. On the menu: matzoh crunch- a tradition in my family. Matzoh crunch involves copious amounts of brown sugar, butter, and chocolate. And, of course, matzoh. (But really, the matzoh is only a excuse for eating the other three ingredients!) I ended up using large crystals of cassonade, regular (not fine) brown sugar. It didn’t caramelize perfectly, mais c’est la vie. Still tasted great, and every last morsel was gobbled up at the end of the seder!

Seder plate on the table- Prête à manger

2. What would be an ideal soundtrack for a seder among college students in their 20s? 

Answer: Top hits from the 90s… After savoring the delicious matzoh ball soup made by our host Hannah, chicken, gefilte fish, charoset, salad, and a few bottles of wine, our group of put-together dinner guests mysteriously regressed into 90s middle schoolers. We put away the haggadahs (which were in French) and enjoyed a lovely sing-a-long to some quality pop music. Props to DJ Nathan.

Reading from haggadahs en français

Bringing seder to rue Mouffetard, chez Hannah

3. What is better than homemade goat cheese quiche?

Answer: NOTHING. On Sunday morning, I celebrated Easter with Cara and Anna by baking a goat cheese quiche. Anna’s host family went away for Easter weekend, and everyone knows, when the cat is away, the mice will play! Je rigole (I’m kidding!) But, it was nice to have free reign of the kitchen and be able to play our own music in the apartment. I’m fairly sure baking a quiche is a not a traditional way of celebrating Easter, but we enjoyed ourselves nevertheless. My two friends reminisced about their own Easter family traditions, and I was glad to be able to celebrate in Paris with them. Our Easter feast also included homemade crepes! Mmmmm!

quiche au chèvre

4. How do you flip a crêpe without using a spatula? 

Answer: By boldly tossing the crêpe in the air and catching it with the pan!

Cara's a pro at flipping crêpes

Crêpe chez Anna

-A

La Flèche d’Or

That’s “flesh of gold” for everyone who doesn’t speak French. Sounds like a horror movie or a creepy pawnshop, eh?

After having a mini-freak out over how little time we have left in Paris, Cara, Anna, and I decided to do some concert research and purchase a few concert tickets for the spring. We might have overwhelmed the guy working at the FNAC store, but after all was said and done we each had 3-4 tickets for concerts held at “La Flèche d’Or,” a concert venue in the 20th arrondissement.

“When I saw the gated exterior, clouds of smoke and grungy hipsters standing around out front, I felt that my choice of 2 euro, screw-top white wine was very appropriate for the evening.” – a lovely quote from Anna’s blog, une cuillère à café.

Here’s a peek of the two shows I attended. Performances by “The Rich Kids,” “Dog is Dead,” “Morning Parade,” and “Tall Ships,” and “Los Campesnios!” My favorite was definitely “Los Campesnios!”, a Welsh band that is probably the most well-known out of this bunch.

Going to two concerts was a welcome change from the usual walking around, eating, shopping, studying, and site-seeing. It was great to se lâcher, to let loose a little bit and dance to silly indie-rock music. I always want to dance when I’m listening to my iPod in the metro, but I never do since other French commuters would undoubtedly look at me like I have three heads. (I know, I know. It’s usually not socially acceptable to dance randomly in public in any country.)

Anyway, Anna, Cara, and I had a great time dancing during each set. (Cara missed out on the first concert actually, but she made up for lost time when she joined us for the second one!) While most of the older spectators stood on the periphery of the crowd, Anna, Cara, and I were amongst a group of hipster high schoolers right up front. No shame! We came with a mission to dance our socks off, and did so gleefully. The French spectators around us were happy to leave us plenty of space. Cultural difference altert: even at a rock concert, the majority of French people prefer standing and watching instead of dancing. Hmm! A very odd phenomenon, from an outsider’s perspective. My personal theory is that the French are too dignified to work up a sweat outside of a gym…! Whatever floats your boat, I suppose.

Vive la DANSE!

Dancing queens

-A