Sunday, May 1, 2011

The One Where My Sister Came to Europe

Way back in November, when my dad was visiting me, we sat on my computer at the kitchen table, searching for flights for my sister to come during her spring break in March, unfortuately about a week after my break would end. With his miles, we got her a roundtrip flight for about $100.  Good thing that flight was practically free, because, once she was actually here, we proceeded to thoroughly enjoy ourselves, or regaler as the French would say, and spend, well, a teensy bit more. But, to quote Mastercard:
Roundtrip flight LAX-CDG: $100 (with miles)
Fresh, homemade Italian pasta for two in Bellagio: 17 euros
Annecy snowglobe: 6 euros
Entrance fee for two to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona: 22 euros
Traipsing around Europe with your sister: Priceless.

Lake Como
We began our 10-day Eurotrip extravaganza with a little dose of la dolce vita, both of us hopping on Easy Jet flights (she from Paris where she arrived, and me from Lyon) and arrived at the Milano airport at exactly 3pm. Perfecto.  After a little hugging and squealing, we grabbed her suitcase and headed for the bus that would take us to Milano Centrale train station, where we would catch a train taking us one hour north, on the idyllic Lake Como, home to the rich--and yes--famous. Mr. George "Nespresso" Clooney himself owns a villa along this famous lake. About 45 minutes later, we rounded the bend and caught our first glimpse of the beautiful lake. After one final mode of transportation--a ferry--we arrived in Bellagio--the real one, not the Vegas casino--and trudged uphill to our apartment.

Every meal on Lake Como was nothing short of divine--really fresh, homemade pastas and sauces, perfectly Italian pizza, srumptious pastries and gelato. I just about died eating my pumpkin gnocchi with sage butter sauce for lunch in Varenna, the village we headed to first thing Saturday morning. Besides the food, the places were all postcard-perfect Italian villages, full of brightly colored buildings, incredible villas, stone stairways leading you uphill (really the only direction you can go), and breathtaking views around and of the lake. After Varenna, we hopped the ferry to Menaggio, and then back to Bellagio when it started to rain a bit in the late afternoon (despite the sunny start to our day). My sister slept off some of her jetlag (and I joined her) before we devoured some amazing pizza and prepared for a busy Sunday.

In the morning, we grabbed some breakfast, headed back down to the lake to enjoy some last looks, then once again hopped on the ferry, caught a train and chugged back to Milan for a whirlwind tour (trust me, this is the best way to do Milan). We headed straight for Santa Maria del Grazie for our Last Supper appointment. After staring at Da Vinci's great disappearing masterpiece for about 10 minutes (which should have been 15, but a time-wasting mix-up caused us to miss our 1pm appointment and hop in late on the 1:15 group), we hurried over to the Duomo where we ate an overpriced meal with a priceless view (of said Duomo). We opted for the time-saving elevator, wandered amongst the lacey rooftop, scurried back down to grab some gelato, and high-tailed it back to the train station, where we had to catch the bus back to the airport for a 6:30 flight to Lyon.

Here's where disaster hit, and apparently some karma we had coming to us: I had no cash left to pay for the airport bus, no one took credit cards (wtf italy??), the atm in the station didn't work, the closest atm outside the station didn't work, so we were forced to suck it up and take an 85 euro taxi. However, when we got to the airport, we found out our plane was going to be TWO HOURS late! So a) we ended up sitting around the airport for 3 hrs and b) we actually had TONS of time to find another atm (though, of course we couldn't possibly have known this. FML. Anyway, we finally made it to Lyon, tired but excited for the rest of our week.

Monday, we stayed in Lyon, did a quick morning tour, munching on some brioches aux pralines roses, heading up to Croix Rousse and back down to Place des Terreaux before ending up at a creperie in Old Lyon for lunch. Then, I took my sister to work with me where she got to meet some of my teachers, other assistants and students. The students seemed to really enjoy meeting her, and they especially enjoyed discussing the finer points of American tv shows with her, though I had to keep reminding her to cut back on the slang missing from French students textbooks, and therefore sailing right over their 'eads. Speaking English to those not fluent in it can be its own art form.

Tuesday and Wednesday took us on two very different but equally sunny and lovely day trips: first to the Alps town of Annecy, situated on the gorgeous Lake Annecy, and Avignon, home of the Pope's Palace and the best restaurant in the world. I was really happy to go back to Annecy, because when I had gone there in 2007, it was mid-November, and therefore freezing, and definitely not sunny. We started off with a fresh, market lunch, buying some roasted chicken with AMAZING fries, some clementines and a couple pieces of cheese to eat with our dinner later. Later, we ate some gelato, wondered the cute streets of the old center of town, and took a boat ride on Lake Annecy.  On the train ride back to Lyon, we met a nice French girl who had just spent 6 months in LA--studying at UCLA's business school! What a small world we live in. In Avignon, we did a little soap shopping, toured the main sights and returned to my favorite restaurant of all time, Le Petit Bedon, where Joy and I enjoyed our first meal in Provence this past summer. Once again, it went above and beyond, both food and service-wise. Yum yum. If you ever go to Avignon, you have to stop in for a meal--or two. It's always fun showing off France to my family members, and of course, Annecy and Avignon never let down, and my sister loved her glimpses of the Alps and Provence.

St. Benezet bridge in Avignon, aka le pont d'avignon

After our mini French tour, Thursday we hopped on a plane and headed south to Barcelona! We both immediately fell in love with this vibrant and architecture-rich city, marveling at the Gaudi masterpieces and savoring delicious tapas and of course, churros con chocolate. We wandered around the melting-icecream rooftop of the Casa Mila, strolled up and down the always-lively main drag, La Rambla,  and oogled at the magnificent exterior and interior of the Sagrada Familia. In the amazing La Bouqeria market, we tried 4 or 5 pressed fruit/smoothie drinks (discovering the delightful puke-flavored cactus fruit), devoured our favorite tapa, patatas gravas (potatoes in a slightly spicy tomato/mayo sauce) and sampled some Spanish candies. Later, we were excited to finally find the mosaic iguana in Parc Guell, whose likeness we had seen everywhere, on magnets, plates, candle holders and more, and waited impatiently to pose with him before exploring the rest of the awesome park. Lucky for us, Gaudi original vision of creating a sort of gated community for Barcelona's wealthy residents didn't pan out!  That night, we sped over to the Catalan Art Museum to watch the Magic Fountain show, a light and water show set mostly to hits of 80s (at least that night), and then took a nighttime tour of the Gaudi sights.

Barcelona harbor
At some point during our trip, we had a rather unpleasant encounter with a grouchy old woman on the metro. We were sitting in the train, chatting about something or other, and when it got to one stop, apparently an older woman, maybe around 65-70, got on with another couple, a little younger than her. Well, excuse us for not noticing right away, but she suddenly starting gesticulating angrily and scolding us in Spanish (making me really wish I understood Spanish) until we jumped up to let her sit down. Then, she resumed speaking in Spanish accented French to the couple she was with. Hmph. Now, I understand that it is common courtesy (and often marked on signs) to give up your seat to the elderly, handicapped, pregnant, etc, but first of all, there was no need to get so angry, we just didn't notice. Plus, I didn't see anyone else jumping up to offer their seat. Second, she wasn't exactly hobbling or bent over. And third, in all the time I've spent in France I have NEVER seen anything like that. Older French people, at least in my experience, do not ask for, much less demand that someone give them their seat. Usually someone does end up doing so, and when that happens, the older person is always very grateful, and often seems pleasantly surprised at this kindness. I have also often encountered older people who either flat-out refuse the seat, or at least refuse at first, until the other person insists. They don't act like those sitting are committing some sort of horrible crime by, well, sitting.

Our last day, we headed back to the Sagrada Familia, realizing we had forgotten to take jumping pictures in front of it, a tradition of ours which our parents begrudingly accomodate when traveling with us. After a few more stops, including one more stop at the market for some tapas and smoothies, it was time for us to barely make our flight to Paris.

Sunday: our whirlwind one-day adventure in Paris, sous la pluie no less. As she had gotten her wallet stolen while heading to Versailles during her first trip to Paris in 2009, my sister had begged me to take her there, and while this was thus her first time to the magnificent palace, it was my...6th. Now Versailles is great and all, but 6 times is really a few too many, but luckily my long-term visa gets me into many sights, including Versailles for free, so of course, we went. Naturally, the RER C (the main train to Versailles) was mysteriously not running JUST THAT MORNING, which also naturally, no metro station employee seemed to be aware of until I brought it to their attention (sometimes the French really are super frustrating) after finding all the entrances to it were closed, so we ended up getting there later than planned and therefore caught in the flood of tourists, inching their way through the palace rooms gawking and photographing their little tourist brains out. The pictures won't come out that great anyway, just keep moving!!! Anyway, the freedom of the gardens was a welcome relief and we even got asked to be videorecorded wishing some Korean home shopping network a happy 10th anniversary. Random. We were supposed to do it in unison, but our hysterical laughter at each try forced them to shoot us separately (and probably want to literally shoot us).

Apollo fountain at Versailles
Ps check out our matching Spanish shoes!
We followed our trek to Versailles with lunch at the famous L'As du Falafel in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, a whirl around the Marais and the Bastille (with a stop at Place des Vosges, another sight she had missed, having gone there after dark!), tea and pastries at Laduree, my favorite Parisian indulgence, a wet walk through Les Tuileries (it started pouring), before heading over to Montmartre for dinner at Le Refuge des fondus, where we stuffed ourselves on bread and cheese. Tres francais, non? After dinner, we just made it to the Eiffel Tower for the 11pm sparkle session, and ended our night with a few jumping pics in front of the emblematic structure. The next morning, she went off to the airport, and I headed for Gare de Lyon. All in all, it was quite a grand adventure, with lot of jumping, eating, a few minor disasters, picture-taking and memory-making. After having our own separate European experiences, I'm glad we finally got to share a few. Now if I could just get her to post her pictures on facebook! (hint hint).

 The End.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Just Like Riding a Bicycle

Whoever coined this phrase clearly hadn't waited as long as I had between bicycle rides. I can't even remember the last time j'ai fait du vélo*, but with this oft-quoted expression in mind, providing me with too much (false) confidence, coupled with a gorgeous sunny, warm spring Friday, I decided to finally try out Lyon's Vélo'v* system. Lyon, who pioneered this system in 2005, followed by Paris (Vélib) in 2007 (riding on the coattails of Lyon's success), and now a few other cities around the world, have an ingenious bike-rental system that I would love to see exported to cities in the US. Basically, there are Vélo'v stations scattered throughout the city (every 300m) and all you have to do is go up to the machine, get a pass, and pick your bike! When you're done, you can drop it off at the closest Vélo'v point. One little caveat--you have to have a credit card with a chip on it, so if you're an American in Paris (or Lyon), tant pis pour vous.* It's free for the first half hour, then 1 euro for the next 2 half hours, and 2 euros for every half hour after that (unless you get a longer term pass, then it's even cheaper). When in one of the French cities with such a system, you're sure to see tons of people whizzing around on identical bikes, now you know why. Haussmann unified the appearance of buildings, and the minds behind this scheme have done the same for bikes. In fact in Paris, the color of the bikes reflects the greyness of the urban decor.

Velo'v: my new frenemy

So great system right? Well...not if you're as maladroit* as me, especially since I was possibly in grade school the last time I hopped on a bike. Anywho, my plan for this sunny day was to stop by the Saint Antoine market, pick up une barquette de fraises* and some clementines, grab a Vélo'v and ride over to Lyon's lovely Central Park wannabe--Le Parc de la tete d'or--for a picnic and some reading. Fast forward to me, confusedly pushing the release button over and over and futiley yanking on my chosen steed. I had to try at least 3 times before I figured out how to properly liberate bicycle #15. I triumphantly threw my bag into the basket and got ready to hop on. That's when I noticed the seat was tilted backwards. Hmm. When I couldn't figure out how to fix that, I decided to put the bike back and choose another one, with a more horizontal seat. As I tried not to look to idiotic, I shoved and shoved the stupid bike back into position, but the damn thing kept beeping angrily at me, surely wondering what pauvre con* (or conne in this case) was having such a hard time with a theoretically simple system. So simple that even a tourist could do it! Oh dear. Thankfully, after hearing that evil beeping for a third or fourth time, a nice older man stopped to help me. "C'est pour le prendre, ou pour le remettre?" he asked me. "Pour le remettre,"* I responded, smiling in gratitude and relief. Five seconds later, he had it in place, it happily blipped twice, and voilà! After thanking my savior, I fled the scene of the crime, hoping no one had watched me commit tant de bêtises.* Thus ends me vs. the Vélo'v, round 1. I decided that I needed a little recovery time from that ordeal and just took the metro to the park, planning to try again on my way back.

After spending a couple of delightful hours in the park, enjoying a panini, tarte aux pralines and a good book, it was time for me vs the Vélo'v, round 2. This time, I was determined to win. Vélo'v would not beat me a second time. I walked (more or less) confidently up to the machine, punched in my code, chose my bike and this time, easily pulled it from its post. Whew. I threw my bags into the basket. Ok, ca va aller* I thought. Except now, it was time to ride. That stupid cliche kept repeating in my like a broken record--a broken record that was mocking me, along with all of the French people who walked by me, giving me strange looks as I awkwardly climbed onto the bike and even more awkwardly tried to ride it, failed, got off, got back on, and repeated this strange dance. I wobbled, zig-zagged, got off again and decided to walk it across the street. I got back on the horse, wobbled, zig-zagged, got more strange looks, got off and on a few more times, pretending to check my seat, or make sure my bag was zipped. In a city full of bike riders--not quite Amsterdam or the UC Santa Barbara campus, but close--my French témoins* were probably wondering why a girl my age seemed to be having such trouble riding a bicycle (especially considering the many small children flying past me with ease). I could feel the French judgment. Doesn't she know how? What is she doing?? And more importantly: Is she going to run me over? To answer that last question, quite possibly.

Well finally I started to (re)get the hang of it, kind of like my French coming back after two years of no practice back in 2007 during my first excursion abroad. I wobbled at first, but the grammar and vocab slowly made their way back. I peddled unassuradly across a bridge, nearly seizing up everytime I saw people walking towards me, sure I would run into them--and I nearly did a couple of times (though luckily I was moving so slowly I probably only scared myself). I made my way towards the banks of the Rhône, riding in towards the center. Part of the path led me through a small parking lot. That's where I almost got run over by a car barreling down, in reverse, completely heedless of the fact that a bicycle--oh and ME--were there in its path. I stopped and hobbled over to the side just in time. Yeah I'm sure they didn't see me. Right. What happened to the pedestrian always having the right of way? Oh yeah. I'm in FRANCE. Sometimes I forget that, but luckily there are nice folks willing to kill me to kindly remind me of that fact.

Following near death experience #1, I muttered some names under my breath and pushed on, down the ramp and onto the quai! Whew. That was exhausting and I had hardly even gone anywhere yet! My confidence slowly building, I now peddled with a smile, starting to actually enjoy the fact that I was bicycling along the quais of the Rhône river, in Lyon, France, on a beautiful, early spring day. Until I was quickly reminded that I was sharing this bike lane with: other bikers, strollers, kids, oblivious teens, etc also trying to enjoy this lovely day. I suddenly realized how annoying--and dangerous--pedestrians were to bicyclists. Usually being the pedestrian, I never hesitated to blame the bicyclist and shoot angry glances as they passed by, when really, it's much easier for the pedestrian to hop out of the way--and well, stay OFF the designated bike path! Merci beaucoup. There are crazy people like me riding around--do you really trust me with your well-being? I wouldn't. Half the time I found it much easier to just stop and pull over when other bikes/groups/strollers came towards me. When I finally figured out the bell, I let that do the talking, though they still didn't seem to be in much of a hurry, and I was clearly the only one panicking.

Off the quai and across the bridge and I was almost to my destination: Place Bellecour. First though, I had one more big challenge to face: riding in the street. Merde. Riding along the quai was already enough of an obstacle course. At least a stroller or a French teen wouldn't kill me if I ran into to it. I actually started out on the sidewalk till I realized that would never work, oh, and till I saw the bike lane and the other bicyclists in it. Oops. Mistake #324. Into the street I went. Deep breath. Ok another deep breath. All of the other cyclists were weaving easily through traffic, why couldn't I? Five seconds into this escapade, I had near death experience #2. This time, a delivery truck decided to suddenly pull over into MY lane while I was there. Was this "kill a retarded American girl on a bike day" or what?? Naturally I freaked, pulled over, fell into a parked car--a BMW of course--my purse fell on the ground, and everyone just watched me fumbling to collect myself. Somehow I finally made it to a Vélo'v station, and even managed to put the bike back on the first try this time. I was definitely relieved to get rid of it; my dusty black shoes and leggings were a little worse for wear--as was my pride. Still, despite my many stumblings and my awkward starts and stops, as I waited at the bus stop, I couldn't help but think, as Donkey says to Shrek after an unexpectedly entertaining introduction to Duloc, "Let's do that again!" Maybe next time I'll manage it like a pro--or at least, like all the other gracefully bicyling Frenchies. Though I should probably wait until it no longer hurts to sit.

faire du vélo: to ride a bike; ...j'ai fait du vélo: ...I rode a bike
Vélo'v: As I found out on Wikipedia, this is a portmanteau of velo (French for bike) and love. Awww.
tant pis pour vous: too bad for you
maladroit: awkward
une barquette de fraises: a basket of strawberries
pauvre con/conne: stupid idiot, dumbass though it can be stronger than that, as when President Nicolas Sarkozy famously said "casse-toi pauvre con" (get lost asshole) to some guy at the annual agricultural fair in Paris and it was caught on film. Oops.
"C'est pour le remettre ou pour le prendre?" "Pour le remettre.": Are you trying to put it back or take it out? Put it back.
tant de bêtises: so many stupid mistakes
ca va aller: It's going to be ok
témoins: witnesses

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Paprika! Paprika!

Taking a quick break from my "French tales" to give you a Hungarian one, hope you don't mind...
In 2009, I went to Prague (which I loved) and Vienna (which I...liked-ish), but this time I pushed even farther east to the other former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire--Budapest.

Parliament in Pest
Hungary had a long road to independence--from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the Nazis, to the Communists, and still seems to be working on recovering from all of this, but Budapest is definitely a metropolitan, cosmopolitan, cultural-filled, tourist-friendly, and beautiful city that can claim a number of World Heritage sites--according to Wikipedia, it was named the most livable city in Central/Eastern Europe and is called "the jewel of the Danube."
Budapest was actually 3 separate cities until 1873: Buda and Obuda on the right bank of the Danube, and Pest (said Pesht) on the left. In 1873, they were united to give us the capital city we know today as Budapest. These 3 names now simply designate three parts of the same city. Buda is hilly, residential and quieter (other than the tourists buzzing around Buda castle and the Matthias Church) than the more bustling, flatter, commercial and business area of Pest. Both areas can boast pretty, colorful, historical buildings and must-see sites, as well as excellent views of each other. Budapest definitely reminded me of Prague--Central/Eastern European cities, significant Jewish histories/sites, similar types of cuisine, crazy, impossible to decipher languages (that interestingly enough, are not at all related--could have fooled me!), lots of art nouveau architecture.... Though I found Budapest a bit less well-preserved and quaint, but with better food--Hungarian goulash soup and paprika chicken (well paprika everything really), cream cakes galore, their own thinner-pastried strudels, langos (mmm fried dough) etc etc...YUM. If pressed to choose (or recommend), I'd  definitely say Prague (but hey, why not both?).

Two things I really liked about Budapest--the coffee shops (not the Amsterdam kind), and the money. Coffee is definitely an important part of Hungarian culture, as it is in most of Europe, and they have a lot cafes, many of which are establishments from the 19th century, with beautiful interiors and a "story" in their menus. Besides these though, Budapest had actual American-style coffee shops, and I'm not just talking about Starbucks. I even saw one place called "California Coffee." I realized this was something I missed about the US, as, other than Starbucks, the "coffeeshop" doesn't really exist in France. Sure there are a gazillion cafes, but it's just not the same thing. I was even able to get a chai latte at one of these coffeeshops! As for the money, though Hungary is part of the EU, they, like the Czech Republic, are not yet on the euro--though this is kind of a pro and a con. A pro, because the exchange rate is highly favorable--1 euro=270 Hungarian florints, but a con because new currency is always a little confusing, plus it means getting charged for the exchange. Unlike expensive Switzerland, where technically the exchange rate is also favorable, but everything is still super expensive, Budapest actually was a pretty cheap place. In the oldest cafe in Budapest, I was able to get a pot of tea and a fabulous pastry for about 4 euros. Score!

My first day in Budapest woke up on the wrong side of the bed, so to speak: I woke up to light snow (when promised mostly sunny), and a very unwelcome cold. Not a great way to start a trip. Well, after sleeping in for another half hour, I forced myself out of bed, swallowed a couple of day quill I had luckily brought just in case, bundled up, and walked along the Danube to the Parliament building to get tickets for the 10 o'clock English tour. After a tour of the gorgeous interior of the world's 3rd largest (and Europe's largest) Parliament, including Europe's oldest crown, the snow had stopped, blue sky was appearing, and the day quill was working its magic. I was ready to explore Budapest! And explore I did, until both my knees and ankles hurt.

After the Parliament, I headed back to the Danube to find what turned out to be my favorite thing in Budapest (besides the Parliament and the pastries): a WWII Holocaust memorial of copper shoes to remember Jews who were shot into the river near the end of the war when the Germans knew they were losing. The shoes represent the real shoes left behind along the bank. It reminded me of the exhibits in the DC Holocaust Museum and London Imperial War Museum which have piles and piles of shoes gathered from concentration camps, but even more moving because of the fact that they were "on location," and though made of copper, looked every bit as real as the shoes in the museums.

Then I continued my tour of Pest (the left bank), walking through different squares, snapping photos of statues, art  nouveau buildings and churches. I took another tour (not by choice) in the Synagogue, the second largest in the world and largest in Europe. The tour guide reeled off her memorized schpiel in heavily accented English so that I probably only understood like 75% of what she said, as she went over "the history of the Jewish people" in like 15 minutes. Anyway, I did learn that Poland and Hungary lost the most Jews in WWII, Hungary losing 600,000 out of a population 1 million. Today, there are only 125,000 Jews in the country. The rest died, escaped, or were never given the chance to be born.

Buda castle behind statue of "the Little Princess"
From this sad site, I once again worked my way back to the river to watch the sun set behind the palace of Buda hill. Little did I know this would be my only sunset, as the forecast for the next day was "sunny." Ha. My second day was less-than ideal. My cold was worse, the sun disappeared after about an hour, and the tendinitis in my left knee (dormant for the last 3 years), decided to come roaring back, causing me to walk stiffly and painfully around Buda hill and City Park as I attempted to complete all of the "must-sees" of the city before limping back to my hotel room at 3pm to rest my leg and escape the icy wind, which was really not helping my cold. In between, I was sort of able to enjoy said sites, and most especially, my tea and pastry break at Ruszwurm, the oldest cafe in Budapest, dating from 1827. I had some absolutely scrumptous cream cake and vanilla tea, in the small cafe, surrounded by French tourists, who naturally, were everywhere in Budapest (a welcome sound for me, especially after hearing way too much Hungarian).

Great Market Hall
The next day, my last, I had a few hours before I had to leave for the airport around 1:30, so I was able to make it to the Great Market Hall for some souvenir shopping and a "street food" lunch of apple-nut strudel and langos. The market was great, you could easily spend several hours in there, shopping and sampling local delights amongst fellow tourists doing the same and locals picking up produce and meat. As it had snowed--and snowed--the night before (which I had to limp through to eat my last Hungarian dinner, appropriately enough of goulash, paprika chicken and their version of crepes), I also wandered back to a few sights to get some pictures of them covered in a light icing of snow, which began to melt not long after. Before heading to the airport, I stopped in one final cafe for one final tea and pastry. A delicious end to a lovely trip--a trip I was relieved to bring to an end, looking forward to recovering from all of my aches and pains, and, as always when I spend a few days in another country, eager to return to la belle France.

Et voila! Next time, we return to France!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Faire pipi

weird self-cleaning toilets
Yes, that means what you (probably) think it means: literally, "to make peepee," but is probably better translated as "to go peepee." Though this may sound like a phrase reserved for children, it definitely is not, as I've heard people of all ages use this more familiar version of "aller aux toilettes" (go to the bathroom/restroom).

An important cultural side note: if you ask where the "salle de bains," (bathroom) is, you will likely get some strange looks, whether you are in a restaurant or chez des amis.* In France, the toilet and bath/shower/sink are almost always in two separate rooms, so unless you want to take a shower, make sure to ask for "les toilettes" (always plural).

 Anyway, for anyone who has ever traveled to Europe, you have likely discovered the disconcerting lack of "toilettes publiques." Unless you are in a restaurant or a tourist site, you better learn to hold it, or suck up your American pride a pay for it (to be fair, it can also be a challenge in big cities like San Fran or NYC). Usually, when you can find public toilets, they are payant*, and I'm not talking a fortune, maybe 0.50, but still, I'm sure I'm not alone here in thinking this basic human need should not come with a price tag--but once again, that is probably American me speaking. If you don't want to pay simply for the use of a more or less (more often less) clean and stocked bathroom (or can't find one) your other option is stopping in a cafe and getting the cheapest thing on the  menu--a drink. This of course continues the vicious cycle--though we can't always make our bladders listen to reason.

The first time I lived in France, I absolutely refused, on principle, to pay for the use of a toilet. Everywhere I traveled, I looked out for that sign of freedom and America: McDonald's. I remember really liking Italy because the Mcdo's were more abundant than in France. Just like in the US, those trusty golden arches could be counted on to provide me with free bladder relief. If there were none to be found, I simply waited till the next museum or mealtime. Well, except the couple of times I snuck into luxury hotels to use theirs--in London, my friend Danica and I smiled at the doorman of the Ritz, charming our way into their fancy pink restrooms, with white, wicker baskets for the real towels and a comfy velvet couch! We even had the cleaning lady take a picture of us in there. Your visit to Nice isn't complete without a stop in the bathroom of the fancy Negresco Hotel (and if you get caught, just blame Rick Steves--it was his idea).

bathroom in the Ritz in London

bathroom in the Negresco in Nice
This time though, I have succumbed to the European ways. It still grates every time I have to hand over that 0.50 centimes, but in emergencies, it's totally worth it. I thought I was going to die in Budapest, when I followed the signs to a public toilet, only to discover I didn't have enough money left to pay for it. Imagine my relief when, a few minutes later, I found another one that accepted Hungarian currency AND Euros. Whew. As far as those "trusty McDonald's," sometime between 2007 and 2009, the McDo's of France followed the example of other fastfood restaurants by installing codes on the doors--to get the code, you need a receipt (or just be sneaky enough to escape the notice of the employees and wait for another customer to open the door).

"This free bathroom is open Mon-Sun from 8am to 7:30 pm"
I can't tell you how stupid I felt taking this picture
This brings me to the situation in my lovely ville* of Lyon. Unlike pretty much every other place I have traveled in Europe, Lyon, against all odds, has, more than one, FREE PUBLIC TOILETS. In Europe, this is like stumbling upon a  unicorn. Even better, and once again, against all odds, they are always clean and well-stocked with toilet paper AND soap. Nicer than or a at least as nice as any toilet I've every paid for. Incroyable, non? The first time I saw the sign for the "sanitaire gratuit" next to the metro station in Vieux Lyon, I didn't believe it. Of course I knew "gratuit" meant free, but I was still doubtful. I peeked my head in and saw a man behind a counter on the left-hand side. Hmm. I ventured inside and saw a few coins on the counter. My doubt increased, but I carried forth, cautiously walking past the man behind his counter, offering a tentative bonjour, and waiting a second for him to demand .50 centimes. But quelle belle surprise, he did not! After returning my bonjour, he went back to reading his newspaper, and I practically skipped into an open stall. I recently discovered a second FREE PUBLIC TOILET along Rue de la Republique, one of the main streets of the centre-ville, and once again, I doubted its verity--how could this city have not one, but two such miracles? But, I can now attest that it's true--and this one is just as clean and nice as the other.

It might seem like a small thing, but come to Europe, and I promise you, you'll want to join me as I give a grand merci to the ville de Lyon. My bladder thanks you.

Free bathrooms in Lyon and Paris:
Paris: the Louvre--there is a bathroom in the lobby by the coatcheck. You don't have to have a ticket to go past security, so in the off season, this can be a good option. Otherwise, you'll probably pee your pants before you get through the line (if you're a girl anyway).
Musee Carnavalet (near Place des Vosges in the Marais): Besides being a really interesting museum on the history of Paris, it is always free, for everyone at all times. So if you're in the area, feel free to nip in, have a quick look around, and use them shamelessly for their bathrooms.
Victor Hugo museum/apartment in Place des Vosges: this is also always free.

Lyon: Vieux Lyon, next to the metro
Rue de la Republique, across from the Printemps department store, below ground just outside the parking garage.

And of course, there are always the creepy, free-standing, self-cleaning toilets in both of these cities (as pictured above--the ones in Paris are green). I have yet to gather enough courage to try one out, but hey, desperate times...

chez des amis: at your friends' place
payant(e)(s): adj which means that it is something you have to pay for
ville, centre-ville: city, downtown

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Vive les Vacances !

Les vacances de noël, or Christmas break, ended less than two months ago, and it's already time for the third 2 week break of the year, and not a moment too soon either (Budapest, here I come!). A month and a half later, and it will be time for les vacances de Pâques--Easter/Spring break. Right about now you're probably asking yourself, "With all of these vacations, how do they get any work done?" Fair question. But the more important question you should be asking is "With how little vacation we get, how do we get any living done?"

good luck smelling these roses...
In case you're still worried about those poor French students, they have longer hours and a longer school year, so no worries, they learn things (theoretically anyway...).  In the US, we live to work. We work at least 40 hour weeks, sometimes even giving up our weekends to put in overtime. I can't imagine asking a French person to give up their weekends, especially Sundays--the day for family, big, long lunches, and strolling down Rue de la République or along the banks of the Rhône on those (oh-so-rare) sunny days. Our ancestors planted an unrelenting Protestant work ethic into the soil of our nation, making it an essential part of what it means to be American. If you work hard enough, you'll achieve the great American dream. One of our greatest presidents, good ole Honest Abe, incarnates this spirit, pulling himself up by his bootstraps from a log cabin to the White House. Of course, this dream has often proven more myth than reality, but it's still there, beckoning to people all over the world who come here to begin their pursuit of happiness. It is that pursuit that we thrive on. In France, they tend to focus more on the happiness part--despite their reputation for constant striking and being incessant râleurs.* Though if you've been paying attention you'll realize that some of this complaining is against things that try to mess with their happiness, with la belle vie.* (not that it's not sometimes quite embêtant. I mean, they even complain about how much they complain.)

Unlike us overstressed, overworked and overcaffeinated Americans, les Français work to live. This has nothing to do with how they feel about their job; they just don't sacrifice good living to make an extra buck or satisfy an overly-demading boss. They take 1-2 hour lunches versus our half hour (which many of us spend at our desks), 5 weeks of vacation versus our 2 (which many of us don't even take). When my French friends asked me how much vacation the average working American got, I'm pretty sure they thought I forgot my French  numbers when I sheepishly responded with 2 weeks--if they're lucky. "But you have shorter work days right?" Ha, no. "We just have this work culture..." I started to explain, when one of them quickly laughed, "Oh yeah, we don't have that here." A French girl I met in the US told me that she never felt stressed until she moved there. Apparently no matter where you come from, it's impossible not to get swept up in the great American rat race. They really know how to enjoy life here, not the least of which is exemplified by their cuisine and the culture around it. This country produces such good, quality food that takes time and care to prepare properly, that it's almost one's duty to take the time to really savor it, rather than gobbling it down between emails. Eating well (in all senses of the term) is an integral part of living well, a truth the French have long recognized and continue to master. Whether or not you're a fan of la cuisine française, which to be honest, it's pretty hard not to find something delicious among their vast and often mouth-watering repretoire, you at least have to appreciate the exhaulted place food occupies in this culture and the restorative powers of a good meal (in fact, the word "restaurant" comes from the French verb "restaurer," a word that means to feed or to restore--a tidbit to help you on Jeopardy.).

In case you're still skeptical about these cultural differences, here's an example from ma vie quotidienne.* Every Thursday, I leave for work at 7am for an 8am class. I spend an hour in public transportation surrounded by university students and people commuting to work. Despite this early hour--when the sun is even still asleep--I am the ONLY one with a thermos of life-saving caffeine in my hands. It's been 5 months and I have yet to see anyone else with so much as a to-go cup of joe. The first day I walked into my 8am class with my Sur La Table thermos clutched between my fingers, my teacher immediately asked me about it, beginning with: "Oh, you must have gotten that in the US." Seriously?? What was so bizarre about a portable cup of tea? Apparently, a lot. On another morning, a contrôleur,* as I handed him my pass, grinned and asked, "C'est du thé?*" still only half-awake, in a rush to catch the tram, and so not ready for the French Inquistion, I stared at him blankly for a second before muttering "euh...oui" before hurrying confusedly away.  On the New York metro, you're the odd-man out if you're not holding onto a pole with one hand and coffee with the other--both of them keeping you from falling over at some time in your day. My 9am 19th century French history class meant a coffee cup/thermos for every student. It's not that they don't take their morning caffeine (and their obligatory post-lunch espresso, late afternoon jolt etc), they just do it at home or once they've gotten to work--if the 10am huddle around the coffee machine is any indication. We spend our lives multi-tasking, doing things on-the-go, looking for convenience and ways to speed things up (we invented the vacuum cleaner, electric washing machine, the assembly line and the fast food industry--refer to late-night infomercials for more), while the French take time to slow it down--and yes, smell the roses. I think the French equivalent pretty much sums it up:  prenez le temps de vivre. Take the time to live.

But, before you go away thinking I've just spent yet another post vaunting the French and attacking America, let me say a few words in our defense. Our tireless work ethic built the world's most powerful and wealthy nation from nothing. While the means were sometimes, um, problematic, our achievements our nonetheless undeniable. Like I said, we invented the vacuum cleaner, electric washing machine, assembly line and fast food industry. We always strive to be better, to do better, to want, hope and dream for more and we work for it. Maybe the real achievement is in the pursuit, and the happiness is just la cerise sur le gâteau.* Half the fun is getting there, right? Still, we could stand to lead life a little more à la française.

See you after les vacances!
râleurs: compainers, moaners
la belle vie: the beautiful life
embêtant: annoying
ma vie quotidienne: my daily life
contrôleur: the people who make surprise appearances on public transportation to check your tickets, even at 7am. Lyon is serious about ticket control. (Also the word for train conductors, the people who check your tickets on trains.)
C'est du thé?: Is that tea?
la cerise sur le gâteau: the cherry on top

Saturday, February 12, 2011

This Little Piggy Went to Market...

Fabulous market in Old Nice
 "To market" should be a verb in France. It is an important activity of everyday life, one most Americans are completely unaccustomed to (and in my opinion, missing out on), doing the entirety of their shopping in a grocery store, a supermarché or the even larger "grand surface," a place detested by my "bobo de gauche"* slightly baba cool* hostmom. I imagine she would péter un plombe* if she ever stepped foot inside a Costco, though I'm sure any self-respecting French person would wonder who could possibly need/consume 10 pounds of ketchup, a crate of mac-n-cheese or a bucket of chicken salad? Open-air markets are a staple of every French city and town; the larger the city, the greater the amount of markets. Lucky for me, I live in lovely Lyon where everyday there is an excellent market right along the Saône river (Sunday is the best--and busiest--market day). I even already have my preferred chicken man, whose adorable old grandmother (??) wraps everything up for you, and gives you (for free) a heaping helping of potatoes or rice to go with your delicious, free-range roasted chicken. With the sun glinting off the river, the stately 19th century buildings lining the banks, and the impressive Fourviere Basilica keeping watch from its hill, "marketing" here is a feast for the senses from the moment I step off the bus, even before reaching the actual market itself.

I say this activity deserves its own verb because it is an integral aspect of French life and there is a real art in it that requires a certain amount of experience to get right. (In case you're wondering, I'm still working on it.)  France has the best open-air markets I've ever seen, and they are a quintessential part of the France experience--if/when you come to France, you can't miss out. Find out when market days are in smaller cities and where the best ones are in larger cities. They're the perfect place to grab a cheap and delicious lunch of local treats. When my mom and I were traveling through Europe in 2009, we were so thankful for the amazing market in Nice--we hadn't had a piece of fruit in over a week and we had gobbled up a barquette* of sugary-sweet strawberries before even reaching the end of the market.

Pretty in Pink in Paris
It might be can't-miss, but "marketing" can be an overwhelming, intimidating experience, even if you speak the language. Your senses are overloaded with colors, smells, and foods you've never seen before, stall after stall of fruits, vegetables, pastries, candies, locally made soaps, olive oils, flowers, spices, roasted chickens, cheeses, etc, all of which you are ready to impulsively purchase--but, before you know it, you could find yourself with an empty wallet, too much food, and an owl-shaped honey-comb candle that two days later, you'll wonder why in world you bought such a thing. Besides the food and products themselves enticing you to buy them, the vendors are there to give you that extra push. "Mademoiselle, mademoiselle! Deux barquettes de fraises, deux euros, seulement deux euros! Les meilleurs sauscissons secs, deux pour sept euros! Poulet rôti! Poulet rôti! label rouge!"* A mere glance towards one vendors table, and you're roped in. If you're unprepared, you could just end up buying something you didn't even really want, sucked in by the smiling vendors and a feeling of guilt--well, I did try like 3 kinds of their cheeses, I have to buy something. Oh, I looked too long at her clementines, I guess I'll buy a couple...

Cavaillon melons in Arles

Be strong! Come prepared, with at least a half-formed idea of what you want. If you're on vacation and not "grocery shopping," at least make sure to...Shop around! Wander the length of the market before committing--scope out the best-looking, best-priced strawberries, find the widest selection of cheeses, the most mouthwatering tartes. Buying too quickly could rob you of a better deal in taste, price and selection. Then narrow down the options to the few things you actually want to consume and the best local items to buy as presents for family and friends back home. A packet of herbes de provence, lavendar-scented soap made in Marseille, a jar of honey or confiture,* olive oil--a must in Provence. Just make sure the olive oil is labelled "AOC," "appellation d'origine contrôlée," meaning that its production is heavily controlled--it must come from olives from the area specified on the label, for example, ensuring it's not actually made in Spain (I actually saw a special on this a few weeks ago, where some vendors had a vague label that simply said "made in Provence," but it actually was imported from Spain). And of course, have fun and most importantly, look out for samples! It's a great way to taste new things (without shelling out the cash) and find the sweetest melons or nuttiest comté. Also, make sure to bring cash and especially to have change on hand, if possible. Many vendors probably won't appreciate a 50 euro bill when you're spending...3.

Markets are also a great place to chat with the locals--especially about their products. Show an interest in their products, and you'll likely make a new friend. At the Saturday Bastille market in Paris, I once had a delightful conversation about salt with a man selling different kinds of flavored salt that he made himself--one of which he even lovingly called his bébé and was excited to hear it would be traveling all the way to the US. While collecting food for a picnic lunch in Arles, Joy and I made a detour at the soapman, and while I was choosing scents, Joy won his coeur*--a small, heart-shaped lavendar soap.

Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, whose Thursday market
winds around the entire center of town
 My last bit of wisdom involves cheese. One of the best things to go to the market for is the cheese. You won't find cheese this fresh and flavorful in the grocery store, even if they sometimes have a comparable selection. At first, I was too intimidated to venture a purchase. I didn't know how it worked--in the US, when I go to the deli section in the grocery store, I ask for 1/4 pound of swiss or 1/2 pound of provelone, but being outside my English units comfort zone, and normally only desiring a small piece to last me for a few days, I wasn't sure how to go about it. Finally, I could resist no longer and just dove in. " voudrais un petit morceau de comté s'il vous plaît." And like that, I was in. "Comme ça?" he asked, indicating the perfect sized chunk with his knife before cutting. "Oui, parfait!"* I smiled. After learning the hard way, I also now make sure to verify the cost before paying--once I spent way too much for some emmental that wasn't even very good. A simple request to taste it first would have spared me both euros and disappointment. Little by little, I am gaining the confidence to speak up and get what I want (though success is never guaranteed), rather than meekly giving in. Despite the fact that I speak the language and the culture, I still operate on a diminished self-confidence when in France when I really need an extra dose to get past the barriers. "Marketing" is just the activity to gain back this lost sense of confidence. Yes, I just spent 10 minutes trying 5 different types of your saucisson sec, but no, I will not actually be purchasing anything. Merci et bonne journée.*

bobo de gauche: this term encompasses an entire mindset and lifestyle (it is often used pejoratively, but here, I just state the facts, plus my host parents use it in self-reference all the time): "bobo" means "bourgeois-boheme" meaning someone from a bourgeois (money, conservative) family who has chosen to lead more of a moulin-rouge-bohemian lifestyle, sort of revolting against his/her upbringing, or just thinking it seems romantic to pretend to be a penniless artist (I kid, sort of). They don't like to conspicuoulsy or needlessly spend money, though they are generally fairly comfortable, care about leftist issues like the environment and lower classes. In my host mom's case, it's actually a revolt against her conservative family, as she is de gauche (on the left) through and through and in many ways rather hippy-like (ie very anti-microwaves).

baba cool: hippy

péter un plombe: go crazy/lose it
barquette: basket for fru
Mademoiselle, mademoiselle...: 2 baskets of strawberries, only 2 euros, the best dried sausages, 2 for 7 euros, roasted chicken! red label (mark of high quality)!
confiture: jam--often of the delicious, homemade variety, especially when found in Provence.
coeur: heart
Euuh je voudrais...: "Umm I would like a small piece of comté (French version of the Swiss gruyère), please." "Like this?" "Yes, perfect!"

Merci et bonne journée: Thank you and have a nice day.

PS. Besides the general food/flower markets, there are also marches de puce or flee markets, and also, at some markets, especially the larger ones, you will often find cheap clothes, kitchenware and other household items, jewelry and more. Some markets (like the Saturday Bastille or Arles markets) can really be a one-stop shopping experience.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Annie Get Your Gun

From our Founding Fathers to the Wild West to
Hollywood to Columbine, guns have always
been a particular part of our society. In fact, Annie Oakley herself traveled to Paris during the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World's Fair) to perform her gun show as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show--to great acclaim, I might add--as representatives of American culture and society. Even so, I never thought so much about our Second Amendment until I came to France, and more specifically, until I started working here. Apparently, "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" in the US is big news here, and is often the burning topic many lycéens* are dying to discuss with the innocent and unaware American assistant, caught off guard by their obesession with our obesession with guns. Of course I knew about this staunchly defended right, the NRA, gun violence across the country, etc, and being on the left, I certainly believed in increased gun control, but I was unaware of the image all of this created for us outside of our great land of liberty. It was just all kind of there, an accepted fact of life--but a specifically American fact of life, I now truly realize. School massacres don't just occur everywhere. We're special--maybe not singular, but as a highly-developed, rich, powerful country, that spouts ideals like none other, it's really shameful. The proliferation of violent American movies and tv shows, a great majority of which are exported around the globe, as well as heavily mediatized events such as Columbine already give the outside world, or at least the French, an extremely violent and image of our country. I certainly never thought about being afraid just living in the US, day-to-day, but given the things an average French person sees and hears, I would completely understand if they had to think twice--or maybe three or four times--about coming for a visit.

During my first couple of weeks here, when I basically spent my time introducing myself to my various classes, one of the most recurring questions was something related to guns and/or general violence/danger in the US. These questions didn't entirely shock me (I mean, I was aware of the sort of tv shows and films they were exposed to), but they did dismay me. After an "uhhh" (oh dear how do I spin this...) I would go on to explain that while yes, some parts of large cities, like LA, Chicago, etc could indeed be quite dangerous, you would not get shot just walking down the street (well unless perhaps you are walking down the street of one of these neighborhoods, ahem, Compton, ahem). Just like in Paris or Lyon, you know the areas to avoid. And ps, gun violence is not the only type of violence, though it certainly can facilitate it. Whether you are pro or anti guns, it's hard to deny that they have helped create a culture of violence in the US.

Several of my classes have gone through a "Second Amendment" lesson. Luckily for the image of Americans in France, it seems to be a favorite on the English curriculum. Hmm we should discuss something about American culture, they speak English too. Oh, I know, GUNS!  Then, while I get to teach about the peaceful creed of Martin Luther King, Jr in one class, in another we're discussing the dangers of keeping a gun in the home. We have such a rich and interesting history and culture, and yet before my eyes, I see our country being reduced to this one thing--this one extremely negative thing. They find it fascinating and almost incomprehensible because in France, they don't have this "right," and as a result, have a much, much lower gun violence rate and it is much, much more difficult for criminals or potential criminals to acquire arms, unlike in the US where two sick high school students can LEGALLY purchase the fire power to commit a massacre in a school in Littleton, CO.

When the lesson inevitably turns to guns, I must simply sigh and do my best to explain that the US is not generally a dangerous place, that I have never seen anyone get shot, not everyone in America owns or carries a gun, etc. I was absolutely bouleversée* to find that not only do we by far rank #1 for gun ownership, but that for every 100 people, there a 88 guns! That doesn't mean that 88% of Americans own a gun because of course, some people own multiple guns, while others own none, but quand même!* Until a couple of days ago, I had also been proudly repeating the "fact" that I didn't own a gun nor was I aware of anyone who did. Upon relaying this to my mother, she revealed to me (or maybe just reminded me) that in fact my father has two guns, his father's hunting guns that he got when he died. While I sputtered in shock, she said, "Well, at this point, it would probably be more effective to hit someone over the head with them then to actually try to shoot with them..."
Yesterday I sat down with one of my classes while they watched Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. I had never seen this documentary, but from the hour I watched with them, it made me a little bit ashamed to be American and extremely depressed at the vision it was giving them of my country. It's one thing for Americans to watch this film, but it's another thing entirely for foreigners, with no experience in America, to see it. They literally were asking, "but, it's not really like that in the US, is it?" after seeing clips of Columbine and of other "average" Americans shooting of guns left and right, proudly exercising their Second Amendment right (at least they had the sense to ask and not just assume). "NO! I exclaimed. Please don't be afraid of coming to the US!" Of course Moore interviews a few wacko backcountry radicals, one of whom literally keeps a gun under his pillow, so that's not very helpful. When Moore mentioned that Gandhi defeated the British without the use of arms, the man replied, "Oh, uh, I'm not aware of that." Another said he was disappointed that he had only made it to #2 on his high school's post-Columbine bomb-watch list. Huh??? Once again, I found myself constantly sighing and shaking my head at the ignorance and bull-dogged...for lack of a better word, "American-ness"(ie I'm Amurrican, this is the way things are in Amurrica, we must save the world from Communism, terrorism, and Obama, owning a gun is my right as an Amurrican, God bless Amurrica!) that exists in the "land of the brave and home of the free." Those are the kind of people that make me glad to live in France, even if it's only for a little while. And those are the kind of people that make my job--essentially that of a cultural ambassador--much harder. Alas, I can't see our country ever overturning that cherished Second Amendment, too many people hold much too tightly to what they see as a "fundamental" right, next to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," but maybe someday we will regulate this right more effectively so that tragedies like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and the countless other examples, will stop occurring with such alarming frequency. Yeah, ok, "guns don't shoot people, people do," but without guns, no one and nothing would shoot anyone. And some people just shouldn't have access to guns. Period.

It's not like I'm trying to hide the ugly side of America, I would never try to present a shiny, perfect vision that just doesn't exist, and I'm happy(ish) to talk about our history of slavery and segregation, but really, I think they already have enough negative ideas about American and Americans without adding this fuel to the fire. I would much prefer if students would learn about our First Amendment instead. Or even the Fifth. It might be less interesting, but at least it wouldn't add to our international smear campaign.

*lycéens: highschoolers
*bouleverser (verb), bouleversé(e) (adj): great French verb/adj which describes a feeling of being completely bowled over, super shocked, staggered, shattered, distressed, etc. A real emotional catch-all with no perfect equivalent in English, in my opinion.
*quand même : still!

**disclaimer: these obviously aren't my pictures/cartoons, but I found them on a simple bing search while looking for images to use in one of my classes. The first one is from and the second is a cartoon by someone of the name Margulies. Please don't sue me! thanks.