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.

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