Thursday, April 22, 2010

Why Nice Was [Insert Any Positive Adjective Here]

Now to explain why the South of France was worth all this trouble.

First of all, it's beautiful. Not the "yeah she's pretty good looking" type of beautiful, but the "I want to make babies with you" beautiful. If you can't tell from the pictures, let me inform you that I was constantly wide-eyed at just how gorgeous the landscape was. You have the blue-green Mediterranean in the foreground, the foothills of the Alps in the background, with French style houses painted in Italian style colors pouring down from the valleys to meet the sea. The best view of all this was when we took a bus from Nice to Monaco. The path it followed was one around the foothills, high above the little villages with stunning views around every corner. The bus trip in itself was a sight to see. The best moment I spent enjoying the scenery was in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a tiny coast village between Nice and Monaco. I just sat in a cafe on the beach and spent about an hour sipping a coffee and watching the lazy sailboats float in the bay while the sun slowly set behind the mountains. Every blink of an eye was seriously a new post card waiting to be printed. My favorite part of the trip was doing just this, sitting in the sun by the water and relaxing. It's extremely obvious why the Azur Coast has been a resort spot for centuries.

Even when the weather turns bad there are plenty of things to do in Nice. It rained once while we where in Nice, but there are at least two theaters that play movies in English. We saw Green Zone. There's also a couple museums worth visiting; the Chagall Museum was really interesting. (I did haggle for a free ticket, making it all the more worthwhile.) There's also plenty of shopping that I found just as accessible as, but much more laid back than, Paris. However the best indoor activity in my opinion were food and alcohol establishments. Because of all the rich Brits who like to harbor their yachts in these southern French towns, finding an English bar is like finding a vegan in SW Portland, they practically scream at you. The second night in Nice while wandering through Old Nice in the rain, we stumbled upon the Snug Pub, a cozy little Irish bar that was playing some live soccer. So we decided to stop there and have a beer. They had Kilkenny on tap, one of my favorite smooth beers. As we watched the game one beer turned into three (four for Alistair) and 6pm quickly became almost 10pm so we decided to tipsily make our way home for dinner. We didn't eat out that often, but even just going and getting a drink (or three) is not a bad way to spend vacation.

The weather was almost always sunny and warm enough, even in the sea breeze, for a T shirt. We spent a lot of time outside, enough for me to be at least partially sunburned all week. Whether it was on the beach at Nice, walking through the principality of Monaco, or hiking the cape of Antibes. Monaco was alright, but with all its condos and heavy development I don't really feel the need to go back. The Casino at Monte Carlo wouldn't even let me in because I was wearing shorts! But I wasn't that upset as you had to pay 10 euros to get in even if you were dressed properly. Antibes was ok too, but not big enough to have all the things to do that Nice has to offer and not small enough to be as relaxing as Villefrance-sur-Mer. The best part of Antibes was a little hike Jack, Alistair, and I did to get to the top of the cape where the lighthouse sat. It had pretty awesome views from the top and a little cafe we sat at recovering for a while (not because the hike was difficult mind you, we were simply out of shape). Up there was awesome. Plus I should mention that all public transportation on the Azur Coast is only 1 euro. So you can take a bus from Cannes all the way to Monaco for 1 euro (that's about an hour and 20 minute ride). So the 2 euro round trips from Nice to these other surrounding towns is definitely worth it. There is plenty to explore and I still want to go back to see all that I missed, but seeing things in the South of France is set a little slower pace because the value placed on unwinding is much higher than that of sight seeing.

I know this post about the pluses isn't as long as the previous post about the minuses but you'll just have to take my word on this one, so worth it and I cannot wait to return.

One week from today until I come home!!!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Strikes = Pointless

Last week I spent the most needed vacation along the Cote d'Azur in Southern France. It was a week of visiting coastal resort towns like Nice and Antibes as well as setting foot in (technically) another country entirely, Monaco. I didn't see too many sights deemed touristy but I consider not a second wasted just laying next to the Mediterranean in the warm sun. So yes, this vacation has been a major highlight of my stay in France but it almost didn't happen. You see, to reach my destination I had to overcome a pugnacious obstacle: French socialism.

Easter vacation (the two weeks off during the month of April) started off extremely boring, mostly hanging out in my room in Toucy with no human contact aside from Skype. The only thing that made this bearable was knowing that in less than a week I would be relaxing on the beaches of Nice. So you can imagine how devastated I was when, Thursday night, I get an email saying that my train from Paris to Nice on Friday night is canceled. I thought it was a late April fools joke. What really happened is that the SNCF (France's rail company) was supposed to strike on Wednesday but because of characteristics all too French, it was postponed until Friday (lucky me). "Don't fret," the email told me, "You can exchange your ticket free of charge... as long as it's for a date after April 28th." Oh yeah, after I leave, great idea! Not. So after a couple hours trying to figure out what to do I paid the extra costs to exchange my ticket for the following day. A little disappointed that I had to pay more and miss an entire day of vacation in Nice, I still went to bed assured of imminent travel. Imagine, then, not the devastation but the fury I felt when Friday night I receive an email saying the strike is now ongoing for an "indeterminable" length. I was at a complete loss. I talked to Marie and she said I should just go and try to get on any train because they're probably not even checking tickets. I decided to accompany Marie the following morning to Joigny to take a train to Paris and try my luck with the trains. I just figured I wouldn't take "no" for an answer, and if worse comes to worse I can always play the ignorant tourist. "What do you mean we have to have a ticket? I wasn't told that and NO I DON'T speak French!"

Since Marie wanted to get to Paris rather early, we arrived before 9 am. I waited until the English bookstore was open so I could buy something to read while traveling. I got a great deal on "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" by Dee Brown since I found a used copy and because there was significant wear on the cover I got it for half price, so 3 euros! It was also beautiful weather so I sat in a park opposite Notre Dame and read in the sun until around 2 pm, when I was to meet my English friends Alistair and Jack at the station to take the train to Nice. They had booked a train and received no emails of cancellation, so I was planning on joyriding their train. When I met up with them, to all of our surprise, their train was canceled as well but they never got a heads up. The only train leaving from Paris to Nice that day was at 5:47 pm, so us three, as well as hundreds of other stranded passengers, waited anxiously in the train station staring at the board in anticipation of the dash to find a seat once the platform number was announced. It was mostly a blur but what I do remember was seeing the platform show up, yelling, "G! G! It's G!" and Alistair, Jack, and I running full steam through throngs of like-minded masses in the frantic search for a seat. I was golden, until out of nowhere I was stuck behind a man helping a handicapped woman out of her chair and onto the train. Alistair and Jack looked back only briefly while I gave them a pained look that said, "Go on with out me guys, I'll never make it!" So they rushed on ahead and luckily found 3 seats together. I got settled in as well and just in time too because it seemed right after I sat down the train was ridiculously packed. People were sitting on the stairs, on luggage, or just standing in the hallways. The people who didn't get a seat insisted that their seat reservations for previous trains were still valid and argued for others to move. This was of course ludicrous because multiple people had tickets with the same exact reserved seat. They were just sour they missed the free-for-all memo.

Our train car calmed down rather quickly however and no sooner than I figured we'd be soon on our way the conductor's voice comes over the intercom saying, "I will not have this behavior on my train. People in car three are fighting over seats and I will not leave the station until those passengers disembark from the train." Of course he said it in a "If you don't behave I'm turning this train around!" voice. Our imaginations began to run wild about the conditions of car 3. We imagined vines covering the windows and a general steamy, jungle-like atmosphere with tribes set up Lord of the Flies style. Finally it was announced that another train was leaving the station and was supposed to hit up several of the same stops, but not Nice, so the others not going all the way to Nice left our train and headed to the other. Our Napoleonic-complex driver let us leave the station, only 30 minutes late. There were no other mishaps on the way down and 6 hours later we arrived in Nice.

Flash forward one week later:

Much to our and the general public's surprise, the SNCF had continued it's strike for over a week! Needless to say, our train back from Nice to Paris on Saturday night was canceled. Since the ride down was easy enough to get I wasn't too worried about the ride back. But we all got to the station early, just to be safe. They were handing out free pain au chocolat and orange juice, which as poor of an apology it may be, was still delicious. When the platform was announced we hurried out to the train and I made a snap decision. I said, "Guys, we're going 1st class." I carried my bags up to the top first class car and the guys followed. We easily found four seats and settled in. Let me tell you, first class is like "whoa." The large, more comfy seats recline at the push of a button, there is much more space than economy, and the food carts come to you! The food service comes through first class with a cart, like an airplane, and offers first class passengers service before the economy. On the ride down they ran out of sandwiches but here I got first pick. (Also, soon after serving first class it was announced over the intercom that they ran out of sandwiches. Score.) No one checked tickets either so there wasn't a problem. To top it all, SNCF reimbursed our tickets because since our train was canceled it was assumed we didn't take the train, therefore we had a free ride from Nice to Paris! Everything ended up working out for the best despite the selfish rail workers' attempt to ruin everyone else's Easter vacation. Idiots.

Another post is soon to follow about how great the actual vacation was, proving it was worth all this trouble... because it seriously was.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cote d'Azur Photos

I added pictures I took in and around Nice to my web albums and hopefully soon I'll get some time to write about it because it was amazing!

Time is going by so fast, only 8 days before I head home... as long as Iceland figures out their volcanoes, anyway.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident

In light of the holiday that is this Sunday I thought it appropriate to expound upon the continuous struggle of my daily life in France, namely, cultural differences. While the large differences are also the most noticeable, it is often the minute details that go against the grain. Easter is no exception. While the general gist is the same (Jesus died and was resurrected which inevitably led to chocolate eggs) it's the mode of delivery where France and the US, well most of the rest of the Western world actually, differ.

There's an excerpt I want to share with you from a book I recently bought in an English bookstore in Paris that exemplifies this precise difference. This is an autobiographical book called "Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris, and is about his move to France and the difficulties found therein through language and culture. To give some context, in this excerpt Sedaris is in month two of his first French language class that he is taking in Paris. His classmates are a UN of nationalities and the teacher a straight up bitch. Just keep in mind that the conversations are translated from the broken French that is their only means of communication. Enjoy:

[We finished discussing Bastille Day, and the teacher moved on to Easter, which was represented in our textbook by a black-and-white photograph of a chocolate bell lying upon a bed of palm fronds.

"And what does one do on Easter? Would anyone like to tell us?"

The Italian nanny was attempting to answer the question when the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, "Excuse me, but what's an Easter?"

Despite her having grown up in a Muslim country, it seemed she might have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. "I mean it," she said. "I have no idea what you people are talking about."

The teacher then called upon the rest of us to explain.

The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. "It is," said one, "a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and . . . oh, shit."

She faltered, and her fellow countryman came to her aid.

"He call his self Jesus, and then he be die one day on two . . . morsels of . . . lumber."

The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

"He die one day, and then he go above of my head to live with your father."

"He weared the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples."

"He nice, the Jesus."

"He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today."

Part of the problem had to do with grammar. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as "To give of yourself your only begotten son." Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.

"Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb," the Italian nanny explained. "One, too, may eat of the chocolate."

"And who brings the chocolate?" the teacher asked.

I knew the word, and so I raised my hand, saying, "The Rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate."

My classmates reacted as though I'd attributed the delivery to the Antichrist. They were mortified.

"A rabbit?" The teacher, assuming I'd used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wiggling them as though they were ears. "You mean one of these? A rabbit rabbit?"

"Well, sure," I said. "He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have the basket and foods."

The teacher sadly shook her head, as if this explained everything that was wrong with my country. "No, no," she said. "Here in France the chocolate is brought by the big bell that flies in from Rome."

I called for a time-out. "But how do the bell know where you live?"

"Well," she said, "how does a rabbit?"

It was a decent point, but at least a rabbit has eyes. That's a start. Rabbits move from place to place, while most bells can only go back and forth--and they can't even do that on their own power. On top of that, the Easter Bunny has character; he's someone you'd like to meet and shake hands with. A bell has all the personality of a cast-iron skillet. It's like saying that come Christmas, a magic dustpan flies in from the North Pole, led by eight flying cinder blocks. Who wants to stay up all night so they can see a bell? And why fly one in from Rome when they've got more bells than they know what to do with right here in Paris? That's the most implausible aspect of the whole story, as there's no way the bells of France would allow a foreign worker to fly in and take their jobs. That Roman bell would be lucky to get work cleaning up after a French bell's dog -and even then he'd need papers. It just didn't add up.

Nothing we said was of any help to the Moroccan student. A dead man with long hair supposedly living with her father, a leg of lamb served with palm fronds and chocolate. Confused and disgusted, she shrugged her massive shoulders and turned her attention back to the comic book she kept hidden beneath her binder. I wondered then if, without the language barrier, my classmates and I could have done a better job making sense of Christianity, an idea that sounds pretty far-fetched to begin with.

In communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith, a concept illustrated by our very presence in that classroom. Why bother struggling with the grammar lessons of a sixyear-old if each of us didn't believe that, against all reason, we might eventually improve? If I could hope to one day carry on a fluent conversation, it was a relatively short leap to believing that a rabbit might visit my home in the middle of the night, leaving behind a handful of chocolate kisses and a carton of menthol cigarettes. So why stop there? If I could believe in myself, why not give other improbabilities the benefit of the doubt? I accepted the idea that an omniscient God had cast me in his own image and that he watched over me and guided me from one place to the next. The virgin birth, the resurrection, and the countless miracles -my heart expanded to encompass all the wonders and possibilities of the universe.

A bell, though, that's fucked up.]

Happy Easter everyone!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nathan's Visit, Part Deux

And we're back.

So Thursday seemed promising at first since I had only one class before Nathan and I headed to Normandy for the weekend before he left. It all turned sour however when I went to tell Kathi what time we needed to leave. I confirmed with Kathi a couple days before that should could give us a ride, so I was shocked/angry/frustrated when she said she was too sick to take us. We had an hour before we needed to leave and she could have told me this at any point earlier in the day. Also, it should be noted that by "sick" she really meant "hungover" as she drank an entire bottle of pink wine the night before. So I had really no time to find us another ride to be able to make our train. I went to the teachers room and asked around but none of my teachers were available. Defeated and furious I returned to my room where Nathan was waiting with packed bags to tell him we wouldn't be able to make the trip. But just as I got in the room Marie calls my cell phone. She asked around for me and found another teacher (whom I've never met) to give us a ride. It was a godsend. I went from furious to elated with a tinge of remaining disappointment in Kathi. But we got from Joigny to Caen with ease and barely any wait time to boot. There can be something very relaxing about train travel that I wish we had in the US.

We got to Caen after dark, which I hate getting to new places after dark, but our hotel was right across from the train station and not too difficult to find. It was another Etap hotel chosen out of cheapness. It was slightly better than the Etap hotel I stayed in the Friday before Nathan's arrival, but still smelled pretty bad. Once we checked in and brought our bags upstairs we headed into town to find some dinner. We actually lucked out because we found an awesome crepe restaurant (crepes come from Normandy, as well as many other delicious things like hard cider, Camembert, and calvados) and Nathan had been wanting crepes ever since he got to France. So we had a full meal, with a savory crepe which is a buckwheat flour crepe with ham, cheese, and an egg (very aptly named "The Complete"), a sweet crepe of white flour with butter and sugar, and a half pitcher of Norman cider to go along with them. Probably the best meal we had in Normandy.

The next morning we went to a bakery and super market to stock up on some food since we were heading out to the American Cemetery for the better part of the day. We took the train from Caen to Bayeux and then a bus from Bayeux to the cemetery. The weather was beautiful. I'd been to the cemetery before, this was my fourth time in fact, but it is still impressive and moving. The little museum at the site is very, very well done. And of course just wandering the grounds is an experience in itself. All was going well until we walked down onto the beach and I stepped in what looked to be just wet sand but turned out to be quicksand. I got out quickly but at the expense of the lower half of my pants being covered in wet sand and my shoes looking like brown clogs. Nathan was crying he was laughing so hard. I went and stood in the ocean enough to clean off my shoes and most of my pants but I was still rather dirty. One American girl walking buy just summed it up: "That suuucks." After cleaning them my shoes weren't brown and sandy anymore but my feet stayed wet the rest of the day.

Then we walked from the beach up by the bunker remains below the cemetery. With how beautiful it is at these beaches and with the cement and metal retaken by grasses it is very difficult to actually imagine what happened there on Omaha Beach. It always astounds me that the American Cemetery, like no other place on Earth, makes me feel proudest to be an American.

After standing in the rain for about 45 minutes, Nathan and I got on the bus back to Bayeux. Half way back we were given quite a shock when the 50 something year old male bus driver cranked the radio to Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." I'm not sure if it was just a patch of great reception or this man rocks out to pop during his off time, but either way it was great.

I showed Nathan a little of Bayeux when the bus dropped us off and we had kebabs for dinner. Bayeux is one of my favorite towns in Normandy and I know when my mom visited it was hers as well. It's just quaint enough but still has things to do and accessible to other towns and sites because of the buses and trains. We spent our second and last night in Caen, with one day left to explore Arromanches before heading back to Paris Saturday night. The problem was that we had to check out of the hotel before we visited Arromanches (to get there we also had to take the train to Bayeux and take a bus). I went downstairs in the morning to ask the receptionist if we could just leave our bags here until the afternoon since we had to pass through Caen anyway on our way to Paris. As I was waiting, two loud Algerians come out of the elevator, one with bloodshot eyes and a lit joint. He goes behind the counter and opens all the drawers and says loudly, "There's no money!" Then he tried to hand me his joint but some of it falls on the ground so he bends over and spend about a minute trying to pick it up. At that point I said, "F this" and decided while carrying out bags would be a hassle it would be much safer. We would get lucky once again in Arromanches, however, because one of the hotels (a pretty nice looking one at that) kept our bags for free for the couple hours we had to explore.

Arromanches is a tiny little town who's only real importance is that it was the site of Port Winston, the world's largest prefabricated harbor designed by Winston Churchill to be used for the D-Day invasion (really interesting, I suggest googling it). Nathan and I spent a bunch of time such browsing the military and souvenir shops. We also had calvados with our lunch (hard alcohol made from apples, really good). The only thing Nathan and I actually paid to visit was the 360 degree theater, which is a 25 minute movie in a theater that mostly plays real WWII footage on screens that circle the audience. It's cool, if not a little frustrating because you never know which screen to watch. The view from the bluff on which the theater sits makes the hike worth it in itself. Again we had great weather. I just worried that with everything going right we were bound for some rude surprise soon, and the next opportunity for a rough patch was the hotel in Paris.

I chose a different Etap hotel for the night before Nathan left. This one was close to the airport, being less than a 10 minute free shuttle ride away. But it seemed our bad luck had run its course because this hotel was awesome. It smelled clean and the shower was perfect (a good shower being something you learn not to take for granted in Europe). In the morning we had a great breakfast at the hotel too. I couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised.

So there you have it, a happy ending to this turbulent story. I hope it wasn't too much rambling and if you read all the way through it congratulations! You get a gold star (imaginary, of course).

I hope you all back home are having a good week. For me, only three more classes until I'm on another two week vacation! It's ok to be jealous...

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Nathan's Visit, Part I

Last week my brother Nathan came to visit me here in France for his spring break. It was his first time to Europe and his first big traveling experience in general. It was a really good time and it was so great to hang out with him and show him France but so many things went wrong that towards the end of the week it was becoming comical. We started expecting the worst in order to be pleasantly surprised by what actually was a success. For both of us it started Friday, March 19th...

Early Friday morning Nathan left from PDX to fly to Washington D.C. and eventually Paris, where I was to meet him upon arrival at 6:25 AM Paris time. There wasn't a train that would get me to the airport early enough so I decided to spend the night in a hotel near the airport so I could be there first, waiting for him. I chose the hotel I did because it was the cheapest (40 something Euros for one night) and right next to the train that would take me straight to the airport. Immediately upon arrival I realized I could not have chosen a worse hotel. First, I didn't have the right train ticket so the little turnstiles wouldn't let me out and I had to wait for someone with the right ticket and double up in the gate with them - awkward to say the least. As I walked from the station to the hotel it was already dark and felt like one of those bad neighborhoods you see in movies but don't expect to be real, with people hanging back in the shadows and sirens going off in the distance. The hotel itself was really gross and made my clothes reek all weekend. There was also at least one pesky mosquito in the room that I could not get rid of. At one point in the night I woke myself up by slapping myself in the face really hard trying to kill it. In the morning when I left to go back to the train station and head to the airport I saw police lights flashing up ahead but before the car rounded the corner these three guys ran into an apartment building and hid. After the cop car slowly passed one of the guys popped his head out and told the others the coast was clear before they all took off running again. Keep in mind that in my bag I was carrying my computer, iPod, and camera so I felt like the perfect target. Nathan and I both made it to the airport fine but me terrified and him sleep deprived, not having gotten a wink of sleep during the previous 24 or so hours. We took the train back to Paris and went to check into our hotel so we could both get some rest.

Nathan and I came out of the metro and I wasn't entirely sure which way we were supposed to go, so I asked a street cleaning guy for the direction of Sacre Coeur, the closest monument that also happened to be in the direction of our hotel. He pointed us in what turned out to be the wrong direction, and we walked through a deluge for a couple blocks before I made us turn around. All the while Nathan was carrying the suitcase because the puddles were just too deep to drag it through. After about 10 more minutes walking this time in the right direction but still through the torrential rain, completely soaked and dripping wet, we got to the hotel. Earlier in the week I realized I had made the reservation for the wrong day, but I called and had it changed and they told me everything was taken care of. Of course this is France, and counting on other people hardly every turns out good results. So the receptionist told me there was no record of that call and that we didn't have a room as they were completely booked. That blows. Infuriated, I let Nathan stay in the lobby with our bags while I walked around to got us another hotel nearby. By now, however, the rain had stopped (naturally). Just up the street, less than a block, I got us a hotel and thought it worth it to pay the 15 more euros a night just to be done with it. Nathan and I then got settled and we both took some time to recover.

Besides the sleep deprivation on Nathan's end, I think Paris went well. I took him to pretty much all the major sights and made sure he got plenty of pictures. I really wanted Nathan to have a good first impression with this country that I have come to love but I worried about him discovering all the bad aspects first, i.e. homeless people, dirty streets, apparent rudeness, the metro, and the list goes on. It's not until you experience the good parts of France that all those others become tolerable, in my opinion. Old world is just so different from the New World feel that I think Paris is one of the worst places to start a visit to France, albeit the most convenient.

By Sunday night Nathan was ready to head to Toucy for R&R after the bustle of Paris. I walked him around and showed him how this small town really isn't that different from small towns like Banks, just a lot older. I also had him try real French food, from bakeries that are cheaper and better than those in Paris. Besides him being a little bored in my room all day while I taught classes, things went well until Tuesday.

Some of my students the week before had asked me if I wanted to go to a soccer match the next week because they were going to buy tickets and offered to pick me up one. I told them I'd love to but my brother would be in town that week, to which they replied, "So we'll get two seats then?" I was excited. The teams we were going to see were PSG (the team I saw play the weekend before with Doug, Danielle, and Liz) and Auxerre, the local team that is actually rated number 1 in France right now. But once again, you can't ever get your hopes up until you're actually there. The game was closed to fans due to a Ministry decision following the riots by PSG fans and the death of one supporter. It was a stupid decision all around because closing the doors at this match only hurt Auxerre because they made no money, it wasn't their fans fault in the least, and, more importantly I might add, Nathan and I didn't get to see the game! It was pretty disappointing because we were both really looking forward to it. But what can you do? Well, you can visit the construction of a 13th century castle.

I wanted to get Nathan out to see some more of the area especially since we didn't have the soccer match anymore, so I decided to show him Guedelon. I wrote about this before, when I went earlier in the year with Marie and loved it. It closed for the winter but just opened up again before Nathan arrived so I thought, "Why not?" The weather couldn't have been better. After a string of snow and rain it was finally turning to Spring, with mostly clear skies and in the 60's. I got to see some of the progression of the building process but also some parts of the complex I hadn't seen before. Most importantly I got to take pictures this time! I think Nathan found it impressive, as did Kathi who came with us. It was a great day, but we would find out later it was just a high point on the roller coaster that was last week...

I added the photos from the whole week but they take awhile to load sometimes so have patience. There will be a Part II to follow soon.

Friday, March 19, 2010

I'm a Thief

I completely forgot about another story from last weekend, but better late than never, right? It was around lunch time and so I took Doug and Danielle to this kebab place that I had went to with Cate while she was visiting. I remembered it for three main reasons: 1) It's cheap, 2) you can actually sit down inside and warm up (unlike most kebab places that are takeaway), and 3) there is free tap water, something that is extremely rare in any part of France. I ordered first and then ordered for Danielle who was right behind me since we were getting the same thing. After getting our plates of food I stood there at the counter waiting for the guy to come back so I could pay him but he just avoided me. After a couple minutes he looked up and said, "Can I help you, sir?" From that I assumed that we just paid afterward and Danielle and I headed to a table to eat. Doug came shortly after and we asked him whether he paid or not and he said, "Yeah, he was speaking French to me and I didn't understand so I just gave him money." Interesting. I'm not one to dine and ditch, so after we were finished and overstuffed I approached the counter on the way out meaning to pay but the guy once again completely avoided me, so I just left. I didn't feel bad for it or anything because I gave it an honest shot. Gotta love free food!

My only conclusion is that he recognized me from when I was there in January with Cate and decided I'm enough of a local and bring in enough business that I get one on the house. That, or he just didn't care. Either way I still plan on going back there with Nathan this weekend so we'll see what happens.

Speaking of Nathan, he comes in to Paris tomorrow morning and it's going to be awesome! Unfortunately by "tomorrow morning" I mean "6:25 AM" tomorrow morning. I'm staying in a hotel near the airport tonight by myself so I can pick him up when he lands, not having to navigate Charles de Gaulle airport solo. I'm bringing a journal to jot down our shenanigans, which will then be transferred to the blog (depending on content appropriateness, of course).

I hope everyone has a great weekend!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

So Much Paris

This past weekend some friends from the States (Doug and Danielle) came to Paris for the weekend to visit Liz and me as a side-trip from their two weeks in England. It was a whirlwind, that much is certain. In two days I gawked at Sainte-Chapelle, went tomb diving in the Pantheon, waited at Napoleon's Tomb, meandered through the Rodin Museum, climbed to Sacre Coeur, stood in the red lights of the Moulin Rouge, drank wine at the Trocadero, enjoyed the stars of the Louvre, mounted the 700 steps of the Eiffel Tower, cheered on Paris at the Parc des Princes, strolled the Champs Elysees, topped the Arc de Triomphe, and took my pilgrimage to the Pere Lachaise Cemetary. Only three were entirely new experiences for me: Sainte-Chapelle, Parc des Princes, and Pere Lachaise.

Sainte-Chapelle is a royal chapel dating from 1248 and was built to house the supposed Crown of Thorns. The real attraction, however, is the stained-glass windows, two thirds of which are authentic dating from the 15th century. I thought it was cool but two things could have made it better, 1) if there was no scaffolding covering the altar and the entire rear windows, and 2) if the sun had been shining. Despite all that I can still see the appeal, and would probably pop in another time with my teacher's pass if it was sunny out.

The soccer game at Parc des Princes was an experience and a half. First let me tell you that had I known then what I came to know later, I would have had a different attitude entirely... We took the subway out to the stadium where the Parisian soccer team, Paris Saint Germain (or PSG), was playing Sochaux. We weren't quite sure what metro stop to get off at but Doug and I figured we'd follow the few guys with PSG scarves and jerseys. When the train came to a stop two things convinced us this was right: the guys with scarves got off and there were at least 20 riot police standing on the platform staring us down. Topside was no different, with groups of 5-10 riot police on each corner. As we got closer to the stadium there were checkpoints through these riot police as well. This was top notch security. I would have been more frightened but I didn't know this was atypical and their riot gear made them look like a team of RoboCop wannabe's. We got our tickets no problem and turns out we had pretty decent seats. The most shocking of all was the visiting team's fan section, surrounding entirely with netting and rows of guards separating them from the home fans. I guess it can get pretty nasty sometimes. It was my first European soccer match and overall I'd definitely go again, plus PSG won 4-1. Now for what I came to know Sunday night when David drove me home from the train station... Let me preface this saying there are three main communities that support PSG, Bologne, Auteuil, and the rest of Paris. Despite cheering for the same team, there is still heated gang-like rivalries among these communities, notable Auteuil and Bologne. The reason there was 1,300 riot police at the game we went to was because after the last game the two got in a large fight and someone from Auteuil actually ended up being killed! And the only reason we were able to get good seats, or seats at all for that matter, was because Auteuil and the rest of Paris were boycotting the game due to the death of a fan, so only Bologne was there. As I said before, had I known that Saturday night as opposed to Sunday I would have been more wary of my surroundings. But maybe due to the fact really only one community was there I felt the atmosphere wasn't very charged at all. So maybe no more games at Parc des Princes for me, but I'm still going to buy a scarf...

Pere Lachause Cemetery was also cool and someplace I had been wanting to go for a long time. It feels less like a cemetery and more like a park where they just happened to bury a lot of famous people. Among others we saw the tombs of Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Jim Morrison, Moliere, Delacroix, Chopin, and Heloise and Abelard. The tombs are very ostentatious with sculptures and even stained glass windows in some. It would have been more enjoyable in nicer weather but I can always go back. The best part of the visit was when one of the feral cats that live in the cemetery came up to me and rubbed up against my leg before sauntering over to a bench and taking a seat like any normal person. Intrigued, I followed the cat and sat down next to it expecting it to quickly run away but it did no such thing. In fact it just sat there next to me. We shared a moment, that cat and I. I am convinced that that cat was the soul of someone from the cemetery, as is each of those feral cats. Call it far-fetched if you want, but I've heard weirder things before! (And I don't mean just things I made up...)

As enjoyable as Paris was I was sad to come back to Toucy, but knowing that this weekend Nathan comes in made it easier, so I'll be back Friday night! I can't wait, it's going to be awesome. As for pictures from this last trip I'm going to put them up a bit later because Doug's camera costs about $1,200 more than mine, ergo I let him take most photos and I'll just get them from him. But I will put them up as soon as I get them.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day tomorrow! I wish I could be in a country that celebrates it too, but I can't, so have a green beer for me!

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Handful More of Holland

Alistair and Liz put up their pictures so I stole some and added to my Holland album. There's only seven more BUT the sights include, and are limited to: a giant wheel of cheese, me urinating in public, and the drawbridge we used to get to our house. Enjoy.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Wind, Wine, & Coraline

The past 24 hours have been a mini adventure. I started the day by watching the movie "Coraline," a claymation movie made in Portland that came about I think about two Halloweens ago (yes, I just dated the movie using my second favorite national holiday... after my birthday). It was pretty good and I think it will be an annual film for me during the Halloween season.

Around 2:30 Kathi, her visiting friend Julianne, and I went to Auxerre to have dinner at a teacher's house. The plan wasn't clearly laid out for me in advance, so I was surprised when Regine (the teacher) said we would go wine tasting right away and save tea for later! This was only my second time actually going to wine cellars to in France. Regine drove us out to two little towns, St. Buis and then Irancy, and both were so cool. The first cellar, St. Buis (said "sahn bwee"), was actually built by monks underneath their monastery across from a church that was next to a castle (all about 500 years old). The caves were awesome. The wine, however, was not but more out of personal preference than quality. Their wine was all Sauvignon Blanc which I think is the only wine that gives me a head and stomach ache BEFORE feeling the fun effects. But the man who owned the cellar gave us a lot of info about wine making in the region and I actually learned a lot. We took a little tour of the town before heading to Irancy to taste some red wine. It also was a nice little village and while the atmosphere wasn't as awesome in the cellar, the wine was so good. Pretty much all red wine from Burgundy is Pinot Noir which is a nice reminder of Oregon. I even talked to the lady giving us the tasting about Oregon and she said in the past couple years she has been impressed with Oregon Pinot Noir and there is quite a bit of exchange among Burgundian and Oregonian wine makers. I ended up buying just one bottle of Pinot Noir from Irancy, a 2005, for 11 euros. This was actually the second most expensive bottle after a 13 euro 2003. The average price of the bottles at both cellars were between 7 and 8 euros, which is such a great price compared to wine from the Willamette Valley. But as Caitlin pointed out, it all makes perfect sense when you consider Oregonian vineyards really didn't start making respectable wine until a couple years ago and are still paying off start-up costs, whereas these cellars have a couple centuries under their belts already. The wine tasting was great, oh and I forgot to mention the best part... it was free! 11 euros is steep for a French wine but I got to visit two really interesting cellars with 1000 years of history between them and try 10 different wines, which when put that way it was completely worth it.

After wine tasting we came back to Regine's house in Auxerre and had tea with some homemade poppy seed cake. Then Kathi, Julianne, and I walked around the shops while Regine prepared dinner, returning around 7 because of the rain. The food was absolutely delicious, in fact, I honestly think all French meals prepared at home are just incredible and what I've been having is not good luck, but a normal nutritional experience. Even though I ate probably my body weight in food and we were at the table until almost midnight, it was all in all a great day.

Last night/this morning is another story however. There was a windstorm to end all windstorms and Pierre Larousse high school is not the most weather resistant of buildings. From about 6 AM-9 AM it sounded like the wind was ripping through the halls of the school itself! My door was pounding against its frame so hard that I got up and slammed it shut with a sock in between the door and frame for sound proofing. I maybe got 5 hours of sleep last night. Then, when I woke up this morning I looked out my window and saw the trees whipping around like crazy. One of the rooftops visible from my bedroom window was even missing shingles! I also saw a huge tree fall down in front of my building. I took pictures of the roof with missing shingles and the tree after it fell, which are in the new album. It's a lot more calm now, but I was watching TV and they said winds got up to almost 100 miles an hour. It was somewhat frightening and extremely poorly timed (for my sleep cycle purposes). This storm followed by news of the horrible earthquake in Chile really does make it feel like the end of days. What if the Mayans are right...?

But no use worrying about that now, tomorrow starts another school week, and only three weeks until Nathan gets here. Just enjoy the little things.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Amsterdam, or The Moral Gray Area and What I Found There

Amsterdam for me, as an American, was at the same time an exciting and frightening experience filled with joy and guilt. We like to think that we are the freest country on the planet but I would venture to say that the US is the strictest country in the Western World (thanks to our puritanical founders, of course). You can die for your country before legally tasting your first sip of alcohol. And what does this give us? The worst binge drinking society in the world. Europe as a whole is relaxed, but Holland even more so. If put into an analogy of high school teachers, the US is your religion teacher that always gave you detention for being literally 30 seconds late after the bell rang, whereas Holland is your art teacher that thought your month long wax sculpture project of a duck with a cow's head was a brilliant piece of art and merited a bronze casting. Seriously, day and night difference.

Holland's moral motto is something like, "As long as you don't hurt anyone else, go for it." So imagine me, a generally liberal American being continuously shocked by Amsterdam. Marijuana, along with other natural "experience enhancing" drugs, are totally legal (within some limits, i.e. to be smoked only in your home or one of the many coffee shops selling weed that, in Amsterdam, are more numerous than Starbucks in Seattle). Prostitution is legal and considered a legitimate career that one pays government taxes for like any other job. Not to mention the freedom of the press, where swear words and nudity not only are allowed but abound. It was just nuts. Now I bet some of you at this point are imagining Amsterdam to be a bit like that scene in Pinocchio right before he turns into a donkey, with chaos and violence running rapid, but that's entirely not the case. I never once felt unsafe in Holland and I am by no means an intimidating guy. What scared me the most were the transvestite prostitutes... I still get shudders just thinking about it.

Now as for the two experiences I'm sure you're wondering what I tried. With the weed I decided, "When in Rome...". The prostitution on the other hand, not on your life. When we went to the coffee shop I was afraid of what Serena might think (since she is nearly twice my age and technically like a supervisor to me), so I pulled her aside and asked her if she would be offended if I tried it. She looked at me seriously and said, "But Joe, I'm Dutch," as if that was all the go ahead I needed. So I smoked a joint and absolutely nothing happened. The rest of the day I felt just as normal. So the next day I went back and told the guy who sold me the joint that nothing happened and he had a hard time believing me, so I bought some "Space Cake" (like pound cake but baked with weed). The directions where to eat a quarter of the slice and wait for two hours. I was feeling immune from my experience with weed the day before so I went ahead and ate half. An hour later I was high for the first time in my life. Oh, I should mention it hit me midway through touring the Anne Frank House. It was a different feeling, but mostly I felt light headed and very dizzy with no sense of balance, which made the narrow, nearly vertical staircases inside the Anne Frank House extremely difficult. It was an ok feeling I guess, but it's not a habit I would make because a) it's an expensive habit to have, and b) as far as mentally altered states go, I prefer being drunk.

[I questioned putting up my weed experiences due to them being used as incriminating evidence against me if I ran for president someday (hey, you never know), but then I remembered that interview with our president during the campaign in '08 when a reporter had found out Obama had smoked marijuana and asked him, "But sir, did you inhale it?" And Obama replied, "Well isn't that the point?"]

The whole time I was in possession of marijuana I never once felt guilty, but that was the exact opposite case with prostitution. The Red Light District is your one-stop shop in Amsterdam for all of your physical needs. They have women standing in front of glass windows (under a red light of course) advertising their, well, goods. There are also many bars and strip clubs, video, dress-up clothes, and toy stores (KY, not KB). But every time I walked past the windows of these ladies of the evening standing in their windows with barely more than a bikini on, I would immediately look away and feel extremely guilty. Thank you Catholicism. Even going in the 5 euro sex store made me feel questionable, and I stayed for less than 10 minutes. The most shocking part to me was that the Red Light District fans out from the center, at which is a 700 year old church. Many prostitutes windows are facing the church, barely 20 yards away! Here I was being shocked left and right, and Serena wasn't even flinching. She had actually said, "I'm here as an adult without the kids for the first time in my life, I want to be shocked," but it was impossible due to her understanding Dutch upbringing. Not even when we learned that the oldest prostitute was 83 years old did she so much as bat an eye. If only Americans could be more Dutch.

Other than those worthwhile life experiences, my two other favorites were the Rijksmuseum and the Heineken brewery tour, called the "Heineken Experience." The Rijksmuseum was great, well laid out with interesting objects (like blue ceramic Delftware) and awesome paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Steen. Way better than the Van Gogh museum, which was in my opinion a huge rip off. 14 euros with not a single discount! Rijksmuseum was 12 euros and much better. Even better yet was the Heineken Experience at only 10 euros (which included two beers). Basically my pictures in the Holland album give you a mini tour, but it was really fun. I think we spent about 2 hours there. Besides those museums we did a lot of shopping since it is still the tail end of sale season here. I finally (and pretty much too late for winter) found some leather gloves at a second hand store. I took many more pictures after that because my hands wouldn't freeze when I took them out of pockets to snap a quick shot.

It was a tiring week, that is for sure, but very much needed and enjoyed. It was also nice to experience a nearly guilt-free society even if I'm just too American to fully appreciate it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Holland, a generalization

I've been putting off writing about this trip because I had honestly no idea where to begin! But after all the beginning is a pretty good place to start, so here it goes..

By midday on Friday, February 12th, Serena, Alistair, and I were in Serena's car and on our way to Holland. Despite getting lost once due to GPS and printed directions not agreeing with each other, Serena drove us through most of France without a hitch. We switched before the Belgian border, where I took over and got through the rest of France, Belgium, and eventually Holland, but first we stopped to pick up Liz in Libramont, Belgium. Driving through Libramont was simply havoc because of the construction going on in the city and the GPS had no idea how to get us to the train station (actually in its defense, the GPS did have an idea on how to get us there but it involved off roading to jump the car across a large chasm and cross straight over train tracks, but it wasn't my car after all...). Also, I should mention that it was snowing and about 28 degrees outside. Eventually we found Liz and were back in the car on our way after 15 minutes or so. I learned two important things on that road trip:

1) French highways are well paved but have expensive tolls and are plagued with horrible drivers; Belgian highways are free but in terrible condition and also full of Oregonian and Washingtonian-type drivers (a.k.a. never signal and ALWAYS in the left lane); and Holland has free, well paved highways with sensible, friendly drivers.

2) A liter of water drank at 2:00 pm = one stop every hour for three hours until your bladder is empty (just sayin..)

We got to the house we rented at nighttime, and while the inside was more than I could have imagined, it wasn't until the next morning that I appreciated the entire location. First of all, the cost for the house for 7 nights was 360 euros (about $490), and divided by the four of us came to be about $17.50 per person, per night. Not bad considering what we got: two bed rooms (with two beds per room), a huge bathroom with shower/tub, full kitchen, dining/living room with flat screen TV and plenty of English channels, and the whole house had heated floors! We even had a real coffee maker to make American coffee!! The best discovery was that in the cupboards the owners had left some little slices of heaven in your mouth that I came to learn were called "Stroopwafels." I can't begin to describe how good these things are... they are miniature round waffles with a layer of caramel in between. Suffice it to say that Alistair, Liz and I had them everyday for every meal. Definitely one of my favorite things about Holland, and worth going back for.

It was in the morning that the experience was made complete because I got to see our surroundings. Right as I stepped out the front door I looked to my right and what did I see? Sheep grazing and an old windmill. How. Awesome. I also got to take a good look at the bridge we came over to get to the house. You see, a canal runs alongside the street in Rijpwetering (the town we stayed in) and each house on the other side of the canal has their very own drawbridge! I couldn't have even dreamed this up with every Dutch stereotype I knew. If I ever get to go back to Holland I want to stay at that house again, it was just perfect. It's between the big cities (Lieden, Haarlem, Amsterdam, etc.) and very easy to drive around. When we went to Amsterdam (which was every day), we drove to a parking lot and took the train into the city which was about 40 minutes from front door of the house to Amsterdam's Centraal Staion. And it only cost 6 euros total for parking all day and four train tickets from the parking lot to Amsterdam and back (so less than 2 euros a person). It's all subsidized to get less cars in Amsterdam. Such a good deal and I appreciated being able to run around all day in the city and come back to the house in the country and relax before another big day.

As for Holland in general, it's small. The Netherlands itself (of which Holland is a region) is only about 200 miles across at it's widest and a little more than 100 miles north to south. It's also the most densely populated country in Europe with the majority of the people living in the cities. It's a bit reverse from the US though because only the rich can afford to live in the country, since land is so sparse it is extremely expensive. As the name suggests, nearly all land in the Netherlands is below sea level, which is why there are so many dikes, dams, and canals. Serena told me a Dutch saying that goes, "God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland."

The people I met were very nice, even if superficially, but that is what I'm used to coming from the US and it felt a bit like home. I encountered absolutely no language barrier since practically the entire population knows English. Dutch is also a fun language to listen to because it's the 3rd closest language to English (After Frisian, a dialect of Dutch), and so it sounds like a mix between a child speaking English and German. It would be a fun language to learn, and relatively easy with German and English already. Physically the Dutch are pretty big, as in tall. Mostly blond too, again like the stereotype. But I can't tell you how nice it was to make eye contact with someone on the street, if even accidentally, and being given a quick smile rather than a scowl (as is the case with the French).

Food. Where to begin... From what I saw and from what Serena told me, the only traditional Dutch food from Holland is potatoes. Other than that, their "traditional" meals are all imported cuisines from their vast former colonies, namely those in Indonesia. If you were visiting a Dutch person's house for dinner and they asked you if you had any preferences and you told them, "How about something Dutch?" You would most likely sit down to a meal of fried rice and meat on skewers with a spicy peanut sauce. It's a little bizarre but when you think about the Dutch having had holdings all over the world for centuries it starts to make sense. The Dutch drink of choice is actually wine, and there is a reason for that. A bit like the US, the Dutch idea of luxury is anything French. French food, French wine, and French fashion is very popular in Holland. Serena says pretty much any Dutch person would kill to live in France because to them it's the idea of the "good life," with good food, drink, and plenty of space to move around in (imagine going from the most densely populated country in Europe to the largest). But of course beer is always popular too, like Heineken, the second most recognized product in the world after Coca Cola.

I haven't been to the UK or Ireland yet, but of all the places I've visited in Europe so far, Holland felt the closest to home. It's amazing the difference in cultures between Latin countries like France and Germanic countries like Holland and for feeling a little less homesick nothing is better than a fellow Germanic country.

More on actual experiences in the next post! I've rambled on enough for the moment.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Photos from Holland

As the title says I just put up photos from Holland, mostly Amsterdam since that is where we spent all our time sightseeing. Updates to follow shortly.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Some more photos

So I realized today that I forgot to post the photos from when I spent Christmas with David's family. There aren't many pictures because it was really a last minute decision to go so my camera wasn't charged and died on me the first day I was there!

Barring more blizzard-like conditions I should be headed to Holland tomorrow morning bright and early. They said on the news yesterday that the weather in Belgium, where we have to drive through to get to Holland, is much like the Eastern US right now... But we are sticking to main highways so I'm hoping it won't be a problem. That said, my next update should be from the rental house in Holland!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Gastronomy and You

Just because I'm bored and want something to write about, I will share all the details of a meal I had earlier today that exemplifies why I am so spoiled here when it comes to good food.

Me and the English team celebrated Marie's birthday today by going to a restaurant called "Le Bourgogne" in Auxerre, and it was beyond delicious. No one had actually been to this restaurant before and if you didn't know it was there already it would have been really hard to find, but after we were seated I noticed a handful of couples came in and asked if there was still room for lunch, which there wasn't. That alone felt like I was a VIP, being in restaurant that was completely reserved (Ok, it wasn't that big of a place, but still).

Now let me just describe for you the food, offering a caveat to those who are hungry because this will not help you... Also let me preface this in order not to constantly repeat myself and tell you that every single thing I ate was perfect. Our first appetizer was a zucchini soup accompanied by a (couple) glass(es) of sparkling wine. Then our second plate was a choice of their six or so specials, of which I chose the sausage from Lyon in a truffle oil and lentil soup. After that I chose a beef fillet with a mushroom muffin and grated golden potatoes that almost tasted like hash browns, but the best hash browns you've ever had. For dessert I picked "La Gourmandise," a half baked chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream (the beans came from Reunion, a French tropical island off the East coast of Madagascar). Finally, I finished everything off with an espresso. Now, no one wants to be a food snob but I can see what those people are getting at. The food is just so good!

Besides having good company, my favorite part of the meal was when the chef came out to our table and asked us all what we thought of our plates. One my friends got smoked salmon which came with a cream sauce, and she asked our chef what exactly was in the sauce since it had such a particular flavor. Rather than just explain, he excused himself, went back to the kitchen, and came out holding a greenish lemon-like object. After explaining what exactly it was (something I didn't quite catch), the chef handed it to my friend and told her to keep it. Then Serena said jokingly she would like some of the recipes and the chef immediately turned to her and said, "Which ones?" He then gave her two recipes, right then and there. It was an awesome experience to have such an excellent meal made by such an unpretentious French man.

That meal was by far one of my favorite French meals ever, but I'm beginning to think I say that every time I have a new French food experience... After the meal I was feeling adventurous and so I went out and bought a French knife, called a "Shepherd's knife," that most French men have and restaurants, like the one I ate in today, set out as utensils when serving steaks, like the one I ordered. I had been wanting one of these little fold-able knives for a while now, so I thought it was about time and using one at lunch decided it for me, I had to have one. The coolest part is that the handle is made from wild boar tusk! I want to say something here about having an object to hold in my hand to make me feel manly but I'm afraid it's just not going to come out right, and I bet you're laughing at me already. Anyway...

I leave for my week in Holland this Friday and I can't wait! I'll have WiFi at the apartment I'm staying at so I'll be sure to update with photos and stories when I can. Until then...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Australia Day in Metz

This past weekend I took a short three day trip to Metz, a city of epic proportions compared to Toucy (really somewhere around 350,000 people). I went to visit some friends from home and see the city since I've never been there before. It was a great trip. It was so nice to hang out with native English speakers and be in a city where you can go out for lunch on a Sunday. Friday and Sunday where normal days that I spent just catching up with people and doing a little sight seeing. Saturday was a whole 'nother story...

I was lucky enough to be able to stay with my friend Liz's family for free both nights I was in Metz. Liz is an English assistant in Metz but lives with a French family and takes care of the three boys when she's not in school. The kids were awesome. The 7 year old beat me at chess 3 out of 4 times, the 4 year old dressed up in a Spiderman costume for my first night there, and Saturday morning I woke up on the couch with the 2 year old standing three feet away just staring at me. I played with them a little bit too as they wanted to show me all their toys they got for Christmas. The whole family left on Sunday before I did to go skiing in the nearby mountains and the boys really wanted me to come. I'm sure Liz takes excellent care of the kids, but boys will be boys.

Ok, now about Saturday. I met most of Liz's friends during my stay and they all seemed cool, but a couple of them just really pushed my stereotypical ideas to the limit. For example, Liz's closest friend there is Elli, an Australian girl from Perth. There is another Australian girl in Metz as well and because of these two it was decided that Saturday we would celebrate Australia Day (by the way, I'm not making this holiday up). Australia Day celebrates the arrival of the first shipload of convicts to the new British colony by Captain Sterling. It's the official national holiday of Australia. It's celebrated like any country's national holiday, with typical foods, traditions, and copious amounts of alcohol. Australia really takes it a step up, however. First of all, if you think Americans are racist you should really meet Australians. The girls I met last weekend only deepened that impression I was given when visiting Australia personally. They strongly dislike any type of foreigner, and I'm sure the irony there is quite obvious (the Aboriginals actually call Australia Day "Invasion Day"). I think Australia just takes general nationalism to flat out chauvinism. I mean, they really think their country is the best in the world. Granted I love America but I'm more than willing to point out the flaws myself. I was reassured that Australia has none.

As for drinking, let me just give you an example of the Australian drinking culture. One of the girls on Saturday started drinking at 11 am, passed out on the bathroom floor by 3 pm, only to wake up an hour and a half later, throw up, and continue drinking. I've seen some pretty crazy drinking episodes before but I consider that a problem. When I was in Australia I heard these types of stories quite often, and they aren't told with shame and humiliation, but pride. Again, if you think Americans have drinking problems, take a look at Australia.

Another thing I want to point out is the typical Australian food we had on Saturday. Unfortunately there was no kangaroo burgers. And I know it's not my place to knock on Australia seeing as I come from a land where foreigners consider the national foods to be the hot dog and the hamburger (both of which were invented by immigrants, by the way), but there is seriously something lacking in Australia. One food was "Faerie Bread" which is just white bread spread with butter and sprinkles, like the kind you find on cupcakes. I think "unimaginative" would be the best word here. On Friday night Liz and I were put in charge of making a desert called "Pavlova," which was sugar and whipped egg whites baked in the oven. It tasted pretty good but how can you go wrong with baked sugar and eggs?

One last Australian Day tradition is to wear only your bathing suit all day, which makes complete sense if you are actually in Australia right now where it's summer and the lows are in the 80s. It makes absolutely no sense, however, in Metz where the temperate was at least 30 degrees with flurries of snow. But the Australians wore their swimsuits nonetheless, even when we went outside on the main square by the cathedral to play frisbee. It was actually really fun because I can't remember the last time I played frisbee. Well that is, until the cops came and told us to leave, but even being told off by the cops was entertaining.

So this weekend wasn't so much about the city of Metz as it was about friends and Australia Day, which is just as well because I had a good time. Australia Day was an interesting experience and I think the one thing I really got out of it is that I could never be good friends with an Australian, at least not the typical Australian, because their worldview is just so different. Who would have thought two Western, anglophone cultures could be so different?

I put up some pictures of Metz and those will probably be the only pictures until I get back from Holland. I leave in a week and half to spend one week there and I can't wait! Until next time.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Day After New Years

My short-lived hiatus from recounting my Prague adventures is due to a serious addiction to television drama. The two culprits being LOST and Entourage. But now that I have my fix and am caught up to date with both shows I can pick up where I left off.

Immediately upon waking up I felt what I assume the majority of people feel after a great New Year's Eve, hungover. We manned up though and got ready for our delicious breakfast at the hotel. This was my favorite breakfast because the old man who owns the hotel taught me a valuable lesson. When he was clearing my plate he told me to keep my knife. I didn't quite understand, but he explained that in Czech there is a saying that, for your own defense, you must never sit at a table with a woman without a knife. I just chalked it up to one of those cultural differences that just doesn't make sense directly translated and continued with my breakfast after he entered the kitchen. What happened next had me laughing to tears. The old man comes roaring out of the kitchen with a GIANT butcher knife, about as long as my forearm, saying, "See!? I work with wife so need much bigger knife for respect!" And then his wife comes chasing after him out of the kitchen with a big meat tenderizer with a jokingly fierce look on her face. It was one of those experiences that feels half dreamed, thanks to the hangover and just having woken up. They were great people though and I'm glad we had the pleasure of staying with them.

We took a short nap after breakfast because we knew facing another day of tourists and cold would just be miserable hungover and tired. Since it was our last full day in Prague we went souvenir shopping and found some ok deals at the big street market. Feeling hungry not too long after we shared a medium pizza at this sketchy Greek restaurant. I think we were both just tired of the people and all the hustle and bustle, so we took the tram over to the Little Quarter for a much needed escape from the big city feel. This quarter of town I imagine would be perfect in spring or summer. There are plenty of parks and you can walk along the water admiring the beautiful buildings of the Old Town from a distance. It was too cold to really enjoy the outside but it was a very mellow atmosphere, as if this part of town was recovering from a collective hangover. It was a good change of pace. We saw the Charles Bridge (the opposite end from where we were molested) and decided to try our luck. It was awesome. The statues are impressive, there are way fewer people, and the stroll was just great. We walked up the the castle again to take some more pictures before stepping into a tiny restaurant for dinner. As it turned out we were once again surrounded by Germans, but this place ended up being very worth it. We had some good dark beer (to cure the hangover of course), and I had rabbit with spinach and some potato dumplings. The food was so good, and we had a total of four beers, an appetizer, two entrees, and desert for less than $30.

After saying goodbye to Prague and one more night at our hotel we took a taxi to the airport the next day for our early morning flight back to France. When we arrived, guess who was parked right next to us in the taxi station... the crazy cab driver from New Year's Eve! There is no way we could have mistaken him, just a small world.

Before we left our hotel, our gracious host told us about life under communism and gave a stern warning. He said we have to be careful and watch out for China before they move in, take control of the US, and make us all communist! I know they own a large portion of our national debt, but if China takes over I'm moving to Prague, where all I need to command respect is a giant knife.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

New Year's Eve '09

And what a New Year's it was.

This was by far my favorite day in Prague, despite being half-trampled by large groups of Italians and Germans... but I'm getting ahead of myself. We started out with the feast of a breakfast again at the hotel before heading into New Town, the (as you're probably surmised) modern part of Prague. Barely a 10 minute walk from the Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square in the heart of New Town is like being transported from the middle ages to 1989, or, the fall of Communism in Prague. The Square, really just a long, walkable space on a large boulevard, feels much like any other big city in Europe. Tourists standing around looking at their maps, actual Czechs heading to work with a Starbucks in hand, and taxi drivers who must be imagining their lives are a real version of Grand Theft Auto. But like the rest of Prague, the buildings and history here are just as juxtaposed. It was in this square, like the area surrounding our hotel, that you can really feel the faded Communist presence. The functionalist buildings were perfect examples, but also the National Museum, showing the pockmark-like scars caused by Soviet bullets when putting down a local uprising against Communism in 1968. A little way down the square in front of the statue of St. Wenceslas is a memorial to two students, who, not being able to stand living under such oppression, set themselves on fire on the steps of the National Museum. All these little reminders of how life was like gave me some idea of what they must have felt, but also reminded me of how thankful I am for the life I was given.

Then we walked down another large boulevard to the Mucha Museum, my favorite museum in Prague and one of my favorite museums ever. I didn't know much about Alfons Mucha before this trip, but Caitlin had been dying to go and I'm very glad I tagged along. Mucha is a Czech national credited for being the founding father of Art Nouveau (which he started in Paris around the end of the 19th century), and even if you don't recognize the name if you googled Mucha I'm sure some image will pop up you've seen before. The museum itself isn't very large, but is well laid out, with English descriptions and even a nice 30 minute video. Continuing with the Art Nouveau theme we headed over to the Municipal House, a large building designed by, who else, but Mr. Mucha. It was very lavishly decorated inside and out, and even had an "Ameriky Bar" inside. As if there aren't enough of these opposites in the city, the Municipal House (built just after 1900) shares a block with the Powder Tower (built in the 1400s). It is amazing how often this occurs and it's not an eyesore.

But getting hungry we found a restaurant with some pretty good soup. At least my goulash was great, but Caitlin's garlic soup tasted like just garlic and water. I finished off her soup and made sure not to stand too close when asking someone for directions, lest they pass out. Little did I know it might have come in handy, as we headed for the Charles Bridge, the most characteristic bridge in Prague, and one of the best in Europe. This is where we almost died for the first time that day, the second being after dinner.

Before I relive this horror for your reading pleasure, I have to point out that Prague seemed inundated with tourists for New Year's Eve. I think the closer nationalities-Germans, Austrians, and Italians-traveled in just for the night. Either way the city felt packed. We could tell there were crowds on the bridge but it wasn't until we were a good quarter of the way across before the panic set in. Half of the bridge was closed off for renovation, so turned into a math equation: Half the space + twice as many tourists = .... you get the idea. It seemed like instantly Caitlin and I were swept into the mob of loud Germans and smelly Italians trying to get across. As if that wasn't enough, a large group of mean, fat, German women were trying to push their own way through, as if they had much more pressing business getting to the other side. I could see Caitlin wasn't taking it well and although I tried to reassure her that it must clear up soon enough, I was blessed with my mother's genes and therefore couldn't see anything over the towering Europeans surrounding us. The breaking point was when I was carried a good 10 feet without my feet touching the ground. Then I grabbed Caitlin and we somehow crossed into a one lane stream of people heading back the way we came, where we eventually escaped to freedom. We decided to call it an early day to head back to the hotel and rest/get ready for our evening out.

Caitlin found this website where we could book a restaurant for a New Year's Eve meal, and she couldn't have found better. All dressed up we took a joyride into town, where we transferred to a funicular that took us up Petrin Hill to our restaurant, Nebozizek. It was perfect. We sat next to the window, which, high up on the hill, overlooked the floodlit city with amazing views of the castle. The restaurant was pretty classy and there was a man playing piano all night who somehow seamlessly switched between playing Mozart to Abba. The six course meal was delicious (I have a picture of the menu in my photos) and even better was the Czech booze. We each got a half bottle of white wine, a half bottle of red wine, a glass of champagne at midnight, and unlimited beer all night. I had a great time. I had such a great time, in fact, that I almost forgot about it being New Year's Eve, until our waiter came to us with a thin package. I opened it up and it turned out to be a lantern of sorts. This was actually a really cool idea. We went outside with everyone else and what you do is light a fire underneath these paper lanterns and let them float off in the sky. They were coming up from all over the city, and that with fireworks going off in every direction was just incredible. Not to mention all this was seen through drunk goggles. At the end of the night, and one beer too many, our waiter called us a cab, which was the scariest/funniest ride of my life. "Scary" in that he spoke no English besides "No worry, no stress," and drove along a walking path in thick smoke and fog winding along the hill towards the castle, barely avoiding pedestrians who obviously had the right of way. And "Funny" in that it was ridiculous and I wasn't too serious about anything at that point. After speeding through several intersections and a U-turn across the median of the freeway, we made it back to our hotel where it felt good to be alive after the ride in what I affectionately named the "Death Cab" and we stumbled up to the room. Hands down, best New Year's ever.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Prague, Part Deux

I don't know that waking up that second day in Prague could have been any better. First, it was nice to sleep in a bit and not have to worry about traveling, something Caitlin and I had been doing for the past 3 days in a row. Second, from our second story window we could see the courtyard was covered in a fresh layer of powdery white snow. Now it may seem a bit weird to get excited about snow, but a) it just looked picturesque, and b) I knew it would mean that because of the humidity we wouldn't be as frozen out on the town as we were the day before. After taking in the scene we walked down to breakfast which quite literally made my day. It was my first hearty breakfast in three months! I almost ate till I was sick. I started with a roll on which I put butter and honey, then had granola and yogurt, followed by a made-to-order eggs, ham, and cheese scramble, and an apricot-filled doughnut to finish. All of this of course accompanied by very tasty fruit juice and two cups of American style coffee (finally). I think once again I'll reference my dad (who can out-eat anyone) in thanks for a metabolism that allows me to eat this much and not burst at the seams. Plus this was all included in the price of the hotel so I was only eating what I already paid for... An added bonus was that starting the day off with such a large meal meant Caitlin and I really didn't need to spend that much on lunch. We had some bread and a bowl of really good Czech potato soup that easily tided us over till dinner.

After breakfast we waddled our full bellies over to the Castle Quarter which was actually not far from our hotel. It was impressive, albeit not the largest or pretty castle I've ever seen. In fact the best part, in my opinion, is the view of the rest of the city offered from the hill upon which the Castle Quarter is situated. But we visited all the highlights, from the Royal Palace to the Cathedral, before taking a footpath down to the main part of town. It was at this moment when I realized just how much of a walkable city Prague is. It seems rather large, especially on a map, but I think you can walk from end to end diagonally in about 20-25 minutes. It only took us 15 minutes to walk from the castle to the Jewish Quarter, our next stop. It was before we tackled the 6 building "museum" that comprises the main part of the Jewish Quarter that we stopped for our soup lunch. When we got our check the woman had charged us for two deserts we never ordered. Rick Steves warned us that Czech restaurants are notorious for overcharging tourists, but I didn't truly believe him until that moment on. Our waitress wasn't even apologetic about it, she looked more sad that she got caught. We "stoopid Amurikens" sure showed her! But just in case we never went back there to avoid the certain revengeful dish of "Soup a la Loogie."

The Jewish Museum, which includes four synagogues (Pinkas, Klaus, Maisel, and the Spanish), the Jewish cemetery, and a Ceremonial Hall, for me, really pushed the Jewish stereotypes. First of all, the "discounted" price to see these museum was already about $20. Second, when we got to the ticket booth and tried to get the student discount, the stingy woman wouldn't give it to us because our student ID's didn't have the right validation stickers! Granted, I'm no longer a student, but Caitlin is. And isn't the whole purpose of the student discount to account for the want to be educated but serious lack of money to pay for these expensive museums? In which case I am 100% qualified. I was a little peeved but we were here to see the sights, and see them we shall. Lastly, there was a fine for anyone caught taking a picture in, near, or around the sights considered part of the museum, enforced by mostly stern looking old ladies on the other side of who's wagging fingers and nagging reprimands I was sure I didn't want to be. So while this was one of the most interesting parts of Prague, and definitely the most interesting Jewish site I've visited, I have absolutely no photos of it. The synagogues were impressive, especially the Spanish Synagogue which was very elaborately decorated. I think the most impressive, however, was the Jewish cemetery. It's barely the size of a city block and for centuries was the only place Jews were allowed to bury their dead within the city. Because of the Jewish belief that bodies are not to be moved after burial, they are stacked on top of each other, creating a small plateau. The headstones are falling over every which way because of the marshy land they rest on. Very moving to say the least.

After visiting all the sites it wasn't quite dinner time, so we headed out to find a bar to hang out in and warm up, maybe have a beer or two, before dinner. We ended up finding this little place, not too smokey, with really cheap beer. In fact, it was Budweiser. Now I know what you're thinking... "Really, bud?" But actually it was the Czechs who invented Budweiser in Germany way before Anheuser-Busch fought for the right to call it's beer the same name. As one photo shows, there is even a dark Budweiser which was a really great dark beer, and I'm not a huge fan of dark beers. Also, that's the way pretty much every bar in Prague is. They have two beers: one light, one dark. And again, a half liter cost about $1.50. Being much "warmer" a liter of beer later, we headed over towards the Christmas market in the Old Town Square to try some market food. Caitlin got a bratwurst on a bun and I ventured to try these pancake-shaped things with sauerkraut, both meals costing about $2 a piece. I still don't know what exactly my mini pancakes were made of but they were good, and pretty filling. It started to rain pretty hard while we were eating and it had been another long day, so we took the tram back to our hotel and stayed dry for the night. Besides, we had to prepare for New Year's Eve (which was the next day) with plenty of rest, which turned out to be well worth it...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My stint in Eastern Europe, Part 1

Where to begin... luckily for this trip (and likewise updating this blog) I kept a journal, outlining the day's events and marking down interesting things. Since there is so much to tell I'm dividing it into manageable parts, but the general plot is this: Caitlin came from Portland to visit me for two weeks, the first of which was spent in Prague celebrating New Year's.

It started off a little sour in that, thanks to the wonderful weather the Northern Hemisphere has been enjoying this winter, Caitlin's plane was delayed and she arrived in Paris (where we would then fly to Prague) a day later than expected. All told it wasn't that bad of a set back as it could have been worse. The only day we had in Paris was pretty low-key; lunch at my favorite Chinese restaurant on Rue Cler, walking down the Champ de Mars towards the Eiffel Tower, and visiting the Christmas Market and ice rink set up in front of the Trocadero. Our plane left early the next morning, which for Caitlin meant heading back to the Charles de Gaulle airport barely 24 hours after landing. Unfortunate.

Despite the glacial temperatures our plane left on time, with the only point of interest being it was the first time I boarded an airplane by climbing stairs straight up from the tarmac itself. I felt like the president or something. After arriving at Praha International we took a taxi, relatively inexpensive and convenient considering we were carrying suitcases, to our hotel. I was a little skeptical as we entered the neighborhood of our pension, but when finally standing outside of our home base for the next week I could not have been more pleasantly surprised. Surrounded by communist apartments built in the functionalism style, this place was an oasis. The building itself was rather large with a sizable courtyard and tennis court. As I learned out from our very friendly hostess, Blanka, the building comprising the hotel is half newly constructed (after communism fell around 1989 and private businesses became legal), and half 1,000 year-old windmill. Pretty impressive.

We settled into our nice, cozy room with a large bathroom and view over the courtyard before deciding to head into town. I hesitated on booking a hotel outside of the city center because of the travel to and from but once again we could not have fared better (literally). The tram, a gift from organized communism, is a 2 minute walk from the hotel, a 20 minute or so ride into town, and only about $1 each way. Considering a hotel in the center was bout twice what we paid for ours, it was a great deal. Plus the trams started well before I even thought about getting up and ran as late as midnight. As we rambled into town and roamed through the streets I couldn't help but stare at this city. Prague is one of the most beautiful places I have been to, and that was in below-freezing temperatures. The Old Town Square is a perfect example of this, and, in my opinion, the best town square I've ever seen. It's just massive, surrounded by huge buildings, each one sporting an unique facade. You'd see Baroque, next to Neo-Renaissance, next to Gothic, next to Romanesque... and the list goes on. How something so amazing survived the second World War AND the oppression of Stalin I never came to understand. The crowds of people visiting the stalls at the still-open Christmas market and the soaring towers of nearby churches added to the grandiose of this town square. Had it not been freezing I think I could have easily spent a whole day there.

But hunger played a large factor in our walking swiftly through in order to find someplace to eat. We eventually found Pizenska Restaurace u Dvou Kocek (or, Restaurant of the Two Cats) and decided to try our luck. The food in Prague, really anywhere we went, was very good and pretty cheap. The fist lunch at the Two Cats I had roast beef, dumplings, and delicious sauerkraut, all for about $5. Plus a half liter of the original Pilsner Urquell for about $1.50. Being in France for so long, away from the beer heaven that is Portland, I missed a good beer. The restaurant itself was interesting too, a beer hall feel but on a smaller scale. There was even an accordion player! The Czech Republic hasn't yet caught up with the rest of the European Union in banning smoking inside restaurants, so it was smokey but not terrible. The meal was definitely a highlight of the day.

Making it back to the Old Town Square we checked out the sights, which were some churches (St. Nicholas and Tyn Church), the Old Town Hall with the Clock Tower, and eventually the Klementium, a centuries old library started by the Jesuits and now public. The tour was definitely worth it as it included a climb to the Astronomical Tower with great views of the city and the castle, all of which was lit up as night had fallen during the tour.

After the tour was over we asked our tour guide if there was a grocery store nearby so we could buy some food for dinner and she gave us directions to Tesco, which turned out to be an odd hybrid of a store, as if Macy's and Fred Meyer's had a lovechild. All in all it was a great stop because after such a hearty lunch we were content to have a light dinner. We ended up getting a bag of chips, two pre-made wraps, and three bottles of beer for about $8 total. I would like to point out that the wraps were the majority of the cost, and two of the bottles of beer were about 50 cents each... score. We did a lot of running around that day and it felt good to just come back to the hotel, eat, drink, and watch some German MTV knowing that the first day in Prague was a success.

One of my favorite parts of being in Prague was trying to figure out the Czech language. It's kind of fun to listen to, but I'm sure that's the linguistic in me talking. You can see in some of the pictures that we share the same alphabet but they add all the diuretics (the marks above the letters) to describe the unique sounds in the language. Czech even has a sound that appears in no other language on Earth (a mix between a rolled "r" and a "zh" sound as heard in "leisure"). I tried my hand at pronouncing a few words here and there but it's a notoriously difficult language for Westerners to get right. There are just so many consonants! A perfect example is the popular churro-esque desert called "trdlo." As if it's not enough that this word has four consonants in a row, the r's in Czech are rolled, like in Spanish. Yeah, go ahead, try it out loud... ... trdlo ... ...anyone giving you weird looks yet? Another word was, "dekjui," Czech for "thank you." We must have asked six different people how to pronounce it, getting six different pronunciations. Luckily for us, however, everybody there knows English (at least enough to get by) and German since their economy relies heavily on tourism. We tried to have fun with the language though and for the most part I think the Czechs appreciated it.

Whew, all that just for day one! I'll add some more after I massage this carpal tunnel syndrome out... can you even get that from typing?

Monday, January 11, 2010

More photos

These past couple weeks have been nuts. Caitlin came to visit me for New Year's, which went Paris, Prague, Toucy, Paris... We barely got a chance to relax, so my updates have been lacking. That said, what a great break I had! I knew things would get really busy so I took meticulous notes in a journal in order to describe more fully my adventures with Caitlin across the continent. For now I added two more links to photos of Prague (of which there are quite a few) and Paris (not so many).

Later this week I'll write about what an awesome New Year's we had in Eastern Europe.

Till then!