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.