Monthly Archives: September 2012

Photojournal: Paris and Automobiles

The Saturday before Hedi left for Tunisia, we took a day trip to visit a close friend of ours and take advantage of the City of Light.

Conservatoire de Paris

We decided to check out the very expensive neighborhood near the Place de la Bastille, walking along the Avenue de Paris until we got to the pricey, name-brand stores such as Gucchi and Prada.  (We partook exclusively in what the French call faire du lèche-vitrine – “window shopping,” – I find the French to be a bit more desperate, “window licking”).

We tried very hard to see the interior of the Opéra House, but apparently the tours would have cost us a lot of money.  We kept our entire day’s expenses to a minimum, apart from the numerous times we had to spend money on RER or Métro tickets.  (Since the RER D was closed the weekend at the Gare du Nord for “travaux”, we had had to make a very roundabout trip to get to our friend’s apartment.  As a result, Hedi and I repeatedly bought the wrong Métro/RER ticket and had great difficulty in passing the turnstiles with all the luggage he was carrying with him.)  Once we got back to the city center, we were no longer weighed down with luggage and could enjoy the mild, end-of-the-summer weather in the most expensive quartier of Paris.

Opéra National de Paris

Palais Garnier

Place Vendôme

We turned onto the Avenue de l’Opéra and then made our way to the Place Vendôme to take pictures, directly across from the Ministère de la Justice.  We all agreed that the bâtiment is frightening and imposing.  It makes me think of the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the Disney version of course.  Check out some of the ridiculously expensive stores in the background and the ominous cloud hanging over the obelisk.  We might have just been a tad paranoid, given the location and our status as foreigners.  Ha ha.

Obelisk

Posing for the camera

Ministère de la Justice

Afterwards we continued on to the Jardin des Tuileries, and its benches were much more crowded than they were the last time I had taken a tour of Paris, in February of 2011.

Jardin des Tuileries

View of la Place de la Concorde, seen from across a pond at the Jardin des Tuileries

The gorgeous obelisk at the Place de la Concorde, where the famous Avenue des Champs Élysées begins, is always just as stunning, especially on a beautiful summer day in late August.  We stopped to get a drink and to catch our breath.

Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde

Drinking fountain

Petit or Grand Palais?

We then strolled down the mythic and equally expensive Avenue des Champs Elysées.  It’s my favorite place in Paris to people watch, as you can get literally within inches of people from all different walks of life.  We didn’t buy anything or loiter at any of the expensive cafés.

One thing I was not expecting to find along this Avenue, however, besides cafés and tourists with deep pockets and a penchant for shopping was renowned French car manufacturers.  But then again, rarely had I strolled along with two males in tow…

Citroën race car

Sébastien Loeb, champion racer

Shortly after admiring Sébastien Loeb’s race car, we were presented with a bizarre and somewhat enticing spectacle: “driving” beside Sébastien Loeb in a 4D environment.  It was a bit expensive (5 € per person), but the boys thoroughly enjoyed themselves.  We were strapped into cars that moved left, right, forwards, backwards.  We could smell the gasoline, watch the screen as we hurtled through the race course.  At one point we saw a puddle of water and inwardly sighed – we had a full spray of mist as we crossed!  I was slightly alarmed and rather uncomfortable, certain that I would fall out of my seat despite being tightly strapped in.  I suppose I lacked that childhood dream of racecar driving that so many little boys have cherished.

The boys

Me and my Mercedes

Before returning back to Amiens, I rested against the Arc de Triomphe, at the northern end of the Champs Élysées.  We had done a lot of walking in a short amount of time.

Arc de Triomphe

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Categories: France, Paris, Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Baguettes and Red Tape (part 2)

The Joys of French Food

One of the disadvantages of being a university student in a country that has really good food is that you usually cannot afford to eat in restaurants.  One of the advantages of living in France, however, is that good food is pretty easy to find, from the fromagerie at Les Halles (down the street) to the boulangerie beneath your apartment building.

Stand of spice packets at the “fête médiévale” d’Amiens

There are several rules of thumb to follow when you are living in (as opposed to simply visiting) France, especially if you are a student on a budget or if you have certain dietary restrictions.  If you are just traveling through, I’d recommend that you simply indulge.  Eat that croissant aux amandes, that pain au chocolat, that delectable cheese that you won’t find anywhere outside of France.  Sip back a glass of vin rouge if that’s your thing.  Choose a great Algerian restaurant in Paris or Nice, or fraternize with the locals at a corner kebab.  Pick something that looks and sounds good, and enjoy it.

As for the thrifty backpacker, impoverished foreigner, and generally broke college student, there are other ways to enjoy the quality and variety of cuisines you can find in France, whether or not French cooking is your cup of tea.  My first rule of advice is to try to buy as much as you can (fresh vegetables, cheese, even bread and meat) at the weekly outdoor markets.  The price of the food is almost always worth the quality of fresh produce, and the more vegetables you buy, the cheaper it is to live in France.  This is because when you cook your own food, even the exorbitant cost of living is balanced by the greatly reduced price of meals.

Pile of vegetables at the “fête médiévale” d’Amiens

The great thing about buying food at a farmer’s market, in addition to meeting a lot of the wonderful “agriculteurs” or “maraîchers” de France, is that you are also discovering some of the unique vegetables that make up the French cuisine.  From “pêches plates” to the famous “topinambours,” you will be forced to be more creative with your cooking as well as with your diet.

pêche plate

topinambour

To take advantage of French food, you also need to take advantage of the “specialty” food stores that the French are so well known for – fromagerie, charcuterie, boucherie pâtisserie, boulangerie, traiteur.  These local businesses survive in a world of convenience by the quality of their products and the loyalty of their customers.  Eating especially well sometimes only costs a few centimes more.  The difference in the baguette is profound between Carrefour and a corner bakery.  These staples and the French tendency to spend more money per household on food usually results in an outstanding quality in the ingredients that make up French cuisine.

Another rule of thumb when attempting French recipes is to try their more “exotic” staples that are so hard to find elsewhere.  For instance, crème fraîche, or fromage blanc, or even the ultra-pasteurized milk that doesn’t need to be refrigerated until opening, at which point it lasts a mere 48 hours in the refrigerator before expiring.  A real challenge, however, is converting between American recipes and French measurement.  Even something as simple as flour can differ greatly between the two countries!  Here I found a fabulous website that gives a rough measurement of the equivalents between American and French ingredients.  Besides having to juggle between two different systems of measurement, as well as the way in which things are measured (volume vs. weight), the quantity and texture of the ingredients themselves greatly differ.

For those who are vegetarian, gluten-free, eat only kosher or halal, or prefer to eat “sustainably” or with a social conscience, the good news is that there is a little bit of everything in France.  There will be your typical “bio” stores selling organic produce or your “équitable” Fair trade marks, and there is plenty of Muslim boucheries, Arab markets, and kosher delis.  The only downside of eating out in France, as opposed to cooking chez toi, is that navigating a French menu is particularly daunting for “special diets.”  You will usually find little in the way of vegetarian options, and most Muslims I know avoid French restaurants altogether, wary of the cheeses and the alcohol or pork lurking behind certain dish names, or they are simply tired of ordering fish *again*.  As my gluten-free, vegetarian cousin who’s living in Angers will attest, it is also very difficult to find things to eat in France from the standard diet.  But for the health-conscious traveler, don’t fear the butter or cream you often find in French dishes.  The French lifestyle, which involves copious amounts of walking and a general taboo on snacking, compensates from the fat content.

Bâteau en cornet des hortillons

What have I been eating so far in France?  Well, besides consuming a vast quantity of bread, I’ve sampled a wide assortment of food.  Un libanais at my favorite Kebab restaurant.  Une salade au chèvre, a salad of greens and dried fruit along with goat cheese heated up on little toasts.  Un couscous tunisien, a first attempt with Hedi to make couscous with our little couscoussier for a group of international friends.  Un 3aja, a Tunisian dish with harissa (see this wonderful NPR article for more information), tomato sauce, merguez sausages, and eggs eaten with French baguettes.  A galette hortillon, a crêpe made of buckwheat (a recipe originating from Brittany), stuffed with the local weekly harvest vegetables of Amiens’ famous hortillonages.  Cheese. Fish. Pizza. Bagnat au thon, a round sandwich with tuna, lettuce, tomato, and hard-boiled egg slices.  Pâtes et émincé de poulet au boursin, pasta with thinly sliced chicken with a Boursin (creamy French cheese) sauce.  Pique-nique de gruyère et de pain, slices of Gruyère cheese on Sesame bread.  Macarons, brightly colored round meringue-like cookies, in flavors of pistachio, chocolate, café.

Macarons

What are your thoughts on French food? What experiences of open-air markets have you had in France?

Categories: Food, France | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

Baguettes and Red Tape

As a recap of my first month spent in the North of France, I have decided to divide my narrative into the good, the bad, and the (somewhat less) ugly.  Not to state the obvious, but the three categories are French food, French bureaucracy, and international air travel.  I’ll let you decide which label fits which topic.
But first, a brief anecdotal mash-up of my past few experiences flying across the Atlantic ocean…

The Hazards of Air Travel

January 2011

I have traveled via airplanes more than perhaps any other form of travel, in total kilometers and trips abroad.  Perhaps statistically speaking, the odds are therefore somewhat less in my favor in regards to missed flights, lost baggage, and flight cancellations.  I mostly chalk that up to two airline carriers: American and Delta/Air France.

Once when my family of six was trying to catch a flight to Colorado on Christmas day, we were promptly told that our entire family was on stand-by.  With much pouting (and a few spontaneous tears on my part), we were rescheduled for two flights the following day, forcing my father to cancel his entire 3-day ski trip.  In the end, after more pouting and tears on the second stand-by failure the next morning, we ended up with a travel voucher that allowed my entire family to take a vacation in Puerto Rico – alas, on the same airline.

One year, my family was touring Switzerland, toting massive backpacker gear, and two of our backpacks never made it to the Zurich airport.  My poor father and younger brother wore the same clothes three days in a row, until we broke down and bought them new clothing.  Since we kept switching hotels and cities, the luggage only caught up with us after half the trip had gone by.  Flying home on this adventure, we had chosen to lay over in London Heathrow airport.  Unbeknownst to us, the airport must have received some sort of security alert that they chose not to explain to the passengers.  Instead, my entire family was selected to undergo a comprehensive search (my father always claims that since he has a small build that corresponds to the profile of a Middle Eastern man, they choose him as an example of reverse racial profiling).  Not only did we have to pass through full body scanners (in the days when these were not yet compulsory) and submit to pat-downs, they also went through every single article of our carry-on bags.  For my thirteen-year-old brother, this meant turning on and off his Gameboy, and they also flipped through my fifteen or so books.  To make matters worse, they made all the passengers wait for an indefinite amount of time in this terminal without the opportunity to leave – they gave us potato chips and snacks as compensation.  Finally, we got the green light to walk to another, undisclosed, terminal, where we went down a flight of stairs, got on a bus, and boarded the plane.  I still to this day do not know why they went to all that trouble.

Once I began traveling internationally on my own, I began to experience what I call “the homecoming curse.”  For three transatlantic flights in a row heading back from Europe to the United States, I have failed to catch my connecting flight and, as a result, have spent the night in an airport-sponsored hotel.  In 2009, I once again (for hopefully the last time) found myself in Heathrow, waiting to catch a plane through to Chicago.  We were boarded without a problem, but once aboard the plane, the flight crew informed us that something was wrong with the second gas canister (I might be mangling the details on this one), and that they would have to replace it before take-off.  Granted, like a good traveler, I had given myself two to three-hour leeway room for my layover in Chicago, but by the time an hour had passed without us taking off, I started to panic.  Upon arriving in Chicago, I found that I needed to take off my luggage and recheck it for my American Airlines flight.  As I finally reached the line (which moved at a snail’s pace), I frantically called my mother about my missed flight.  I was very sleep-deprived, and so I blatantly told the woman at the counter to put me on the next available flight – which happened to be at 6:00 am the next morning.  In retrospect, as they gave me a free hotel room, it probably would have been a better idea to choose a flight that doesn’t require me to wake up at 4:00 am.

For my second international homecoming, in May 2011, I flew from Paris to New York JFK on an Air France/Delta flight.  This time, the waiting took place at the terminal, again for an undisclosed reason.  My fellow passengers and I happened to notice, however, that there were at least three trained dogs on the tarmac sniffing the luggage apparently belonging to our flight.  The delay must not have been longer than thirty to forty minutes, but it was significant enough that it put my 3-hour window in jeopardy.  Especially since upon arriving in New York, I realized what chaos it is to pass through customs at JFK and to attempt to recover your suitcases from among the millions of other suitcases pouring out at the same time.  I made my way to the Delta/Air France counter once I had been told that I didn’t have enough time to recheck my luggage.  Feeling somewhat wiser than I was at age 19, I told them I wanted a direct flight home to St. Louis the next day.  My only option was to fly out of LaGuardia, so I convinced them to book me a hotel room at the adjoining hotel.  The only problem was how to get there.  Still incredibly naive, I almost got into an unidentified cab after being guided by an incredibly pushy “cab driver” in New York City.   As he started loading my bags into his car, I stuck to my gut (and the realization that $60 was probably way out of the park for my short drive), and went back to the line of Yellow taxis.  Luckily, I called my mother again, who was able to confirm the address of the hotel.  All worked out eventually.

January of 2012, I found myself yet again taking the same flight from Paris to New York.  This time I was afraid that I wouldn’t even make my transatlantic flight.  I spent two hours waiting to check my bags, which didn’t get loaded until literally 1:00 pm for a 1:30 pm flight, as there were various problems with AirFrance, including the fact that the workers kept leaving for lunch breaks and not coming back.  They delayed the flight for us, as it was a double-decker AirBus missing a good percentage of its passengers due to baggage delays, but I still sprinted through the terminal and was only calm once I buckled my seatbelt.  I got red wine spilt on me twice by my seat-mate (the same Chinese guy who asked for champagne, red wine, and another bottle of red for the meal), but the food was good, seats comfortable, and the movies wonderful.  Of course, there was no chance of me passing through customs in time to get my bag (among 300 other bags) and make my connecting flight within 30 minutes.  So Delta/Air France put me up in the Double Tree.  Not too shabby.  Of course, I had an additional layover the following day and a 7-hour drive to Omaha the day after, but I eventually made it back to my university.

From St. Louis to Amiens

Valentine, Nebraska

My journey abroad this time was without a doubt the most ambitious I have yet planned: it involved four planes, fourteen hours round-trip in a car, a 30-minute RER train, and an hour and a half train ride before arriving at my final destination.  Of course, it was much more meander, for good reason.  Two of my close friends were getting married the day before my international flight!

My itinerary was thus as follows: I’d catch a plane from St. Louis to Omaha on Friday, where I would meet up with friends still studying in Omaha or otherwise living there, and spend the night at a friend of a friend’s place (with the said friend there of course) and his roommate, a mutual friend.  It resulted in a lot of hilarious adventures through Omaha’s Old Market with two full suitcases, as well as some quality time spent with good friends.

Me and my bags, with friends, in the Old Market

The next stage of the journey was a bit more cumbersome.  Saturday morning, my friend and I woke up early to be picked up by two other college friends – the four of us were roadtripping seven hours to Valentine, Nebraska, a little town in the north of the state with absolutely gorgeous vistas and a real “Wild West” flavor.  We took a tour of the town and then helped out by visiting with the bride and the groom, separately, until the wedding extravaganza took place.  It was so worth traveling a day and a half to see them there!  We spent the night on the floor of the bride’s childhood bedroom, and then Sunday morning, we were back in the car, another seven hours to get back to Omaha.  What a wonderful way to say good-bye to close friends!

In Omaha, the weekend happened to coincide with move-in at my Alma Mater, so my friends who were Seniors ferried me around as the went to used bookstores, a local pizza joint, and a cellphone carrier, before I got ready in their college apartment.  Finally, I arrived at the Omaha airport (tiny that is!) and, with the help of a Chinese friend – an almost 100k United Gold member himself –  managed to convince United to check my bags all the way to Paris!  It cost me $100 for the second bag, but as I had packed literally my entire wardrobe, it was worth it.  The flight was smooth sailing until arriving in Chicago, where I had to walk for a solid half an hour before arriving at the LOT Polish airlines check-in.  I needed to print out my boarding pass and, more importantly, ensure that they had transferred my bags to my international flight.  The wait was excruciatingly long, and I must have been the only non-Pole to board my flight.

Finally, at 10:00 PM, I managed to get onto the flight – let me just say diplomatically, the Polish people must either detest lines or have been in quite a hurry, because it’s a miracle I got anywhere with all the individuals who cut in front of me in line.  The flight was so incredibly different from my previous AirFrance experiences.  I had the impression of being in a Soviet-era airplane, complete with the old communal film projector and the enthusiastic clapping for the pilot as we landed in Warsaw (I had never had the experience of clapping upon arriving at my destination, leaving me more worried than I had been the previous 9 hours! – aren’t the majority of landings safe and smooth?).  The food, as I had chosen a special “Moslem” meal on the online website, was also drastically different from what I had eaten aboard the French airline – fish, in a word.  Grilled fish, smoked fish, something resembling fish for my breakfast.  I wonder what the “Vegetarian” or “Hindi” meals must have been like!  As the seemingly only non-Pole on the flight, I was also constantly addressed in Polish, of which I am sadly totally ignorant.  All in all, it was a good flight, although the nine and a half hours crossing Greenland, Great Britain, and the Scandinavian countries was a bit long.

I passed through customs and immigration in Poland, which was a surreal experience.  Luckily I had a decent layover before my Paris flight, for getting through the line was not the most productive time I have spent.  As a bonus, however, it meant that I wouldn’t have to go through customs in France, which meant that arrival at my final destination took less time and hassle.  I picked up my two bags (I had had to convince the woman at the counter in Warsaw that I did indeed have two bags and had paid for the second) with the other Europeans, and I strolled my way through the European terminal.  Unfortunately, as Hedi was to meet me at the Gare SNCF, it meant I had a ten minute shuttle to wait before finally arriving, tired and sweaty.  As luck would have it, he arrived from the Parisian RER just in time.

The rest of Monday evening was hazy, spent being jostled in the RER and then nearly falling asleep in the TER train to Amiens.  We dragged the two bags across the Rue 3 Cailloux to my apartment, where Hedi spent two trips lugging my 20 kilo suitcases up five flights of stairs.  Finally, I was home.

I’ll continue with Baguettes and Red Tape another day…

Has anyone had any interesting experiences with air travel? Any “unusual circumstances” that have never been explained?

Categories: France, Poland, Switzerland, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bienvenue à Amiens

It’s taken me a month now to settle in to my new-again French city, Amiens, and a few months of packing and organizing before that.  I’ve switched to a new blog format, so I am still getting used to the changes.  Here are a few photos to give you a flavor of my new life, as I sort through the English words I want to use to describe the struggles, challenges, and delights of moving indefinitely to another country.

Place Gambetta, plage des enfants

Heading towards the Cathedral

La femme sans chemise (“The shirtless woman”)

La Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens

Saint Leu

Parc Saint Pierre, with a view towards the Hortillonnages

Sunset at the Parc Saint Pierre

Musée de Picardie

Bibliothèque municipale

Cirque Jules Verne

Old building in Amiens where they used to make ‘biscuits’ (cookies), apparently

Statue of LaFleur

Categories: Amiens, France | Tags: | 4 Comments

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