Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Americans in Paris, Part Two

Yeah, we get the bad news here too. The American economy is in a crisis, the dollar is sinking fast against the euro with no end in sight, and traveling to Europe is becoming less and less of a possibility for those in the U.S. With all this doomsday talk on television, in the papers, and from Europeans themselves (who seem to take a bit too much pleasure in the current state of affairs) you'd think that finding an American tourist in Paris would be a near impossibility. Aren't they all holed up back home crying over the miserable state of their worthless currency?

A quick stop at all the major tourist spots in Paris quickly demonstrates that this couldn't be further from the truth. In the past few weeks I have seen and heard so many Americans that I'm beginning to wonder if I haven't shot for Paris but landed in New York instead. While sitting down by the Seine while enjoying a ham and cheese on baguette I was passed by nothing but groups of American tourists of all ages. The Musée d'Orsay was practically crawling with Americans, far outnumbering any of the other nationalities I noticed. Old ladies, young families, student groups and singletons alike; they were all there soaking up European culture without a care in the world. I even saw quite a few while visiting châteaux in the Loire Valley last month. They are not holed up back home. They are right here in the land of the all-powerful euro!

I can imagine a number of explanations for why so many Americans are coming to France despite the less than favorable exchange rate. It could be that, hailing from a credit-happy country, they're simply putting everything on plastic with no thought of the future consequences. Or maybe they booked the trip before the dollar sunk so low and are now stuck in a vacation they can't back out of no matter what the cost. But I'd like to think it has something more to do with that undeniable can-do American spirit. It's the kind of spirit that makes Americans stand up in the face of seemingly unsurmountable odds and say "I want to see the Eiffel Tower and I'm not going to let some hot-shot new currency tell me I can't!" After all, the ancestors of many of today's Americans were people who didn't let a silly little thing like an ocean stand in the way of their dream of a better life. Why should their descendants let a silly little thing like an exchange rate stand in the way of their dream of eating a better croissant?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Welcome Home

This weekend's trip to the Cote d'Azur felt like a sort of homecoming for me. While not originally from the south of France, I have spent a lot of time living, studying, working, and soaking up the sun along the Mediterranean coast and have come to really feel comfortable in that part of the country. When most people think of France they think of Paris; of monuments and museums and the metro. When I think of France my thoughts go directly to the south; to beaches, palm trees and endless sunshine.

Everything along the Cote d'Azur feels familiar to me: The way the air smells like the sea and the breeze is always warm. The way the Spanish and Italian influenced buildings are painted using all different kinds of bright colors. The olive trees and flowering plants that decorate the southern countryside. The boat-filled ports and the palm tree-lined wide promenades that hug the coast. The hillsides dotted with vineyards and vacation homes. The old city centers with their narrow, maze-like streets designed to shelter residents from the sun and heat. After growing up in lovely but cold Minnesota, spending time along the tropical French Riviera is like a dream come true.

Unlike the south, everything in Paris is new and unfamiliar. As a travel addict, I relish the discovery of new and unfamiliar things, but as a human I also appreciate that which is known and predictable. It felt good to recognize things I've seen before and to not feel entirely like a foreigner. Leaving wasn't easy, but I know I'll be back. Waking up today in Paris with the rain and the cold and an endless sea of unknowns, I'm already looking forward to my next trip home.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Only Way to Travel

I love Paris, but getting out of the city is great too. When deciding how to get here to my present location in a seaside town near Toulon we thought of the car or a plane but settled on the TGV. The TGV, or Train Grand Vitesse (High Speed Train) is, I'm convinced, one of the best ways to travel in France. In fact, it might be one of the best ways to travel, period. While enjoying the 4-hour ride to the coast, I couldn't help but think of all the ways in which the TGV was superior to airtravel in particular.

For starters, you don't have to pass through a tiresome and dignity-stripping checkpoint to board the train. You simply walk into the station, find your platform, and get on. No removing of the shoes, no liquids in tiny little bottles, and no invasive body pat downs. You don't even have to get to the station early and wait like you do with a plane. We arrived a mere 10 minutes before departure. Once in the train, you will find considerably more leg room than the average economy class flight can offer. The seats are wider too, and if you feel the need to move around a bit you can go to the bar area to stretch your legs and enjoy a snack. What's more, the train was scheduled to arrive in Toulon at 12:19 p.m, and at exactly 12:19 p.m., that's what it did. When was the last time your flight arrived on time?

Not only is traveling by TGV immeasurably more comfortable and convenient than traveling by plane, it's also a lot more fun. Without all the hassles and indignities you suffer at the airport and in the plane, you are free to sit back and enjoy the ride. Cruising along at 320 kilometers per hour (approximately 200 miles per hour) while on the ground is a bit of at thrill as well. Staring out the window as you pass through the gorgeous French countryside you realize that, with the right mode of transportation, getting there truly is half the fun.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Art...Finally

I've been determined to visit the Musée d'Orsay ever since I was unceremoniously informed last week that the majority of the galleries had been closed to due a museum personnel strike. As I stood in line yesterday afternoon to purchase my advance tickets for the evening, I made a silent appeal to the French bureaucratic gods that today would not be a day for making statements. My efforts must have worked. When I asked the lady at the ticket counter whether or not the employees were en grève, she replied with a rather disappointed sounding "non."

The Musée d'Orsay is not only worth visiting because of the amazing works of art within, but also because of the beauty of the building itself. The museum is actually an old train station that was fully remodeled to serve as an exhibition hall. Located across from the Seine on the rive gauche, its ivory exterior gleams while its spacious interior inspires awe. In fact, there are even lookout points within the museum that allow you to admire its wide open spaces, and windows in some of the galleries provide spectacular views of Paris. Known mostly for sculpture and its collection of Impressionist paintings, d'Orsay's halls also hold decorative art and photography. The Van Gogh salle is not to be missed.

D'Orsay might be less famous than its grand neighbor across the river, Le Louvre, but I think that in many ways it is the better museum. Because its smaller in size, the Musée d'Orsay feels less daunting; you don't need a lifetime to see everything within, a good day or two will suffice. The Louvre can feel dark and cavernous, while d'Orsay is filled with light and space. And while she might not contain the Mona Lisa, the Musée d'Orsay has countless un-overrated classics that you don't need to fight a sea of camera-snapping tourists to see. A visit to Paris should always include a visit to the Musée d'Orsay. Just be sure that on the day you show up, so do the people with the keys.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

An Open Letter to French Television

I have a bone to pick with you, French television. I know you're trying your best, but I just don't think I can take it any more. Why must there be so many shows featuring round table discussions on dreadfully boring topics that no one can possibly be interested in? Why must the too-numerous-to-count American shows that you continuously run be so unfortunately dubbed into French rather than subtitled like they are in other countries? Can't you see that the words don't match the moving mouths and don't you know how annoying that is? And why does it feel like every time I try to watch your nature channel I see the exact same program on giant pandas in China? I mean, they're cute, but so are dolphins, penguins, and baby elephants. Can't you do something on them?

Now, I'll admit that there are some things you do well. There are almost no commercials on your channels, which is a welcome change from ad-saturated American programming. Imagine the joy of being able to watch an entire episode of Law and Order without any interruptions! Of course, because of the dubbing, Detective Briscoe sounds more like a French boulanger than one of NYPD's finest, but I digress. Oh, and you do have some decent cooking shows, not to mention the always interesting EuroNews channel. But it's just not enough to allow for the occasional hour or two of 21st century leisure time.

I know, I know, people don't come to France to watch T.V. They come to marvel at cathedrals, taste their way through wine regions, and admire famous works of art. They don't come here to see you, French Television. Can you blame them?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Woman Behind the Curtain

When you are a stranger in a strange land, you become an object of curiosity. Meeting locals turns into a game of 20 questions as you are given the usual run-down of inquiries every time you're introduced to a classmate, a friend of a friend, family members and the like: "Where are you from? What are you doing here? Its it your first time to France? Do you like our country? Do you know who will win the 2008 presidential election?" The questions never change, but more importantly, neither do the answers: "The United States, Minneapolis, no not where they have the car race, that's INDIANapolis, I'm studying international affairs, I've been to France multiple times, I love your country...and no, I don't know who will win the 2008 presidential election, sorry."

I recently realized just how often I had been repeating my little getting-to-know-you speech when the French people I was talking to began telling me that I had no accent. I mean, I know I can speak French pretty well, but no accent? Obviously these people had never heard me try to say the French word for "yogurt." The truth is, I have repeated the exact same answers so many times, that I've got the speech down pat, perfectly correct pronunciation and all!

You might think it's nice to be recognized for lack of an accent by native speakers, and at first is really is. But once your feeling of pride and accomplishment wears off you realize that they expect you to sound that good all the time. You've set the bar too high for yourself; now there's nowhere to go but down. It's like that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls aside the curtain and we see that the Great and Powerful Oz is just a man with a loudspeaker. When we eventually move from the introductions to regular conversation, I'm no longer the foreigner who amazingly learned how to speak accent-free French. When the curtain pulls aside, I'm just that American girl with an American accent who can't correctly pronounce "yaourt" to save her life. I just hate seeing the disappointment in their eyes.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Follow Your Nose

Flowers are not unique to Paris, but I've always felt they're somehow more beautiful here than anywhere else I've been. There's just something about seeing fresh flowers at the market, or visiting a Parisian flower shop that seems special in someway. It's as though the colors are brighter, the fragrances are stronger, and the arrangements are prettier. There's also the fact that fresh flowers seem to be everywhere. There isn't a street in this town you can walk down without finding a shop or a market selling all varieties of roses, tulips, hydrangea and whatever else happens to be in season. Paris has flowers I've never seen before; an endless variety of shapes and styles just waiting to brighten even the grayest of Parisian days.

Why does it feel like flowers hold a special place in Parisian life? Is it just another example of art de vivre? Maybe along with their penchant for good food, good wine, long lunches and five weeks of mandated vacation time, the French also realize that a good bouquet of flowers can add an unforgettable touch to a dinner table or can simply bring a bit of joy into one's life. Or maybe it does have something to do with the weather. With all the gray and rain that can exist here, a bunch of colorful flowers can help chase away the winter blues. Whatever the reason may be, I never get tired of walking past a Parisian flower shop, admiring the day's fresh selection, and taking a minute or two to stop and smell the roses.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Paris by Bike

After two months in Paris, I finally got to check out the latest and greatest way to get around the City of Lights: Vélib'. Vélib' is a system of public bikes that the mayor had installed all over the city. You can sign up online or rent right from the machine at the docking stations, and away you go! It's inexpensive, the stations are numerous and easy to find, and everyone is doing it. We picked up bikes in the 17ème and decided to make our way across town to the Luxembourg Gardens. After a bit of wrangling with the unfortunately uncooperative rental machine, I adjusted my seat, checked the brakes, prayed it wouldn't started raining, and pushed off into the streets.

Since driving in Paris is a bit of an extreme sport, I was a little worried about entering the game with only two wheels and my sense of balance to protect me. But, other than a few run-ins with unruly roundabouts and unfriendly buses, the 30 minute ride went like a charm. As it turns out, biking is a great way to experience Paris. The challenge of being out there in traffic with all the cars makes you feel like you're really a part of the city. With the wind in your face you zoom down Boulevard St. Michel, cross the Seine, catch a glimpse of Notre Dame, cruise up the Rue de Rivoli, bike the length of the Louvre, navigate past the Concorde and finally pedal slowly through quiet neighborhoods of cobblestone streets. I started to wonder what I had been doing down in the metro all this time. Above ground travel is so much more fun!

Vélib' is clearly Paris' newest must-see attraction. The bikes allow newcomers a chance to orient themselves and quickly and gives residents a chance to view the city from a different angle. Bonus: your two-wheeled tour guide comes outfitted with a front-end basket; perfect for transporting that Parisian picnic you bought at the market. Pedal your way to a flowering park and enjoy.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Random Beauty

One of the best things about Paris is that no matter which quartier, voisinage or arrondissement you find yourself in, you are bound to stumble upon eye-catching architecture. Buildings as varied as high-rise apartments, churches, government offices and performance halls are all potential visual delights. You simply never know when your next metro exit will plant you at the steps of a charming 15th century church or whether another painstakingly sculpted façade is just around the corner. Wandering residential neighborhoods can be as much of a sight-seeing trip as a visit to the Eiffel Tower.
I often find myself in awe of large important-looking Parisian buildings I know nothing about. Recently, while wandering though a previously unvisited neighborhood, I stumbled across an imposing structure on the edge of a small municipal park. Rarely without my trusty camera, I quickly snapped a few shots while the sun peeked out from behind the clouds. I wasn't expecting to find it, I didn't approach it to discover its name or history (although it's pretty clear that it's a church), I simply admired it from afar and enjoyed yet another random architectural sighting that most Parisians would probably ignore, but that is bound to stop wide-eyed visitors in their tracks.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Going With the Flow

I haven't visited many of the classic Parisian sights since arriving here mid-February. Places like The Louvre, Montmartre, The Luxembourg Gardens and Notre Dame Cathedral have generally stayed off my radar. This is mainly because I've already seen them on prior visits, but it is also partially due to the fact that, this time around, I don't feel like just a visitor. I live here. I go to movies, shop at my local market, attend classes, workout at my local gym and spend time with friends. So, when I caught the sightseeing bug this week and decided I had to see the Musée d'Orsay again, I was really looking forward to playing the part of an American tourist.

Unfortunately, my museum visit was not to be. While trying to purchase advance tickets Thursday afternoon for Thursday evening, I was unceremoniously told that the museum personnel had gone on strike, and that only the ground floor would be open. Translation: no Impressionist paintings, which wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the tiny little fact that people go to the Musée d'Orsay specifically to see Impressionist paintings. To make things worse, when I didn't hear the man explain about the strike, la grève in French, because of some nearby noise, he felt the need to loudly shout, "Strike! Strike!" so that I, the poor little American tourist, would understand. Um, thank you very much Monsieur, but I've already spent a good deal of time in France. Trust me, I know what a grève is.

How could I not have known about a major museum strike, you ask? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that the strike was called that very same morning. Apparently, when it comes to visiting classic Parisian sights, my timing in terrible. Hopefully it will end soon and I will be free to admire the works of Renoir, Degas and Pissaro once again. Until then, I'll choose to regard my experience not as an inconvenience, but as an excellent first-hand exercise in local custom.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

It's All Relative, Part Two

I recently received a care package from home which, at my request, included a copy of the latest edition of Mpls/St. Paul Magazine. I couldn't wait to devour my favorite hometown read especially since it was the special collector's edition dedicated to the 150th birthday of the state of Minnesota. I marveled at the late-1800s photos of flour mills, river projects and women on in long dresses enjoying the winter weather on ice skates. I was proud to belong to a place that had such a long, fascinating history. "We've come so far," I thought; imagining what life was like so long ago. But my bubble of joy and amazement was burst with one little oh-so-true comment by an unimpressed Frenchman. When told about the birthday of Minnesota he replied with a dry, "150 years? That's it?"

His remark reveals an important fact we Americans should never forget. When it comes to history, the French have us beat. Their existence as a separate country dates back to the 9th century. France survived The High Middle Ages, The Black Death, and who knows how many wars with England. There are people in Paris who live in buildings that were built in the 17th century. The Construction of Notre Dame Cathedral, one of France's most recognizable sites, was completed in 1345. Yes, 1345.

Now, 150 years is nothing to laugh at. Minnesotans have accomplished a lot since they officially joined the union in 1858. But say "1858" to a French person and you might as well be saying "yesterday." On the metro this morning, while trying in vain to avoid the bad habit of reading over other people's shoulders, I happened to catch a glance at a newspaper headline that caught my attention. It read, "Mont-St. Michel celebrates its 1300th birthday." Well, Minnesotans, if we want to celebrate that birthday we'd better hope we live to see the year 3158. Yes, 3158.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Americans in Paris

A United States citizen can never feel too far from home in Paris. Her compatriots are everywhere, and I'm not talking about the hordes of loud tourists who hang out near the Eiffel Tower and wear clothes they obviously did not buy in France. No, I'm talking about Paris' permanent Land of the Free residents: the endless statues, street names, buildings, and monuments dedicated to our country.

At first you notice the street names. There's Avenue du Président Kennedy, Rue Benjamin Franklin, and Avenue de New York. There's even the Place des États-Unis - an entire square dedicated to us by our oldest ally. There are buildings such as The American Embassy, The American Church, and The American University of Paris. There is a bar dedicated to the memory of Hemingway, a mini replica of the Statue of Liberty, and a metro station named after Franklin D. Roosevelt. It's enough to make you forgot that you're actually in a foreign country!

Of all the American sightings in Paris, the statue of Thomas Jefferson is quite possibly my favorite. I only recently discovered him, looking all Founding Father-ish down by the Seine, but I've been a fan of his for years. It's no surprise he's been honored by the French. For starters, Jefferson modeled Monticello after the Hôtel de Salm, or Palais de la Légion d'Honneur, in Paris. He was a man of the Enlightenment and spent time with many French intellectuals, and he was a strong supporter of France in its war against Britain during his time as Secretary of State. Oh, and he also loved French wines. Of course, he did complete the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon effectively stripping France of a large portion of its overseas territory, but that's all in the past.

Americans love Thomas Jefferson as well. He's all over the United States; on money, Mount Rushmore and, of course, the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. In that American city of monuments I've always thought that his was the best. I'm happy to report that has has not settled for less in Paris.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's All Relative

While most of France's electricity comes from nuclear power plants, there's a different kind of energy generator on display along the road from Paris to the northern coast. Everywhere you look giant wind turbines dot the horizon. You can generally see them in small clusters of five or six at a time, spinning gracefully away in the breeze. There were even some along the coast, and considering the gale force winds that threatened to throw me off my wobbly bike, it's not a bad place for them to be.

Now, some people think wind turbines are an eyesore. They say they've ruined the beautiful landscape; that they're too big and unsightly. I see it in a different way. While driving past the city of Amiens, you can just make out the famous Gothic cathedral that has stood there since the 13th century. It's quite an impressive sight, and I'm sure I'm not alone when I marvel at how 13th century people managed to build it with only their 13th century tools. I think the wind turbines are a little like that soaring church - a stunning example of human creativity and ingenuity. When viewed in succession, the two structures provide an almost poetic visual representation of just how much history resides in France. You can literally see the progression of human creation spread out before your very eyes; all without having to exit the A16 autoroute.

Who knows, maybe some day in the distant future people will fly by the same landscape in their little automated pods and think "Those 21st century wind turbines sure are amazing - can you believe that people back then were able to build those things with only their basic 21st century tools?"

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Expanding Horizons

Parisians are a bit like New Yorkers. They have a tendency to think that nothing of interest lies outside of their little island. There's even a word for the part of France that surrounds Paris: Province. No, not Provence as in lavender and sunflowers and impressionist paintings, Province as in if it's not Paris, it's all the same to us. But of course, not all of France outside of Paris is the same. If you read this blog regularly, you know that I have already visited river valleys with 16th century castles and mountain tops with 70s-era chalets. This weekend I got to see the northern coast of France, further proving that there are indeed sights of interest outside of the Ile-de-France.

France's English Channel beaches are completely different from their French Riviera counterparts. There are no palm trees, no striped umbrellas, and the sand is unbelievably expansive. You can almost see British and American warships disembarking from the French coast during the world wars, the beach covered with all kinds of equipment and human activity. Quite a different picture from what is there today: kids flying kites, tourists looking for seashells, and couples meandering along taking it all in.

As always, it felt great to get out of the city and take in some fresh air. We had two full days of perfectly blue skies with temperatures mild enough to enjoy a relaxing bike ride, a couple games of catch, and a drink on the terrace. On the way home I knew we were getting close to Paris when the sky clouded over and it started to rain. Eventually, the rolling picture-perfect countryside gave way to the concrete jungle that is a city. Parisians might not understand why anyone would choose to live anywhere but Paris, but those of us who travel know better. Sometimes en province is exactly where you want to be.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Mealtime

Everyone knows that the size of American food portions have grown steadily over the years. Today's "small" is yesterday's "large," big-gulp and king-size have entered our lexicon, and finishing a meal at a restaurant is an impossible task for many diners. We often criticize ourselves (and are criticized by others) for over-indulging at the table, but after a recent meal in a French home, I realized that Americans are not the only ones who enjoy a large meal. The French indulge as well, they just go about it with a bit more subtlety.

The meal started before we even got to the table. Our apératif consisted of a wide array of finger foods and a bottle of champagne. The plate of olives, bruschetta, mini toasts, mini shrimp, cheese and mixed nuts could have been a meal in itself! After moving to the dining room we were served a plate of foie gras, fig jam, and sweet French bread. Next came the main dish (a filling combination of fish and rice), followed by the salad and cheese courses. Finally, when I didn't think there was any room left in my stomach, it was time for dessert. It was a marathon dining event that left even this famously healthy eater feeling more than a little stuffed.

Halfway through the dinner it dawned on me: if all of those courses had been placed on one giant plate, it would have been like any average American meal. But it wasn't any average American meal, it was a French meal, which meant the enormous amount of food was to be enjoyed, savored, not scarfed down in ten minutes. This is something we Americans can learn from the French. Eating lots of yummy food: good. Eating lots of yummy food slowly over a couple of hours so as so enjoy every bit: even better.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Fab Five

French markets offer a true sensory experience. Sight, sound, taste, smell and touch, they're all there and they're all delightfully strong. Take last Sunday's trip to a neighborhood market, for example. The first thing I noticed was a fish and seafood stand that seemed to stretch on into infinity. Displayed on the bed of ice were all kinds of under the sea creatures. There were enormous oyster shells, flat fish the size of hubcaps, and shrimp of all kinds just begging to be looked at. Not to mention the people-watching potential of such gatherings. French markets rank right up there with international airports as one of the best places to sit back and just watch.

My sense of hearing was put to use listening to the shouts of the merchants as they tried to sell their wares. You get to use your sense of taste if they offer you a piece of fruit as a marketing ploy. Doesn't the strawberry taste delicious? They're only 3 euro a pack! My sense of smell was probably the busiest of all. Roasting chickens, aromatic cheeses, spicy olives, simmering seafood paella - your nose doesn't know where to lead you next.

And touch? Well, touch I discovered why standing by a low table of colorful spices and dried beans. In the corner, away from the eyes of the busy-at-work merchant, I saw a little boy digging his hand into one of the bags of white dried beans. He was obviously fascinated by the feel of the tiny items passing through his fingers as he lifted them out of the sack and then went back in for more. Just look at this picture I took of said beans. Can you blame him? If I had been little enough to avoid unnecessary attention, I might have done the very same thing.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Fun With Color?

There are a lot of things I will never understand about France. Ordering a Diet Coke and getting a glass with one ice cube in it, stores that close for lunch, and showers without shower curtains are among them. I just don't get it. But quite possibly the biggest mystery of all lies in the most mundane, if not a bit unmentionable, of household products. I will never understand why French people use colored toilet paper.

As a young undergraduate student in 2001, I was surprised to find a pink, notebook paper-like substance occupying the spool in the bathroom that usually is frequented by a white, soft roll of Cottonelle. What is this stuff, I wondered, and why on earth is it pink? As I would come to learn on subsequent trips to France, you can actually buy toilet paper in all sorts of colors. Unfortunately, I still haven't been able to figure out why. Are they hoping to match their roll to their decor? Are they trying to make les toilettes feel more festive? Is dying paper cheaper than bleaching it?

I'm not only confused by colored toilet paper, I'm also a little turned off by it. It makes me think that the paper isn't clean, and that last thing anyone wants to have to use is unclean bathroom products. White just seams more pure, more fresh, more, well, sanitized. Then again, maybe Americans are just stuck in a bathroom rut. Maybe we should cast off our boring white rolls, do like the French do and turn our bathrooms into party central. I'll bring the blue streamers! ...I mean toilet paper.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Why I Will Never Drive in Paris

I thought I had it bad in Washington, DC. After moving there from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, I nearly had a driving-induced nervous breakdown. The combination of overly-aggressive power-hungry DC drivers and completely a unnavigable road system (incorrect signs, roads without exits, the apparent inability of Google maps to correctly direct you through the area) left me feeling anxious every time I took to the streets. After a few months, I finally figured out my necessary routes - school, work, and Target - and rarely deviated from them. But nearly two months in Paris have shown me the error of my ways. Compared to Paris, driving in DC is like driving I-80 through Nebraska on your way to Denver: a straight line at minimal speeds.

Driving in Paris is not for the faint of heart. The roads are narrow, motorcycles dart out at you and around you without warning, and everyone drives fast. It can be difficult to see who is entering the street, as parked cars line every square inch of the pavement. Pedestrians and bicyclists are everywhere, and against better judgment, they are always ready to run a red light or dart across a busy intersection. Don't even think about riding in a taxi. I'm convinced it's the French version of an extreme sport.

Despite the initial fright of riding along Parisian roadways, you soon realize that there is one thing you can take heart in: Parisians know how to drive. It might seem like they're out of control, too fast, too reckless, but really, they're just highly skilled at maneuvering their little stick-shift cars through streets that would scare the pants off those Americans who have become used to big lanes, big cars, and speeds that allow you to take in the scenery. Parisians make full use of all vehicular mirrors and are always aware of the traffic around them. They are confident, and composed. They never flinch before making a move. They have skills most drivers I know have never even heard of. Take the traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, for example. Known for its ability to frighten away even the most road-sure tourists, Parisians tackle its immensity and complexity with a certain je ne sais quoi. Try putting an enormous roundabout without any lines painted on the pavement and with 13 different entry/exit points in the middle of Anytown USA and I'm not sure it would be as flawless of a ride as this:


video

Monday, April 7, 2008

Historic Moment

Today I did something that I rarely if ever do. I deliberately put myself in a situation where I knew there would be a crowd of people, and potentially a very unfriendly crowd at that: I went to the Champs-Élysées to watch the Olympic Flame make it's way through Paris. How could I not? After hearing on the news last night that in London it had run into protests, extinguishing attempts, and man-handling policemen, I just knew this was something not to be missed; a once in a lifetime event. I'm no fan of crowds, but I made my way there anyways, and I don't regret it for one minute.

When you watch these types of big events on the news - flame runnings, marathons, the Tour de France - you get the feeling that there's a constant stream of excitement wherever people are present. Well, that's because the news clip they show is only a couple of seconds long. Yes, for a couple of seconds, it's very exciting. When the flame ran past my staked-out location there were cheers of praise from the Chinese mobs, shouts of "libéré le Tibet!" from the protesters, and oohs and ahhs of jaw-dropped amazement from the rest of us. French police and gendarmes were everywhere, the crowd was alive and calm at the same time. All in all, it was a pretty cool experience.

But the coolness lasted about 30 seconds, max. For the most part, we just waited around for something to happen. I got there early so as to snag a good spot. I was right up against the barrier, giving me the perfect angle from which to view the flame. It ran right in front of me! And to see that all I had to do was wait two hours in the cold, wind, and occasional rain along with hundreds of others who had the same crazy idea.

I wish I could show you a picture or a video of the flame as it passed in front of me, but my batteries died not two seconds before it arrived. All I have is a picture of the crowd and a massive French police motorcade. Talk about bad timing. On the other hand, maybe some things are better appreciated when you see them with your own eyes rather than through the lens of your camera. The image of the 2008 Olympic Flame might not be recorded on my digital memory chip, but it will be ingrained in my mind's memory for a long time to come.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Dairyland

French grocery stores are an endless source of amusement for me. They have amazing fresh fish and seafood stands, massive quantities of bottled water (flat and gazeuse!), and their Muzak consists of the most random compilation of American songs you can imagine. If you're a regular reader, you might remember my post about the impressive variety of sweets that one can find at the supermarché. I'd now like to introduce you to another well-known aisle in a French grocery store; quite possibly the only one that rivals the cookie and biscuit section in terms of it's quantity and variety. Yes, I'm talking about the yogurt aisle, or aisles depending on the size of the place.

American yogurt sections are pretty small by comparison. You can find them tucked in between the milk and the cheese where they offer a modest selection of flavors and brands. A few fruit-at-the-bottoms, some drinkables, and a trendy organic yogurt thrown in to class up the place. French people, on the other hand, clearly take their yogurt seriously. They can choose from mind-boggling array of brands, sizes, and consistencies. They have flavors we Americans never dreamed of: pink grapefruit, fig, and mango are on my must-try short list. And you can't buy just one. Yogurts are always sold in packs, some carrying up to 20 individual yogurt cups. I recently took a picture of part of the two giant yogurt aisles at a nearby grocery store. As you can see, there are a lot of choices...and those are just the Activia brand yogurts...and not all of them would fit in the shot.

It's difficult to picture the immensity of some of France's yogurt aisles without actually seeing them in person. Try to imagine the cereal, chip, and pop aisles at an American grocery store all rolled into one big good-bacteria dairy heaven. Just when you think living in France means living in the land of everything teeny-tiny, the yogurt aisle is there to remind you that, despite their reputation to the contrary, sometimes the French do believe in that classic American saying: bigger is better.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Jam-Packed

What doesn't France have? During my recent trip to the French alps, I made sure to ride the ski lift all the way to the top of the runs in order to get a glimpse at Mont Blanc. At approximately 4,810 meters above sea level (15,780 feet for people like me who don't know the first thing about the metric system) it's the tallest mountain in Europe. France lays claim to it by a small margin, as it's right next to the border with Italy. It's truly an amazing sight, and it got me thinking about all the other amazing sights that exist within this relatively small country.

Just think about it: France has the tallest mountain, she has coasts on four bodies of water (the North Sea, the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea), and every kind of landscape, from palm tree-lined beaches to river valleys to mountain ranges lie within her borders. France has Roman ruins, Greek ruins, walled medieval cities and prehistoric cave paintings. She has the world's tallest bridge, the world's most famous tower, and the Mona Lisa, which is arguably the world's most famous painting. She has all this (and more!) tucked into a country that is smaller than Texas.

This is by no means an exhaustive list as it would take a lifetime to do and see all that France has to offer. But there is one more thing worth mentioning. In terms of tourism, France is the most visited country in the world. With all there is to see and experience, is it any wonder l'hexagone holds this title too?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Fine Comfort Cuisine

The only thing better than French cheese is melted French cheese. Everyone knows about the classic fondue - a pot of warm gooey cheese into which you dunk pieces of bread. Having a fondue set is a bit en vogue stateside, but trust me when I tell you that nobody makes it like the French. Raclette is a lesser-known melted cheese dish that originated in Switzerland and involves the use of a small broiler apparatus. You put the cheese in a tray, place it under the broiler, and when it's melted you pour it over potatoes, ham, bread, or whatever your little heart desires. Only the pickiest of eaters wouldn't jump at the chance to have Raclette for dinner.

As for me, I never turn down a fondue or Raclette night. Imagine, then, my joy at discovering a melted cheese dish that I had never heard of. Since being in Paris I've had two opportunities to dine on the delicious Mont-d'Or, which I learned is a round wheel of cheese in a wooden box. It's prepared by cutting open the top skin, adding white wine and spices, and baking it (still in the wooden box!) in the oven until everything mixes together and the cheese is fully melted. You spoon out the cheese onto any number of accompaniments, usually potatoes. It's easily my new favorite French food.

Why do I like France's variety of warm softened cheeses so much? Sure the taste is amazing, much richer than most cheese found in your average American supermarket. But I think it has something more to do with the way they are eaten. A dinner of fondue, Raclette, or Mont-d'Or is, simply put, fun. You get to play with your food! It offers a nice break from the sometimes strict French table rules. No need to worry about how to properly maneuver a fork and knife when eating fondue. Just dunk the stick into the pot, easy as that.

I have three months left in Paris and I hope to be able to enjoy these dishes as often as possible before I leave. Once back in the US, the only melted cheese I'll be tasting is microwaved Velveeta.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Changing Tastes

What were they thinking? I just got back from the French Alps where, in addition to obtaining a nasty sunburn, sore legs from snowshoeing, and a new appreciation for Savoyard cuisine, I learned a bit about mountain building design throughout the ages. A hiking expedition took me past old stone houses and an adorable stone church that recall a simpler time in the valley; a time before ski lifts, tourist shops, and noisy British vacationers. Some of the houses were even still occupied by local residents. Architecturally appealing, they make you want to buy one of your own, move in, and enjoy an authentic mountain existence.

Compare these structures, which fit perfectly into the gorgeous landscape, with the 70s-era monstrosities created to house crowds of tourists. The only word one can use to describe the modern buildings is "hideous." They lack character and taste. I was happy that the hotel I stayed in looked nothing like them, resembling a quaint chalet instead. What on earth made builders of the 1970s think that their design choices were acceptable? Their creations are unfortunate eyesores that mar the awe-inspiring mountainside. Rather than convincing you to set up shop in the Alps, they make you want to run as fast as you can in the other direction!

Old stone houses in the Alps have stood the test of time. Despite all of the modern building projects that have gone on around them, their charm and historical significance have thankfully spared them the wrecking ball. Hopefully, their 20th-century descendants won't be so lucky.