Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Eyes Have It

If you spend some time in Paris, you might start to get the feeling you're being watched. No, it's not because Paris is filled with cameras like London (it's not) or because the gargoyles on Notre Dame magically come to life and follow your every move (they don't, but they kind of look like they could), the answer is a bit simpler than all that. You'll feel like you're being watched because Parisians stare. In the metro, on the streets, at restaurants and cafés; wherever you go, whatever you do, they will be watching.

The reasons for this strange staring behavior remain a mystery. I've spent many a day on the metro simultaneously being stared down and trying to understand why I'm being stared down, but to no avail. I have, however, eliminated the possibility that Parisians stare because you're a tourist. There are plenty of times when I'm out in the city looking very un-touristy (alone, reading a newspaper or book in French, wearing clothes I bought in France, etc.) and I still bust numerous lookers. Not to mention the fact that French people themselves have told me that they feel the stares as well. While I haven't studied this phenomenon thoroughly enough to know all the answers, I have a hunch that it might have something to do with a general suspicion of others that I think exists in France and that I lightly touched on in another post.

Being stared at whenever you step out into society can be a bit disconcerting. It can make you feel self-concious, uncomfortable, or completely and utterly annoyed. What's more, many of the city's starers won't even look away when you meet their glance, but instead commence to look you up and down! What's an unwilling center of attention to do? You could give them a dirty look, ask "je peux vous aider?" (may I help you?), or simply try to ignore it. Or, you could join in the staring ritual, stare back, and enjoy the show. Whatever you choose to do when you feel their stares, just remember: its them, not you.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


I never thought this would happen. I resisted it, I ignored it, but after years of wondering what all the fuss is about, I've finally gotten hooked on soccer. It's not my fault, really. When you live in Europe (or anywhere else outside of the 50 United States) you are bombarded by soccer, excuse me, football, on a daily basis. What's more, Europe is currently going crazy for the 2008 Euro Cup championship. This once-every-four-years event is followed with such intensity and thoroughness that it is impossible not to get caught up in it. It's kind of like how everyone in DC can talk politics because the city eats and breathes politics. Europe is currently eating and breathing football.

Unfortunately, this year's French team was less than stellar. They went out in the first round (groups of countries all play each other, France played The Netherlands, Italy and Romania) scoring a misérable one goal in three games. It would have been fun to root for my adoptive home team, but alas, I'm left rooting for whichever team strikes my fancy at the time. Last night was the big semi-final match between Germany and Turkey, and I was definitely rooting for the Germans. Why? I'm not sure. Maybe it's because there were some really nice German students in my French class at Sciences Po, maybe it's because Germany is a country I would really like to visit, or maybe it's because I think it's funny that Angela Merkel attends the German matches and they always show her sitting in the stands wearing a different color of the same pantsuit. Whatever the reason, my cheers were not in vain. In an exciting back and forth match the Germans took it, 3 to 2.

Next up is the semi-final between Spain and Russia. Then it's on to the big final to decide who is 2008's European champion. I'm definitely looking forward to joining the entire continent in watching that important match. But despite my newfound love for the world's sport, I haven't forgotten about that great American pastime. This Sunday, as I sit down to enjoy the final, a little part of me will be wishing I was in a baseball stadium enjoying a hot dog and a beer. Go Twins!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Shopping Madness

Ladies, start your engines. Today marks the beginning of shopping madness in France, otherwise known as "Les Soldes," or in English, The Sales. For a couple of weeks, stores in France put large portions of their merchandise on sale. We're talking 40, 50, even 60 percent off the original price. Towards the end of les soldes, prices can get marked down as much as 80 percent or more. Because sales are regulated by the government, merchants are only allowed to offer them twice a year. Needless to say, les soldes are a national event; every store is offering deals and everyone hits the stores. With this information in mind, I went to the enormous shopping mall at La Défense...for journalistic purposes only, of course.

The place was a zoo. The escalators were jammed, lines for dressing rooms and cash registers were endless, you could barely move within the stores without banging into someone. And it was only 10:30 am...on a Wednesday. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that there were so many people there early in the morning on a weekday. On the news they said that some Frenchwomen (and some men too!) take a vacation day so they can shop early when there is still a lot of merchandise available. I've even heard through the grapevine that if you go to one of the big downtown department stores like Galeries Lafayette or Printemps you can see women fighting over sale-priced designer shoes. I can't decide if that would be fun or scary.

In any case, I'm happy to report that the deals were indeed good. I saw 6o euro shirts marked down to 24, 80 euro shoes marked down to 45, and lots of beauty products for 5 euros or less. I'm going to try braving the stores this Saturday morning to see what other kinds of deals I can find. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Cheap Eats

Many of us travel on a budget. We look for deals on airfare, deals on hotels, and deals once we arrive at our destinations. One of the associated costs of traveling that can really eat away (pun intended) at your bank account is food. Unlike some items, such as souvenirs, food is a non-negotiable. You can't do without it. Savvy travelers in Paris usually cite the baguette-and-cheese diet as a surefire way to stay nourished without going broke, and while I agree that this a practical and tasty way to save money in France, I've found another solution to this formidable quandary: crêpes.

Crêpe prix fixe meals, to be exact. A prix fixe or menu option at French restaurants means that for a set price you get to chose a multi-coursed meal from various options. I have found that a number of restaurants offer very inexpensive (often less 10 euros) crêpe menus consisting of a salty crêpe (ham and cheese, for example) and a sweet crêpe (I like mine with blueberry jam and whipped cream) plus a glass of cider. Not only do you get to try one of France's most famous culinary delights, but you also get to sit and relax at a table while enjoying your meal. What's more, crêpes are very filling so you'll definitely feel like you got your money's worth.

There are a number of restaurants offering this option near the St. Michel metro stop on the Rue Saint André des Arts. La crêperie saint germain is always a good choice, and I love their mosaic tiled interior. There are also good prix fixe possibilities on the Ile St. Louis, where you can find inexpensive deals on crêpes and menus featuring other items as well. Restrictions sometimes apply; the deal might only be available on weekdays from noon until three, for example, but if you get the timing down you can easily take advantage of these great prices. Your tummy will thank you.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Of Old Towns and Barnyard Animals

I sometimes feel that, despite having spent a considerable amount of time exploring France since my first visit in 2001, there is still a never-ending stream of places to see and things for me to do in this relatively small country. But I'm making progress, nonetheless! This weekend, with a visit to Tours, I finally got to cross another city off my to do list. I use the word "visit" lightly since I only spent about two hours there, but it was enough time to learn a bit about the place and know that someday I would like to go back.

Located southwest of Paris along the Loire river, Tours is famous in its own right for a number of reasons. For starters, the French that is spoken there is considered to be the purest form of the language. It is believed that citizens of Tours - "Tourangeaux" and "Tourangelles" - speak without an accent and pronounce French words the way there were meant to be pronounced. Tours has a lovely old quarter, characterized by half-timbered buildings, that was in ruins and saved from destruction in the 1960s. Today, it features welcoming cafes, a lively square, and a relaxed, student vibe. Gastronomically speaking, the region surrounding Tours is famous for its delectable chèvre, which might explain the sudden appearance of a live goat in the main square.

Paris can sometimes feel intimidating. There is so much to do and see, there are so many restaurants and cafes, so many shops and so many people. The enormity of it all can be overwhelming, and it can be difficult to find your niche. Tours really seemed like a place you could get to know. There are enough tourist sites thrown in to make it interesting (the Tours cathedral, Musée des Beaux-Arts, various parks and gardens, a giant cedar tree planted by Napoleon, etc.), and the cafes and bars of Vieux Tours seem much more friendly and casual than many of the establishments you'll come across in Paris. I tend to enjoy visiting mid-sized cities because of their accessibility (Bratislava is a great example outside of France), and Tours definitely fits that bill. And of course, being from Minnesota and all, I can't help but admire the Tourangeaux and Tourangelles for their excellent taste in sister cities. Minneapolis has held that title since 1991.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

War and Peace

Before moving to Paris, I wrote down a list of places outside of the city that I wanted to visit while I was here. Brussels, check. The Loire Valley, check. Stockholm...well, there just isn't enough time for everything. But, in addition to the Belgian capitol and the land of castles, I was also able to check one other place off my list of must-dos: the D-Day beaches of Normandy. When a friend who was visiting Paris from Minneapolis also expressed her interest in such a trip, we quickly booked our train tickets as well as a full-day guided tour and set out to see one of the world's most famous battle sites.

A lot of people in Paris will shy away from taking a day trip to Normandy's various WWII sites. They shouldn't. Yes, you have to leave very early in the morning and return very late at night, but the long, tiring day is totally worth it. Between the Caen war museum, the American Cemetery, the landing beaches, and the other coastal sites, you will find yourself completely immersed in the touching, tragic history of the time. Seeing the craters that still exist in the ground on the tops of the Normandy cliffs - left there more than sixty years ago by Allied bombardment trying to take out the German gunners, which are also still there - will transport you to a different world, when the peaceful beaches were anything but. A good guide is a must; he or she will give you tons of interesting bits of knowledge that you wouldn't get on your own.

We didn't stop being amazed the entire day, and while you might think that such a day trip would be more depressing than not, I felt the opposite to be true. Yes, thousands of men lost their lives. Yes, it was war, civilians were caught in the crossfire, and entire villages were destroyed. But there was hope to be found in the visit as well. The stories of the Frenchmen and women who shared the movements of German soldiers with the Allies at great risk to themselves, the heroics of the soldiers sent to fight a terrible battle, and the tranquility of the area today, proving that life can go on peacefully after war - all of this and more will uplift rather than depress you. Sometimes it's nice to be reminded that good can come from bad.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere but not a Drop to Drink

After spending a little time in France, you might start to get the feeling that something is missing. Maybe it's after a long walk to a tourist site, or after using a public restroom, or even after class if you happen to be a student here. You start to get look around...but you just can't seem to find one. I'm talking about drinking fountains, bubblers, watering holes. However you call them, in France, they are few and far between.

In fact, they are so rare that as I started typing this entry realized I didn't even know the French word for them. After a quick check of the trusty dictionary, I now know that a drinking fountain is a fontaine publique, but I still don't know why I never seem to be able to find one here. I mean, remember when you were in elementary school and one of the more important lessons you learned was proper drinking fountain etiquette? Don't put your mouth on the spout, don't drink for too long if there are others behind you, and whatever you do, don't push a person who is drinking as this could cause them to knock out their front teeth. To this day, these thoughts still cross my mind as I go in for swig. Do French kids even have fountains in their classrooms?

Now, I realize that as far as eternal mysteries of the universe go, this one might not make the top 10 list. Most people, and certainly the French, probably don't care that they could count the number of drinking fountains in l'héxagone on one hand. But I think it's fascinating to contemplate what makes some societies value public access to potable water - or anything else for that matter - while others do not. Discovering little differences in the daily lives of people from two difference cultures is one of the things I love most about living in a foreign country. Just remember: when in France, never leave home without a recently topped-off water bottle.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Taste Frontier

There are a lot of foods that I enjoy eating while in France; foods that I can't really get anywhere else, or at least that don't taste as good anywhere else. Fondues, baguettes, croissants, croque monsieurs...the list could go on forever. Ice cream also rather surprisingly makes this list. I know what you're thinking, "Why ice cream? You can get that anywhere!" Well, that's true, but there's something special about picking up a cup or cone of homemade ice cream and strolling around Paris with it. What's more, they have some flavors here that you don't see everyday in the US such as coconut and black currant. Recently, I tried a flavor that I had, up until then, been a little tentative about trying. I can't explain it, but for many years something just told me that I wasn't going to enjoy pistachio flavored ice cream.

That's right, pistachio. As in the little green nut that comes in the partially open shell. I love eating them, but would I like them in ice cream form? Would something that is usually very salty taste good as something that is usually very sweet? And what's with that green color? Peppermint bon-bon ice cream is green too, but generally in a bright, "I'm so happy to be green!" kind of way. Pistachio - a dull, pale green, - looked almost depressed. The last thing anyone wants to eat is depressed ice cream.

But last week, as I stood in front of my favorite glacier, I decided to take the plunge. After all, it would be a shame to spend so much time in France and not try one of their native ice cream flavors. Plus, this particular ice cream shop lets you choose two flavors for the low price of 2 euros and 30 cents. If the pistachio was gross I had a back-up. Happily, the pistachio was not gross, it was really good! It's a complex sort of flavor, not quite salty, not quite sweet, and not quite tasting like a pistachio nut. It's very subtle, none of this "wham!" you get from coffee ice cream or dark chocolate ice cream, it's more refreshing than anything, and it pairs surprisingly well with mango sorbet. Kind of made me feel bad I've been ignoring it all these years.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bird's Eye View

I'm a huge fan of panoramic views. If there is a church or a castle or a monument or a building or a hill that you can climb to the top of in order to get a look at the world below, I want in. Undaunted by narrow spiral staircases or endless hillside paths, I've seen many a city and countryside from way up high. Lucky for me, one of my favorite panoramic views can be found right here in Paris. No, I'm not talking about the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower, I'm talking about the view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe. This monument, commissioned by Napoleon I to honor French war heros, offers a phenomenal 360 degree view of Paris and its surrounding areas. And all you have to do to get a glimpse is climb 284 stairs.

In fact, that's exactly what I did this at about 10:30 this morning. It had a been a few years since I enjoyed that fabulous view of Paris and something just told me that today was the day to take another look. I chose correctly; it was a great day for hanging out up there. There were no clouds in the sky, there was a light breeze instead of a blow-you-over-the-side gale, and there were minimal crowds at the top. Standing 49.5 metres (165 ft) above the surrounding roundabout and its 12 connecting avenues, you can see the city from every possible angle. One of the long sides faces La Défense, the other the Champs-Elysées, and the smaller sides point towards such landmarks as the Eiffel Tower and Sacré Coeur. You start to notice little things about this city that you never knew before: The Bois de Boulogne is really big! Some buildings have really sweet rooftop gardens! All of the main avenues are lined with trees! You'll eventually have to leave this amazing place and walk down those 284 steps back to reality, but I guarantee you'll never look at Paris in the same way again.

Monday, June 16, 2008


I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Contrary to what many Americans, and possibly other nationalities, think, not all French people spend their days cooking elaborate, gourmet meals. They don't always make everything from scratch, they don't always eat five course meals and they don't always have time to sit down at the table. No, their lives are just like ours; filled with busy schedules, late nights at the office and activities for the kids. Sometimes, there just isn't any room for a thought-out meal. Sometimes, even the French need a quick fix for dinner.

Evidence of this startling fact is all around. Frazzled businessmen and women running around the streets of Paris eating boulangerie-bought sandwiches, fast food restaurants that seem never at a loss for customers, and grocery store shelves filled with pre-packaged meals. What's more, there's even a chain of stores in France dedicated wholly to frozen foods. That's right, frozen foods; frozen croissants, frozen Quiche Lorraine, frozen soup, frozen anything you could possibly imagine. It's actually quite amazing. As my landlady once said to me: "We couldn't live without it." Now, I don't want to give the impression that the art of cooking is dead in France. On the contrary, I've never met so many people who know how to make a chocolate cake without having to whip out a box of Betty Crocker in my life. But when the going gets rough, when there just don't seem to be enough hours in the day, the French do the same thing that we mere mortals do. They defrost.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


How did this happen? I've been in France for almost exactly four months now and I have never done a post about wine. Wine! It hasn't been for lack of experience with this, the official beverage of France. Oh no, when it comes to drinking wine, I'm on it. Red, white, rosé, wines from the south of France, wines from Bordeaux, Alsace and Champagne; they've all been tested...multiple times. But it took an actual trip to Bourgogne - the most mythical of all of France's wine regions - to make me think about writing about wine instead of just consuming it.

Drive about two and a half hours southeast of Paris and you will find yourself surrounded by vineyards. Beautiful, rolling hill vineyards nestled amongst the quaint little villages that dot the countryside of Bourgogne, or Burgandy as we say in English. It is widely agreed upon that Burgandy's grapes produce the world's best white wines, and some pretty darn good red ones as well. After tastings at two separate wine caves followed by a local wine at dinner followed the next day by another tasting, I couldn't agree more. The reds are feminine and filled with the flavors of red fruits. The whites sometimes taste of minerals, sometimes taste of butter, and are always unbelievably smooth and rich. Needless to say, leaving the region empty handed is impossible. Make space in your trunk for a couple of cases.

I never was a very discerning wine drinker. I didn't know how to properly savor the complexities that can be found in a glass of rouge or blanc or how to tell a good wine from an average one. Midwestern barbecues are generally more heavy on the beer than the vino. But four months in France have given me a new appreciation for the art of enjoying a glass of wine. I've learned to not be afraid to stick my nose all the way into the glass in order to get a good smell. I've learned to let the wine sit in my mouth a bit before swallowing. I've even learned how to discern specific flavors within the wine itself, although my palate's ability is still far behind those of my French friends. Somehow, I don't think I'll mind trying to catch up.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ignorance is Bliss

I love speaking French. I love learning new words, new sayings, and, yes, even new verb conjugations. I love making all the sounds that we English speakers struggle with. I love the feeling I get every time I speak it, when I realize that I can actually carry on a conversation in a language I mostly learned as an adult and that French people actually understand me. I mean, speaking French is just plain fun! Unfortunately, nothing in this life is perfect, and in addition to being fun, speaking French - or any foreign language, for that matter - can be endlessly frustrating. There are the embarrassing mispronunciations, the times you get cut off by others because you're speaking too slowly, and the words that, no matter how many times you learn them, you can never remember. But of all the foreign language-learning frustrations that exist, one above all others conspires to endlessly and mercilessly drive me slowly insane: the inability to hear my own accent.

Accents can be charming, funny, cute, or fascinating. There are those that have a stereotypical accent (You know that French chef in Ratatouille? Some people over here actually sound like that.), while others have an accent that is all their own. What's more, your accent can sound differently to different people. I've had people tell me that I have a strong and typically American accent, that I have my own "Tanya Accent," that I have the tiniest of accents and could I tell them what region in France I'm from, and that I have absolutely no accent at all. I have no way of knowing who is right, but I'm enough of a realist to know that it's probably not the latter.

The worst part of not being able to hear your accent is that, unlike other aspects of the language - vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation - understanding how your accent sounds is not something you can work on. No matter what you do, you'll always be the only one who can't hear it. It's a problem without a solution, and it drives me crazy! But maybe it's better this way. Maybe not being able to hear your accent is what makes you continue to speak a foreign language. Maybe if we knew what we really sounded like we'd be too embarrassed to go on. Yeah, maybe it's better this way. If I sound like an American version of the chef in Ratatouille I don't want to know anything about it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

They Don't Call it the City of Light for Nothing

Supposedly, springtime is the best time to be in Paris. Love is in the air, the flowers are in bloom, the Seine sparkles in the sun and everything feels right with the world. Heck, I even named by blog after this mythical time of the year. Unfortunately, what you need for a great spring is a great weather pattern, and that is something that has largely eluded us. For the most part Paris in the spring has been Paris under the clouds. But no worries, I've found the true time when this city is at its best; when love is in the air, the buildings sparkle and everything feels right with the world. If you want to see Paris at her best then you have to see Paris not in the springtime but in the nighttime.

Paris by night is simply breathtaking. The buildings, monuments and fountains are all lit up, the traffic is calm and late night restaurants and cafés are the places to be. The Eiffel Tower is more beautiful, Notre Dame more imposing and the bridges on the Seine more romantic. By day, the Champs-Elysées is a confusing mass of human and vehicle movement and noise. By night, its wide sidewalks become the perfect place to take a moonlit stroll. When you reach the Arc de Triomphe - glowing in all its grandeur - you'll understand why Paris is the most visited city in the world.

My roommate and I found ourselves outside late last night in a park that is located between the Arc de Triomphe and the Grande Arche of La Défense. The long street that runs between these two landmarks is a perfectly straight line. With old, classic Paris lit up to our left and new, modern Paris lit up to our right, we were so struck by the beauty of it all that we just stood there for a few minutes to take it in. At that moment, there wasn't anywhere else in the world we would have rather been. Spend some time wandering this city at night and I think you'll feel the same way.

Monday, June 9, 2008

A Little Privacy, Please

In the classic American Dream, no home is complete without a picket white fence. I can picture it now: the pointed, white slats, a small gate that swings open with the simple lift of a latch, a dog and 2.3 kids playing within its confines. This quaint little symbols serves not to protect your house, but to make it more adorable. Here in France, fencing in one's home takes on a whole different meaning. Fences are not an ideal, they are the norm, and they have nothing in common with their American cousin. French fences are not intended for decoration, or as a status symbol. They exist for one reason, pure and simple: privacy.

The French fence in their homes with such regularity that I don't believe I've ever seen a house that didn't have one. Often made of iron, too tall to climb over, and always locked with a key, they command a formidable position in the neighborhood. As an American who used to run freely through the yards of friendly neighbors when she was a kid, walking along sidewalks while looking at stone walls and iron gates instead of green lawns is a big change. It's like taking a stroll past the locked-down and mysterious Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory every single day. I can even hear that creepy guy whispering his creepy words, "nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out!"

Of course, unlike those foreboding words, fenced-in French neighborhoods themselves don't feel creepy in the least. On the contrary, they are often quite adorable in their own slightly unaccessible kind of way, with rosebushes peeking out over the gates and garden-fresh scents wafting through the streets. The French are famously protective of their private lives, so it seems only fitting that they would barricade their private residences against the outside world. And while I miss the wide open spaces-ness of most American communities, I've gotten used to the neatly sectioned-off French ones. No use trying to see what's behind those walls; it's none of your business, anyways.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

A Day at the Courts

Paris had been ripe with tennis fever for days. The French Open was underway and everyone was abuzz with talk about the winners, losers and unexpected stars of the famous red-clay tournament. As luck would have it, I got invited to attend the men's final between the #1 and #2 ranked Federer and Nadal. Waking up this morning - the day of the big game - I was as excited as a kid on Christmas. Ready to don my best outfit (the one I wear when I need to pretend I'm a chic Parisian, not a comfort-loving Midwesterner) and take in a bit of sport, I hoped that tennis' top stars would give the crowd a good show.

Now, there are a couple of things that you need to know about the French Open. For starters, the French don't call it the French Open, they call it Roland Garros, which is the name of the tennis complex that the hosts the event. This seems confusing to me since there are presumably other tennis events that take place at Roland Garros. Are they called Roland Garros too? But I guess we call it Wimbledon because it's played at Wimbledon (as do the French) so maybe they're are on to something here. In addition to the name, you also need to know that the court looks so much smaller in real life than it does on TV. I know, everyone says that when they finally see a famous person, place or thing with their own eyes, but it's true. It looks impressive on TV; in person it's just a little tennis court.

But the most important thing to know that the crowd was behind Federer the entire time. Random cries of "Roger, you can do it!" and "Don't forget you're ranked #1!" could be heard throughout the match. Sure, there were Nadal supporters as well (mostly flag-waving Spaniards), but every time Nadal made a good play everyone would simply clap in that polite tennis-clapping kind of way. When Federer did something good the stands erupted into shouts and whoops. Unfortunately, we were not to be treated to a knock-down, drag-out racket battle that day. Nadal took the match in three quick sets, and as the last volley was played you could feel the tension in the stadium, as if everyone was hoping that some miracle would occur and Federer would beat all the odds to come from behind and at least make a show of it. But alas, he did not. As he gave his post-match speech he said he hoped to be back next year. The crowd went wild. Looking forward to it, Roger.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Good Search

It may come as a surprise, but all French baguettes are not created equal. I used to think that I could walk into any old boulangerie in Paris and expect to find a delicious picnic-ready baguette every time. After a few months in Paris, and more than a few disappointing experiences, I've learned that you have to a bit more discerning. Not everyone in France knows how to make a good one. But with a little bit of time, research and a willingness to conduct first-hand taste tests, you too can find the perfect long, skinny loaf of white bread.

So, what makes a good baguette? For starters, it has to be crunchy on the outside. Noisy, crackling, hurt-the-roof-of-your-mouth crunchy. The inside should be just the opposite. It should be light and airy. In fact, the best ones don't really have much on the inside at all. It should almost melt in your mouth. There's nothing worse that a heavy baguette with a soft but tough exterior. Berk!

Once you find the perfect baguette, there are a number of different takes on this classic French staple that are worth checking out as well. For example, you might want to try a tradition, ficelle, aux céréales or bio. Some boulangeries also make a mean boule. And while it might take a while to find the perfect baguette, you should never lose hope. France is simply teeming with boulangeries. Keep looking. Your mouth will thank you.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Bring an Extra Suitcase

If you are a foodie, you simply must come to Paris. Between the scrumptious markets, countless specialty stores and make-your-mouth-water restaurants, you won't know where to turn next. But it's not just the food itself that makes Paris a haven for culinary types. It's also the amazing section of high-quality cooking equipment you can purchase here, and no other store quite compares to the famous E. Dehillerin. Frequented by professional chefs and amateur cooks alike, you won't be able to resist this family-run Parisian landmark.

Commanding a highly visible corner near Les Halles, E. Dehillerin's two stories are chock-full of kitchen and dining room paraphernalia. You've never seen so any different sizes of whisks in your life. Need a tart pan? You're going to have to be more specific than that. They have non-stick tart pans, regular tart pans, round tart pans, heart-shaped tart pans, large tart pans, small tart pans and really small tart pans. Copper pots and pans are one of their specialties, and don't forget to pick up you very own mandoline, a classic French kitchen tool.

Although you can purchase some of their wares from their website, the online options represent only a tiny fraction of what you can pick up in the store. Famous chefs from around the world have been known to shop there, so be sure to keep a look out if you stop by. Of course, wading through the aisles of E. Dehillerin can be a daunting task. With so many things for sale, it can be difficult to make up your mind. I went a couple of weeks ago, but it was just an exploratory mission. I need time to mull over my options and decide what I eventually want to buy. While narrowing down my options won't be an easy thing to do, I'm thinking I might go for the wooden rolling pin, pineapple corer and crème brulée dishes. And a grapefruit spoon.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

How Do You Say "Random" in French?

When you live in a big city like Paris, you tend to see a lot of bizarre things. The simple act of walking down the street can make you think you've entered the fourth dimension. People doing odd things, signs with odd messages, strange objects found in surprising places and even strange events can pop into your life when you least expect them. Paris seems to be an especially good place for out-of-the-ordinary occurrences, and I'm convinced that I've had more than my fair share of unusual sightings these past few months.

One of these memorable sightings occurred just two weeks ago. While walking in the St. Michel neighborhood, I noticed a row of rather small bikes painted neon pink, which were out of place enough to make me stop and take a picture. Now, the only thing weirder than seeing a gang of pink bikes is seeing them twice. In the same week. In completely different neighborhoods. Coming across them again near the Galeries Lafayette, I had to wonder just what they were all about. But without any visible owners nearby, and without any time to sit and wait for them to come back, the bikes will remain a mystery.

Seeing strange objects is fun, but seeing people doing strange things is even better. Of course, I usually don't like to be too close to them while they're in the act (that just makes me nervous!), but I love watching from afar. Take these two guys, for example. I spotted them while standing near the entrance to the Père-Lachaise cemetery. For reasons surely known only to themselves, they were pushing a couch across a busy 4-lane intersection. At one point they stopped for awhile in the middle of the road right in the path of oncoming traffic and took a minute to sit and relax on said couch. Then, they simply continued to push the couch down the street. Were they moving? Trying to find a dumpster? Just out for fun? I'll never know, but couches being pushed down city streets is definitely not something you see everyday.

We tend to go through our days locked into our own little worlds. With our heads down we are focused on our tasks at hand, often giving little notice to events around us. Imagine all the crazy things we are missing! Next time you're in Paris take a minute to look around. No, not just at the obvious things like the monuments and the museums (although you'll definitely want to see them too), look at the people and things around you that you usually would just rush past. In a city where anything can happen you never know what you'll see next.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Crowd Control

Every year, thousands of people come to the south of France for sun, surf and relaxation. They come not just from all corners of l'héxagone, but all corners of the globe as well. Most will seek out that perfect spot on the beach, which means that finding your own perfect spot will be that much harder to accomplish. But all hope is not lost. While every city along the Mediterranean has its main beach aimed at attracting the masses, the côte is also chock-full of nooks, crannies and hidden beaches. With a little perseverance and a sense of adventure you too can have your own private spot from which to perfect your tan.

Take this little sandy alcove, for example. I noticed it while biking up a hill near Six-Fours-les-Plages. Out of sight from the average beach-goer, it would make for a quiet, stress-free day in the sun. Sure, I wouldn't try to hike down to it in my flip-flops, but with some good shoes and a light load getting there could be half the fun. There are of course options that require a little less mountaineering to find. It suffices simply to explore the spaces between the public beaches - areas along the cliffs and rocky out-croppings are great - in order to find more off the beaten path locations.

Of course, the public beaches do have their benefits. They sometimes come with amenities such as restrooms and showers for rinsing off the sand and salt. Their lifeguards can give extra assurance to parents, and when it gets too hot you can grab an ice cream cone at a nearby stand. There's also the issue of ease. Finding a public beach is a lot easier than searching for a quieter one. But I'm convinced it's well worth the effort to do a little hunting before choosing your spot. While lounging in the sand with only the sound of the rolling surf as your company, you'll be happy you're not fighting the crowds for an extra inch of beach front.