Thursday, July 31, 2008

Take My Camera, Please

Has this ever happened to you while traveling? You find yourself in front of a monument, cathedral, or breathtaking natural sight and you freeze. Not because it's so beautiful, not because the magnificence of it all stops you in your freeze simply because you can't possibly take another photo of a monument, cathedral, or breathtaking natural sight. Yes, you've got camera fatigue; when trying to capture every moment on film goes from fun and exciting to tedious and boring. Freeing yourself from this condition is not going to be easy.

Camera fatigue is where I find myself today, which might come a shock to those who know me best. After all, I'm usually the one who can't put the camera down and annoys all her friends by taking pictures of them and everything around them all the time (they'll thank me later). But after nearly six months in a foreign country, after countless weekend trips and casual walks around Paris, I'm kind of worn out. During a recent trip to the Musée Rodin sculpture garden, I couldn't even get excited about taking a picture of The Thinker. That's when I knew I had hit rock bottom.

So, how does one pull oneself out of a travel picture slump? I think it has something to do with how you go about your picture-taking in the first place. Try not to take the classic must-have shots of things that are best seen with the naked eye. I mean, seriously, are you going to look through your travel album 10 years from now and be really happy to see a picture you took of the Mona Lisa? You can see that in any old art book. And the memory of seeing it in person - the five or so minutes you took to really examine the art - is no doubt more magical than the flat look of a tiny little painting in a photo. Stick to the stuff that creates memories rather than hinders them; the stuff that tells a story. For example, I know I will always cherish my photos of the Eiffel Tower that I took on Bastille Day. They weren't just regular shots of a familiar monument. Instead, the changing looks tell a story of that day: what the weather was like, how the sky looked, where I was sitting, and the fireworks that capped the event.

After exiting the Musée Rodin, I noticed that a number of telephone poles, fence railings and street lights were covered in the multi-colored stickers you get when you buy your ticket at the museum. For some reason or another, thousands of visitors have decided to discard their adhesive passes on the surrounding urban landscape. Art creating art, in a way. Here was a moment I could get excited about! I quickly snapped a picture of a nearby stoplight covered in stickers. 10 years from now, this silly photo will make me think of that hot Paris day spent in the Rodin gardens, and I'll be really happy to have it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Fresh Air

Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to have a lot of money to enjoy Paris. This city is filled with free or inexpensive things to do. What's more, many of these budget activities are the best ways to experience Parisian life and culture. One of my favorite examples is picnicking in the park. Parisians love this activity and you can easily join in the fun, no entry fee required.

My favorite time to picnic in Paris is late afternoon/early evening on a warm summer day. The work day has ended, French families, couples and friends relax in the grass, and with a sun that doesn't set until 10pm or later, you can lounge for hours while taking in the historic beauty that surrounds you. Stake out your spot at one of Paris' seemingly countless parks and gardens: Luxembourg, Tuileries, and Champs du Mars are popular choices just perfect for people watching. Be sure to bring a blanket to sit on, some cheese and bread from the market, and every French person's picnic must-have, a bottle of wine. Follow these easy steps and you've got dinner, drinks, sightseeing, and local-observing covered for less than 10 euros.

Last Friday, an American friend and I set up our own French-style picnic in the Jardin des Tuileries not far from the main entrance to the Louvre. We munched on brie and baguette and washed it down with a refreshing Bordeaux. I couldn't believe our luck. Here we were, enjoying delicious French food and each other's company surrounded by magnificent gardens, marble statues, and the walls of one of the world's most gorgeous museums. There was even the Eiffel Tower off in the distance peeking over the trees. If you happen to find yourself in Paris this summer, don't miss out on this classic French activity. In a place known for it's fine dining, who knew that a simple meal could be so satisfying?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How the Other Half Lives

Spending most of my time in the travel blog universe has allowed me to forget that there are people out there like Stanley Fish of The New York Times who - horror of all horrors! - actually don't enjoy traveling. Check out his frank opinion piece, which sheds some light on why not everyone decides to pack up and ship out on a regular basis.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Bikes Galore

It was an event three weeks in the making. After winding their way through the rugged beauty of Bretagne, down the Massif Central, up and down the Pyrenees, across Provence, and through the Alps, the Tour de France cyclists finally made their way towards the finish line in Paris. Determined not to miss the famous sprints along the Champs-Elysées, we headed out a few hours in advance of the big arrival in order to stake out a good viewing spot. We were not alone: more than three hours before the bikers would make their appearance and not a front row spot in the house. Settling in for a second-row picnic and marathon waiting session, our efforts were not to be in vain. The sight, sound, and feeling of the race as it whizzed by was definitely worth waiting for.

There are a few things you need to know about the final leg of France's world famous cycling event. First, it's a really big deal. Over 240,000 lined the route in Paris. Everywhere you look people are wearing yellow T-shirts and hats carrying the Tour de France logo. Even more are carrying yellow Tour de France messenger bags. People bring ladders so they can see over the crowds. Spectators from all over the world wave the flags of their countries. Music is blaring, announcers with microphones keep the crowd informed, and the race is broadcast on giant TV screens set up along the route so that you can see the race as it winds through the French countryside on its way to the Champs-Elyées. Second, it's highly commercialized. Before you see the cyclists fly past, you are treated to a parade of advertisements. All of the Tour's sponsors find wacky and entertaining ways to market their wares to the spectators. Ads for everything from laundry detergent, to La Vache Qui Rit cheese to, from what I could best make out, a company that sells propane tanks, meandered by. According to the official Tour de France website, this practice is known as the "Publicity Caravan," and has been used since 1930 to fund the event.

Lastly, it's important to know that if you happen to find yourself in Paris on the final day of the Tour, any amount of waiting or crowd-wrangling you might have to do to catch a glimpse of the race will be well worth it. The speed with which the cyclists fly by is much more impressive in person than on TV. You hear the whirring of their bikes, you see the concentration on their faces, and you feel the energy they bring to the event. They're all riding so close to one another, it's a wonder there aren't more accidents! But these guys are experts; even on the bumpy cobblestoned Champs-Elysees they maintained perfect control over their bikes. Seeing the race firsthand will definitely give you a better appreciation for the sport and it's main event. I'm already looking forward to next year's Tour. Seeing as it's the third most-watched sporting event in the world (behind only the Olympics and the World Cup of soccer), I'm sure I'm not alone.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Bon Anniversaire, Vélib!

Happy Birthday wishes go out to Vélib - a Parisian system of inexpensive, bike rental stations - who celebrated turning one year old today by sending a squadron of 365 riders (get it, one year's worth) up the Champs-Elysées along the Tour de France final route (more about that event tomorrow).

As an occasional Vélib user, I'd like to congratulate the Paris authorities for creating an awesome public service that has truly benefited this city and its inhabitants. Everywhere you look, people are zooming along the streets with ease on these functional, no fuss, no muss two-wheelers; sac à main or picnic lunch securely in the front basket. Keep the bike stations coming!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Politics as Unusual

As a hopeless US politics junkie, I struggle with the knowledge that I am missing out on so much good election year political coverage while here in Paris. In-depth analysis of the Democratic primary battle, the daily back-and-forth between Obama and McCain, the Sunday morning commentaries...a lot of it has passed me by. Luckily, the French public (and media) is obsessed with this year's presidential race. With all the talk about the elections in the newspapers, on television, and around the dinner table, I've been able to at least partially get my fix.

The conversations have reached a fever-pitch this week with Obama's world tour and today's quick stopover in Paris. If the French are obsessed with the election, they are utterly, completely, unabashedly in love with Obama. As far as they're concerned, he's already the president. I spend a lot of time telling them not to get too excited. Given what's happened during our last two elections, it ain't over 'til it's over. Disappointment has become an old friend. But I get the distinct feeling that my words go in one ear and out the other. It's unfortunate, then, that they probably won't get a chance to hear him speak or see him in person like their counterparts in Berlin did yesterday (the irony of which was not lost on this reporter for L'Humanité). His stop in Paris calls only for a quick meeting with President Sarkozy.

Sometimes I wonder why the French are so excited at the prospect of Obama in the Maison Blanche. I wonder why they'd be so excited about any US presidential candidate, for that matter. What's in it for them? I can understand being interested in the race for curiosity's sake, but people here are engaged on an emotional level that rivals that of many Americans. I mean, I was excited to follow the French presidential election in 2007, but in the end, I didn't really care who won. It's not like the French President is going to come over to the US and start giving me student loan debt relief or anything. On the bright side, their excitement translates into my access to a good amount of campaign trail news. Even better, in Paris you can enjoy all the American election news you want without having to watch one single televised campaign ad. Ahhhh...political zen.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

You Are What You Eat

Living in a foreign country teaches you so many things. It can teach you about another culture or language. It can teach you how to be a better traveler such as what to pack or how to find the best deals. It can also teach you about yourself'; what's important to you or what kind of person you are. I know that I've learned innumerable things throughout my years of traveling. Everything from how to find a hostel on very short notice, to the fact that "sleep" and "overnight train" are mutually exclusive terms. One of the big lessons I'll take away from my current stay in Paris has to do with food. More specifically, fresh food. Five months in France has taught me nothing if it hasn't taught me how to buy, prepare, and appreciate fresh food. It's not that I wasn't a fan of fresh food in the US. I remember going to the farmer's market with my mom when I was a kid, and I always pack my grocery list with things form the "perimeter" like we've been told to do. But the French just take eating fresh to a whole different level. They don't have to think about trying to eat fresh like many of us in the US do. It comes naturally to them. In France, "fresh eating" isn't the latest dietary trend, it's a state of mind.

But what does it really mean to eat fresh? I'd like to sum it up with a description of the dinner I made last night. I cut up two tomatoes, one shallot, and one avocado. I mixed them with a pinch of sugar, an ounce of fresh-squeezed lemon juice, freshly chopped coriander and a cup of canned corn (not fresh, but hey, nobody's perfect). After adding salt and pepper to taste, the mixture was used a topping for baked potatoes. Add some crème fraiche and freshly shredded French cheese and you've got the perfect light and tasty summer dish. I wouldn't have even thought about making this in the US. First of all, I wouldn't have had all those fresh ingredients on hand, and secondly, I wouldn't have known what to do with them if they had been there. But that's what living in France will do to you: it will train you to buy the freshest and simplest ingredients and it will give you the know-how to make something with them.

Eating fresh is definitely possible in the US, and many people do it. I just think it's made easier to do so here in France. Markets and specialty shops (cheese shops, butchers, bakeries) are everywhere, and the people you'll meet truly appreciate a good, fresh meal. The French way of eating rub off on you, and you'll be really happy it did. Not only is cooking and eating fresh food good for your health and easy to do, it also tastes a whole lot better than the processed stuff. Call me crazy, but I'll take a a well-seasoned, fresh-veggie, cream and cheese topped baked potato over a processed meal-in-a-box any day.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Fun in the Sun?

Sun-worshipers are spreading out their towels, children are playing in the sand, and ice cream shops are opening for business. No, I'm not talking about the beaches along the French Riviera, I'm talking about the beaches along the Seine. For the 7th year in a row, Paris has unveiled its waterfront summer attraction known as "Paris Plages." Can't make it down to Nice this summer? No problem! From July 21st until August 21st, visitors to the right bank of the winding river can lounge in beach chairs, participate in outdoor sporting events or take salsa lessons, all without leaving the city.

Hearing both good (a novel idea!) and bad (a waste of money!) things about the Paris Plages, I decided to go check it out myself. As I strolled along the route on opening day, I noticed that the event was already attracting a decent amount of attention. Despite the unseasonably cool weather, many people were staking out their lounge chairs and a patch of sand for the kids. Others enjoyed the view from under a café umbrella. Still many more looked to be doing the same thing I was: walking around snapping photos and satisfying their curiosity. There are imported palm trees, misters to keep visitors cool, and attractions such as foosball tables and a fitness center. The color blue is everywhere; Paris' nod to France's current occupation of the European Union presidency.

My final verdict? I wasn't really that impressed. Maybe it was the fakey-ness of it all. I grew up in a state that boasts over 10,000 lakes and have spent many a vacation seeking out oceans, seas and gulfs. A faux beach just doesn't really do it for me. Or maybe it's because I'm appalled at the prospect of wearing a swimsuit in Paris. If the men are aggressive when you're fully clothed, what do they do to the poor girls who try to perfect their tan in a two-piece? Or maybe it's because the cool weather hasn't been able to put me into a beach mood. Then again, it is a little bit warmer today, with even warmer temperatures planned for the weekend. Maybe I should give Paris Plages a second chance? Maybe not.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pucker Up

I didn't think it was possible to kiss so many French people in such a short period of time. Since arriving in Paris in mid-February, I've given out hundreds, nay, thousands of kisses. No, not actual kisses on the lips. I'm talking about that famous French greeting known as "Les Bises." You know, the two (sometimes three or four depending on the region in France you visit) little cheek-touching air-smacking movements that serve to acknowledge acquaintances and totally freak out those who have never done it before. Mastering your technique is an important part of living in France, as you'll be called upon to repeat this gesture time and time again. After five months in Paris, I think I've finally got it down pat. I've also got some very tired lips.

The thing is, I'm kind of getting fed up with the whole kissing ritual. I've gone from thinking "what a fun and quaint tradition!" to "can't I just wave and say hi?" Giving the bises looks all glamorous and everything, but the truth is that it's really just a lot of work. Especially if you go to a party. There could be upwards of thirty people there and you have to kiss each and every one of them. It's exhausting! Then there's all the awkwardness about it. Accidentally bumping noses, deciding whether to grab the person's shoulder or not, coming up against someone who actually touches their lips to your cheeks instead of just air kissing...the potential for utter and complete embarrassment is frighteningly high.

I miss the good old days of walking into a room, hugging my closest friends, and giving a smile and a "hey, what's up?" to everyone else. A quick, simple, universal greeting is so much easier than individualized air-kisses. And hugs? Well, they just make you feel good. But as long as I'm in France, I'll keep on giving the bises with a smile on my face and a well-rehearsed plan of attack. I guess I should look on the bright side: every once in a while you get to kiss a really cute Frenchman.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Forbidden Fruit

Paris' Hôtel de Ville (no, it's not a place where tourists rent rooms, it's French for "city hall") is a pretty happening place to be. It seems that every time I walk past it there is a new event taking place. I've seen a Red Cross blood drive, big screen TVs broadcasting the French Open, a count-up of Ingrid Betancourt's days in captivity, and a carousel offering rides to children. And that's just on the outside! The inside boasts an ever-changing schedule of art displays and photography exhibitions. Nothing ever stays around for too long, as I discovered once again last weekend. To my great surprise and delight, the building's large square had been transformed into a luscious green space complete with fish pond, flowering plants and grass. It's Paris' latest, and my personal favorite, public outreach project. But, if they're going to forbid lying in the grass, could they at least have had the little guy doing the dastardly deed not look so blissfully comfortable? He's making me jealous.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Same Game

When you travel, you might at some point start to feel very different from the people you encounter along the way. Finding yourself in a foreign country with a foreign culture surrounded by a foreign language will make you think more about your own country, culture and language and you'll naturally start to make comparisons between "yours" and "theirs." Why do they do this? Why do they eat that? Personally, I sometimes feel like there are oceans between myself and the French (metaphorical oceans, not the Atlantic); between what we value, between how we see the world, and between how we live our lives. But sometimes, usually when you least expect it, you will see or hear something that reminds you not of our differences, but of our similarities. When you travel, you might at some point start to feel very much like the people you encounter along the way.

Last week's trip through France provided me with plenty of opportunities to feel at one with humankind. Sure the speeds on French roads were so much higher than those on American roads, but weren't all the passengers looking at the map with a confused look on their faces just like me? And yes, it was difficult to find a hotel in the middle of France on a Sunday night because many of the more interesting ones were closed on Sundays (What?!?! Is there anything in this country that doesn't close on Sundays?), but weren't there countless riders who enjoyed putting their bare feet up on the car's dashboard just like I did? My biggest we're-all-the-same-deep-down-inside!" moment came while at a market in the south of France. One of the fruit stands was giving out free samples of watermelon slices, and a very pleased little girl was eagerly biting into hers. Unfortunately, she hadn't quite yet figured out how to eat watermelon without dripping the juice all over her clothes. When her dad quickly stepped in for an impromptu lesson ("bend your body forward at the hips!"), I thought about how many other children and parents around the world have had that exact same discussion. It isn't a France thing, or a USA thing. It's a human thing.

Now, don't get me wrong; differences truly are the spice of life. Meeting different people, eating different foods, listening to different music...if it wasn't for these experiences, most of us wouldn't travel at all. If everything was the same everywhere, it'd be a whole lot cheaper to just stay home. It's just that there's something so special about that feeling you get when you find the common threads that exist throughout humanity. In fact, I think that the discovery of the things that connect us is one of traveling's greatest pleasures. It reminds you that, no matter how far from home you roam, you're always in good company.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Oh La La

A friend of mine from New York City was in Paris this past weekend and gave me a new perspective on the Eiffel Tower. She explained that she thought of it as a teasing Frenchwoman. "When you walk around Paris, you tend to get little glimpses of her," she said, "but it's really hard to see the whole thing at once." I had never thought about it in this way, but my friend was right. I have tons of pictures with partial sightings of the Eiffel Tower - a top here, a side there - but very few containing the entire structure. Despite her fame and role as Paris' most recognizable monument, she's not exactly centrally located within the city. You have to work to get to her. As I found out last night, when you do manage to get a full picture, the result is amazing.

In preparation for the Bastille Day fireworks and free outdoor concert, we staked out a spot in the middle of the Champs de Mars giving me a perfectly centered shot of the tower. As day turned to night, I kept snapping pictures in an effort to capture her changing ways. Between sets by Jenifer, Raphaël, and James Blunt, La Tour Eiffel took on completely different looks (wardrobe changes?) and cemented my idea of her as a master of playing hard to get. What is she? Sombre and dark? Bright and glowing? Sparkling and magical? The truth is, she is all of it and more. The perfect symbol of France; a country that is also difficult to categorize. Like the pictures and the tower itself, the fireworks were amazing and ever-changing. Set to opera music, the coordinated bursts and accompanying light show gave the tower her best look yet.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Allons Enfants de la Patrie!...

The streets of Paris are quiet today...except for the Champs-Elysées. As the French celebrate their national holiday, the entire city is focused on the parade that follows this symbolic route. Navigating the rest of the city on bike is a breeze; all of the streets within proximity of the main event are literally deserted. No cars, no pedestrians, no other bikes, and no Parisians, who generally prefer to leave summer in Paris to the tourists. But wander closer to the parade and you'll find yourself in a mass of humanity. Patriotic music blares, spectators climb trees and give each other shoulder rides in order to get a better look, and countless French police, gendarmes and soldiers ensure order. Bastille Day, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison (a sign of monarchical absolute power) by French commoners, is well under way.

One of the things you'll notice about the July 14th parade is the heavy military influence. No dancing clowns, beauty queens or candy throwers here; just rows and rows of officers, the French Republican Guard, and even foreign heads of state. Some non-military types are thrown into the mix as well, most notably firefighters, but this is without a doubt an event for showcasing the armed forces. Nevertheless, the mood remains festive. You can even take your picture with obliging soldiers who show off their tanks and trucks to the public before the parade. The most impressive part of the spectacle is the coordinated flyover of some serious-looking military planes. First there are the ones trailing red, white and blue smoke, then group after group of stealth fighters, bombers and other large aircraft. The noise and the speed are incredible. And don't forget to keep an eye out for the grand finale: a military helicopter procession that starts at La Défense, zooms over the Arc de Triomphe, up the Champs-Elysees and ends by dropping parachutists with French flag decorated chutes who land at Concorde. Talk about making an entrance!

Besides thoroughly enjoying myself, I learned a few important lessons at today's Bastille Day parade. First, it's important to arrive early. There were so many people lining the Champs that I was never able to get a really good, close view of the procession. If I'm ever here on this day again, I will pack a few croissants and my camera and set out right away in the morning to claim my front-row spot. Secondly, you don't want to try anything stupid in the crowd. When the Le Président de la République, the U.N. Secretary General, and various other V.I.P. guests are in attendance, security doesn't get taken lightly. Most interesting were the snipers on the roof of the Grand Palais. Lastly, after today's extraordinary celebratory events, I can't wait to see tonight's extraordinary celebratory events: fireworks shooting off of the Eiffel Tower. Somehow, I think it promises to be anything but mundane.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Other People's Ideas Can Be Good

Traveling around France for a week has got me to thinking about vacations. More specifically, vacation time. As a student finishing up her final research paper, I have a lot of it. But most of my fellow Americans have very little. Two weeks is the normal going rate; a lot of the people I know will take only that or less. As we inch towards the middle of July, we are officially in the midst of vacation season in France. From now until the end of August, people all over this country will go out of town for a little rest and relaxation. I'm not talking a long weekend, here. I'm not even talking 10 days (a sum that most Americans would be thrilled about). No, many people will take a two or even three week vacation. It's the law.

French workers have five weeks of vacation per year that are mandated by law. Many have more than that. I've gotten used to my friends telling me about their upcoming three week stints away from work to visit family, explore a new country, or just hang out at the beach. And they do this every year! What's more, you have to take at least some of you vacation time (generally a minimum of two weeks) in the summer months. If you don't give your boss the dates when you plan to be out of the office, he'll come to you and demand them. I could live with that.

French workers are among the most productive workers in the world. This might have something to do with the fact that they aren't actually there all of the time. When you leave for three consecutive weeks, you really feel like you're getting away from it all. You forget about work; you enjoy life. When you come back to work, you're refreshed. You're not bitter about spending all of you time there and never having time for yourself. You're ready to work. When you need another break, you take your remaining two weeks and enjoy a few national holidays thrown in for good measure. Seriously, the French have this one figured out. Hello, United States? Are you listening?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Designated Driver Needed

Traveling through France is great because of all the different things you will see, but it is also great because of all the different things you will taste. Like the unique landscapes, the unique buildings and the unique climates, France's regions also have unique edible specialties. There are crêpes in Bretagne, fondue in the Alps and bouillabaisse in Marseille. You can eat camembert chesse in Normandy, chèvre in the Loire Valley, and rocquefort in, well, Rocquefort. Of course, the only thing better than eating your way through France is drinking your way through France, and the regions offer up plenty of opportunities to do that as well.

Wine specialities exist in all corners of the county, and wine tastings at caves à vin are everywhere. One of my favorite places to taste French wine is here in the south. Rosés are a typical southern wine, and the Domaine de Souviou makes some great ones. I've been to a tasting here twice and each time has been a memorable experience. The service is excellent, the wines are fantastic, and the setting is incredible as the domaine is perched up in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean. Even better, they also make award-winning olive oil, which you can taste with little pieces of bread after you burn through their award-winning wines. Some of their olive trees are over 1000 years old. You'd hang around that long too if you had their view.

If you choose to road trip through France, you will undoubtedly come across numerous wineries that welcome visitors in for a taste. Don't be shy, get in there and check it out! The merchants are used to having tourists of all nationalities stop in and are happy to talk to you about their creations. It's a great way to meet locals and enjoy the local fare at the same time. Plus, it's so much more fun to drink wine at home when you've actually been to the source. Just be sure to pack light. You'll soon have bottles (or cases) competing for space with your other much less important supplies.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Eye Candy

After receiving a number of requests for more photos, I've decided to dedicate today's post to the shots I took while on the road in France. I think they do a great job of demonstrating just how varied the landscape of this country truly is. In the span of a few hours you can go from the wide beaches of the Atlantic, to the forrested mountains of the Massif Central, to the sunny colors of Provence, to the blue seas of the Mediterranean. While traveling through France, you can see...

Colored beach umbrellas, and half-timbered buildings in Deauville.

A tiny door made for the tiny people of the 14th century near Clermont-Ferrand.

A gorgeous lake tucked in between the foothills of the Massif Central.

A hilltop village and wild fields of Lavender in Provence.

Road signs along the way and the narrow streets of Aix-en-Provence.

The beautiful (and very rough, due to some seriously windy conditions) Mediterranean sea.

Monday, July 7, 2008

On the Road Again

When I was a kid, my family loved to take road trips. We went everywhere in our minivan (and once, even in a Honda Civic): California, Florida, Texas, and all of the states in between; no distance was too far from our home in Minnesota. This week, I exchanged the spacious minivan for a tiny Peugeot and set out on a French road trip. In addition to discovering certain areas of the country for the first time, I also discovered that there are some stark differences between hitting the open road in the U.S. and doing the same in France.

For starters, there is the question of distance. France is considerably smaller than the United States. In fact, it's even slightly smaller than the state of Texas. Needless to say, road tripping in France doesn't give you the same feeling of freedom as you get when you set out on the American highways. Everything is close. You can cross the country in a few short hours. Drive for days and days and you'll end up not in Los Angeles, but Russia. Then there is the question of speed. Speed limits on French autoroutes are much higher than those on American freeways. Cruising along at speeds of up to 130 kilometers per hour (80 miles per hour) doesn't give you as much time to stop and smell the roses as you have at 60 miles per hour. To make matters worse, most drivers go even faster than the posted speeds. Driving through France can feel more like a race than a vacation. And while driving through both countries will eventually require a good night's sleep, no American road trip would ever include a stay in a 14th century Cisterian monastery.

Of course, there are similarities as well. The emergency snack runs, the vain attempts at deciphering a map, the slightly sketchy reststop bathrooms; they can all be found in both countries. I recommend leaving the autoroutes to take the French road less traveled. France is chock full of hilltop villages and historic sites to see along the way, but you'll miss them if you don't take the national roads. Bonus: unlike the freeways, the smaller roads are toll free. So hop in your car, use the euros you'll save to buy some provisions, and set out to explore the country. You have a good 10 hours before you hit the Mediterranean. Or Italy. Or Spain. Or...

Friday, July 4, 2008

O! Say Can You See...

My typical 4th of July schedule looks like this: wake up, go to a bbq, eat hot dogs, eat corn on the cob, eat potato salad, drink a beer, watch some fireworks, feel patriotic and get embarrassingly teary eyed, go home and eat some more potato salad. But today is not a typical 4th of July for me. In fact, it's the most atypical Independence Day I've ever experienced. For the first time in my life, I will fête my country's birthday while not actually in my country. And while it's fitting that I will spend this great summer holiday in a country that had a lot to do with helping us win our independence, I will definitely miss the fun red, white and blue celebrations back home. But all hope is not lost! Boasting a significant American ex-pat community, and historic ties with the U.S., Paris offers plenty of ways to celebrate the 4th. You just have to know where to look.

You could start by visiting the many statues, plaques and other random locations dedicated to the United States and its famous citizens. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin would be good choices, as would Place des Etats-Unis where you could even set up a portable grill and have an impromptu picnic. If you're of the religious persuasion, go to the American Church of Paris. If you like art, treasure hunt in the Louvre or the Musee d'Orsay for American artists. If you like to read, browse the English-language books at Brentano's or Shakespeare and Co. If you get hungry again, visit Thanksgiving, an American grocery store named after another great holiday from back home. When you get thirsty, pull up a chair at Harry's New York Bar or Bar Hemingway at the Ritz; try to remember all the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner on your walk home.

As for myself, I'll be celebrating the 4th by participating in one of the most classic American pastimes: a road trip. Today marks the start of a one-week trip that includes visits to Deauville in the north, the Mediterranean in the south, and lots of unplanned pit stops along the way. There's just something about hitting the open road that no American can resist: places to go, things to see, and all the time and freedom in the world to do both. So here's to you, Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. Happy 232nd!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Goodnight, Sun

If you've ever been to Paris, or have heard people talk about it, you know that it's an exceptionally beautiful city. Filled with incredible architecture, flowering, spacious parks, and wide, tree lined boulevards, The City of Light faces few competitors in the aesthetics department. But one aspect of this city's beauty often goes unmentioned. It has nothing to do with a physical structure - monuments, cathedrals or museums - and everything to do with nature. Spends some time wandering Paris at dusk and you'll see what I mean. Parisian sunsets are second to none.

If you think that the best sunsets take place over the ocean, or in the mountains, or in the county, you might change your mind when you see one in Paris. Viewed from a rooftop apartment, the entire city sparkles under a color-changing sky. Viewed from a bridge on the Seine, the water reflects the fading light while the monuments in the distance set a picturesque landscape. And no building looks more amazing when the sun goes down as Les Invalides. The façade takes on a glow that is impossible to describe.

When you live in a city, even one with lots of parks, you sometimes feel out of touch with nature. The air is filled with exhaust, there is litter on the streets, and wide open spaces seem so far away. A beautiful sunset can be a breath of fresh air in a concrete jungle. When the world's most fantastic man-made structures serve as the backdrop for a nature-made phenomenon, the result is simply breathtaking.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Umm, Errrr, Ahhh...

So, what do you like about France?

For years I have been asked this same question and for years I have struggled to find a good answer. Whenever a colleague, friend, relative, or complete stranger presents me with this dreaded query, I always end up stumbling over my words and spitting out some incomprehensible response that vaguely resembles "I like cheese." Equally difficult is trying to explain the things I don't like about France. Maybe it's because these topics are so broad, and even a bit unclear that explains my deer-in-the-headlights reaction. I mean, asking someone what they like about France is like asking someone what they like about life. The respondent could go on, and on, and on...

In an effort to better focus my next answer, I did a little online research about typical American praises and criticisms of France, French culture, and the French themselves. As it turns out, most of the information I found was remarkably similar. American likes generally boil down to food, wine, ample vacation time, and accessible health care, while their dislikes are linked to irregular shop hours, lack of civic sense, and dirtiness (for American women you can add catcalling in the streets - our punishment for the sin of going out in public). Internet references aside, I realized that these were the same yeas and nays I'd been hearing from my American friends who are either currently in Paris or have spent time in France. And while I agree with them, it still doesn't seem like the right answer to give. These are the collective feelings; what are my feelings?

Maybe I'll never be able to correctly explain what it is I like about France. How do you explain years of experiences in one concise statement? In short: you can't. So I'll keep my answer to a nice bullet pointed list of the joys and pains of spending time in this crazy, amazing, maddening, beautiful country and skip the babbling speech. The person asking the question will be glad I did.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Traveling the Internet

Today I have the honor of being a guest blogger on a fabulous travel blog called Almost Fearless. Come for my post, stay for Christine's insightful musings about life, work, and her and her husband's big move to Spain.