Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween

The pumpkins are carved, the candy has been bought, and otherwise normal, respectable adults are walking around in ghost and goblin inspired clothing. Yes, it's Halloween in the United States, and as they do at seemingly every holiday, Americans are going all out. The enthusiasm my fellow citizens exhibit when it comes to celebrating never ceases to amaze me. Houses are decked out in orange and black, parties are planned at homes, bars and restaurants, and some people have spent weeks creating the perfect costume. Not much of an October 31st fan myself, I do enjoy the feeling that's in the air on the scariest night of the year. After all, only the coldest of hearts could resist melting at the sight of little ones all dressed up for trick-or-treating.

Halloween tends to be a holiday that makes Americans abroad miss home the most. Probably because it's a big deal in the U.S., but is difficult to recreate elsewhere. Where else can you take a hay ride through a pumpkin patch, sip a pumpkin latte and carve a jack 'o lantern out of a pumpkin all in the same day? Where else can you find the sheer variety of costumes for kids and adults that are sold in stores all over this country? Where else can you turn your regular house into a haunted house with some decorations from your local drugstore? Where else can kids knock on the doors of their neighbors, yell "trick or treat!" and expect to receive candy for doing so? And lastly, where else can you eat that funny looking, love-it-or-hate-it, only-comes-out-at-Halloween treat known as candy corn?

I'm not big on wearing costumes, things that scare me, or even candy corn, but I still greatly missed Halloween the times I spent it abroad. There's just something in the atmosphere this time of year that even a Halloween scrooge can't ignore. It's fun to watch everyone get excited about the holiday; to share in that communal sense of celebration that overtakes American society on and around October 31st. Even more powerful is the feeling of nostalgia that Halloween stirs up. For me, this includes the joy of being a kid running around the neighborhood in a fun costume and staring at disbelief at the mother lode of candy I just brought home. Score! And what Minnesotan doesn't love reminiscing about the Halloween Blizzard of 1991? So, Americans abroad, I understand your pain. I hope you've found some way to celebrate Halloween in your own way this year. If all else fails, buy yourself some candy, wear something orange, and watch a scary movie. With a little work you can make it almost as good as the real thing.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Comparison Shopping

2008 has been a roller coaster year at the pump, filled with record climbs, steep drops, and plenty of unpredictability. Having spent the spring and summer in Paris, I watched as the price of a barrel of oil topped $140 and French citizens withstood the pain of an ever-expensive trip to the pump. I also heard the horror stories from back home of $4.00 gallon of gas. But by the time I returned to Minnesota in mid-August, the price of gasoline in the United States had already begun to decline. Here in the U.S., the cost of filling up your tank is closely related to the cost of a barrel of oil, so while the world watched as oil prices crashed, American consumers began paying less and less at the pump. Road trippers and middle-class families alike rejoiced.

I assumed this was how it worked all over the world; the price of a barrel determined the price of refined gasoline to consumers. Imagine my surprise when, on an October visit to Paris, I discovered that French consumers were seeing no such relief. The price of a liter of gas has stayed roughly the same, that is, at the peak summer 2008 rates. Because European governments place heavy taxes on gasoline, it is always more expensive to fill up your tank in Europe than it is in the United States. For example, it was not unusual to see prices this summer in Paris at €1.50 a liter, which, at the time, was approximately equal to paying $8.50 a gallon. This fall, after gas prices in the U.S. had fallen to nearly half their summer levels, Parisian prices remained at €1.50 a liter. Shouldn’t they have dropped too?

This week, the national average price for a gallon of gas stateside is $2.65. Minnesota is generally below the national average, as evidenced by this station offering unleaded for only $2.17. It’s the equivalent of paying €.46 per liter; a price I’m sure many Frenchmen and women would be happy to see. Alas, it is not to be. Price drops in France have been minimal or nonexistent, and certainly no where near the tumble witnessed on the other side of the Atlantic. Either their pricing system is far more complicated than the barrel-to-gallon link in the U.S., or French citizens are getting taken – both literally and figuratively - for a very expensive ride.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Americans know France for its wine, but do the French know America for its beer? Likely not, and that is unfortunate. Just as France has a rich and historic culture of wine making, so too does the United States have a rich and historic culture built around brewing beer. While the French take pride in their world-renowned wines, their claim to Champagne and the role fermented grapes play in their daily lives, so too do Americans appreciate regional beers from across the country, participate in tastings at restaurants that make their own, and know the value of an ice cold brew after a hard day's work. So why can most Americans tell you that France produces great wine, but most French people have no idea that Americans enjoy well-crafted, multi-varietal beer? Blame it on Budweiser.

Yes, I said Budweiser. The King of Beers, over-ambitious Super Bowl commercial time purchaser, most recognizable name in American beer, Budweiser. As far as I've been able to tell, this is the only American beer available for purchase in France, and as a result, the French believe Budweiser to be the only beer Americans drink. Not that there's anything wrong with Budweiser. It's a perfectly good and inexpensive option for a backyard BBQ or a night a the local bar, but in my own humble opinion, it's not the best example of fine American craftsmanship in beer. It's the equivalent of a two-euro bottle of French table wine, and if that's all American consumers were able to purchase, we'd think the French had poor taste as well. As it stands, Budweiser is the reason why I can't answer the frequently-asked French question, "Do you drink wine in the US?" by saying, "Yes, but I drink beer more often," without hearing raucous laughter followed by, "Oh yes, Budweiser!"

So, I'm here to let the French know that they do not hold a monopoly on the art of alcohol production. And that Americans are not limited to Budweiser in their choice of beer. On the contrary, the Unites States is brimming with beers of all kinds: wheat beers, barley beers, rice beers, sweet beers, dark beers, light beers, amber beers, hoppy beers, lagers, ales, pale ales and pilsners. Breweries exist all over this great country, and Ameircans enjoy finding new beers when they travel to different states. When I'm home in Minnesota, I drink Grain Belt Premium, brewed by the locally owned and operated since 1860 August Schell Brewing Company. When in Washington DC, I drink Yuengling, a beer from nearby Pennsylvania. Many beers are not distributed in all 50 states; you have to be in the region in which they are produced to drink them. The varieties are endless, and their taste can be enjoyed and dissected just the same as a fine Bordeaux. Now, if only we could get some of them to take that trans-Atlantic flight.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A River Runs Through It

For a quiet state of only 5 million people tucked away in the Upper Midwest, Minnesota has a fair number of claims to fame. We have the country's largest indoor shopping mall, we're the only state that didn't vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election, and Judy Garland, Bob Dylan and Prince were all born here. But a more significant fun fact about Minnesota is that the Mississippi River - a river that runs nearly the entire north-south length of the United States - finds its source in Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. This legendary and historically important river has played a role not only in the country's history but in our state's history as well. A recent viewing of the Mississippi as it runs through Minneapolis gave me a renewed appreciation for this truly mighty waterway.

As they generally do all across the globe, original settlements in what is today known as Minnesota grew up along its most important waterways. Dakota Sioux Indians, French explorers, the United States Army at Fort Snelling, and westward-moving pioneers are just some of the groups that have called the banks of the Mississippi home. But the river really earned its keep between 1880 an 1930, when its only waterfall, St. Athony Falls, helped turn Minneapolis into the Flour Milling Capital of the World. As grain from all over the Great Plains was shipped into the city via railroad, mills powered by the falls worked furiously to supply flour to a hungry and growing country. Sawmills, woolen mills, iron works and other trades also sprung up in Minneapolis as a result of the river's hydropower. The city's population exploded, and continued to grow into a major business and arts center even after the glory years of the grain industry had come to an end.

Today, the Mississippi as it winds through Minneapolis is lined with parks, trails, restaurants, arts and historical centers and luxury condominiums. Vestiges of the milling years can still be seen, and recent development projects have once again turned the river banks into a center of activity. Inextricably linked to our history and currently redefining our present, the Mighty Mississippi will continue to shape this state's trajectory for as long as it finds its source in a small glacial lake called Itasca.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Unfriendly Skies

I would love international travel so much more if it didn't require plane rides. While some people enjoy traveling by air - they're amazed at the miracle of flight, or maybe they just like having some quiet reading/music listening/nap time to themselves - I can barely even tolerate it. Yesterday's Paris-Newark-Newark-Minneapolis itinerary provided a friendly reminder of this unfortunate fact as I struggled to get through the long voyage home. The sad and slightly embarrassing truth is that I'm just not good at riding in an airplane. Oh sure, I'm great at buying tickets, packing light, getting quickly and painlessly through check-in and security, and navigating through new or unfamiliar airports, but it all goes downhill the moment the plane leaves the gate. I took my first flight when I was five years old, when, upon landing, I promptly threw up. Things haven't gotten much better from there.

My failings as an airline passenger take on many forms. First, at 5 feet 8 inches tall, I'm always uncomfortable in my seat. Even aisle seats are uncomfortable, and as an energetic movement-loving person, I just don't like being confined to a chair for hours on end regardless of the leg room situation. Speaking of my body, flying turns it into one beauty disaster after another. My hair gets filled with abnormal amounts of static from the dry cabin air, my eyes get red and puffy for the same reason, I alternate from shivering cold to sweaty and hot no matter how much I add or remove layers, and swear I gain two pounds on every leg of the trip. I don't like breathing stale airplane air, I don't like much of the food they serve on board, and I'm physically incapable of sleeping in a seated position. Then there is the fear factor. Flying scares me. I'm that white-knuckled girl gripping the arm rest for her dear life during takeoff and landing. Every bump or shake of the plane conjures up images of it bursting into flames and falling out of the sky. If all of that weren't enough to make flying an unpleasant proposition, I also easily get airsick. My first flight set in motion a life-long pattern of airborne nausea and even the occasional losing of the lunch. Yes, some people actually do use the barf bags.

A more rational person might take a look at that list of cons and decide that maybe she should just stay away from airplanes altogether. After all, that's a whole lot of unpleasantness wrapped into a few short hours for one person to have to deal with. But I've never given a second's thought to taking a flight. I love to travel, and I'm not going to let yucky food, dry air or even a fear of death by falling from 30,000 feet stop me from doing it. I might be the least enthusiastic airline passenger ever, but I'm big into traveling. If I have to fly to experience new cultures, meet new people, and have see new things, then so be it. As for the airsickness, I sincerely apologize to anyone who has had to sit next to me during one of my incidents. I fully realize that I am in no way doing my part to make this whole flying thing any more pleasant.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Au Revoir

Amazingly, I've had two weeks of absolutely gorgeous weather here in Paris. Bright sunshine, warm temps, light fall breezes - the works. I think the city must have felt bad for the way it treated me this spring and summer (cold, rain, clouds) and decided to make up for it in a big way. But when I woke up this morning to a dreary, rainy day, I knew my luck had run out. It's time to go home.

So, I'm headed back to Minneapolis for two weeks, and then it's finally off to Washington, DC! Look for some wrap-up blogging about the Twin Cities followed by what I hope will be lots of good info and insight into our nation's capital. In the meantime, here are some photos from Paris and the south of France taken over the past 14 days:

Monday, October 20, 2008

Home Away From Home

Expats do all kinds of things to feel comfortable in their foreign locale. They make new friends, try local foods, and practice the local language. They probably also stay in touch with loved ones back home, try to seek out familiar foods, and cherish relationships with fellow expats who understand their situation and (whew!) speak their language. All of these actions and others like them are intended to make the foreigner feel more at home, wherever she might find herself. Recently, I've stumbled upon the realization that another, less talked about tactic exists. It happened during a second trip to a Parisian brasserie that I found particularly cozy, welcoming and perfectly French: When you adopt a new town, you must also adopt new go-to hangouts.

I've spent most of the years of my life in and around the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. As a result, I've built up an extensive list of shops, lakes, parks and restaurants that I know well, feel comfortable with, and regularly frequent. The knowledge I have about these places, and the level of comfort I have with them, is reassuring; it makes me feel like I'm a part of the city I live in and it gives me direction when planning my daily activities. When you move to a new city, you have none of this. You don't know the best stores, which bar mixes the best drinks, or which parks carry the best picnicking potential. You have to learn all of that from scratch, and the sooner you do, the more at home you'll feel.

Expanding your horizons and trying something new from time to time keeps life interesting, but having go-to places makes you feel like an insider. When guests come to visit, you have great things to show them. You might even get to know the other locals who frequent the same spots. That said, finding you new favorite standbys can be a long and frustrating process. You'll have to deal with you fair share of duds before you hit the jackpot. I spent months going to a yucky, run-down and over-crowded Target store in the DC area before I discovered the big, new, gloriously spacious Target Greatland that was nearby. I still don't feel like I have enough familiar spots in Paris, but the brasserie is helping to change that. After three visits in the past two weeks, I started to recognize the staff, feel comfortable walking in the door (rather than being unsure of how the place operates), and even recommended it to a friend. I'm leaving Paris tomorrow, but it's nice to have some ideas in my pocket for the next visit. And I can't wait to see my old favorites back home.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Same Place, Different Time

Springtime in Paris is legendary. It's the time of year when love is in the air, flowers are in bloom and the city is supposedly on its most charming behavior. After spending the past spring in Paris (and naming my blog after the mythical season), I can happily confirm that, yes, it is a great time to experience the French capital. But I'm still not entirely convinced it's the best time to experience the French capital. In fact, two weeks of Autumn in Paris have led me to believe the city actually shines brighter on this side of the calendar, shortening days notwithstanding.

With the humid, heavy air of spring and summer blown away by crisp fall breezes, Paris finally comes into focus. I feel like I can actually see the city more clearly. Stunning architecture simply pops; at night, the City of Lights shines brighter than ever. Cool air is better for another of our senses: smell. Like any big city, Paris takes on an unpleasant odeur as the temperatures rise, while more appealing scents of falling leaves and hearty, home-cooked meals fill the autumn air. Parisians themselves look more at home in the fall than they do in the spring. I remember a couple of weeks in early May when summer-like temperatures made their first appearance...the locals just weren't very good at pulling off that whole bright colors, exposed skin, sandals look. Ah, but put them in long coats, chic scarves and classically tailored pants (all black, of course) and boy are they stunning! Yes, sitting out on a terrace and sipping a glass of wine on a sunny spring day is a perfect way to pass the time, but so is cozying up inside a warm cafe while sipping a cappuccino. Not to mention the food. Filling french classics like Boeuf Bourguignon, tarte aux pommes, and my favorite, fondue, are perfect accompaniments to autumn.

Don't get me wrong, spring was a fabulous time to be in Paris. Between the bountiful markets, late night strolls and picnics in the park, I wouldn't change a thing. Besides, Parisian Fall sounds like something that happens to women wearing high heels in the metro. Not exactly the blog title image I was going for. However, if you've yet to experience Paris in September, October or November, you're definitely missing out. Got an inkling to meander the Champs-Elysees but waiting until spring to take that flight? Don't! Hop on a plane and wander Paris' century old streets now. Autumn in Paris might not be legendary, but it's definitely classic. Don't forget to pack your chicest warm scarf.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dollar vs. Euro, Round Two

Americans traveling in Europe, rejoice! As economic doom and gloom comes at us from all sides, there is one bright spot we can all look to for inspiration: Against what seemed to be insurmountable odds, the dollar has finally gained some ground against the all-powerful euro. Just before leaving Paris on August 13th, I was paying $1.57 to get one measly unit of spending power. Now, just two months later, that same euro is only costing me $1.36. That might not seem like a big change...until you do the math. You're now paying twenty dollars less to get 100 euros than you were in August. If you plan on spending 2000 euros on your trip to Berlin, Paris or Madrid, that's a $400 savings! Spending 1000 euros costs you $200 dollars less than two months ago. In tough economic times, these are not small numbers to be scoffed at. I don't know about you, but I could do a lot with an extra $200 floating around in my bank account.

When I first arrived in Paris for my six-month stint back in February, I did a piece about the state of the dollar against the euro. It was a pretty optimistic account of the exchange rate, which, upon later examination, would seem quaint in its naivete as the dollar went into a nose-dive throughout the rest of my time here. Not to be outdone by Old Europe, the New World currency has fought back (or is it really that the euro has taken a tumble and we've stayed the same?) to levels Americans haven't seen in nearly a year. And I must admit, it feels good not to get bombarded with the "how 'bout the dollar?" question from grinning Parisians.

So cheer up, Americans! Yes, your 401k balance tanked, you can't afford to pay back your student loans, the job market's not in your favor, and you're possibly entering foreclosure, but try to look on the bright side. Sipping a vin rouge on the left bank just got 20 cents on the euro cheaper.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fall, French Style

I recently raved about fall colors in Minnesota, but what about fall colors elsewhere? Aren't they beautiful too? Well, when it comes to vineyards in the south of France, the answer is a resounding, oui! This time of year, the region's hills and valleys are ablaze as grapevine leaves turn impossibly rich shades of orange, yellow and red. Hills and valleys of vineyards are already incredibly beautiful when they're green, but as warm days give way to warm colors, you won't believe your eyes. I took a drive through this part of France over the weekend, and it seemed as though every time I looked around the colors got more brilliant, more breathtaking, and more photo-worthy. Oh la la doesn't even begin to describe it.

The best part about admiring fall colors in a vineyard? Where there's a vineyard, there's usually a wine tasting!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Crisis (Mis)Management

Everyone has a travel horror story. A missed connection here, a stolen passport there; things that can derail an otherwise perfectly well-organized itinerary are lurking around every corner. And because travel hiccups are bound to happen to the best of us sooner or later, the true test of a traveler is not how he or she avoids such mishaps, but how he or she reacts to them. One of the easiest ways to react to a bad travel situation is to blame the entire city, state, or country for the problem. It's the, "I got pickpocketed in Rome, therefore Italy is a terrible place to visit," rationalization. It might not be the best way to deal with a crisis, but as an incident today with Air France showed me, it's certainly one of the easiest.

Boarding the plane from Toulon back to Paris should have been a simple proposition. On the way down to Toulon, the gate agent didn't so much as look at our identification before giving a "bon voyage!" and sending us on our way. But the woman who greeted (and I use that term lightly) us this morning must have woken up on the wrong side of the bed. I won't get into all the gritty details, but suffice it to say, we were not allowed to board the plane, we were forced to pay an additional fare, and despite the fact that they could have held the aircraft until the five minute it took to exit security, pay the fare, and return to the gate had passed, the plane was sent on without us. Now, if you've spent any time in France, you can easily picture the woman we were dealing with here: physically unable to smile, gives the infamous Gallic shrug, makes a "Pffft" sound with her mouth, and haughtily declares any solution other than the ridiculous one she is hell-bent on make as "impossible." How do you say "customer service" in French?

So, here's where it gets tricky. My reaction to this undeniably frustrating travel experience amounted to a condemnation of the entire country of France. It was the "I got screwed over by Air France, France is a terrible place to visit," rationalization. In fact, when the gate agent's colleague who witnessed the entire scene asked me, "Other than this incident, do you like being in France?" I curtly replied, "Today is not the day to ask me that, Monsieur. I'm afraid you won't like the answer." And it's true, he wouldn't have. I couldn't stop going on about how this incident demonstrated how everything here is a disaster. I even condemned Air France in its entirety ("Worst airline ever!"), all because of the actions of one lousy person. After arriving in Paris and calming myself down, I realized how amazing it is that one bad experience can seemingly taint a day, week or even years of good ones. As travelers, we should fight this urge to base our opinions so rashly on a single bit of information. Yes, bumps along the travel road will happen, and yes, they can leave you with a very bad taste in your mouth, but you will (hopefully) find better times ahead. And surely your bad experience cannot necessarily be indicative of the experience you and everyone else will always have in any given city, state or country, can it? No, it cannot. The man in the airport bar who so kindly served me a delectable, buttery croissant and a rich chocolat chaud in my hour of need helped prove this point.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The City of Headlights

Paris might be short on in-home clothes dryers, affordable shopping, and public drinking fountains, but no one can say that the city wants for cars. On the contrary, despite an incredible public transportation network, The City of Lights is swarming with vehicles of all kinds. Traffic jams are everywhere and parking is at a premium, which is why it might be considered an exercise in overkill that the city plays host to a world motor show once every two years. The Mondial de l'Automobile, 2008 is currently underway and will run until October 19th. Manufacturers from around the globe have gathered under multiple roofs to woo would-be-buyers, industry insiders and gawkers alike with their latest innovations. Car lovers, unite!

A recent visit revealed that the theme of this year's show is quite obviously, "Green. " Nearly every manufacturer seemed eager to show-off their advancements towards eco-technologies and environmental stewardship. An abundance of white and green cars, as well as effects such as grass, water and simulated clouds tried hard to drive home the idea of cleanliness. Only the American companies seemed stuck in the past with their Hummers, Jeeps and Cadillac SUVs, although I do give Chevrolet some credit for displaying one of their cars in front of a
giant screen that showed a French-themed video and included images of the Arc de Triomphe. It was a nice local touch, even if it probably won't convince French drivers to give up their Peugeots, Citroëns and Renaults.

I like cars well enough...mostly because they get me from Point A to Point B. I don't usually keep up on the latest models or newest technologies to emerge from the motor vehicle industry, and I couldn't tell you what horsepower any of my previously owned vehicles possessed. But even my non car-buff self was impressed by the Paris auto show. From the very big to the very, very little, the affordable to the extravagant, the realistic to the futuristic, everything was simply fun to look at. Even more imressive was the amount of planning, design, and set-up time that must have gone into creating some of the bigger displays. And just in case eight exposition halls containing hundreds of vehicles is not enough to satisfy your love of the automobile, don't fret. The traffic jam you'll have to fight on your way out will give you plenty of time to admire the cars of Paris.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Art to the Extreme

I haven't been very nice to the Musée du Louvre on this blog. I've labeled it "dark and cavernous," called some of its famous artwork "overrated," and even suggested that a visit to Leonardo da Vinci's grave was more enjoyable than a visit to the Louvre. Well, I'm here today to make up for all my museum bad-mouthing. Truth be told, The Louvre is impressive in many ways, including its scale, scope, and history. A Sunday visit to France's most famous museum has re-opened my eyes to just how amazing and worthy of our attention it truly is.

The Louvre was not built with the original intention of being used as a museum. At one time, the enormous structure served as a royal palace, housing many of France's kings and queens until Louis XIV decided to move to Versailles in 1672. The oldest parts of the structure date back to the 12th century, when a fortress was built to protect the city. Remnants of that original building are still visible and open to the public. When the palace officially opened its doors as a museum in 1973, admission was free and priority entrance was given to artists. Today, the Louvre is home to approximately 35,000 pieces and boasts 60,000 square meters of exhibition space. It would take a lifetime to see all that the Louvre has to offer, but even with one visit you can see some of its more famous works. Be sure to check out the Venus de Milo sculpture, Code of Hammurabi tablet, Eugene Delacroix's enormous painting, Liberty Leading the People, and if you can manage to squeeze through the crowds, da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

With 8.3 million visitors passing through its doors in 2007, I know that I am not the only one who would sing the Louvre's praises. And while the museum received a ridiculous amount of visitors on any given day, once you step out of the entrance area it does not feel crowded execpt, of course, by the Mona Lisa. The museum is so enormous, that even the busiest days (such as the first Sunday of the month, when admission is free) you cannot pack all of its rooms with people. Oh, and that whole "dark and cavernous" jab I took? I think this photo of the entrance hall shows how unfair that comment really was. Some of the galleries might be a bit closed in, but on the whole the museum is a bright and stunning piece of work. The Louvre is a must-see for those who are passing through Paris, and it would be a worthy addition to anyone's must-do travel list. There, I said it.

Monday, October 6, 2008

India or Bust

When I left Minneapolis and headed for Paris, I had no idea that my trip would include a stopover in India. Ok, so I didn’t actually set foot in the Asian country, but I did the next best thing: I traveled on its airline. Airlines are like a microcosm of the culture from whence they came. The hosts, hostesses, pilots and passengers are often nationals of that country, the food contains elements from back home, the languages spoken over the loud speaker are aimed at a local audience, and even the interior of the plane can inspire thoughts of the homeland. As I happily discovered on a New York - Paris flight, Air India is no different.

Upon boarding the plane, the first thing I noticed was color. Cabin space is usually dull and boring, but this plane was filled with vibrancy. The seats were beautiful reds and golden yellows and female flight attendants were dressed in saris of deep blues and bright greens. Many of the other women on the plane were wearing saris as well and I was envious of their comfortable, flowing outfits, which seemed incredibly practical for a trans-atlantic flight. After settling in, the very handsome Indian man seated next to me struck up a conversation in flawless English. As we chatted about our lives I wondered why, in all my years of flying, was this the day I decided to travel sans makeup? I knew it was time for dinner when the strong scent of Indian food started wafting down the aisles. After a meal of spicy lamb curry and a very sweet orange-hued dessert that I have yet to identify, my new-found travel companion recommended I select a Hindi movie out from the choices on our individual viewing sreens. His selection seemed like a much better option than any of the English offerings (Gold Rush, anyone?), and we both tucked in for the show. He had warned me beforehand that Bollywood likes to use song and dance in most of their movies, and boy do they ever. It was a classic boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-finds-girl tale full of cheesy but exciting musical numbers. I loved it! Touchdown in Paris came with announcements in French, English and Hindi. I can still hear the beautiful rolling sound of India's most well-known language ringing in my ears.

Other than a couple of trips to the Dominican Republic and a border town in Mexico, my travel experience has pretty much been limited to Europe. And while I enjoy learning about the rest of the world, a quest for information about India has never materialized. One six-hour plane ride has changed all that. I'm dying to know more about what makes this place tick! Why does color seem to play such an important role in Indian culture? What does lamb curry taste like when it's not served in a microwavable cardboard tray? What other fabulously cheesy Bollywood movies are out there? In a country of one billion people, how many good-looking men does a girl have to choose from? What the heck was in that neon-orange dessert? The search is on, and I'm hoping the plane ride home will be as enjoyable as the one here. This time, I'm going to at least put on some blush.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Going Back to the Start

Are you the kind of traveler who goes back to the same place time and time again? Or does your cardinal rule of travel state that one should never see the same thing twice? My own thoughts on the subject fall somewhere in between these two extremes. I've returned to some places, not returned to others, and have felt the pros and cons that are inevitably tied to both of these choices. It is, therefore, with a mix of excitement and trepidation that I will be hopping a plane to Paris on Saturday. If you've been counting, that's only seven and a half weeks since I left.

Going back can be fun. You get to frequent your favorite restaurants and shops again, try some new things to didn't get around to last time, and visit with old friends. But what can a second trip do to your memories? Seeing a place for a second time can be jarring, especially if your mindset has changed. When I studied abroad in Cannes in 2001, this French Riviera hot-spot was just a fun place for a college junior to drink some cheap wine, stay out until all hours of the morning and sun herself on the fabulous beach for hours on end. Visiting it again this past summer allowed me to observe the city with my older (and hopefully, wiser) eyes. It became an over-the-top, showy town filled with superficiality and a stark line between the haves and the have-nots. Memories are precious, and sometimes you don't want to change them. I'll always fondly remember Cannes, and my time there was second to none, but it's tough to see it with the wide-eyed optimism I once did.

I can understand why people like to go back to the same places. Doing so is comfortable, familiar, low-risk, and you already know you like it. There are a lot of places I've gone back to and fully enjoyed the second or third time around. Iceland stands out as one of these destinations. Loved it multiple times; would love to go back again. I wouldn't say no to a second trip to Florence or Scotland either. And Paris is a pretty good bet for multiple trips seeing as how there is so much to do and see. It's a city that's impossible to get bored with. Boredom isn't the worry here, though. I wonder what going back to Paris will do to the memories of my recent trip. Maybe it's too soon to change anything in my mind. After all, the trip to Cannes was so jarring because I wasn't that young college student anymore. I was seeing the city through completely different eyes. Paris, however, will be seen through pretty much the same eyes as last time. Will the city look or feel different to me? Will I be as in love with it as I was this past spring and summer? Well, there's only one way to find out. See you in Paris!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Falling Down in Style

It happened while we were sleeping. Sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning, fall arrived. I spent the entire week previous enjoying lunches outside in the warm sun, wearing short sleeves and flip-flops, rolling down the windows on the car, only to be so rudely dragged out of my summer bliss by a cold front that came whipping through the state just in time for the weekend. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss summer, being that it's my favorite season and all. But fall has its perks too, especially in a climate such as ours. Apple orchard visits, cuddling up with a warm blanket, and buying new, comfy sweaters are just a few of the things I enjoy this time of year. Then, of course, there are the leaves. The golden yellow, deep orange, and flaming red leaves that appear on trees once limited to varying shades of green. This time of year, nature truly puts on a show.

There are always a couple of trees who get a head start on the leave changing season. They're the ones that are bright red in a sea of green weeks before their neighbors even think about donning a new look. These are the show-off trees; they like the attention. The "ooohs" and "ahhhs" of everyone realizing what is about to happen. And while the rest of the trees will change color gradually throughout the fall, it feels as though they were green one day and colorful the next. One day the landscape looks like summer and the next it has the unmistakable glow of autumn. There are plenty of fall colors to admire here in the city, but the best views are undoubtedly up north or down south. Lake Superior adds an exceptionally beautiful background to the golden trees, and a drive along the river bluffs on the way to Iowa is second to none in the fall.

The only bad thing about the leaves changing color is what happens afterwards. Sure, they'll give us a few weeks of breathtaking hues, but then, just as suddenly as they changed from green to gold, they will promptly fall down. Once this happens all we're left with is a bunch of empty trees and three (or four, or five, or...) months of a brutally cold winter. But weren't those few glorious weeks worth it? It's as if the trees sense the impending greyness of winter and decide to give us a huge send off; a final hurrah of color and brightness. And that's where we find ourselves now: in the final hurrah. Thank you, trees. We're enjoying every last minute of it.