Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Winter Wonderland

They say if you don't like the weather in Minnesota wait five minutes and it will change. They're not kidding. I've been home less than a week and I've already seen rain, fog, sun, clouds, wind and now snow. Just yesterday we had crystal clear blue winter skies with plenty of bright sunshine. Today we're waking up to a gentle snowfall and an inch or so already on the ground. At this rate, I wouldn't be surprised to see a tornado whip through here on Thursday.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Flying the Friendly Skies

One of the things I like most about travel is that it provides a constant stream of new experiences. Even the most habitual of activities can offer differing results depending on the country, language or time of year they take place in. Take flying, for example. Since my first flight at the ripe old age of five, I've been on countless airplanes, but had never flown on Christmas Day. After last year's disastrous attempt at going home for the holidays on the day before Christmas Eve, during which my first plane was delayed because of fog, my second plane was delayed because of snow, I sprinted from one end of Chicago's O'Hare airport to the other in full winter get-up while dragging two heavy carry-ons, and became one of the only people in the history of aviation to be allowed to board the plane after its door has been shut, I decided to never again fly on one of the busiest travel days of the year. So, I booked a ticket for the 25th and set out to discover what it would be like to spend a major holiday on the road.

I knew I had made the right decision when travelers across the country started dealing with cancellations and sleepness nights at the airport two days before Christmas. Instead of joining in their misery as I had last year, I spent the 23rd and 24th doing a little shopping and relaxing before the big day. When Christmas morning finally arrived, I packed up my things, hopped on the metro, and arrived at a very quiet and calm Ronald Reagan National Airport. No long lines at check-in or security, no stressed out travelers trying desperately to get home, no delays because of weather. Nothing but smooth sailing. And because it was Christmas Day, everyone from the gate agents to the passengers themselves seemed to be in an unusually cheery mood. I even got to know many of my fellow travelers as we were all looking to chat and enjoy the company of others during the holiday.

The best part of the trip came at the end. As we were making our final descent into Minneapolis I snapped out of my iPod daze to notice that a lot of people were taking pictures out the plane windows. Turning to look, I realized what all the fuss was about. The sky was filled with one of the most beautiful sunsets I had ever seen. Everything was bright red, and when the clouds finally parted, we could see the perfectly snowy, perfectly Christmasy landscape below. I grabbed my own camera and caught some nice shots of the city all aglow on Christmas Day. We were home, and December 25th officially became my favorite day to travel.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Oh, to be in France at Christmastime. The food, the music, the traditions; everything is magical this time of year. Of course, one could say the same thing about Christmas in the U.S. But while it's true that, in many ways, my own holiday celebration will look very similar to those of my French counterparts, there are still some fascinating differences. Differences that tempt me to one day forgo the merry trip home and instead take a trip across the sea.

My Christmas à la française would start with an early-December flight. While the season in the U.S. is limited to the 24th and 25th, French celebrations start on the 6th with Saint Nicholas Day. As the patron saint of children - among others - he'll leave presents for good little boys and girls, but mostly only in the eastern party of the country (Alsace, Lorraine) where the tradition of Saint Nicolas continues. From there I'd have to stay in France for a month to truly experience a French Christmas, as the fun doesn't end with the birth of baby Jesus. French families also celebrate the Fête des Rois (Epiphany) on Janurary 6th. They'll eat a cake known as the Galette des Rois and whomever finds the little fève (bean) that's been baked into the cake gets to wear a crown and be king for a day. Which brings me to another aspect of Christmas in France: desserts. In addition to the Galette des Rois, the French will eat a traditional Bûche de Noël (Yule Log) for Christmas. No Christmas cookies here. Instead, yummy cakes are the traditional dessert du jour.

Next, I would head over to Strasbourg for some serious shopping at the largest Christmas market in France. While sipping mulled wine and eating lots of pastries I'd join the thousands who flock every year to the unoffical Christmas Capital of the World to admire the decked-out city and stock up on Christmas decorations. Lastly, a lot of the Christmas songs in France would sound strangely familiar, as both countries put many of the same tunes to different words, and there would still be a Santa Claus - Père Noël, as he's known in France - but, in what should come as no surprise, the French version is considerably skinnier than the one we know and love in the States.

As much as I'm looking forward to going home for the holidays, writing about all of France's Christmas traditions is making me feel a bit of regret that my plane won't be flying in the other direction. It gives me something to shoot for, at least. A destination Christmas? It's the perfect gift for any traveler on Santa's list.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Darker Side of Paris

So, you've been to Paris. You've wandered the Louvre, stayed up late in the Latin Quarter and eaten Berthillon ice cream on the Ile Saint-Louis (I recommend caramel beurre salé). You've climbed the Eiffel Tower, sipped a café at Les Deux Magots, and shopped up a storm along Boulevard Haussman. You've hit all the major sites...or so you think. If you're like many of the millions of visitors Paris welcomes every year, you probably spent your touristing time above ground. But did you know there are a host of things to see below the City of Lights? I'm not talking about the metro; I'm talking about actual museums, guided tours and historical sites. These activities - which range from spooky to creepy to downright bizarre - are sure to be a memorable addition to any tourists' itinerary.

Your underground visit of Paris starts with an exploration of the "phantom" metro stations. During World War II, economic woes and a diminished ridership forced the city to close a fair number of stations. When the war ended, four of those stations - Arsenal, Champ de Mars, St. Martin and Croix-Rouge - remained closed and are known today as phantom stations. Arranging a visit might prove difficult, as the group that arranges them only organizes a few tours per year and their website is all in French. But sucess could pay off when you see a part of the city few have been privy too. An easier, albeit more frighentig, underground stop is the Catacombs. In the late 1700s, a cemetery in the Les Halles district became so full and mismanaged that it began inciting disease in its living neighbors. It was decided that the bones of the dead would be removed and relocated to underground quarries on the outskirts of town. Today, you can tour the dark, femur and skull-lined tunnels; a thoughoughly creepy and entirely entertaining tour.

Your underground visit ends in a place that might cause some to turn up their noses: the Paris Sewer Museum. Here you can discover the history of Parisian sewers, explore cleaning techniques, and walk through actual in-use sewer tunnels. Rumor has it the smell is surprisingly non-offensive.

Planning a trip to Paris in the near future? The addition of any one of these surprising tourist attractions to your itinerary is sure to make it a trip to remember. A seasoned visitor who thinks they've seen it all? If you haven't yet explored what's going on sous the city, you only know the half of it.

Photo credit: C.C.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Wishful Thinking

Today is a day that was made for dreaming about the south of France. On top of the weather being drearily rainy, foggy and cold in Washington, DC, I'm faced with the prospect of flying home to Minnesota next week where, upon exiting the airport, I am sure I will be met by the kind of bitterly cold air that quite literally takes your breath away. My prospects for warmth, color and witnessing nature in bloom are looking pretty bleak, which is where the sunny hills of Provence and bright blue waters of the Mediterranean come in. Just thinking about the south of France puts a smile on my face. I can practically smell the lavender, hear the waves crashing on the shore, and see the bright colors of the buildings, flowers and markets. Thankfully, I have folder upon folder of pictures to help me remember more luminous times. Dreaming of non-winter weather as well? The following images should help.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Old Habits Die Hard

We're only at Thursday, and already this is shaping up to be a big news week for France. Everything from the sad - Paris Department store, Printemps, evacuated due to bomb scare - to the glad - French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, named runner-up in Time Magazine's Person of the Year issue - to the slightly bizarre - Carla Bruni sues over fashion bag bearing an image of her posing nude - has emerged from the headlines. Can you imagine a United States First Lady having nude pictures of herself from her years as a model floating around the public domain? Whether right or wrong, I'm pretty sure the First Family would promptly be shamed out of Washington. But I digress.

One of this week's quieter France-related headlines came out yesterday and deals with a much lighter subject matter: shopping. More specifically, shopping on Sundays. Despite Nicolas Sarkozy's wish to allow all shops in France to open for business on Sunday, his liberalization bill, fiercely opposed by family groups, religious groups, members of the French Socialist party and even some members of his own center-right party, has been forcibly pared down. Instead of the sweeping reform he sought, Sarkozy will have to settle for a slight increase (from 5 to 10) in the number of "exceptional Sundays" on which stores are already permitted to do business. No shopping on Sundays dates back to a 1906 law, and has been disdained by resident North American ex-pats ever since.

Call me a sentamentalist, but maybe it's ok for the French to keep to their day-of-rest tradition. Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly no fan of shopless Sundays and the multitude of problems I believe they create, but if the French think they've got a good thing going with this whole early-twentieth century economic mindset, more power to 'em. And considering they also don't use credit cards, don't give out mortgages to people who can't afford them, and don't go bankrupt because of medical bills, we might actually stand to learn a few things from the French and their "out-dated" economic way of life. But I digress.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cooking Lessons

There are a lot of things I do do keep my love of France alive while in the U.S. Buying French decorative items for my apartment, watching French films and reading books about traveling or living in France are just a few examples of how far I'll go to enjoy la belle vie at home. One of the more satisfying ways to keep France alive is through cooking. Anyone who has traveled to France knows that the local cuisine is simply divine. Sinfully rich sauces, perfectly crispy frites, delectable desserts: why not bring some of it back with you? While there's no place like France to engage in French cooking, all it takes is a few simple ingredients to make cooking à la française possible anywhere.

First, you have to get a good cookbook. I use At Home with the French Classics, by Richard Grausman and Barefoot in Paris by Ina Garten. Both have taken the best French recipes and make them simple enough for us mere mortals to accomplish. Next, you need the proper tools. If you're in Paris, take a trip to E. Dehillerin. They have every tool, pot and pan you can imagine, and many famous Parisian chefs are known to stock their kitchens from its wares. Lastly, you might need to hunt down the ingredients that are staples in French cooking but are difficult to find in the U.S. Crème fraiche is a perfect example of this. No French home goes without it, and buying a small carton is a relatively inexpensive proposition. It's used in sauces, risottos and as toppings for soups and desserts. Most U.S. grocery stores don't carry it, but specialty stores might, and if all else fails you can make you're own. Oh, and don't forget the wine. Nothing makes French cooking more enjoyable than sipping a vin rouge while you're at it.

Last night I tried yet another dish from At Home with the French Classics. Pâtes fraîches aux petits pois (translated by the author as noodles with cream, peas, and parmesean) sounded like a sure winner, seeing as how I love anything having to do with pasta in creamy, cheesy sauces. Even though I didn't use fresh pasta like the recipe called for, in my tastebuds' opinion the result was a perfect success. Nothing can compare to a good 3-course meal at a traditional Parisian bistro, but with a little effort you can turn chez vous into a respectable substitute.

Will There be Glass Slippers?

Inauguration Day is currently dominating DC talk. We read about it in the papers, we hear about it on local news, and we talk about it at work, at home and out on the town. Bars will be able to stay open 24 hours a day! Metro is running a special extended schedule on the 20th! Someone in Georgetown just rented their row house to visitors for an obscene amount of money! Stories and details surrounding the big swearing-in are everywhere. My favorite buzz has to do with inaugural balls. I'm talking about the once every four years events that allow suited up, all business, 9-5 Washingtonians put on their black tie best and celebrate, Cinderella style. Besides having a sort of mythical quality to them, other than the actual swearing-in, they're the most desired tickets in town.

As an Inauguration Day newbie, I was surprised to discover just how many balls this city will host during the big week. I used to think there was only one, reserved for the newly minted President and his VIP friends. In reality, there are plenty of opportunities for the general public to get in on the action, as nearly every organization you can think of is offering up its own gala event. For starters, you might want to get tickets to a party hosted by your state or state society. The Hawaii State Society Inaugural Ball and the Illinois Inaugural Gala will no doubt be exceptionally popular this year. George Washington University holds an Inaugural Ball, but unless you've already bought a ticket, don't expect to get into this already sold out event. There are events with causes, such as the Human Rights Campaign Equality Ball, and events for specific groups of people such as the Pearl Gala hosted by Asian Americans for Obama. Even MTV is getting into the game. They'll be throwing their Be the Change Inaugural Ball at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue. If you can't make it, no need to worry. The festivities will be broadcast on live television.

Of course, none of this high-society celebrating comes cheap. Tickets for most events are more than $100 per person, with many events reaching up into the $500 to $1000 range. Needless to say, this recent grad probably won't be donning a full-length gown any time soon. But that doesn't mean I won't get in on at least some of the fun. In true down to Earth Midwest fashion, the Minnesota State Society of Washington, DC won't be hosting a high-priced gathering, but rather a "free hospitality reception." From 9am to 4pm on January 20th, Minnesotans in the area are invited to enjoy coffee and light snacks in the Transportation and Infrastructure Room of the Rayburn House Office Building. It might not be the Kennedy Center, but it will be welcoming, unpretentious, and filled with the only people in DC who don't think I have a funny accent. I'm so there.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I Miss Paris, Part Two

It all started with the metro. The DC area's public transportation shortcomings gave me a big reason to miss Paris and its non-strike period rail/bus/tram efficiencies. Now another aspect of my stateside life is leaving much to be desired, and making me miss the City of Lights even more. It all started when I sold my car before leaving for Paris last February and decided not to buy a replacement upon my return to DC. Living life without a car in a city where everything you need is a short walk away and where even a sometimes unreliable metro system is a far better option than downtown gridlock is easy enough. And it's even easier on the budget. But there's one enormous, unmistakable, disappointing difference between being sans car in Paris and sans car in my Northern Virginia neighborhood: scenery.

Walking around Paris offers a feast for the eyes. Imposing palaces, soaring bridges, grand boulevards and ornamental churches; most people who visit can't believe how beautiful everything is. More than one well-traveled person has told me he/she thinks Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, and they just might be right. Walking around Arlington, Virginia is another story. No palaces or cathedrals here. Just endless blocks of federal buildings, high-rise condos and CVS Pharmacies. Sure, we have some cute colonial-style homes and a fair number of parks and trails, but no one would ever call this area beautiful. My eyes miss beautiful.

On the bright side, there are other benefits to walking besides aesthetics that are in plentiful supply on both sides of the Atlantic. Fresh air, building muscle tone, and weight maintenance are just some of the positive side-effects of life without wheels. Not to mention that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you do something nice for the environment. But these details do little to console me or heal my longing for the streets of Paris. I prefer to take my fresh air, exercise and do-good behavior with a side of gorgeous.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bragging Rights

Ok, so it's old news, but I just have to share it. You might not have seen it yet - I hadn't - and this is simply too big to ignore. According to the July/August 2008 issue of Monocle (an international affairs digest), both Minneapolis and Paris are included in the list of top 25 most livable cities in the world. Yes, that's right, not one but two of the cities I lived in this year are, in fact, livable. What does "livable" mean to Monocle, you ask? For starters, they like cities with strong art and culture scenes, access to healthcare helps, low crime is a plus, growth is good, and education is a must. Paris, which ranks in at number 10, also gets points for a "shift in attitude," and feeling "less uptight," while Minneapolis, which claims the 19th spot, has a culinary reputation that is "on the rise." Though admittedly not the most objective observer of this report, I tend to agree.

Unless my red-dotted blog visitor map is telling tales, Parisian Spring readers come from all over the world. Did your city make the list?

Monday, December 8, 2008

What I Didn't Learn in Paris

When you've spent time living in France, there are certain things people assume you're good at. Speaking French, cooking French food and dressing fashionably are examples of the supposedly inherent post-France talents. After a combined lifetime 15 months spent living in modern-day Gaul, I'm happy to report that my French language skills are pretty strong, I have a few French culinary specialties under my belt (Gratin Dauphinois, anyone?), and, while I'll never be a chic Parisian, every now and then I manage to wear something other than jeans and a T-shirt. But then there's wine. Tell people you just got back from Paris and they automatically think you're an expert on the stuff. They think you read wine lists with ease, peruse the wine section with confidence, and are simply brimming with wine recommendations. In reality, despite many months of living amongst the French, an expert I am not. When asked to pick out a great bottle of red, I'm stumped...and convinced that the shame of it is written all over my face.

My embarrassing dearth of knowledge when it comes to choosing a fabulous bottle of wine is not for lack of trying. Like any true visitor to France I practically drank myself across the entire country. Golden Vouvray in the Loire Valley, sweet Riesling in Alsace, sunny rosés in Provence, and fine Mersault in Burgundy. I've tried them all. Multiple times. The one flaw in my wines-of-France tour was that somebody almost always selected the bottle for me. Whether it was my college professor-slash-tour guide, an acquaintance who invited me over for dinner, or a handsome Frenchman showing me around his country, I was never the one in charge of the wine. Sure, I've picked up a few helpful tips along the way such as which regions I like the most (Burgundy and Provence) and how to properly smell the contents of a glass (don't be shy, put your entire nose in there), but that's pretty much where it ends. Want me to bring wine to your next party? Ask at your own risk.

Now that I'm back in the states and no longer surrounded by natural-born vin experts, I think it's time to set out on my own. I enjoy wine and I'd like to be able to pick out good ones for myself and others whenever the mood strikes. Fortunately, the process of learning about wine and is not going to feel like a chore. It pretty much involves going to tastings, experimenting with various bottles, and asking lots of questions. As far as hobbies go, wine discovery definitely ranks high in the fun quotient. With that in mind, I'll be kicking off my serious wine education this Wednesday by attending a local wine shop's annual Champagne tasting extravaganza. Pen, paper and palate in hand, I'll be the most attentive student in the bunch. After all, every good wine repertoire needs a few bottles of bubbly; eager to finally become a connoisseur, I'm definitely up to the challenge. Santé!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

My Favorite Place in DC

Washington, DC has a lot of beautiful buildings, memorials and monuments. But, in my humble opinion, none can match the peaceful grandeur of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Not only does the 19ft bronze statue of our 3rd president demonstrate that he was, and still is, a total bad-ass Founding Father, but the elegance of the building that houses him is highlighted by the fact that it is located on the other side of the tidal basin from the National Mall and its historical sites. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial stands alone, with nothing to distract viewers from its impressiveness.

As the sun was setting on Thanksgiving Day, I managed to snap a couple of nice photos of my favorite memorial. I like this one the best, and am continually amazed at the kinds of shots my 3 1/2 year old Canon PowerShot A510 still turns out. Enjoy.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Visit at Your Own Risk

My favorite museum in DC used to be the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of American History. I say "used to" because when it shut down a couple of weeks after I moved here in August 2006 I kind of forgot about it. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. This area is blessed with an amazing collection of museums, many of them offering free entry, so it was easy to move on. But when I returned to town last month and heard that after two years of renovation the museum would finally reopen on November 21st, I was looking forward to putting it back on my favorites list. Unfortunately, a visit to the supposedly new and improved space brought only disappointment. Two years and $85 million dollars later, I couldn't for the life of me find anything that had changed for the better.

Maybe I went into the museum with expectations that were much too high. After that kind of time and financial commitment I expected to see a total transformation. I wanted new and improved exhibits, technological advances in museum displays and a space that was open and easy to navigate. What I found was a museum not unlike the one that I had visited multiple times before it closed. The exhibits were the same, nothing in the displays indicated the best in museum technology and the halls that led to various sections were narrow and dark. The old National Museum of American History featured a dramatic entrance, replete with the original Star Spangled Banner; the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem that would later become our national anthem. Now, the flag is hidden in a room just off the entrance. And you wouldn't have believed the line. Something that used to be visible to all with little or no difficulty is now only accessible to those willing to stand and wait.

Needless to say, I left the museum feeling incredibly disappointed. I didn't see a single thing that impressed me or would make me go back. Granted, my visit did happen to fall on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and only the second weekend after the museum's opening, so the crowds were pretty intense. Not waiting to get in and not having to fight to see displays might improve any future experience. And I did enjoy seeing the American Presidents exhibit as well as Kermit the Frog. But that doesn't change the fact that everything I saw I had already seen before. Where was the innovation? Where were the new featured artifacts? And what about the fact that the ladies' room was tiny? You spend $85 million dollars and can't build a restroom with more than four stalls so as to avoid wait lines that wrap around the corner? It's a good thing about that expansive DC museum collection. I can still get my history/art/fun facts fix without having to go to the one that used to be my favorite.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Colonial Escape

Living in the Washington, DC area is a dream come true for day-trippers. Venturing less than 100 miles in any direction will bring you up close and personal with Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, Atlantic coast beaches, George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, Virginia wineries, and a host of pick-your-own orchards. There is also an array of historic colonial-style villages that hearken back to a quieter time in East Coast life. Replete with riding stables, locally-run cafes, shops and markets, friendly residents, delectable restaurants and plenty of adorableness to go around, small towns provide a unique and refreshing day trip experience. Looking for exactly that after a couple of weeks in the nation's capital, I reserved a Zipcar and headed out to Middleburg, Virginia; population 600, charm factor, infinitesimal.

Originally established in 1787 by Levin Powell, a Revolutionary War hero who purchased the land from one of George Washington's first cousins, the area had served as a rest stop for traders since the early 1730s. Located halfway between Alexandria and Winchester on a well-traveled trading route, Powell chose "Middleburg" as a perfectly descriptive town name. Today, the village's historic main street is lined with shops selling antiques, high-end clothes, locally produced edible goods and fine housewares. As a wealthy enclave for area elites, Middleburg has welcomed such famous residents as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor. But don't let the rich façade dissuade you from visiting. Beneath it all is a welcoming atmosphere, friendly townspeople and activities suited to any budget.

With so many good day trip possibilities surrounding DC, deciding on a destination is no easy task. And while I'm tempted to keep trying new cities, sites and activities, a part of me can't wait to get back to Middleburg. I don't think it's possible to tire of browsing the stores, admiring the surrounding landscape or enjoying a hot chocolate at a local coffee shop. Middleburg feels like a complete escape from DC. It's almost like entering a different world; one where life moves a little slower and with plenty of class. Battlefields and presidential estates will just have to wait.