Saturday, January 31, 2009

Library Travels

With the economy in a downward spiral, the weather unseasonably cold, and the non-stop, never any free time schedule of a grad student behind me, the local library has become my new favorite hot spot. It's free, warm, and filled with all the books I always wanted to read but couldn't because I was too busy studying. Benjamin Franklin was on to something; why don't more people take advantage of this fantastic public resource? In any case, as I perused the shelves of the Arlington Central Library this afternoon I was once again powerless to resist the lure of the travel section. The guidebooks are perfect for daydreaming about my next big escape, but I'm especially drawn to travel stories. Whether myself currently traveling or not, I love reading tales of people getting out there, seeing the world, dissecting a culture, or simply overindulging fine wine and foreign food. Books about France hold a special place in my heart, and with the unbelievable variety that exists I'll thankfully never run out of options.

Some books about life in France are light and fun, capturing the simple pleasures of living la vie française. Words in a French Life by Kristin Espinasse is a perfect example. She's an American expat who helps you brush up on your vocab with short, witty stories of life with a French husband, two Franco-American kids, and the sunny skies of Provence. Of course, not everything in France is beauty and romance. There is also the tragic side of life as an expatriate, and no one better captures that scenario than Henry Miller. His Tropic of Cancer is a dark, disturbing tale of life among the outcasts of Paris in the 1930s that was at one time banned in the U.S. A must for anyone wanting to get past the sparkling Seine and chic cafés for a deeper understanding of the French capital. Culture comparisons are always good for stirring debate, and Ted Stanger's Sacrés Francais! and Sacrés Américans! do just that. If you read French, you must read Stanger. Also, if you like to examine similar situations from different points of view, be sure to pick up a travel anthology. I like A Woman's Europe, which is part of the Travelers' Tales collection.

Non-fiction travel books are valuable for their first-hand accounts, but I enjoy novels set in France just as much. A Year in the Merde is good for a laugh as author Stephen Clarke keeps you bounding from one culture clash-filled run-in with the French to the next. I like this book because it tells a story from the male perspective, which, other than the quintessential Peter Mayle works, I find to be lacking when it comes to France. The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier of Girl With a Peal Earring fame is an intriguing historical fiction novel that would be perfect for passing time on the TGV. Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky is set in WWII France and gives the reader an up close and personal view of life during the German occupation. Tragically, Ms. Némirovsky died in a Nazi concentration camp before she could finish her masterpiece, whose abrupt ending highlights the significance of the story.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway has been high on my reading list of France-themed books for what feels like ages. But first, I'll be tackling Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunée, recommended to me by Julie of Collazo Projects. I don't think I'll ever tire of reading about France, just as I still haven't tired of traveling there. Bit of an obsession, really, but I think it's a healthy one. Sure gives my library card a workout. Benjamin Franklin would be proud.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Freedom Fromage

I almost didn't believe this story the first time I heard it. A 300% duty on France's prized Roquefort? That can't be true. Oh, but it is. The news of a last minute War on Cheese declared by the Bush administration started out as a small, nearly overlooked sound bite. Now that the DC power transition is complete and things have settled down, the Roquefort issue is growing into a big stinking mess. With an insanely high duty now in effect, the U.S. market for this, the most famous of the blue cheeses, has been effectively shut down. French officials, American gastronomes and villagers from the tiny provincial town that has been the sole owner of the rights to produce Roquefort since 1411 are crying foul.

The reason for the duty? Payback for years of European Union refusal to import American beef that has been treated with growth hormones. If that sounds childish to you, it's because it is. Frankly, I think the Europeans have a right to avoid beef that they feel might not be safe. But forget the Europeans, what about us? The poor Americans who have now been told they can't eat a delicious French cheese? It's not like the ban on American beef prevents Europeans from eating any beef at all. They still produce their own supply of steaks, ribs and burgers. Not to mention the fact that they can import from other non-growth hormone sources. And it's not that we don't want to eat Roquefort the way Europeans don't want to eat growth hormone beef. Au contraire! Plenty of Americans love digging into that blue, moldy goodness. I'm not a huge fan of it myself, but I love other French cheeses enough to fully understand the attachment one can have to one's favorite aged dairy product. Americans do not (cannot, actually) produce their own Roquefort. If we can't get it from France, we simply can't get it at all.

The duty didn't stop at Roquefort. Lots of other edible treats from Europe - Irish oatmeal, foie gras, Italian sparkling water - have also had their prices artificially raised. Not as much as Roquefort, but raised just the same. Why punish the American consumer? We're just trying to diversify our diets. Besides, this totally lame, "nah nah nah boo boo" move isn't winning us any points for maturity around the world. As far as I'm concerned, the last thing this country needs is to get on someone's badside for something so silly as a food fight.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Snow Day

This just in: Washington, DC has now had its first official snowstorm of 2009. I use the term "snowstorm" lightly, as in many parts of the world what we just witnessed would be termed "light flurries," but we're in Washington, so snowstorm it is. And though I generally prefer the first heat wave of the year, I have to admit that the white stuff does pretty up the place a bit. Not to mention the unique sense of quiet and calm that a little snowfall can bring to an otherwise bustling city.

Two things caught my attention as I walked about in the elements today. One was the odd neon blue and neon pink stuff I saw being spread around the sidewalks. Presumably, it's meant to melt the slippery spots, but what's with the color? What kind of strange chemical compounds are they releasing onto the streets of DC? What ever happened to plain old fashioned sand, which is more natural, less garish, and simply works better? Second was the surprising abundance of umbrellas. Maybe I've just never been observant enough in Minnesota to notice them (too preoccupied with trying to get to the next warm building so as not to freeze to death), but I don't think we use umbrellas to protect against snow up there. Yet it's apparently all the rage in DC. I shot this pair while walking home from work, and although the photo is a little blurry (artistic?), you can still see what I'm talking about. Hmmmmm... Thoughts?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Playing Favorites

"Grapefruit" is not a particularly attractive word in the English language, but its French equivalent is fabulous. "Pamplemousse" has been my absolute favorite French word throughout the entire 13 years I've been a student of le français. I love the way is sounds, I love the way it looks, and I love sneaking it into as many sentences as one can possibly sneak a big, round piece of fruit into. Bonus: French affinity for grapefruit sorbet, grapefruit juice and even grapefruit-flavored Perrier means that everywhere in Paris I turned I saw my beloved "pamplemousse." Language learners often become fans of certain words in their newly acquired lexicon, and beautiful, romantic French offers up more than its fair share of worthy candidates. But what about my native language? What's my favorite English word? I've asked myself that question many times without ever finding an answer. Now that the holidays, the inauguration, and my first few days at a new job are over, life has settled into enough of a routine for me to once again take up the quest.

Deciding upon a favorite English word is no easy task. While it's nearly impossible to determine exactly how many English words actually exist, estimates put the number in the hundreds of thousands with some claiming as much as one million. That's a lot to choose from. Dale Carnegie is known for urging people to "Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language." I like my name well enough, but I don't think it's my favorite word. It does, after all, rhyme with "lasagna," for which is loses serious points. There are the too obvious choices of "love," "peace," and "happiness," and plenty of ugly sounding words like "linoleum," "refrigerator," and "fork." Just thinking of "fahrenheit" makes me cringe.

Maybe it's easier to have a favorite word in your second, third or fourth language. After all, non-native tongue words are adored partly because of their inherent foreignness. They're fun to say because they're different from what you're used to, and the saying of them represents so much more than the words alone. It represents years of study, time spent exploring a different culture, and a fun game of perfecting your pronunciation. Sure, I'll keep my eyes out for that elusive best English word, but I'm not going to hold my breath. "Pamplemousse" is a pretty tough act to follow.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Take Me Home, Country Roads

Leaving Washington can sometimes feel like re-entering the real world. This city is so all-consuming that it's easy to get completely wrapped up in what's happening here and forget what it's like "out there." When you finally do venture past the beltway, you remember what life was like before you became a Washingtonian. In general, this involves rediscovering all the wonderful things that don't exist in DC; things that got temporarily erased from your memory for the sake of survival in this alternative universe we call our nation's capital. I recently had the pleasure of becoming reacquainted with reality during a three day stint in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. This tiny, history-rich locale is only an hour and half from DC, but it might as well be on another planet. In addition to making me unable to get that John Denver song out of my head, it also provided just what I needed to remember what life is like on the outside.

For starters, I was overjoyed to have people in Shepherdstown say "Hello!" when they passed me in the hall. They also engaged in simple small talk, offered great customer service, and even (gasp!) smiled. I had forgotten that, in most other parts of the country, people are actually, well, friendly. Then there's the issue of prices. A bottle of wine at the Shepherdstown bar cost as much as just two glasses in DC. My favorite shampoo at the Shepherdstown pharmacy set me back a dollar less than it does at my neighborhood store. As I reacquainted myself with what life used to cost, my wallet did a little happy dance. But the best rediscovery surprise came after sundown. Gazing up at the sky I saw a never-ending sea of bright, twinkling stars. Stars! I had completely forgotten that they exist; that the sky could look so big and wondrous and sparkly. Even in cities like Minneapolis I was always able to spot at least the Big Dipper or Orien, but they're nowhere to be seen in Washington, which makes it easy for them to slip from your memory. Rediscovering that beautiful sight made me literally jump for joy.

While riding the shuttle between the conference site and my hotel, I asked the driver about historic downtown Shepherdstown. What was it like? Did it attract a lot of visitors? "Why don't I just take you there," he said. I gladly accepted, and we chatted about the area as he drove slowly down through downtown to let me look at the adorable shops, homes and restaurants that make up the old part of town. He even stopped to let me get out and take a few pictures before heading back towards the hotel. It was real world overload: friendliness, a free tour, and the stars shining overhead. I loved every minute of it. Shepherdstown, West Virginia wasn't quite what I had in mind for my first trip of the new year, but it turned out to be a perfect choice.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Making History

The day DC has been preparing for since November 5th is finally here. It's time to inaugurate the 44th President of the United States of America. It's also time to see if all the contingency planning, security forces and public outreach has done enough to ensure that millions of people can get to and from the National Mall in an orderly fashion. After hearing doomsday predictions of crowd size and travel headaches, I decided to watch our peaceful transfer of power from the comfort of my own home. I can hear what you're probably saying to yourself right now: "But you live in the DC area! It's a once in a lifetime opportunity, you have to go check it out!" Yes, but it's cold as heck out there, I'm not a fan of crowds, and I didn't feel like saving my spot at 5am so I could see a motorcade drive past me in mere seconds at 2pm. I'm as excited as the next gal about today's events, but I'll take my inauguration with a pair of pajamas, a cup of hot tea, and Anderson Cooper giving me the play-by-play, thank you very much.

That said, I have been able to take advantage of other inauguration events during the long build-up to today. Sunday's star-studded concert at the Lincoln Memorial was high on my list of priorities, and it did not disappoint. You could feel the excitement in the air as people sang, danced and cheered through two hours of pointed speeches and rockin' music. I also had the chance to see a lot of the prep work that was being done this week to get everything ready for the goings-on. There was the constant setting up of security barriers, the ever-changing announcements about openings, closings, and hours of operation from Metro, the hanging of flags and banners, and yes, the delivery of row after row of port-a-potties. Last night I even attended an inauguration party, where a group of DC young professionals and a life size Barack Obama cardboard cutout fêted the new American political landscape until the wee hours of the morning. The photo-op possibilities were endless.

We're at 2 hours and counting until the official inauguration ceremony begins. I hope the folks who went to the National Mall remembered to bring a set of hand warmers and a whole lot of patience. It truly is an exciting time to be in Washington...especially if fighting your way onto a bursting-at-the-seams subway car isn't on the day's agenda.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Dream Lives On

If his life hadn't come to a tragic end in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. would now be 80 years old. As we take today to celebrate the life and life's work of this iconic civil rights leader, it's worth noting his inexorable connection to Washington, DC. DC is of course the city where Dr. King gave his stirring "I Have a Dream" speech. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963, he electrified the crowd of thousands with his words of hope for a more equal future. Visitors to the memorial can see an etching in the stone at the exact spot where he stood and looked out at the crowd. If you ever find yourself at the Lincoln Memorial, take a moment to find that spot, stand there, and look out across the reflecting pool towards the Washington Monument and the Capitol. As you take in the amazing view, you'll begin to think about what it must have felt like to be there on that day in 1963. A lot of tourists, and I imagine even local residents, overlook the words that have been written in marble at Lincoln's front door. It's a shame: the stone marker dedicated to Dr. King might not be the biggest, most impressive sight in DC, but it is undoubtedly one of the most inspiring.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Swedish Invasion

In case you forgot that Washington, DC is a city that runs on politics, Ikea is here to remind you. The Swedish home furnishing company - famous for low prices and assembly instructions you need a Ph.D. to understand - has launched a clever new ad campaign in our nation's capitol. It started with a slew of banners and back lit signs inside the Gallery Place Chinatown metro station. Playing off slogans from the recent winning presidential campaign, as well as some of the not so funny problems facing this ccountry, Ikea encourages Americans to buy bookshelves, mattresses and entire home offices. As reported on local news and events website,, Nordic design has now branched out from Chinatown and taken over Union Station. An Ikea furnished Oval Office? That's one way to lower the federal budget.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Political Paparazzi

When you think of celebrity sightings you might think of spying Ashton and Demi dining at an L.A. hotspot, catching Brangelina toting their kids through some exotic locale, or discovering Paris Hilton clubbing in Las Vegas. Here in DC, we have our own kind of celebrity sighting, and it has nothing to do with Britney Spears. Our "celebrities" are generally linked to the political world. Senators, Representatives, White House reporters, political advisers and the President of the United Sates himself are all exiting people to spot. We know the Capitol Hill restaurants they frequent, the local neighborhoods they live in, and that finding yourself sharing the same Senate office building elevator with Hilary Clinton is a story you'll tell your grand kids about. Even little known Congressmen and women must feel like stars when citizens from their home districts

I've had a few DC celebrity sightings in my day, the most exciting of which used to be Al and Tipper Gore. Before them it was a former Minnesota state senator and Newt Gingrich...dull, even by Washington standards. But that all changed last week, when I found myself in the right place at the right time to catch the new Holy Grail of DC people watching. After noticing out our windows that the mother of all motorcades had just pulled up to the building across the street, the rumor started flying: It's Obama! One hour later, he emerged. The crowd that had gathered on the street below erupted in excitement. He smiled, waved, stood up on the vehicle's step and waved again, and in the blink of an eye, the motorcade zoomed off.

With the arrival of the soon-to-be new First Family, DC just might be catching up to more glamorous cities such as L.A. or New York in terms of its celebrity sighting potential. The whole event last week did feel slightly Hollywood-esque what with all the screaming, cheering, and picture taking. It felt like we were watching a red carpet event at a movie premiere or an industry awards show. Sure, we've still got our regular sightings that only die-hard Washingtonians think are cool, but I have a feeling Obama would be cool nearly anywhere, at least for the time being. After the motorcade drove off, one of my co-workers exlaimed while fanning herself, "I feel like I've just seen a rock star!" No one ever said that after running into Newt Gingrich.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Small Car in a Big World

One of the first things Americans traveling in Europe (and probably in many other parts of the world as well) notice that is different from back home is the size of European cars. They're tiny! We're talking two doors, limited leg room, barely any trunk, tiny. All those little go-kart vehicles speeding around the streets of Cannes provided me with an endless source of fascination as an undergrad abroad, and they still grabbed my attention this past spring in Paris.

The most intriguing of all the little cars is without a doubt the SmartCar. This impossibly minuscule, room-for-two vehicle looks like somebody took a chainsaw to it, leaving only the front end of the car. Of course, it's easy to see why they've become rather commonplace in Europe: they get great gas mileage (gas is way more expensive over there), are easy to park (ever try to find an available spot in a Parisian neighborhood?), and are superb at navigating narrow streets (of which there are many in the Old World). Not to mention the fact that it is undeniably adorable. But the Smart is still a rare sight in the U.S., which is why this one easily caught my eye. Parked in the street of my neighborhood, this Smart looked exceptionally teeny because it wasn't in its natural European habitat, where it coexists with lots of other small cars. It was in the land of the SUV - or at least the four door - making it truly something to see.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Land of the Free

Thinking of moving to Washington, DC? Start saving. Now. Our nation's capital is a very expensive place to live. Ok, so it's not London expensive, Tokyo expensive, or even Manhattan expensive, but to a Midwestern gal who could return from whence she came and rent an entire house for what she currently pays for a one bedroom apartment, DC is a very expensive city. And it's not just housing. Food, fuel, entertainment, and dining out all cost significantly more here than they do in many other equally inhabitable areas. Thankfully, all is not lost for our beleaguered Washingtonians. In a financially favorable twist of fate, DC is positively chock full of free things to do, ensuring that residents and visitors alike can have a little fun without breaking the bank.

Wallet weary activity seekers should start with a trip to the National Mall. In addition to strolling along this grand open urban oasis, visitors can explore the Smithsonian museums, climb to the top of the Washington Monument, and pay their respects at the WWII, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials without spending a dime. Next there's the Kennedy Center, whose Millennium Stage offers a free performance (sometimes music, sometimes dance, sometimes something else) daily at 6pm. If you prefer to be outside, walk through the nature preserve on Theodore Roosevelt Island or ride your bike along the Mount Vernon Trail. Got kids? They'll love the National Zoo or morning storytime at the Politics and Prose Bookstore, and you'll love the nonexistent price tag. Don't forget about the seasonal freebies too. There's the Cherry Blossom Festival in Spring, Screen on the Green in Summer and the Dumbarton Oaks gardens are free of charge, though admittedly less colorful, from November to March.

All of this freeness is especially good for the thousands of students and unpaid interns who flock to DC for its high profile universities and career-launching reputation. Sadly, as a DC grad student myself I was too busy taking in the library to ever find time for taking in a show. Now that my studying days are behind me, I'm looking forward to nights at the Kennedy Center, weekends on the trails, and finally seeing the cherry blossoms in bloom. Anything to help me get over the sticker shock of paying rent.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Let Them Eat Cake

Today is the day that men, women and children all across France will eat a piece of cake in the hopes of finding a bean. January 6th marks the Christian holiday of Epiphany, (Fête des Rois, en français) which the French traditionally celebrate by baking a cake known as the Galette des Rois. Find the bean that's baked inside this yummy, almondy concoction and you're king for the day. Want to give it a try? Here's a recipe I found on, one of my favorite online food sites. Bon appétit!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Le Shopping

Shoppers at the ready! It's once again time to take part in the best sport the French ever invented: Les Soldes. Per French law, retail stores are only allowed to run public sales a couple of times a year. This year, the first such sale - during which consumers can expect to see discounts as high as 50%, 60% and eventually 70% or more - begins on January 7th and promises to be just a crazy as ever. The slumping economy might drive sellers to lower prices even further, and penny-pinching buyers might view the rare sales as a chance to get while the getting's good. Either way, if you thought you'd take a leisurely shopping trip to Paris this month, think again. "Leisure" and "Les Soldes" are mutually exclusive ideas.

A fan of budget-minded shopping myself, I had the pleasure of partaking in France's sale madness last June. I was living in Paris at the time and reeling from the worst dollar to euro exchange rate in history. Discounts were just what the doctor ordered. And while I didn't see any of the drama I had been warned about, (women fighting over designer bags, stampede-like running through the Galleries Lafayette) shopping during les soldes was no small undertaking. The crowds were massive, the clearance bins were endless, and after every excursion I found myself in dire need of replenishing nourishment. Crêpes au nutella usually did the trick.

If you're in Paris or heading there soon, you'll want to read this article. The author gives helpful tips for navigating (surviving?) the upcoming French sales. My advice? Don't let the crowds scare you away. Participating in Les Soldes can be exhausting, but the deals are definitely worth it. And besides, the twice-a-year event is very French. Just think of it as a valuable cultural experience and you'll be fine.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Travel Resolutions

With 2008 gone and 2009 just starting, it's time to take a look at the things that were and the things that are yet to be. For a traveler, this yearly assessment generally revolves around, well, travel. Where did you go? What did you see? Did your travel goals reach fruition? What's in the works for the new year? But it's not all reminiscing and dreaming. It's organization. Careful examination of where we've been and where we want to go can help keep us on track in our quests to make travel a priority.

When I look at my own 2008 travelogue I see a year that was one of the busiest yet. Everything started with the big move to Paris in February. Finishing my graduate studies turned into hanging around for the summer and a mid-October return meant that I spent more than half of 2008 overseas. Living in France allowed me to travel around the country to visit new and familiar locales, including Normandy, Champagne, Burgundy, the Loire Valley, the Mediterranean coast and the French Alps. A weekend in Belgium brought the foreign country total to two, but I do wish I had spent more time exploring France's neighbors. Next time. In addition to Europe there was the return to Washington, DC and a fair amount of time spent in Minnesota. Overall, a banner year for a favorite pastime.

2008 ended on a high note, as December brought one of my proudest travel milestones to date: the expiration of my first passport. With ten years of international travel (and quite possibly the most hideously embarrassing passport photo ever) behind me, I'm ready to satisfy my travel bug in 2009 and beyond. A new job will keep me in DC and will probably, in the short term, limit my ability to go abroad for long periods of time, so I plan to take advantage of my eastern U.S. home base with plenty of day and weekend trips. New York City is a priority, the Atlantic coast would be nice, and the history buff in me simply has to check out a Civil War battlefield or two. Will I get back to my ultimate travel destination, Paris, this year? There's nothing in the works so far, but all it would take is good deal on a plane ticket and the promise of a melt-in-your-mouth pain au chocolat to get me to go. Stay tuned. Whatever 2009 might bring, I look forward to sharing the adventure with you!