Thursday, February 26, 2009

Wake-Up Call

I was in desperate need of a talking down. For the past couple of weeks, I had been heading down the slippery slope to Paris idealization with no end in sight. Everything about the French capital became "the best" in my mind: the best lifestyle, the best social life, the best atmosphere. It could have been brought on by any number of happenings, from the recent spate of coworkers with plans for trans-Atlantic getaways, to recent conversations with Parisian friends, to a general feeling of late-February malaise. Whatever the cause, my discontent cried out for something - anything! - that could banish it from consciousness. That something happened on Wednesday.

Actually, it was a someone that brought me back to reality. While attending a conference, I met a woman who works as a translator and previously spent two years living in Paris. When she found out that I, too, had a French connection, she immediately struck up a conversation about our experiences abroad. Being in the depths of my Paris-as-perfection phase, I began spontaneously gushing about how not being there was becoming unbearable. Unable to imagine anything else but undying love for my beloved faraway city, I naturally expected her to respond with an affirmative. Instead, I heard a lot of "yeah buts." As in, "Yeah, but life is a lot harder in Paris than it is in the U.S.," "yeah, but salaries are so much lower over there," "yeah, but everyone in Paris always seems so stressed and gloomy." With the utterance of those and other gently delivered reality checks, the spell was instantly broken. Her fair and balanced approach to Paris - it's beautiful and fabulous, but has its cons just like everywhere else - lifted the fog that had made itself a little too comfortable in my memory.

This is a fault of mine that I just can't seem to shake. I idealize many of the people, places, and things that no longer play a major role in my life, and let the longing for a lost better life eat away at me. Call it The Grass is Always Greener Syndrome. I did it in Paris too, except at that time it was Minneapolis and Washington, DC being imagined into perfectness, blizzards and pollution forgotten. Am I the only one who suffers from this ailment? I have to think there are a few other travelers out there who turn their past destinations into far more agreeable places in their minds than they ever were in person. But I don't want to think what was is better than what is, which is why my new down-to-earth friend's unbiased view was so appreciated. I don't want an idealized view of Paris. I prefer to love it for the wonderfully flawed city it truly is.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Party Poopers

No wine tastings at French vineyards? Quelle horreur! You would think that such a restriction could never happen in the country whose name is synonymous with fermented grapes, and yet, I recently learned that it might not be such a stretch. Monday's post about enjoying Virginia wine at the source garnered a comment about how France's vintners currently fear such a tasting ban. Officials are becoming increasingly concerned about alcohol abuse among French youth - youth who were largely thought of as immune to the binging habits of their American and British peers -, and France's parliament will start debating a law that seeks to protect them in early March. But at what cost?

It's not the first talk of tightening drinking laws in France in recent months. When I was living in Paris last spring I remember hearing quite a bit of buzz about possible bans on happy hours. Though they are much less commonplace in France than they are in the U.S., late afternoon discounts on drinks were seen as creating excess alcohol consumption and encouraging reckless behavior. Apparently, tastings at wineries fall into that category as well, but I'm not buying it. Ever been to a vineyard in France? As far as I could tell, they mostly attract foreign tourists and French couples on a weekend trip, not teens looking to get wasted. Hopefully this is just a far-fetched, alarmist cry emanating from the wine industry and not something that will actually come to pass. France should embrace its wine culture, not penalize it. If she has forgotten how to embrace her wine culture, I might be able to offer some tips.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Travels Well With Others

One of the best things about living in the DC area is that you're never at a loss for things to do when guests come to visit. Museums, monuments, vibrant neighborhoods, restaurants whose menus span the globe and nearby cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia mean the only problem you'll have is not enough time. Virginia vineyards are particularly fun to show off, so when a dear friend and her husband came to town for the weekend I jumped at the chance to partake in a mini winery tour. Joined by two other DC-based friends (including one pregnant woman, nature's glorious way of providing the rest of us with a designated driver), we piled into a very cramped Honda Civic and headed for greener pastures, just beyond The Beltway.

The morning started out with a light snowfall followed by steady rain, but by noon had thankfully given way to sunny skies. With Chrysalis Vineyards, Barrel Oak Winery and Piedmont Vineyards and Winery all on the itinerary, there simply wasn't time for a weather disaster. We sipped on such specialties as peach and chocolate wine, only stopping to picnic with a newly bought Chardonnay. Unfortunately, unlike most of the tastings I've done at wineries in France, sipping in Virginia will cost you: anywhere from $3 to $6 for a multi-glass flite is standard, but some will waive the fee if you buy a bottle. Fortunately, the scenery of Virginia vineyards is magnificent, complete with rolling hills, winding gravel roads and patios offering majestic, sprawling views. I picked up a bottle of my favorite white at Chrysalis, and was delighted to hear that their new creamery should start selling cheeses by early summer. As if I needed another reason to return.

While the reds, whites, and sparklings all hit the spot, it was the company that truly made my day. Sure, I've done a fair amount of solo travel, loved it, and would recommend it to anyone who's looking to discover not only the sights, but a bit of themselves as well. It's just that you get a bit extra when you travel with friends. Between the belly laughs, photo-ops and inside jokes, you'll never want the trip to end. When it does end, you have shared memories that can be discussed, dissected and glorified for years. The whole wine tour gang is coming over to chez moi tonight for dinner, and I'm guessing we'll do exactly that.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Blog Anniversaire

When I had the idea back in October 2007 to start a blog about my impending semester in Paris, I envisioned a project that would reach its natural end when I moved back to the U.S. in June. Instead, Parisian Spring saw its first official entry posted on February 20, 2008 and never looked back. One final semester of grad school, a summertime trip extension, an extended stay in Minneapolis, an autumnal return to Paris and a move to Washington, DC later, my little experiment in social media is still going strong. To mark Parisian Spring's first birthday, I'd like to take a trip down memory lane by revisiting some of my all-time favorite posts.

Of the hundreds of posts I've written, none has gotten as much long-lasting attention as Au Marché. People have told me in the comments, in emails and in person that they simply loved the accompanying photo of...lettuce. One of my own early favorites is Early Bird. Recognizing that I had switched to Paris time made the move and the new life ahead of me finally seem real.

Getting yelled at in poor English is always pleasant, and the French are experts at the cross-country voyage. See Going With the Flow and The Only Way to Travel, respectively.

There was the time I left France for Belgium, the faith-in-humanity-restoring random kindness on the metro, and a tribute to an old French general. This moment convinced me that extending my stay through the summer was the right decision, and this post makes me ache for the Parisian lifestyle. Leaving Paris was beyond difficult, but I passed the time by ruminating on travel and exploring my home state. Between then and now I revisited Paris, moved back to DC, and traveled on Christmas Day. Nowadays, I divide my time between work, work, and wondering if reading these signs allows me to take in European culture without buying a plane ticket.

Favorite posts or no favorite posts, Parisian Spring is absolutely one of the most fun things I've ever done. As anyone who keeps a regular blog knows, it can be very time consuming, and there are days when you wonder what you've gotten yourself into, but I wouldn't have it any other way. It's a total labor of love. To everyone who has supported, promoted, commented on, or simply read Parisian Spring, merci beaucoup! The new people I've met and the old friends who still stop by have made my humble contribution to the blogosphere what it is today. Be sure to tell me if I left out any of your own favorite Parisian Spring moments, and I hope you'll still be around for the next birthday. Same place, same time, but with a few more adventures to remember.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


It was a moment 70 years in the making. On Monday, nearly three quarters of a century after the Vichy government helped to deport tens of thousands of its Jewish citizens to concentration camps, France's top judicial body officially recognized France's role in the Holocaust. Though we tend to associate France with such lighthearted ideas as art, romance and fresh morning croissants, it's still a country that, like so many others, cannot ignore its grave past mistakes. In 1995, Jacques Chirac became the first French president to publicly admit France's role in La Shoah. With Monday's ruling by the Conseil d'Etat, his symbolic gesture is now a legal one as well.

Official statistics regarding religious groups in France do not exist, as it is against French law to take a census based on such ideas as race and religion, but estimates put France's Jewish community at approximately 500,000, making it the largest Jewish population of any Western European country. Those who wish to experience Jewish culture in Paris need look no further than the neighborhood known as Le Marais. Wander the rue des Rosiers where you can snack on Jewish pastries, eat at a kosher restaurant, and peruse a Jewish bookstore. The area becomes massively crowded on weekends, so a weekday visit would be best. Also nearby is The Museum of Jewish Art and History, the Musée Picasso, and Paris' oldest square, the Place des Vosges. Visisting Le Marais, with its countless boutiques, art galleries and historic sites, could keep you busy for weeks.

Can't make it to Paris to experience Jewish culture? Pick up a copy of Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky. I recently included her unfinished work in a list of my favorite France-related books. A Ukrainian Jew who had written her way into France's literary circles, Ms. Némirovsky composed Suite Francaise, a novel detailing life in France during the German invasion, as the war was swirling around her. The book remains unfinished because she was arrested by the French police and sent to her death at Auschwitz before she could tell us how the story ended. Readers are left with a heartbreakingly realistic protrayal of life under attack during WWII. The courageous and just annoucement that came out of Paris on Monday sounds like the perfect occasion for rereading, and recontemplating, what was and what could have been.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Gone But Not Forgotten

Do you ever think about the things you leave behind when you travel? Yesterday, for no apparent reason other than needing something to ponder while waiting for the metro, I started adding up the things I've abandoned in various corners of the globe. When it was all said and done, I had a list that constituted enough personal effects to build an entirely new life. The Shedding of the Things happens for any number of reasons while traveling: the clothes you wear over and over again finally wear out, heavy items become just too much work to lug around, certain climate or country specific belongings don't serve a purpose in your next destination. Extended stays especially give you an opportunity to accumulate a lot more than you brought. At some point you just have to say goodbye.

Sadly, books are usually one of the first things to go. They're just too heavy to drag around once they've been read. Luckily, you can almost always find them a good home; used bookstores, hostel libraries and roommates who love to read are happy to take a load off your back. Anything with an electric plug is also easily left behind. I gave up a hair dryer and hair straightener to an apartment in Paris because their French plugs and voltage requirements are not compatible with what we use in the U.S. I also left a bath towel, a couple pairs of shoes, clothing, and an assortment of soaps and makeup products. My most infamous parting occurred on an overnight train from Rome to Nice. It was December, 2001, and I had just spent the last four months studying abroad. Heading to Nice for the flight back to Minnesota I found myself neither willing nor able to keep on carrying my worn out possessions. I simply couldn't bear to look at them any longer, so I rapidly started shedding anything I could get my hands on in my overstuffed backpack. To this day I wonder what someone must have thought when they discovered a navy blue hooded university sweatshirt, a pair of beat up flip-flops and a handful of other daily necessities left for dead on the top bunk.

Of course, travelers don't just leave clothes and books and beauty products behind. As two phone calls from Paris reminded me yesterday, we also leave a piece of ourselves. While my friends and I shared news and talked about the people and places we know, I started to think that in some small way I still have a life in France. Part of me is still in Paris - still in all the places I've lived - existing in the relationships I maintain, and in the memories and thoughts of others. In return, I've kept a part of them with me as well. It was a reassuring thought, knowing that I still have ties to the city I love so much. For a moment, I could almost imagine I had never left.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Paper Trail

Currently living in the Washington, DC area? Itching to escape the partisan bickering, policy wrangling and maddeningly surreal Beltway traffic jams? Well, the Washington Post is here to help. On February 1, 2009, DC's most prolific paper released its Annual Travel Guide. Cleverly dubbed "Way to Go," it claims to be "the smart way to get from the Washington area to just about anywhere." Sounds pretty good, but what do you actually get for your Sunday paper fee? I decided to investigate.

For starters, you get a lot of tips for traveling on a budget. Of course, if you're anything like me and have spent most of your traveling life as either a student living off loans or an idealistic non-profit employee living off next to nothing, you don't really need these sections. You already know how to find hotel deals online and book a flight with a low-cost European carrier. The travel guide will also help you find your traveling niche, with ideas for seniors, families, vegetarians, and volunteers, among others. What, no category for unabashed Francophiles? There's a whole section devoted to giving you the lowdown on DC airports (my suggestion: go Reagan National), as well as information for those who still need to apply for a passport (my suggestion: prepare to hate your photo).

But my favorite section by far is the one they tucked away on the back page. "21 Regional Destinations" offers Washington-weary Washingtonians tips for nearby getaways. Sure, day trip and weekend guides are a dime a dozen, but I can't get enough of them. They remind me that travel doesn't have to mean trekking halfway across the globe, which is reassuring to someone with few funds and even fewer vacation days. Plus, they always remind me to take advantage of my surroundings. With just a short drive in either direction I could find peace and quiet on Tangier Island, buy Amish goods at a market in Maryland, or visit an area of West Virginia where scientists listen for sounds from outer space. Or I could just read about it in the paper.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Have Bike, Will Do Stunts

In my never ending quest to bring you all the latest in Vélib news (see here and here), I give you this: Le Vélib Extreme. But first, a little background. In 2007, the city of Paris launched a public bike sharing program called Vélib. The mayor ordered bike stations placed in neighborhoods all across the arrondissements and bike lanes marked into the roadways. His landscape-changing initiative has been immensely popular, as anyone who has ever tried to find an available bike on a warm spring day in Paris can tell you. They're used for commuting, errand running, carrying home fresh purchases from the market, leisurely rides along the banks of the Seine, and...daredevil tricks?

This is where Le Vélib Extreme comes in. Apparently, it's the latest craze to hit Paris (Remember Tectonick? That dance was huge last spring), and it involves using the city bikes in ways I'm pretty sure local officials never intended. Thumping down steep stairwells, catching air off jumps, popping wheelies and doing a host of other things I don't have the correct bike vocabulary to describe. Of course, I've read about Le Vélib Extreme from a variety of sources, but they all cite the same video, and said video calls the underground bike movement Vélib Freeride, so it's difficult to get a real grasp on what's really going on here. Are a lot of bikes being used for clandestine activities? Or is this an isolated incident blown up in the media? Frankly, the only extreme Vélib activity I ever witnessed involved late night rides home after too many glasses of wine.

In any case, what does seem to be true about the Vélib program is that for all its popularity, it's suffered some serious setbacks in it's short 18 month life. Vandalism and theft have hit hard. More than half of the bikes have gone missing; others have had tires slashed. Some have turned up halfway across the globe. But don't expect the bikes of Paris to disappear completely. City officials have agreed to pay the company that supplies the two-wheelers for some of the replacements. Plus, users who don't return their borrowed bikes are charged a hefty deposit fee. None of the articles I found mentioned this fact, but it would be interesting to see if that money has helped cover some of the losses. Most importantly, the pedal movement has been warmly embraced by the Parisian community at large making it difficult to conceive of its ever disappearing.

I was a huge fan of Vélib during my time in Paris, and I hope I get a chance to ride those awesomely clunky, basket-wielding, geek-chic bikes again. As far as Le Vélib Extreme goes, if you know anything more about this possible phenomenon, let me know. Drunk biking doesn't count.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Out in the Open

I'm convinced that picnicking is one of life's most enjoyable simple pleasures. It's incredibly relaxing, fun for the whole family, and in a digital world that changes more quickly than I can manage to keep up with, it's also refreshingly low-tech. All you need is a blanket, a few delectable treats, and good company and you've got yourself the perfect afternoon. Of course, Paris is a city that was made for le pique-nique, but DC is also a pretty decent spot for dining on the grass. With predictions of 60 degree temperatures and sunny skies tempting us out of hibernation, a friend and I headed out to the National Mall yesterday for the year's first picnic, American style.

Well, not too American. When I think of picnicking in the USA my mind inevitably conjures up images of a red and white checkered tablecloth topped with potato salad, turkey sandwiches and brownies. Throw in a couple cans of cheap beer and you're good to go. Yesterday's picnic was quite a different story: ham sandwiches on baguette, Port Salut cheese with crackers, red grapes, red wine and a few pieces of chocolate for dessert. Hearing a group of passers-by speak French was the icing on the cake. Only the view of the White House and the Washington Monument kept us from forgetting where we were.

Parisian parks are often remarkable for their picnicability and their grandeur. Think, Les Jardins de Luxembourg or Le Jardin des Tuileries. Perfectly manicured, they stand as testaments to the beauty and strength of the French capital. In contrast, our own National Mall should be renamed the National Disaster. While our picnic was lovely, sitting out on the expanse of lawn that stretches from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial reminded us just how sad looking the area has become. Remember that much laughed at addition in the stimulus plan that called for re-sodding the National Mall? Well, those doing the laughing clearly haven't taken a good look at the place in the last couple of years. There's nothing laughable about letting one of the defining images of our nation's capital fall into disrepair. Nevertheless, yesterday was only the first day of what I hope will be a long picnic season in DC. Spruce up the place a bit and I almost wouldn't wish I was in Paris.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Revolutionize This

It's a rough time to be a cubicle dweller. Seems like everywhere I turn there's some new blog post telling us to step away from the desk, break out of the office, become our own boss or take our work mobile. For the most part, I couldn't agree more. Too many people spend their lives stuck in a dead end job while what they really want to be doing slips further and further away. Want to shake up your life? I'm all for it! Heck, after doing it myself three times to chase my constant dream of living in France, I could even give you some tips along the way. But I sometimes get the feeling that supporters of such life-changing moves are insinuating that those of us who work in an office must be miserable, and that the 9-5 routine must be a one way trip to job un-satisfaction. Sometimes I feel as though those who reject the office outright have - dare I say it? - missed the point.

Here's the deal: I've taken myself out of my comfort zone, moved across the country and the globe more than once, and I'll probably continue to crave that kind of change (and make it happen!) for the rest of my life. But I've also had the desk jobs, and you know what? Sometimes those jobs are the dream. It all depends on the kind of job you're talking about. I spent years working for a French organization, where I had a desk, a 9-5 schedule and a boss. And it was one of the best experiences of my life. My current job is the same way. I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing every single day, all within the confines of a cubicle. I don't feel trapped, I feel energized.

Maybe I'm reading something into these calls to life revolution that simply isn't there, but I feel like they're prone to focusing on details rather than the real heart of the matter. It's not the location that matters (although, I'm pretty happy my cube has a sweet view and isn't tucked away in the corner), it's the activity. The important thing is doing what you love to do. What's more, there are plenty of people who would honestly not like to work in the mobile, unstructured setting so many espouse. Nothing wrong with that. I'm not necessarily one of those people, but I get where they're coming from. So I'll take my cubicle, my health plan, my 40 hours a week, my butting heads with The Man, and my totally awesome job description, and I'll love every minute of it. Until I decide it's time for the next big shake-up, that is. I give it about a year.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Winter Games

With the International Ski Federation's Alpine World Ski Championships currently taking place in Val d'Isère, France, I got to thinking about my own long ago visits to the French Alps. There was that group trip during a semester abroad in 2001, when we spent a night in picturesque Annecy and an afternoon hitting the slopes in Val Thorens. Then there was a weekend à deux this past March where I traded skis for snowshoes and got to spend time gazing at Europe's highest peak, Mont Blanc. The Alps have a reputation for being all glitz and glam with a dash of snobbery thrown in for good measure. A mountainous French Riviera, if you will. But while this is true to a certain extent (due, according to some of the French people I met, to an influx of über-rich Brits and Russians), in many ways the French Alps are just another regular vacation destination, filled with families, friends, serious skiers and chalet loungers alike.

One group that does seem to be missing from the slopes of France is Americans. Just this past March in Les Menuires I heard a lot of French, Dutch, and German, and a lot of British accents, but not a lot of American English. Maybe I wasn't in the right valley, but I think it might have more to do with the fact that we have fabulous skiing destinations right here in our own backyard. Utah alone is practically bursting at the seams with downhill possibilities, not to mention countless popular ski spots in California, Virginia and Wyoming. Want a little Alps-esque glitz and glam? You've got Aspen, which is generally good for a celebrity sighting or two. Even my own non-mountainous Minnesota has some decent options for skiers, without the hassle of a trans-Atlantic flight.

That said, a trip to the French Alps is never a waste of time. The scenery is gorgeous all year round, there is an array of local food and wine to savor (you can't go wrong with Tomme de Savoie and a crisp Alpine white), and the area is a good starting-off point for visits to Switzerland, Italy and the populous French city of Lyon. Padded Russian bank account not required.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Football à la Française

When a friend asked me if was going to blog about the Super Bowl, my first reaction was "no way!" I didn't really think it had any relevance for a travel blog, unless I was actually going to Tampa to watch it. But then I had a flashback. The year was 2004, the place was Nice, France, and the event was Super Bowl XXXVIII. So, yes, I am going to blog about the Super Bowl.

Watching the big game in France is very different from watching it in the U.S. For example, game time is different, as France is 6 hours ahead of the east coast of the United States. You think you're tired this morning, try watching an entire football game that doesn't even start until after midnight. The food is different as well. There were no wings, dips or mini wieners in crock pots. Instead, we ate a Pissaladière, otherwise known as Provençal Pizza, which basically consists of pizza dough slathered in onions and olives. And by "we" I mean "them." Watching the Super Bowl with people who don't really understand football américain is different. I was an instant expert in all things penalties, downs and field goals. But the biggest difference between watching the Super Bowl in France and watching it in the U.S. is that in France, no one reacts to seeing Janet Jackson's right breast flashed across the screen. I almost thought I hadn't really seen it - there wasn't a single peep out of my fellow spectators! - until the next morning when French television was all abuzz about the fact that l'amérique puritaine was all abuzz about Janet Jackson's right breast.

Truth be told, watching the Super Bowl in Nice isn't a bad way to go. It's the south of France! But there's definitely something missing in terms of the atmosphere. In the U.S., it's not just the Super Bowl that's a big deal, the entire build-up to the game is just as fun. And there's nothing better than watching with true football fans, eating the snack foods you love, and discussing the good, the bad and the ugly commercials come Monday morning. Even though the team I was rooting for this year lost, it was still a great Super Bowl Sunday in the United States. Might have had something to do with the buffalo chicken dip.