Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fish Tales

I was all geared up to do a post about April Fool's Day in France until I saw that Julie from WhyGo France beat me to it. Tant pis! She did a much better job of explaining Le Poisson d'Avril than I ever could, so everyone wins out in the end. You get to read about the history à la française of this prankster holiday, Julie gets a little more traffic to her site, and I get to relax instead of doing a bunch of research into why fish and the French go together on April 1st. Hint: it has nothing to do with breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Monday, March 30, 2009

An Ode to My Backpack

Remember that day back in the summer of 2001 when I picked you out of a wall of backpacks at REI? I do. It was a big purchase for a 20-year old college student, but one that would pay immeasurable returns. You were red and black with a multitude of pockets and straps and hooks fit to hold everything I would need to see the world. I was apprehensive and excited about being a young traveler about to set off on her own. Our first stop was France, and for five years after that we never slowed down.

Our travels took us to edgy Barcelona, rainy London, and large portions of Ireland, Scotland, Italy and France. We saw Roman ruins, Gothic cathedrals and rolling countrysides, all the while surviving an endless stream of bad hostels, long, uphill walks (I'll admit, I didn't really like you much during those), and sleepless overnight trains. You were smaller than most traveling backpacks, and therefore taught me to live minimally. I was always thankful that you were thin enough to fit through public transportation turnstiles and never hit innocent passengers while walking down the aisles of trains. I used you as a pillow, a foot rest, and as a hiding place for my emergency stash of snacks. You even posed with me in my all-time favorite travel photo; the one that, for me, defines an entire period of my life. Sitting on that ledge in Florence, looking out at the Italian countryside, life had never felt so exhilarating.

A good backpack like yourself can be a traveler's best friend. It's our constant companion, it carries all we own in the world, it serves multiple purposes, and it's always there when we need it. Needless to say, I'll forever regret storing you in the 4-plex's basement instead of my locked, second-floor unit. Maybe then you wouldn't have been stolen by the intruder who entered the building to take a bike, some electronics, and a beloved backpack. He or she even tore off your Air France identity tag, which had proudly survived years of comings and goings. I'm sorry. You were the perfect travel partner for an apprehensive and excited young traveler setting off on her own. I wish you could see me now.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Parlez-Vous Français?

It's no secret that the French are proud of their language. They created the Académie Française to be their official language authority, the Alliance Française to teach their language to others, and a month-long celebration to fête French-speaking populations all over the world. Yes, it's true: March is known as Le Mois de la Francophonie, during which 31 days are employed to recognize the fact that French is not only spoken in France, but rather used in countries as diverse as Morocco, Madagascar, and Mali.

But you don't have to be in a Francophone country to enjoy the French-themed festivities. Washington, DC, for example, has an impressive annual lineup for March 2009's bash. Thanks to a behemoth French Embassy, the La Maison Française cultural center, and Washington's chapter of the Alliance Française, Washingtonians have countless opportunities to party down, French style. This year featured a healthy amount of films, concerts, and programs for children. The celebration culminates with a "Soirée Discothèque" to be held at the Smithsonian's Ripley Center. For $30 you can try out your tectonik skills to the beats of Parisian, Evaa Pearl and Swiss DJ, Jay Style. Sounds like it would be a good time, but I'll pass. As an American who greatly enjoys dive bars, I never did understand the European discothèque scene, even if I have partaken in it a time or two...or three or four.

You really can't blame the French for their linguistic pride. It is, after all, a very beautiful language. And despite the rise of English, French still remains important on the internatoinal scene, serving as an official language of the Olympics, the European Union, and NATO. It's the language of love, and for one month out of the year, it's also the language of celebration. Have you be joining in fun?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Beyond Paris

I don't have to tell you, Parisian Spring reader, that I'm in love with Paris. It's pretty obvious. But sometimes I forget to say just how much I love the rest of France, too. In fact, my first French experience wasn't in Paris at all, it was in Cannes. The second time I lived in France I was also in the south, and during that five month stay I didn't even bother to go up to the capital. I'm not really ready to admit it right here, right now, but it's possible that there are parts of France that I actually prefer to Paris. To prove it, I recently wrote an article about some of those places. Check it out, and let me know what you think. Did I leave out any of your favorites?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Life Nouveau

There's nothing like a few out-of-towners to help you see your city in a new light. Fresh, friendly faces hungry to explore their surroundings can give you the push you need to step out of your bubble and mix it up a bit. A few months in DC had given me plenty of time to fall into a steady routine of same old, same old, which is why when three friends from back home flew in for a long weekend I prepared for a possible shakeup. They've since left, and my suspicions have been confirmed: four nights and five days later I feel like I've been given a new perspective on life in the Washington area.

It all started with a day of sightseeing. As we explored the newly minted Capitol Visitor Center and the nearby Library of Congress I wondered why on Earth I hadn't checked out these DC landmarks before. Then there was the neighborhood hot spot I've been meaning, but failing, to see for myself. I had read the good reviews and had listened with envy as fellow commuters waxed poetic about their weekend escapades, but it took a group of vacationers to get me to go. My guests even helped me discover two new coffee shops: one that is only three blocks from chez moi, and another that served the best vanilla latte I have ever had. Add in the new people we met and the places I already knew but had ignored for too long and I barely even remember my life pre-hostessing.

It's not that I'm unable to investigate my surroundings without being prompted by guests. On the contrary, traveling overseas and moving across the United States have instilled me with some pretty decent exploratory skills. Nevertheless, the added push from energized newcomers is always welcome. In Paris, friends who came to visit introduced me to Versailles, Père Lachaise Cemetery, and a French baking class. Not to mention all the little cafés, restaurants, and shops we frequented together. Without their ideas, plans, and guidebooks there are whole sections of the city I might never have seen. After a whirlwind long weekend, I finally had to say goodbye to my Minnesota friends. And although I quickly assumed my regular routine, it feels good to know that they left me with a couple of new tricks up my sleeve. If you're ever in DC and in need of the perfect vanilla latte, you know who to ask.

Friday, March 20, 2009

All Apologies

Although I'm not as tired as this guy caught catching some Zzzzs in the new visitor's center at the U.S. Capitol, I'm definitely headed there. Three of my best friends from Minnesota have flown in for a long weekend in DC, which has meant and will continue to mean frenzied sightseeing, marathon chat fests, and nights of staying up way past my young professional bedtime. Needless to say, conditions are not ideal for regular, thoughtful blogging about Paris, travel or anything in between.

On the bright side, I'm getting some much needed bonding time with some of my favorite people in the world. And bonus: playing tourist in my own town has given me tons of things to write about for next week. So be sure to stay tuned for a recap, and in the meantime, enjoy the first weekend of spring. I'm definitely enjoying mine, even if it's not Parisian.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Travel, Travel, Everywhere

Whether you're a travel writer or a travel reader (or both!) you simply have to check out Graduate Degree Blog's list of resources related to all things voyage. They've gathered 100 stellar bits of information, so there's something for everyone. Writers will find tips, tools, and inspiration for their next big story, while readers will find new blogs, writers, and websites to explore. Everyone will find Parisian Spring hanging out and looking oh-so-French at spot #45.
Happy Discovering!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Au Cinéma

Movies are huge in France. There are important film festivals every year in Cannes and Deauville, French directors and movie stars are known all over the world, and theaters in France sell all-you-can-watch passes so that French audiences can see multiple showings every month. Films have long played an important role in French culture, and they still do today. But they're not just watching French movies in French cinémas Foreign films are popular too, with American films taking top billing. I've seen a lot of American movies in France, and one thing that always surprised me was the method (or lack thereof) for creating their titles. American movies in France don't necessarily retain their English names, and in some cases, they come out completely unrecognizable on the other side.

There seem to be three different fates for American movie titles in France. The first is that the original title is kept in English. For example, when I saw Sex and the City in Paris last spring, it was called Sex and the City. Nothing had been changed. The second option is that the original title is kept, but is translated into French. Lord of the Rings offers a good example of this; it becomes Le Seigneur des Anneaux. Chick flick 27 Dresses was showing while I was in Paris, and yep, they called it 27 Robes.

The third fate is the one that always catches me off guard. Occasionally, American movie titles are completely changed before being marketed to the French public. For example, the Steve Carell/Juliette Binoche film Dan in Real Life became Coup de Foudre à Rhode Island, which means Love at First Sight in Rhode Island in English. Quoi? That title has a totally different meaning than its original English version! I remember a few years back when Something's Gotta Give came out. I was in France, and it was called Tout Peut Arriver, which would be Anything Can Happen in English. So what's the deal? Why do some titles change and others don't? How do they decide which titles stay in English? And just who, exactly, is making all of these decisions?

Of course, this issue cuts both ways. Amélie - a French film that was hugely popular in the U.S. when it came out - isn't called Amélie in France. Its real title is Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulin, a nice little rhyme that, as you can probably guess, translates to The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulin. Maybe that's the key: the French title has a sing-songy feel to it, but when it's changed to English it loses that meaning. As a result, there's no point in keeping the original title. It does seem like the American movie titles that are changed tend to be idiomatic or slang-ridden. And I suppose it doesn't really matter what the movie is called, as long as it's worth the good euros, or dollars, you paid to see it.

Photo credit: clasixart

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Breaking out of your comfort zone while traveling is generally seen as a good thing. It can introduce you to new people and expose you to culturally unique experiences that you can't get by simply hanging out at the nearest expat bar. Some travelers take going off the beaten path to the extreme, while I find that small, less intense gestures usually do the trick. Think trying out a few foreign words at the local market vs. hitchhiking through Siberia. No matter your preferred form of exploration, you might eventually find yourself seeking out something a bit more familiar. Sometimes, even the most adventurous of travelers head back to the comfort zone for a refresher course in all things, well, comforting. I don't live in a foreign country, but there are definitely days when living in DC feels like living on another planet. Finding myself in need of all things known, I jumped at the chance to attend the Minnesota State Society's Annual Walleye Dinner, an event that didn't disappoint.

Shortly after walking in the door I knew I was among friends. We took turns marking our hometowns with push pins on a state map, and then quickly heading over to the bar to politely wait in line for domestic beers and red wine. The night's emcee was a DC weatherman who grew up in Minnesota and who brought down the house when he confidently announced that our dining hall was "the nicest room in Washington." I sat at a table with people who understood my longing for the Twin Cities' restaurant scene, allowed my accent to proudly show its face, and were able to inform me about Sun Country's return to the Minneapolis - DC direct route and Northwest Airlines' subsequent scaling back of their recently inflated prices for the same trip. Trust me when I tell you this is huge. We ate beer battered walleye (flown in from Minnesota, and utilizing a Mondale family recipe, of course), worked as a team to finish the Minnesota state trivia game (did you know that Yanni has a doctorate from the U of M?), and agreed that the best raffle prizes were the Caribou Coffee gift cards and the entire boxes of Pearson's Salted Nut Rolls. I didn't want the night to end.

After the goodbyes the exchanging of business cards and the realization that we'll probably see each other at the May 7th Twins-Orioles game in Baltimore, we finally reentered the world of Washington. Three hours with my people had reenergized me; for a moment I felt like I belonged somewhere. Don't get me wrong, I love being a foreigner. I thrive in situations where everything is new, every day is full of exploration, and the people you meet are curious to talk to someone from far, far away. But sometimes I just need a good dose of the familiar. Something that reminds me from whence I came, and that I'm not the only one in the world who knows what -40 Fahrenheit feels like. So while I encourage travelers to branch out from the usual touristy routine, I don't fault people for seeking out a comfort group while traveling or living overseas. After all, I need one and I haven't even left the country.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Let Them Eat Cheese

In January, I blogged about the recent 300% duty on Roquefort cheese. After the original uproar over this ridiculous and petty nah-nah-na-boo-boo moment from the outgoing administration, the issue sort of fell off my radar. Until, that is, a Parisian Spring reader alerted me to the valiant efforts of one Minnesota Congressman to petition President Obama in the hopes of having him overturn the ruling. Representative Jim Oberstar, beloved 17-term Congressman from Minnesota's 8th district and noted Francophile, wrote a letter to the President on February 2, 2009. The letter - written in French and English! - urges negation of the tax, thereby allowing the small, French village that produces Roquefort to sell its wares on the important American market, and Americans to enjoy the delight that is a fine slice of smelly cheese. With everything he has on his plate, I'm guessing the plight of Roquefort isn't high on Obama's to-do list, but it would still be nice to see him take up the issue. It would do wonders for cheeseboards and Franco-American relations alike.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sweet, Sweet Victory

It's been an uphill battle ever since I moved to Washington, DC. I'll use the word "pop" in a sentence and I'll get some comment like "where are you from?" or "what did you just say?" or, "that's not what it's called." I'm from Minnesota, I just said a perfectly legitimate English word, and yes, that is what it's called. At least, that's what we call it in The Land of 10,000 Lakes (and a few other rogue vocabulary states), but most of the country refers to sweet, fizzy beverages as "soda." For simplicity's sake, and for purposes of assimilation, I had practically given up on using the word of my childhood when referring to all things Pepsi, Coke, and 7-Up. That is, until, an ad campaign in the DC metro stations convinced me otherwise.

The ads began back in January. Bright colors and a funky design were used to spell out such words as "Wow," "Hope," and...."Pop!" Finally, there was someone outside of the Twin Cities who spoke my language! I didn't even know who the ads were by (Pepsi?), but no bother. They had vindicated my vernacular, and that was what really mattered. Of course, there's also the sign that says, "Soda pop," which, according to a fellow DC-based pop-user, explains that both sides are correct. Some people just chose the first part while others chose the second.

I doubt that a couple of banners and back-lit signs will end the debate surrounding soda pop, even if they did manage to bring a smile to my face. I'll keep using the Minnesota-approved word and Washingtonians will keep telling me I'm wrong. On the bright side, we can at least be thankful that we don't call a sweet, fizzy beverage by its French name, une boisson gazeuse, which very un-chicly translates to "gassy beverage." Yum.

Monday, March 9, 2009

To Each His Own

No visit to France would be complete without taking the time to wander through a market. French marchés are legendary for their fresh produce, mouth-watering artisan cheeses, baked-this-morning breads and array of fish, meat, and charcuterie for sale. Marchés aux puces - flea markets - are also popular with locals and tourists alike. Unlike France, the U.S. isn't really known for its market culture. We're more known for our supermarket culture. Regardless of our reputation, in cities and towns all across the country, Americans are holding their own in the shopping local department. A handful of Washington, DC neighborhoods boast weekend bazaars, with the most well-known being Eastern Market.

Eastern Market is truly a Washington institution. Built in 1873, it has served the capital community ever since. When a fire ripped through the historical building on May 1, 2007, the whole city mourned for the afflicted vendors and for their cherished weekend gathering spot. While the building itself is still undergoing renovations, the market lives on in a temporary building across the street. Other goods such as jewelry, photography, clothing, and books are sold in stalls that line the adjacent street.

A Sunday visit to Eastern Market got me thinking: just how different, or similar, are French and American markets? The crêpe stand made me think I was in Paris, while the Obama paintings reminded me otherwise. There is a cheese vendor at Eastern Market, but with considerably less selection than you'll find in France, and the sweets were more cookies and less croissants aux amandes. Markets in France always have an olive stand (or two, or three), while here in DC there was a man selling pickles. And both sides of the Atlantic enjoy peddling regional specialties, which in Washington means crabcakes galore. There's nothing quite like a plentiful French market, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy their counterparts here in the U.S. After all, it's so much easier when you don't have to order everything in kilograms.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Barging Through France

Just when you start to feel pretty confident in your knowledge of all things French, along comes a little thing like barge cruises to knock you off your perch. Ok, so, the idea of a "barge cruise" isn't exactly a "little thing." On the contrary, barges by nature are generally fairly sizable objects. What I didn't know, is that these sizable objects can apparently be used to tour your sightseeing self around various corners of La Belle France. Thanks to a tweet by Julie of WhyGo France (mon dieu, how I love Twitter!), I discovered an article that introduced me to this intriguingly unique method of transportation, and reminded me that I still have so much more to learn.

Anyone who's been to Paris knows you can take boat rides along the Seine. Companies like Batobus, Bateaux Mouches, and Bateaux Vedettes du Pont Neuf are impossible to miss as you stroll along the river's banks, and renting boats for private events such as weddings, birthdays and all-you-can-drink parties is also a fairly common occurrence. I attended one such party last year that included a round trip ride from one end of the city to the other, which is a great way to get a different perspective on the French capital. Unfortunately, that night's weather didn't want to cooperate, making standing on the deck and admiring the city lights rather unpleasant. Fortunately, they had a wine tasting below deck. But barging through such regions as Aquitaine and Bretagne on a man-made system of canals? I had no idea.

A week-long cruise on the open seas has never appealed to me (seasickness, and all), but a week-long meandering barge cruise through the French countryside sounds like a positively delightful way to spend seven days, six nights. Between stopping to visit historic French villages, exploring the surrounding areas on bike, and dining while watching the scenery slowly drift by, I have a feeling I wouldn't ever want the trip to end. This is what I love about France: for a country that's slightly smaller than Texas, there's never a loss of new things to do, see, eat, drink or discover. One day you don't know about French barge cruises and the next day you do. My curiosity is definitely piqued. Fact-finding mission, anyone?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

On Public Transportation

I do some of my best thinking while riding the DC subway. There's just something about zipping along underneath the city and all its distractions that entices me to let my mind wander, if only for a few stops. All topics are fair game during these subterranean daydreams, but while taking last night's trip I couldn't help thinking about the metro system itself. More specifically, I realized for the first time that I have never been asked to show proof of purchase while riding DC rail or bus lines. No one has ever asked to see my ticket. This might not seem like a big deal, except that my travels through Europe are a regular treasure trove of encounters with the transport police. Why doesn't the same thing happen here?

There was the time in 2001, when some friends and I decided to take the train from Cannes to Barcelona over Thanksgiving weekend. Once across the border, it was quickly discovered by a less than friendly controller that we didn't have the correct tickets for the train. After what seemed like an eternity of listening to a man yell at me in a language I didn't understand, we decided to make a run for it. When his back was turned and the train had stopped, we bolted...and found the tickets he was asking for in a backpack pocket later that day. A few years later, transit authorities asked to see my tramway pass a couple of times in Bratislava, and I paid a $20 fine in Prague when the patrolmen discovered I didn't have the correct ticket. If you spend any amount of time in Paris, you're bound to have someone ask to see your ticket. The controllers will come into the metro cars, create human barricades in the metro passageways, and board buses in an effort to root out the cheaters. I find French policy of any kind to be incredibly intimidating, so I always had my ticket at the ready. And though I never ran into controls in the London Underground, the system's confounding layout and bizarrely creative station names are enough to keep any traveler on his or her toes.

Maybe public transportation controls only happen where they need to happen. I've never seen turnstile jumpers in DC, but it was an almost daily sight in Paris. That might explain the organized effort to check travelers for tickets. Or maybe the DC system simply doesn' t have the funding to pay transit police. Considering the price hikes and service cuts we've been seeing, I wouldn't be surprised. I just don't understand how, after over two years of total time spent living in Washington and taking public transportation, I could have managed to have my ticket checked a total of zero times when in Europe it was simply business as usual. Why the difference? What am I missing? Then again, seeing as how some of those foreign encounters were less than pleasant, maybe I shouldn't question the tranquility of the DC subway.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Diplomatic Sightseeing

Did you know that the document that ended the American Revolutionary War was signed in France? I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I had forgotten this useful bit of information (which was surely taught to me in a 5th grade history class) until just a few days ago, when I had the opportunity to view an original version of the treaty. On September 3, 1783, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay met with a British Delegation at Parisian hotel to officially put an end to the conflict between Great Britain and her rebellious colonies. Today, you can see their treaty and a whole host of American diplomatic art by taking a little known Washington, DC tour: The U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Reception Rooms Tour.

One possible reason for the obscurity of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms Tour could be its reliance on highly organized travelers. Reservations for the tour must be made no fewer than 90 days in advance, a requirement that disqualifies uninformed and last-minute visitors alike. If you do manage to get a reservation, you won't be disappointed, as the rooms are filled with magnificent pieces dating back to the early years of the Republic. You'll find china used by Paul Revere, French wine glasses that once belonged to Martha Washington's sister, and one of Thomas Jefferson's writing desks thought to have been used during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Paintings on the walls range from scenes of the Pilgrims' landing to portraits of famous Revolutionaries. All of the pieces in the collection were donated, and the tour itself is free.

Of course, the highlight of the tour is the Treaty of Paris. Seeing the real signatures of Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams is a truly moving experience. They're some of our Founding Fathers! And while we usually only read about them in the history books, seeing a document they created and actually touched reminds you that they existed as men, not simply as stories. You'll also get to see the painting I included in this post, which is Benjamin West's depiction of the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Famously unfinished, West had to abandon the project when British signatory, David Hartley, refused to sit for him. I guess he was a sore loser.