Saturday, May 30, 2009

Tennis in the Springtime

The French Open is well underway, and while there's nothing quite like sitting in the stands of Roland Garros with the Euro-chic tennis-loving crowd, Condé Nast Traveler's Daily Traveler blog is doing its best to bring the tournament to you. They've tapped tennis star Vera Zvonareva to blog about her experiences while in Paris for the Open. Though she had to withdraw from the competition because of an injury, she's not sitting around sulking. Instead, she's taking advantage of her free time to explore the city, proving that Paris in the springtime is also well underway.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

La Vie Without a Car

When I sold my car in early February 2009, I had every intention of quickly buying a replacement. I would move to Paris for a semester, return to DC, find a job, and buy a new, used car. Everything happened just as planned except for the part about buying a vehicle. Seven months after moving back to the nation's capital, I'm still sans voiture. When I tell people I don't have a car they inevitably all ask the same question: "How do you make Target runs?!" I'll admit, not being able to head out to everyone's favorite one-stop household goods shop and return with bags upon bags of dishwasher detergent and dryer sheets was something I worried about as well. Enter, Zipcar.

Zipcar is a car-sharing program that operates in a number of cities across the U.S. and Canada. The company places vehicles of all kinds (mini coopers, pickup trucks, hybrids) in designated parking spots around residential neighborhoods that are available for you to "rent" on an hourly or daily basis. You sign up on their website, enter the time and day you want a car, search within your area, and voilà! They give you a list of the cars that are available and their going rates. Once you've reserved your car, you simply walk up to it at the designated time, open it with your micro-chipped card, turn the key that's attached to the vehicle's interior and away you go. Gas and insurance are included in the very reasonable price. It's Vélib for cars! In fact, there has been talk of instituting a car-sharing program in Paris similar to its successful bike-sharing intiative, but it looks as though that project might have hit a snag.

Zipcar's motto is "Wheels when you want them," and I couldn't have said it better myself. This program has allowed me to free myself from the responsibility and hassle of owning two tons of metal (paying for maintenance, expensive monthly insurance, always filling up the gas tank, parking, expensive breakdowns, sitting in traffic), without having to give up the convenience of using a car on the rare occasions when I need one. I've never been happier or felt healthier since I started living in the U.S. like I did in Europe: only commuting by public transportation, carrying my groceries home, and running my errands on foot. Not to mention the warm, fuzzy feeling I get when I think of how I'm helping the environment. And the next time I move overseas, I won't even have to worry about selling the car.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day Meeting

For a lot of Americans, Memorial Day is a chance to head out on a weekend trip, grill some burgers and hot dogs in the backyard, or take advantage of celebratory sales at the mall. But if you live in the DC area, it's impossible to lose track of the true meaning of the last Monday in May. This is, of course, the day that the United States commemorates the men and women who died while serving in the military. Between DC's war memorials and Arlington, Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery, our area attracts huge crowds of Memorial Day visitors and hosts a variety of remembrance events throughout the entire weekend.

Back in 2007 I was attending graduate school in DC and getting ready to spend 10 days in Central Europe as part of a summer study program. On the day after Memorial Day, I boarded the 5A Metrobus to Dulles Airport, settled in for the 30 minute ride, and started thinking about all the beer and culture I'd be taking in when I got to Prague. A woman sat next to me, and started up a conversation. "Where are you going?" "What do you do in DC?" The usual small talk. We discovered she was originally from a small town in Minnesota that I know well, and then I asked her what she came to DC for. She told me about her son who died in Iraq in 2004 at age 22. He wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, so every year she flies out from California to visit him and participate in Memorial Day activities.

I didn't know what to say to her. We shared a few tears over her loss; I was amazed at how strong she was. When we got to the airport she wished me a good trip and thanked me for having talked to her about her son. I never forgot that woman - a person who was traveling with thoughts of grief while I was traveling with thoughts of excitement and adventure - and every Memorial Day I wonder if she's back in town visiting her son whose grave is only minutes from my Arlington home.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Eiffel Tower Turns 120

It seems like only yesterday when I first laid eyes on the Eiffel Tower. I rounded the corner, it came into view, and I proceeded to do the most ridiculously embarrassing touristy thing one could possibly do upon seeing the Eiffel Tower: I screamed. A bit of an overreaction, maybe, but it really is a cool tower. And seeing something in real life that you think you know so well because you've seen it a million times in books, movies and magazines, but you really have no idea because 3D is so much better, can be a pretty intense experience.

Today marks the 120th birthday of Gustave Eiffel's world famous reaction-inducing creation. For more than a century, visitors to Paris have oohed and ahhed under, snapped photos, climbed the stairs and ridden the elevator of, picnicked under, dined on, (and screamed at) Paris' iconic iron tower. Some people think it's a cliché, but I love la Tour Eiffel. I may have moved past my days of freaking out at the sight of it, but rounding a corner only to be surprised by the soaring Eiffel Tower coming into view will never get old.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Post Hunt 2009

Not a fan of brainteasers? Don't like numbers? Puzzles make you crazy, and not in a good way? If so, then the last thing you would have wanted to do on your Sunday afternoon was participate in Post Hunt 2009, the Washington Post's annual scavenger hunt. As it were, I have a DC friend who enjoys these kinds of mind melding activities as much as I do, and we did spend our afternoon hunting with The Washington Post. We weren't the only ones.

Last year's inaugural event attracted around 5,000 people, despite a steady rain. Participants are given a hunt-themed edition of the Washington Post Magazine, an opening clue at the hunt's starting point, and three hours so solve five different puzzles placed at points within a section of the city. Solve all five, put their answers together to solve the final clue given to the crowd later in the day, and you could win as much as $2,000. This year's turnout looked to be equally large, and although our little team didn't win, we did have some fun trying.

Turns out, a scavenger hunt is an efficient way to learn about a neighborhood. Most of our hunting took place in a part of the city neither of us spends a lot of time in, so between number crunching and message decoding, we had countless "ah-ha!" moments of spotting restaurants and shops we'd heard about but never seen. We also discovered new sights, shops and destinations that looked interesting enough to merit a return visit one of these days.

Do city-wide scavenger hunts take place all over the world? They'd definitely be a great way for visitors to get to know neighborhoods in London, Rome or Tokyo. Not only would you be running around familiarizing yourself with the streets, sights and landmarks of a foreign city, but you'd also get to interact with locals in a totally unconventional way. Bonus: they'd have cameras and maps just like you! You wouldn't even stand that much as a tourist. Of course, you'd have to know the language used for the hunt, but if you did this would be a great alternative to the usual touristy activities.

If you know of any great city scavenger hunts, or have participated in one yourself, tell us about it!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why You'll Never Win a Staring Contest in France

Anyone who has ever ridden le métro in Paris and felt the multitude of eyes fixated upon them for no apparent reason knows that the French love to stare. Not the kind of eyes-averted-when-busted staring most of us engage in. I'm talking about an unabashed, unapologetic kind of staring that meets your return glance with complete and utter indifference. It takes some getting used to, but once you realize you don't just have to be the target of all that staring, you're allowed to actually engage in it yourself, the real fun can begin. Just be sure you kick the habit before returning to the non-staring community from whence you came. I've had to relearn that looking at other people on the DC subway system is a major faux pas.

For more on French staring, it's sibling, eavesdropping, and how you can enjoy these two pastimes while partaking in the café culture of France, check out the article I found and loved that discusses it all.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Every year I tell myself I'm going to go, and every year it passes me by. The "it," I'm referring to is the Cannes Film Festival. It's glamorous, it's on the Mediterranean...and it starts today.

Ok, so I didn't make it to the 62nd awarding of the Palme d'Or. Thankfully, Le Festival has a pretty comprehensive website where you can scroll through classic red carpet photos, see what films are being featured, and download this year's promotional poster. You can also listen to the Cannes Film Festival podcast and get the daily weather report from the South of France. It's almost like being there in person. Minus the whole palm trees/celebrity sightings/French cuisine/watching the sunset on the Riviera, thing.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Le Barbecue

Who doesn't love a good barbecue? You really can't go wrong with the tangy smell of the grill, a cold beer in your hand, and hours of lawn games with your friends. After what seemed like 40 days and 40 nights of rain, DC was blessed with a beautiful weekend. So, under sunny skies and with the forecast set to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 Celsius) I gladly accepted an invitation to an acquaintance's post-wedding cookout. And though relaxing while cooking food over an open flame is by no means practiced exclusively in the United States, I think going to barbecues "like back home" is one of the things Americans sometimes find themselves missing while overseas. Or maybe it's just me.

Sure, I went to a handful of barbecues in France, which were largely similar to their American counterparts, but there were still a few glaring differences. For example, you'll most likely find beer at a French bbq, but you'll also find the obligatory bottles of red and white wine. Maybe I lived a sheltered life, but a fine Bordeaux was not something my Midwestern family brought to the backyard cookout. I never once saw hamburgers at a French bbq. Instead, you're guaranteed to find merguez on the grill. I loved putting that spicy, North African sausage on a big chunk of baguette with tons of ketchup. My French friends liked mustard. Dijon, not yellow, merci beaucoup. As for lawn games, I showed some guys how to throw a rugby ball like you would an American football once or twice, but that was about it.

There's one thing that seems to be true no matter where you grill: "barbecue" is synonymous with "pigging out." In general, the French tend to be more reasonable with their portion sizes than Americans, but that distinction wasn't terribly visible at the backyard (or rooftop!) cookouts I attended in France. I guess if you put a bunch of people around an open flame on a warm summer day all bets are off. Yesterday's bbq definitely upheld the tradition of abundance with piles of grilled meat, all manner of grilled vegetables, two forms of potato salad, and multiple delectable cherry pies. Attendees drank beer and played lawn games, with nary a baguette in sight. A true like back home barbecue.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Strange Bedfellows

For a while now I've been contemplating writing a post about how the French and the Americans are alike, which would be a change from the usual Parisian Spring format. I mostly spend time contrasting the two groups and their respective countries. But the interesting, and some would argue surprising, truth is that behind all the differences there are a lot of similarities. In fact, I think Americans and their French counterparts are more alike than either side would care to admit.

However, a post such as that will require a bit more planning. In the meantime, I stumbled across this entry from the Financial Times' Brussels Blog that gives us a preview of as to how the two groups sometimes play the same game. The piece tells us about a recent study that showed the French get more hours of sleep per day than anyone else in the industrialized world. Now, my American readers, before you go on a knee-jerk rant that includes the words "France" and "lazy" in the same sentence, guess who's number two...?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

April Showers Bring May...Bridges?

May is a great time of the year to be in France. The weather is getting better, flowers are in bloom, and hordes of summer tourists haven't yet made their presence known. May is especially sweet if you work in France, as this one month is filled with more national holidays than Americans see in an entire quarter. But it's not just a few days off here and there; the French take this rapid succession of Labor Day, Victory in Europe Day, and Ascension to the next level by practically making a month-long vacation out of it. How do they manage this incredible feat? By using a special tactic they like to call "Les ponts de mai." The May Bridges.

It works like this: let's say Labor Day (May 1st for most of the world, why do Americans celebrate this in September?) falls on a Thursday. You automatically get Thursday off from work, but you want more, so you take Friday off too. This creates a "pont," or bridge, to the weekend. Do this three times during the month and you're hardly at the office at all! The tourism industry in France goes crazy offering all kinds of "pont" vacation deals, which the French take full advantage of by running off the to the south, the north, to foreign countries, or to anywhere that's not home. And you thought they only vacationed in August.

I guess Americans sort of do this too. If the Fourth of July is on a Thursday, for example, how many people are in the office on Friday? Or the Friday after Thanksgiving? It's just that we don't have a catchy, clever name for the phenomenon. "Four-day weekend" or "long weekend" don't exactly have the same ring to them as "Les ponts de mai." We also don't have a single month with three such glorious opportunities for building May bridges. The Christmas/New Year's week comes close, but that doesn't really count seeing as how much of the world's population has that deal going on. As I struggle to make it to Memorial Day - the first federal holiday since mid-February - I wish all my French and expat friends in France a Happy May. Send me a "wish you were here" postcard?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Paris of the Future

What will the Paris we know and love look like in the future? Well, if French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has anything to say about it, Paris will be a modern, green metropolis that could stretch as far as the English Channel. Sarkozy recently laid out a proposal to undertake such changes as the creation of an overground, 24-hour fast rail service that surrounds the city and connects it with destinations like Charles de Gaulle Airport, improvement of the city's existing high-traffic rail routes, moving Paris' judicial district from Ile de la Cité to the 18th arrondissement, and lifting the ban on building skyscrapers in the city center. It's an attempt not only to prepare the French capital for the future, but also to un-isolate the troubled, and currently very isolated, banlieues. You know, where they had the riots in 2005.

Your first reaction to Sarkozy's "Grand Paris" plan might be to say that it won't work. After all, the French aren't known for their penchant for change. But this wouldn't be the first time someone tried to revolutionize the look and feel of Paris. Haussmann did it back in the second half of the 1800s, when the city still looked positively Medieval. A mess of narrow streets and winding alleyways, Napolean III commissioned Haussmann to modernize the Parisian layout. He created a city of long, wide boulevards, had the Gare de Lyon and the Gare du Nord constructed, and insisted on a building style that came to be known as the Haussmannian Façade. If they can do all that in the 19th century, why not now?

I like the idea of greening Paris even further; creating more public transportation and improving what already exists. But I'm not sure how I feel about allowing skyscrapers in the city center. The fact that Paris has no tall buildings (save for some hideously ugly exceptions) gives it its charm. The same thing is often said about DC, which also has a limit on building height. On the other hand, Parisians of the mid-18th century probably thought the narrow streets gave the city its charm, too, and yet it's a good thing someone had the foresight to change that traffic-congested, disease-ridden landscape. I mean, who doesn't like to stroll along the impressive Boulevard Haussmann on a Saturday morning, pick up a croissant and coffee breakfast and head off for some afternoon shopping at Galeries Lafayette? Many years and many euros spent from now we just might wonder how anyone could have lived in the Paris of today.