Tuesday, June 30, 2009

And the Pursuit of Random U.S. Trivia

One of the things I like most about Washington, DC is that it's a city that attracts people from all over the country. Between the politically-minded who come here to work for their Senators and Congressmen, the students who flock to local universities, and those who are employed by the area's countless non-profits, NGOs and lobbying firms, each and every one of our 50 states are represented. Of course, this diversity can also lead to cross-cultural clashes, with generalizations about people from the north, south, east and west being bandied about at will (ok, so some of those are actually true), but for the most part DC is a place where Americans of all kinds can live, work and play together in harmony.

Meeting Americans from all over the United States has opened my eyes to fun facts I would not otherwise have known. In the three years I've been here, I've learned such useful things as the names of regional U.S. grocery store chains, how to correctly pronounce Akron, that people on the east coast say "10 of three" not "10 to three" when giving the time, and that not everyone knows what a fish fry is, what a V.F.W. is, or what pull tabs are. This past weekend I was invited to the birthday cookout of a friend and fellow blogger from Texas. She has been a wealth of information about life in the Lone Star State, but she saved her best tidbit for Sunday afternoon. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Dr. Pepper BBQ Sauce.

Don't be surprised if you've never heard of it until just now. Many of us who grew up north of the Mason-Dixon line have not had the pleasure of being able to purchase it in grocery stores. In fact, it's not even sold in DC. My friend had to go all the way to North Carolina to get some. If, by chance, you manage to get your hands on a bottle, say, by ordering it off the Internet, you won't be disappointed. The ribs I ate on Sunday were to die.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Belgium is not France

The upcoming move to Belgium is going to give me more than just a chance to eat waffles and drink beer. It's giving me an opportunity to mark a new milestone in my life: this will be the first time I've ever lived in a foreign country other than France. Now, some people might argue that, as countries go, France and Belgium are simply different sides of the same coin. But they are probably the same people who would also say that about Canada and the U.S., and we all know there are Canadians and Americans alike who could tell you why that assumption is completely ridiculous. Like Canada and the U.S., France and Belgium are two completely different countries, and here's why:

First, there's the issue of language. In France, they speak French. Period. Belgium, on the other hand, counts Dutch, French and German as its official languages, with Dutch being the most widely spoken. Second, Belgium still has a King. Albert II might not be more than a severely limited head of state, but he at least still has his head. We all know what happened to the French monarchy when they had their date with the guillotine. Third, France is much bigger than Belgium, and offers more variety in the way of landscapes and climates. Those in the know have told me to expect one weather pattern in Belgium: rain. The city of Paris is known for rain as well, but you don't have to go far to find skiing in the Alps or sunbathing on the Riviera. And we can't forget that only France has the Eiffel Tower as its most recognizable symbol. Belgium has this thing.

Yes, France and Belgium are both former colonial powers, and yes, I'll be able to get around Brussels with my French language skills just like I did in Paris. But there are still enough unique things about Belgium to keep a newcomer on her toes. In addition to the languages, culture, government and landscape, there are the people. As I'm sure the citizens of both countries could tell you, Belgians are Belgians and the French are the French. I've gotten to know les Français pretty well over the years. I'm now looking forward to meeting de Belgen, les Belges, and der Belgierin.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

One More Day

I'm a big believer in vacation time. Men and women in the working world need and deserve time away from the office/restaurant/construction site/enter your workplace here to recharge their batteries, spend time with family and friends, pursue hobbies, and in general, enjoy life to the fullest. Americans are unlucky in vacations. As our European and other counterparts enjoy four or five or more weeks of paid time off each and every year, we languish in a system that thinks 13 days is generous. Many of us get only 10. Some take none at all. Oh, to be like my French friends and their mandated August and holiday season vacations with plenty additional free time in between.

If you think Americans need more time away from work, you can sign HomeAway's S.O.S. (Save Our Summer) petition asking Congress to make August 7th "National Vacation Day." Frankly, I think we need something more along the lines of a National Vacation Month, but I'm happy with any kind of step in the right direction.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Belgium Bound

Way back in January, I mapped out my 2009 travel resolutions. They seemed pretty solid at the time, but as we all know, even the best laid plans of mice and men go astray. Instead of heading to New York or the Atlantic shore, I'll be spending much of the year a bit farther from my original Washington, DC starting point. Not that I'm complaining. After all, the place I'll be spending it is Brussels, Belgium.

Work is sending me to the land of beer, waffles, and EU institutions for a total of 5 1/2 months, with my first day in the office set for August 17th. If you're counting, that's less than two months away! I'm not quite in pre-trip panic mode ("I'll never be able to get all the things done that need to get done before I leave!" Cue the hyperventilation.), but I'm sure it's not far off. There are a handful of training sessions to complete, a medical clearance to obtain, an apartment to clean, empty and sublet, and some serious packing decisions to be made. I'd also like to purchase a new laptop, go to Minnesota for one last weekend, and make the most out of the DC summer I have left. Needless to say, the next two months are not going to be easy or stress-free, but as anyone who has ever moved abroad knows, all the work will be worth it (and more!) in the end.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Travel and Ten Years

Yes, I did it. While on vacation in Minnesota last week I attended my 10 year high school reunion. After leaving campus in 1999, I said I would never go back, and yet, there I was, surrounded by familiar faces from my childhood. A combination of rampant curiosity and a "why not?" attitude drove me to do it, and I'm happy to say I don't have any regrets. Between seeing old friends and reliving old memories, I actually enjoyed myself.

One of the biggest surprises of the night came in the form of a time capsule. I had no recollection of this project, but apparently all the '99 grads received envelopes that we filled with whatever we thought we'd like to see in our late twenties. Mine contained a variety of fun little treasures: high school photos, a movie ticket stub, a semi-love note from an ex. But the best thing of all was the message I wrote to myself about the next stage in my life. In addition to talking about my excitement over starting college and getting out of high school, I wrote that I wanted to marry someone "whose job allows us to travel the world." Sheesh. Kids say the darnedest things. Ten years later I'm pretty pleased I got to do the traveling thing, and especially pleased I did it all by myself.

We like to think we change so much after high school. We think we'll go to the reunion and show everyone what different people we've become. Wait until they see me now! But you know what? Standing in that room filled with former classmates, I felt like we hadn't changed one little bit. At least not in any fundamental way. The shy kid was still shy, the super involved kid was still super involved, the crazies were still crazy, the ones you enjoyed talking to you still enjoy talking to, and the ones you avoided (and who avoided you in return), well, time doesn't make any of you change your minds. As for me, I thought the reunion would reinforce my belief that I've become a completely different person from the one in I see in my high school photos, but that didn't happen at all. Turns out, I'm still the girl who wants to travel the world.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Would You Wear This on an Airplane?

I've gotten really good a tuning out the safety announcement given by airline staff at the beginning of any given flight. I mean, how many times do need to be told how to fasten the seat belt? My guess is that if you've flown more than once you've probably got it down pat.

Needless to say, if you don't listen to the announcement, you're probably not reading the passenger safety information brochure either. So I don't know what got into me when, during last week's flight from DC to MN, I decided to reach into the seat back pocket, pull out said safety brochure, and engage in a little light reading. What I found has changed my opinion of seat back literature forever.

Take a close look at the two pictures I snapped. They're not terribly clear, but you should be able to notice the guy fleeing out the exit door in a purple tux and top hat, and the woman in a brace position wearing a full-on ballerina get-up, tutu and all. Was this the brochure designer's idea of a joke? Or do more people than I realize wear such outfits on airplanes?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Roadside Attractions of Minnesota

Have you ever been driving down the road when the sight of a giant fish statue compels you to pull over and take a closer look? A friend and I had just pulled out of a gas station along Highway 169 during a mini road trip up north and were happily gnawing on our freshly purchased beef jerky when I spotted it. A quick swerve into the next lane followed by a sudden right turn into a park brought us up close and personal with a larger than life version of a walleye. The Minnesota state fish had never looked better.

Further up along our route we also saw a giant Robin Hood and a giant helicopter. Other structures I've previously seen along roads in my home state include a rooster, a voyageur sans pants, Paul Bunyon and Babe the Blue Ox, the Jolly Green Giant, a snowman, and a polar bear. Come to think of it, if you take a road trip in Minnesota and you don't see something big that's made out of fiberglass you probably didn't go very far. It makes me wonder: Is the phenomenon of erecting giant versions of people, animals and objects on the sides of roads a global phenomenon, or are Minnesotans the only ones who get a kick out of this stuff? I don't know the answer to that, but I'd really like to think that somewhere along a French autoroute passing motorists are treated to the sight of an enormous wheel of brie.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Getting Out of Dodge

I need a break from DC. If you've ever spent time here, you know what an all-consuming city it can be. It seems like everything and everyone is here for the same reason: politics. And because politics is what makes this place tick, it creates what can be a very exciting atmosphere, but it can also feel monotonous and oppressive. After seven months in the city with a one track mind, it's finally time for me to break out of the DC bubble and remember what the real world is like. It's time for me to go home to Minnesota.

As I get some much needed rest and relaxation in the Land of 10,000 Lakes this week, posting to Parisian Spring might take a backseat to barbecuing with friends. Nevertheless, planned activities including taking in a minor league baseball game, a one day road trip up north to visit a friend, a birthday party, and my ten year high school reunion are sure to provide at least a handful of bloggable stories. I'm looking forward to reporting on the state of travel and life from outside the beltway.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Roquefort File

Connoisseurs of strong-smelling fromage, rejoice! After blogging about the announcement and temporary delay of a 300% duty on Roquefort cheese, I am happy to report the recent repeal of this planned artificial price hike. In exchange for the EU lowering barriers to exporters of non-hormone treated U.S. beef (they still ban the hormone-injected stuff), the U.S. will back off its threat to effectively push Roquefort (and other European foodstuffs) out of the American market. It's a victory for stateside lovers of France's trademarked sheep's milk cheese and the residents of the small French village that produce it alike.

But this story has more meaning to me than simply my interest in all things French. As I reported before, a congressman from my home state took up the cause of Roquefort by sending a letter to President Obama asking him not to go forward with implementation of the duty, which was a leftover from the Bush Administration. I always knew James L. Oberstar, who represents Minnestoa's 8th congressional district, was a fellow Francophile (I had seen him in the publication, News from France, meeting with French officials), but I was still impressed by his actions on this matter. When his initial letter went unanswered, he wrote again. Eventually, members of the French government and the French media picked up on his efforts, thanking him with letters and invitations to visit France to visit the famous Roquefort caves.

Maybe they would invite a blogger who also cares about Franco-American relations? Ok, maybe not, but I'm still glad to hear that there are other Minnesotans (and other Americans, I'm sure!) who care about this stuff as much as I do. Vive le Minnesota! And vive le Roquefort, too.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Taste of France in the U.S.

It's relatively easy to find French bread and pastries in the U.S. Even the most average supermarkets have something resembling croissants or baguettes. What's difficult if not impossible is finding authentic French bread and pastries. It's a search that brings never-ending disappointment and frustration to those of us who want to eat a real tarte aux fraises without having to book a trans-Atlantic flight. Baguettes in the U.S. are generally too bready and soft; our pain au chocolat is dense rather than flaky. In these harsh conditions, the best you can do is search out those rare, priceless establishments that come close to the real thing.

When I'm on the lookout for a crispy baguette in Minnesota, Breadsmith, a semi-national chain that has a few locations in the Twin Cities, is generally a good bet. Their bread is baked in special ovens imported from Europe, made fresh every morning, and given a steam injection treatment that helps create the crispy crust so popular in France. Here in DC, look no further than Patisserie Poupon on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. Their croissants, pastries, quiches, and even coffee will transport you out of the U.S. capital and into its French counterpart.

As much as the lack of a decent croissant in the U.S. frustrates me, I sometimes wonder if maybe I don't really want to eat ultra authentic French pastries in my home country. After all, part of the fun of going to France is knowing there are countless traditional boulangeries with all the trimmings waiting for me when I arrive. Would sipping a rich, chocolat chaud while eating my flaky croissant aux amandes on a Parisian terrace be as enjoyable if I could do the exact same thing back home? Probably not, so maybe I should just be content to search out delicious, yet americanized, French treats.