Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween in Brussels

I wasn't sure what to expect this Halloween. Back home it seems the jack o' lanterns, costumes and orange and black decorations make an appearance immediately after Labor Day. But Brussels? Would I even be able to find a pumpkin with suitable enough seeds for baking? I should have known better. The commercialism that is October 31st had already started to creep into France way back in 2003.

Neighboring Belgium had no where to hide.

I'm not a big fan of Halloween, but as an American I'm used to having it around to mark the peak of the fall season. Part of me was glad to see all things spooky starting to materialize around my neighborhood, and I've gotten into the spirit of the holiday as best I can by eating a lot of candy and accepting an invitation to a pumpkin-carving party. I also took a few pictures, demonstrating that Halloween in Belgium looks pretty much like Halloween everywhere else.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

An Ice Cream for All Seasons

We're not exactly coming up on the traditional ice cream season here in Brussels. Leaves are falling, the wind is getting brisker, and Daylight Savings Time just ended, plunging us into total darkness before the evening commute gets us home. Ugh. Most people probably want to curl up with a cup of hot cocoa more than a pint of vanilla. But maybe that's just because we Bruxellois don't have a Berthillon.

Berthillon is a famous Parisian glacier, or ice cream shop. Actually, it's the famous Parisian glacier; the place anyone who has done even the slightest bit of culinary research has heard of. In the summer, the line of devotees clamoring to get their next boule spills out the door and down the street from this Ile Saint Louis landmark. And who can blame them? Using only the simple ingrdients of milk, fresh cream, sugar, eggs and natural flavors, Berthillon manages to create sublimely delicious frozen treats. Their ice cream and sorbets are so good that even a crisp fall breeze or cold autumn rain wouldn't keep me - an admitted freeze baby - from eating a cone or two. And with seasonal flavors always on the menu (woodland strawberry just arrived!), Berthillon is an ice cream experience that knows no weather limitations.

Despite being located on the tiny Ile Saint Louis, the real Berthillon shop can be difficult to locate. That's because there are countless establishments nearby (and scattered throughout Paris) that are not Berthillon but that serve Berthillon ice cream and proudly display signs and awnings emblazoned with the name. To find the real Maison Berthillon, head down the main road that cuts through the island the long way, with your back to Notre Dame. You'll find the take-away counter and its accompanying line on your right. Next door is the Salon du Thé, where the prices are more expensive but where your ice cream comes with a cute dish, an almond toffee crisp, and the use of a clean restroom. I recommend both the pistachio, which tastes so vibrant you'll think you're eating a real pistachio nut, and the caramel au beurre salé, which is a French specialty and simply heavenly. Even in the cold.

Maison Berthillon
29-31 rue Saint Louis en l'ile
75004 Paris
métro: Pont Marie

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chez Moi

According to multiple sources, I live on the prettiest street in Brussels. After snapping a few photos of our little tree-lined avenue yesterday, as well as some shots from the back balcony, I'm starting to think my sources might be right.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Dos and Donts of Train Travel

There's something simplistically thrilling about riding a train. You zip along, gaze at the changing landscapes that fly by, and pull into a grand, airy, bustling station when you reach your destination. It has an air of old-fashionedness to it, which makes it fun and filled with nostalgia. Not to mention the lack of hassles that come with other forms of transportation (I'm talking to you, airplanes). Of course, there are plenty of ways a train ride can go terribly wrong. It's not all comfort and romance, and great adventure. Eight years of European train rides have gifted me a laundry list of horror stories, from puking in a tiny, sideways-rocking bathroom to not sleeping in a cramped, sweaty sleeping car. Luckily, practice makes perfect, and with a few tips and tricks I've picked up along the way, I think I'm pretty close to having train travel down to an art. Here are my dos and don'ts for how to ride the rails - in style - in Europe.

Do pack light. Other than a few luggage racks at the end of each car, there's usually only room for your suitcase on the shelf above your seat.

Do dress comfortably chic. Riding a train, especially a high-speed one like the TGV in France, has a bit of glamour to it. I enjoy the trip most when I'm wearing something between a business casual and pajamas.

Do be prepared for scary bathrooms. They're different everytime, but I've seen bathrooms with no running water, with toilets that open up to the tracks, and with smells so bad I had to Febreeze my entire body to get them off. The high-speed trains tend to be nicer, but take care with the regional ones. A bottle of Purell and some toilet paper in your suitcase helps.

Do visit the train bar, but Don't buy anything. The bar is a great place to stetch your legs and people-watch. Too bad the food and drink are sub-par and exhorbitantly expensive. Pack your own snack, saddle up to a table in front of the expansive windows, and daydream as you watch the countryside roll by.

Do keep yourself open to conversations with your neighbors. I'm usually the bury-my-nose-in-my-book type, but I've had a number of wonderful conversations with strangers on trains. Something about that form of transportation just begs for friendly chit-chat.

Do get your hands on some metro tickets in advance if your destination city in Paris. When a train full of people tries to use the scarce ticket machines at the same time, the line becomes unbearable. Have one already tucked away so you can arrive like the locals and not like the tourists.

Don't go to the station early. Train stations can be beautiful and exciting, but they're often not very pleasant places for just hanging around. And if you arrive too early, your train likely won't be at the platform yet. Unless you're taking Eurostar, there won't be any security or lines. 15 - 20 minutes in advance is plenty.

Don't lose your ticket. You might not have to show your ticket to board the train, but the controllers almost always come around. I was once berated by a Spanish controller and came this close to paying a hefty fine. For goodness' sake, hold on to that thing.

Don't travel by "sleeper" train. Buying a bed in an overnight train gets you an impossibly tiny bunk in a six bunk car that shakes and rattles all night. It's uncomfortable, and depending on who you share a car with, a bit creepy. Avoid.

Bon Voyage!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Best Brasserie in Paris

Whether you live in Paris or are just passing through, you have to eat at my favorite brasserie. This particular eatery is so good, so perfect, so Parisian, that I'm willing to put myself out on a limb and call it the best brasserie in all of Paris. It's a big claim to make for a city that has a brasserie on nearly every corner, but Le Bouquet Saint Paul, tucked into a busy corner just a short walk from Notre Dame, La Bastille, and the heart of the Marais district, is simply that good.

A French friend first introduced me to Le Bouquet Saint Paul in the spring of 2008, and I soon realized is has everything you want in a Parisian bistro. It's small, but not too small. It has a real bar, cozy lighting, and lots of window-side tables for people-watching. The wait staff is friendly, but not overbearing. The crowd is heavily local. And the food, oh, the food! From a simple croque monsieur (on pain poilâne, bien sûr), to a juicy entrecôte, to lasagna fait maison, to a hearty boeuf bourguignon, I have never eaten a bad meal at Le Bouquet Saint Paul. What's more, the prices remain very reasonable, with a recent meal of two drinks, two main dishes, two desserts and two espressos costing €52, which includes tax and tip. And, ladies, the bathroom is clean. That in itself, in Paris, is nothing short of a miracle.

In my experience, finding a good meal while traveling - one that is delicious, reasonably priced, and eaten in good company - can be a terribly frustrating endeavor. Especially in a city as large as Paris, where the sheer number of options threatens to leave you overwhelmed and disappointed if you make the wrong choice. So while I always like to try new places, I also like to have a few sure things in my back pocket. Le Bouquet Saint Paul has become one of my favorite go-to Parisian addresses. What are yours?

Le Bouquet Saint Paul
85, rue Saint Antoine
Paris 75004
Open 7 days a week, 6am to 2am
Metro: Saint Paul

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Portobello Market

To prepare for a long weekend in London, I asked a friend who has lived in the city two questions:

1. Where can I get the best fish and chips in town?


2. What weekend market do you recommend I visit?

Portobello Market was the enthusiastic answer to the latter. Trusting his seasoned advice I did some pre-tip research on the Internet and discovered that Portobello Market is known mainly for its antiques, its hordes of tourists, and the fact that Notting Hill was partially shot along its namesake road. I love antiquing, I’m neutral about Notting Hill, and I generally try to avoid hordes of anything (except maybe French pastries) if at all possible. So, I did the only thing someone in my position could do: I mapped my route, and planned to arrive early to beat the crowds.

Portobello Market is big. Really big. According to what I read, it’s the largest antiques market in the world. And you know what? I believe it. If you start at the end of the road closest to Notting Hill Gate Underground station, walk the length of the market, and take in the side street off-shoots, you’ll have spent the better part of the day at Portobello. First you see the antiques: stall after stall of old tennis raquets, cameras, printing blocks, maps, electronics, children’s toys, jewelry and furniture. Then there are the fruit, vegetable, and street food stands. I drooled over barrels of fresh olives and ethnic plates from Thailand and Gabon. Next, you’ll see stands for new clothing, old clothing, house wares, and arts and crafts. I bought six bags of homemade tea and a blue frosting cupcake from a lovely woman who rightly sold both. Lastly, there are the permanent shops and boutiques that line Portobello Road, a few of which I managed to squeeze in. I could have shopped Portobello Market all day long, but my stomach had other ideas.

I started to retrace my steps back through the market in search of my friend’s fish and chips receommendatio when I was suddenly faced with the aforementioned hordes of tourists. Getting to the market early (8 a.m.) had clearly been the smart thing to do. While I was able to peacefully wander the stands, chat with the antiques dealers, and navigate the narrow arcades with ease, these new arrivals would find nothing but crowded tables and obscured vision. When I finally emerged from the crush of humanity, I was relieved to find the fish and chips place tucked away in a quiet corner of the neighborhood. The battered cod was amazing.

If you go to London, go to Portobello Market. Get there early, leave by noon, and enjoy lunch at Geales while thanking your lucky stars you’re no longer at Portobello Market.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Scotland, 20 Meters

If only it were that easy.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fear and Travel

Have you ever been afraid to travel abroad? It’s a common story: someone wants to take a trip overseas, but fear is holding him or her back. Fear of not being able to speak the language, fear of getting lost, and even fear of crime or bodily harm. I’m not afraid to travel abroad in general, but for as much traveling as I’ve done, I have to admit that I am still not immune from occasionally fearing the travel unknowns. Every once in awhile I find myself in a situation that I know isn’t particularly dangerous, or even scary, logically speaking, but that deeply worries me, nonetheless. And whether crippling or situational, fear is not a pleasant travel partner.

I was recently reminded of my capacity to be afraid on the road during a weekend trip to Riga, Latvia. Sunday morning, we decided to take a train from Riga to a small, coastal town on the Baltic Sea. I definitely wanted to explore something other than the capital city, but my mind was busy conjuring up all kinds of disaster situations. What if we buy the wrong ticket? What if we go to the wrong town? What if we’re detained by the Latvian train authorities? What if there is an incident on the train and we can’t understand what’s going on? What if we get on the wrong train and don’t realize it until we reach the border with Estonia? These fears might sound irrational, but with nothing in the train system written in English, and with my French skills not offering any help whatsoever in trying to make an educated guess, the entire process required a little hope, faith, and dumb luck to go smoothly. Luckily, we had all three.

After a lovely day looking out over the dark, cold, and enchanting waters of the Baltic Sea, I started to reflect on my earlier bout of fear. I hadn’t felt that way in a long time, probably because I’ve done most of my recent traveling to countries I’ve become familiar with, and I felt a little silly for having worried so much when I know from experience that things generally work out fine. Taking the train out of Riga was a nice reminder that traveling is nothing to be fearful about. Fear should never keep you from seeking adventure overseas, it should only be used in small doses to keep you smart and safe. It has no business trying to ruin a perfectly enjoyable trip to the Latvian seaside.

Monday, October 5, 2009

La Nuit Blanche

I am not a night owl. So when I heard Paris was going to have its Nuit Blanche on the Saturday I had planned to be in town, I wasn't sure what to think. To do a "nuit blanche" in French means to pull an all-nighter, and La Nuit Blanche is a once-a-year celebration where the entire city does just that. There are parties, dances, and artistic performances until the wee hours of the morning in neighborhoods across Paris. As someone who likes to keep reasonable bedtimes, and who would much prefer getting up early to sleeping in, I was doubful of my ability to partake in the festivities. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try. I'd like to think I did myself proud.

There are a number of different ways to experience Paris' La Nuit Blanche. You could throw a late/early party chez toi, attend the outdoor dance under a gigantic disco ball at the Jardin du Luxembourg, dine at an unusual hour, or just wander the streets taking it all in. After dinner at a normal hour at my favorite Parisian bistro, I took the latter approach. Leaving the Marais, I crossed the Seine to the Ile Saint-Louis, made my way through a light display on a bridge, saw a street performance in front of Notre Dame, snaked through Saint-Michel, fought the crowds past the Jardin du Luxembourg, wandered around St. Germain de Prés, and hung out in front of the Louvre before catching the metro back to my hotel near the Arc de Triomphe. I didn't make it until dawn, but these days, anytime after midnight is something to be celebrated.

Simply wandering the streets was a perfectly enjoyable way to get a feel for La Nuit Blanche. In some areas there was revelry, and in others it was relatively quiet, but everywhere I went offered something different to see, hear and explore. And with a full moon on a cloudless (rainless!) night, every part of the city was marvelously aglow. Even an early bird can enjoy herself on a sleepless night, especially when she's in Paris.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Latvian Meat Market

No, the title of this entry doesn’t refer to the dating scene in Riga. I’m talking about a place that actually sells fleshy edibles like pork, chicken, beef, and lamb; a place I stumbled across during last weekend’s trip to the middle child of the Baltics. As an adoring fan of European markets, I’m no stranger to seeing whole (as in, not headless) dead birds, various types of hooves, and other animal proteins displayed in ways that are foreign to most American shoppers. But nothing, nothing, could have prepared me for what I saw in Riga.

After perusing the fruit and vegetable stands of an open-air market just outside of the city’s Old Town, I made a left at the watermelons to find myself in an expansive, barn-like building filled with nothing but meat products. Entire skinned pigs hung on hooks behind the counters, animal heads were casually displayed, and refrigerated glass cases were filled to the brim with all manner of chops, loin, tongue, and steak. Butchers methodically did their work in the open as sellers packaged up the finished products. Shoppers filled their baskets with a week’s worth of dinners. The smells, sights and sounds were overwhelming.

I wandered the market’s never-ending aisles in a semi state of shock, mouth agape, breakfast barely staying down. A vegetarian I am not, but even the enthusiastic omnivore in me left Riga’s meat market with an uncomfortable, unsettled feeling in my stomach. I had never before seen so many dead animals in one place. But hey, that's what traveling is all about: seeing things you've never seen before. And although my gag reflex might not have appreciated the visit, the part of me that enjoys exploring different cultures definitely did.