Monday, March 29, 2010

Paris is the Most Expensive City in the World

A friend just tipped me off to a recent report by Economist Intelligence Unit (a sister company of The Economist) that names Paris as the most expensive city in which to live. Their "Most Expensive Cities" graph shows the French capital barely nudging out Tokyo for this dubious distinction. Oslo helps to round out the top three.

I don't know about you, but as someone who has recently spent time living in Paris, I'm not terribly surprised by these findings. For a tourist, there are plenty of ways to do Paris on the cheap, from avoiding hotels, to dining smart. Actually living in the City of Light, however, - paying rent, buying food year round, and maintaining a home - is definitely très cher. And totally worth it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

5 Ways to Enjoy Springtime in Paris

It's considered one of the best times to visit the City of Light: Springtime in Paris has achieved iconic status as perennial dream vacation destination, conjuring up images of impeccably dressed couples wandering romantically amidst the most famous Parisian landmarks. If you're one of the lucky ones heading there in the next couple of months, here are 5 ways you can enjoy the season of renewal in Paris.

1. Picnic by the Louvre

My all time favorite spot for a Parisian picnic is the lawn just in front of the Louvre, right before you go down the stairs that lead to the Jardin des Tuileries. The grass is lush, the scenery is second to none, and watching all the tourists and Parisians stroll by provides endless entertainment. Bonus: you don't need much to create the perfect picnic. A baguette, some cheese, a bit of fruit, and a bottle of wine will do the trick.

2. Visit the gardens at Versailles

Inside Versailles it's cramped and hot...if even you manage to survive the incredible wait line that keeps tourists on their weary feet for much too long. Save the interior for bad weather. A better bet is to arrive early and visit the chateau's sprawling gardens instead. You’ll wander among all manner of flora and fountains as you imagine what it must have been like to attend outdoor parties with the King and Queen. Make your way to Marie Antoinette’s Hameau - a secluded farm and modest home built especially for her - to see where the queen escaped when she wanted to play peasant.

3. People watch from a café

Saddle up to a café table and sit like the French do: facing out to the street. Enjoy the never-ending parade of characters that will rush and saunter by as you sip a Sancerre in the Parisian sun. Life doesn't get much better than this.

4. Walk or bike along the Seine

On Sundays the city of Paris blocks off its river-hugging roads to cars, making way for pedestrians and bicyclists to take in the view. What a treat to enjoy the Seine without the noise of those crazy Parisian drivers careening along its banks.

5. Take a trip en Province

Not to be confused with Provence – the southern French region that conjures up images of sunflowers and lavender – en Province is what the Parisians use to describe any area of France that’s outside of their beloved Paris. So while springtime in Paris is magical, why not flee the hustle and bustle of the French capital for one of the quieter but no less romantic/historic/scenic parts of the country? You could soak up the Mediterranean sun in Nice, discover new bottles of bubbly in Champagne, or find excellent off-season deals on vacations packages in the Alps.

Whether you spend springtime in Paris or springtime en Province, you're sure to find La Belle Vie in full, glorious bloom this time of year in France.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nouveau: TV5Monde iPhone App

If you want to learn French on the go, and you have a compatible iPhone, TV5Monde has an app for that. The international Francophone channel just launched its latest offering: a mobile supplement to its language-learning program, 7 jours sur la planète (7 Days on the Planet).

According to its listing on the iTunes Store, this app helps you learn and remember French vocabulary with a new weekly selection of anagrams, quizzes, words to correct, and other word play fun. Alas, I am not myself the owner of an iPhone, and therefore cannot offer any kind of review of this seemingly cool app. Have you tried it? Let us know what you think!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

2010 World Championship Cheese Contest

The natural follow-up to Friday's post about wine would be a post about cheese. And we're in luck! The 2010 World Championship Cheese Contest was held last week in Madison, Wisconsin. Let's discuss.

You might think that the natural winner of such a contest would perhaps be a cheese of the French persuasion. After all, it is often said that the French have a different cheese for every day of the year, and anyone who has tasted the wares of a Parisian fromagerie knows that of these 365 varieties roughly 365 of them are delicious. However, it was the Swiss who took home this year's top prize (and second prize, as well), with Cedric Vuille from La Brevine, Switzerland winning for his Gruyère. NPR ran a story about the championship, so if you'd like to hear why the judges choose this particular cheese (hint: good body, good flavor notes...and low turnout from the French and Italians), this link will take you there:

Note: the radio story gives a different name for the winning cheese maker than the World Championship website.

Gruyère is indeed a delectable variety of cheese. I love to munch on it during l'apéritif and to use it as an accompaniment to Appenzeller in my fondue. But is it my favorite cheese? Probably not, but then again, I don't exactly like to play favorites with fromage. I love creamy, mild cow's milk cheese spread on a baguette, melted goat cheese with honey in a salad, and salty sheep's milk cheese for a light snack.

French, Swiss, or otherwise, do you have a favorite cheese?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Wine Tasting in Santa Barbara County

Are you a wine snob? Do you only drink Grand crus? Do you scoff at New World wines? Does anything this side of a St. Émilion taste like vinegar to your sensible palate?

I never considered myself to be a wine snob, but I fully admit to having previously possessed some very biased feelings toward le vin français. It’s not that I refused to drink anything other than French wine, or even thought that non-French varietals couldn’t be delicious. It’s just that I largely preferred to drink wines from Burgundy rather than Tuscany. Given the choice, I would take a Champagne over a Cava any day. And I definitely didn’t have many nice things to say about wines from my own country. Let's just say I had never met a California wine I enjoyed.

But a trip to Santa Barbara County changed all that. Lining up tastings at two different wineries – Tres Hermanas and Riverbench - I went into the experiences with an open mind. More than that, I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised; hoping that I had been unfairly judging CA wines all this time. The first sip sealed the deal. It was a Riesling/Gewürztraminer blend that was so crisp, clean, and delicious that I couldn't believe my taste buds. Riverbench had a pair of Chardonnays that made me realize, yes, I actually do like Chardonnays. After the extensive tastings were done, and we had sufficiently chatted up the friendly and knowledgeable winery owners, I had a shipment of both wines crossing the country on its way to chez moi.

Maybe I thought I didn't like CA wines because the good CA wines simply aren’t making their way into grocery stores. Tres Hermanas, for example, is a small producer with only about 3500 cases produced per year. I imagine most of those wines stay in the surrounding area, or are picked up by wine tourists, but they certainly aren’t making it all the way to my neighborhood on any kind of regular basis. So while I’ll never, ever take a Barefoot Cellars over a Vouvray, I will sing the praises of both Tres Hermanas and Riverbench wines. And I will hope there are many more non-French wineries like theirs to discover. The only question that remains is when do I get to visit Napa?

If you go:

Tres Hermanas

Owners Paulette and Marvin Teixeira are très cool. Ask to take a peek around the grounds, as they also rent out space for events.

9660 Foxen Canyon Road
Santa Maria, CA


Sip wines in this historic California ranch home, which has been so gorgeously remodeled you'll want to move in immediately. Be sure to taste their One Palm Pinot Noir, named for - you guessed it - the lone palm tree in the front yard.

Riverbench Vineyard & Winery
6020 Foxen Canyon Road
Santa Maria, CA

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Winners and Losers

You can’t escape Oscar fever in Los Angeles. Even the flower stand at the neighborhood market I visited the day before the big ceremony was getting into the action with a special Oscar contest. Simply fill out a ballot of the most popular categories (think Best Actress, not Best Live Action Short Film), and the top 10 predictors win a dozen roses. As I turned mine in (with France’s Un Prophète selected to win Best Foreign Language Film, of course), I jokingly told the vendor he had the winning ballot right here.

Sure, I had made an effort to see as many Oscar films as possible in the run-up to my trip, but I know as much about film as someone who lives in L.A. probably knows about pocket vetoes. So imagine my surprise when I received a voice mail from the flower stand telling me I had indeed won the dozen roses and would I kindly stop by to collect them sometime in the next three months. Chouette!!!

But wait, when did I receive this voice mail? Mais, oui…When I checked my phone after landing at Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC.

Monday, March 15, 2010

L.A. Photo Blog

After a glorious week on the sunny West Coast, I returned to the dreary East Coast yesterday with great memories, a slight tan (!), a few bottles of Santa Barbara County wine, and a new collection of travel photos. In the coming weeks I'll write about my long-awaited vacation (including, of course, its French connections), but for now I'll simply leave you with CA in pictures.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

En Vacances

I am on vacation. An honest-to-gosh, real, serious, vacation, which I define as 7 or more days and nights that do not involve going home, checking work email, or doing anything that you don't want to do. Long weekends don't count. Not even six months in Paris or Brussels counts, unless you spend six months without homework or a job. By my own definition of a real vacation, I have not taken one since January 2005, when someone's destination wedding took me to the Dominican Republic.

Why the five year drought? Because the past five years have been spent on grad school, studying abroad, starting a new career, and the minimal cash flow that accompanies all of those life events. But times have changed, and so here I am: In sunny Los Angeles for 10 days, 9 nights of honest-to-gosh, real, serious vacationing.

Today was the first day of The Vacation, and it started with a trip to Lamill Coffee for an organic cup of joe and the best brioche doughnut holes you have ever tasted. It was at this moment when I realized Parisian Spring might need a vacation too. So, while I know this trip will give me lots of ideas for blog entries, I'm going to try to disconnect my life for a few days and save those entries for when I return to the real world. After all, when a real vacation only comes around once every five years, maybe you should try to make it count.

À la semaine prochaine!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Reading French Books in Belgium

Living in Brussels was good for my love of reading. With two hours of daily commuting time, a household sans television, and weekend train rides to Amsterdam, London, Paris, and Cologne, books became my constant companions. Francophile that I am, many of those reads were of course been Paris or France-themed. I have a history of seeking out stories that take place in La Belle France; here is a list of my new favorite finds:

1. My Life in France, by Julia Child

Julia Child's descriptions of the foods she eats and the wine she drinks will have you booking a ticket to Paris in no time. Her observations on French life, human interaction, and her own process of self-actualization round our her culinary tales. I devoured this book. In addition to making me want to book that ticket to Paris, it made me want to watch old episodes of her cooking show, The French Chef, so I could learn more about this witty "gourmande," and pick up some new French recipes along the way.

2. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

Translated from French (l'Élégance du Hérisson) this book takes place at 7, rue Grenelle in the chic 6ème arrondissement of Paris. It's the story of the building's not-what-she-appears-to-be concierge, and a 12-year old resident who objects to what she sees as the pointlessness of the high society that surrounds her by planning her own suicide, set to take place on her 13th birthday. A Japanese businessman moves into the building and disrupts both of their lives for the better. It's a biting critique of French bourgeois society, that was also made into a movie in France.

3. The Sweet Life in Paris, by David Lebovitz

David Lebovitz peppers his stories of finding great food in Paris with expat humor and exaggerated (but still accurate) descriptions of Parisian behavioral quirks. Each chapter ends with a recipe or two, a few of which I actually tried and found to be quick, easy, and delicious. If the book leaves you wanting more, I recommend checking out his blog.

4. La Mort du Roi Tsongor, by Laurent Gaudé

This one is in French only, but you don't have to read at an advanced level to follow the story. The book begins with the planned death of the King, and goes on to show the tragic effects his decision has on those around him, as his once powerful and prosperous kingdom dissolves into sadness and war. A beautiful, grand, and tragic tale.

5. Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, by Georgina Howell

This epic biography of a truly kick-ass woman takes place mostly in the Middle East. Gertrude Bell's role in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference (the post-WWI divvying up of the globe that probably led to WWII) gives it the French angle. Bell is the early 1900s version of today's jet-setter, complete with private caravans and a doting entourage. But for all her traveling in the lap of early 20th century luxury, she was not removed from the local cultures she encountered. On the contrary, Bell was a fastidious student of Arabic, desert culture, and tribal politics. And fearless. A great read for the solo female traveler.