Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Everlasting Parisian Honeymoon

When I first arrived in New York City, I was what you might call bright eyed and bushy tailed.  I had never lived here before, and was brimming with excitement as I thought about the endless possibilities a summer in the Big Apple held.   I even blogged about my first impressions of the city, and they were mostly positive.  The people are so nice!  We're free to be you and me!  But one month later, after you've seen a pack of rats in the subway, found a roach in your shower, trampled through garbage lined streets that no one ever seems to clean up, and spent night after night in an urban apartment sans air conditioning during a brutal summer heat wave, your bright eyes start to dim.  The honeymoon is over.

I'm still glad to be here, and I know there are many good things to come this summer (and many good things that have already happened), but I now have a more realistic outlook on life in NYC.  In short, it's hard.  And often uncomfortable.  All of this musing on the city got me thinking about my first impressions of Paris.  Unlike New York, my first impressions of Paris were mostly negative.  The city felt overwhelming, and I didn't think it lived up to the hype.   I used to go so far as to claim that I hated Paris.  Why would anyone spend time in that gloomy city when they could hang out on the sunny beaches of the South of France?

Unlike New York City, my honeymoon with Paris came after the first impressions.  And it has yet to end.  I visited Paris once more before moving there in February of 2008 and I didn't hate it!  I wandered the streets with my camera, spent time gazing in amazement at the Eiffel Tower, and downed sweet crêpes purchased from sidewalk vendors.  Paris was growing on me.  My appreciation for the city only continued to grow during the six months I lived there.  Even today, far away from France, I dream about Paris and all of its delights - from impromptu baguette and cheese picnics, to discovering a new favorite café, to never tiring of the view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe.

And it kind of makes sense that New York would immediately suck you and later spit you out, while your relationship with Paris grows stronger over time.  That's often how people describe friendships in the U.S. and France.  Americans make friends quickly, even immediately.  Someone you just met at a neighborhood get-together will soon know you entire life story, and you will know his or hers, and a new friendship (or, more likely, a friendship for the afternoon) is born.  But the French take weeks, months, even years to warm up to new people.  Friendships aren't immediate, they're something that develop slowly over time.  You have to get to know each other first, little by little. Just like me and Paris. 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

She's Watching You

Just to hit home the coffee theme of Friday's post a bit more, here's a shot of the top of the Starbucks Headquarters building in Seattle. Recognize someone?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Seattle's Coffee Culture

In Seattle, coffee is King, and it's sold everywhere: in roadside stands, out of window cafés that line the sidewalks, at gas station drive-thrus, and yes, in Starbucks. Lots and lots of Starbucks, but also Seattle's Best, Tully's, Specialty's Café and Bakery, (their cinnamon and sugar morning bread is to die is their café au lait), and countless other independent and chain establishments. Coffee might have originated in Ethiopia, but its ubiquitous use was surely perfected in the Pacific Northwest.

In fact, I heard the term "coffee culture" used multiple times during my visit to Seattle, and soon learned that the culture is contagious. This special-occasion coffee drinker (read: weekends, after dinner in Paris, particularly rough Mondays) found herself rushing out every morning to get the first caffeine fix of the day. It was more than just a desire to drink coffee, it was a need. I had to have it! I didn't realize how sucked in I had become until my last day in Seattle when I somehow managed to pull myself out of a coffee craving long enough to remember how I normally function just find without chain-drinking cups of joe. Why was I so obsessed with it now? Oh. Right. Coffee culture.

Did Seattle's coffee culture begin with the creation of the first Starbucks, which opened in 1971 across from Seattle's famed Pike Place Market? Does it have anything to do with the region's cool, rainy weather and its accompanying desire for warm, comforting beverages? Or is it due to something else entirely?  If you're from Seattle and you have the answer, please share!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bainbridge Island Hopping

It's not the Greek Isles, which have been at the top of my travel wish list for years, but Bainbridge Island is a tranquil getaway in its own right.  Three trusted sources suggested I visit Bainbridge during my five-day trip to Seattle, so although boats and I generally don't get along (I'll spare you the unflattering details of a certain Winter 2004 sail to Ireland's Aran Islands), I decided to go for it.

Heading out under rain-threatening skies early this morning I paid the $6.90 round trip fare and boarded a surprisingly massive ferry from Seattle's Pier 52.  The 35 minute ride flew by.  Open decks provided stunning, albeit cold, views of Puget Sound, Seattle's skyline, gliding seagulls, cruise ships, and my island destination.  I found that the best place to meet fellow travelers is on the top passenger deck at the front of the ferry.  There aren't many who are willing to brave this location's brisk headwinds and occasional biting rain, but those who are willing are eager to meet their fellow view-seekers. 

Once you land on Bainbridge Island it's only a 5-minute walk (follow the salmon!) to the main shopping and dining area.  A few brunch spots were already hopping.  Other establishments were still closed, so I'll have to go back if I want to browse the clothing boutiques or follow the island's wine-tasting trail.  Bainbridge is an easy day trip from Seattle, but it would also make a nice main vacation destination of its own - a quiet place to get away from it all and enjoy the good life of food, drink, and relaxing by the water's edge.  Sort of like Greece.  Without the bikini weather. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Where Did the Summer Go?

I miss summer.   Summer used to be about relaxing by the lake, night after night of barbecues, basking in the sunshine, and feeling like the season would truly never end.   Three months of longer, warmer days rejuvenated me and helped make the other nine months of shorter, colder days a bit more bearable.  It was also one heck of a good time.  Of course, this was all when I was a kid (college years count).  Back then, summers also meant three months of uninterrupted free time.  So the question is:  Can adults, with their careers, commitments, and responsibilities, enjoy a lazy summer too?

Maybe not.  For too many years my summers haven’t included nearly enough of the aforementioned seasonally-appropriate activities.  Nowadays, I might manage to squeeze in a grill session or two between June and August, and if I’m lucky one good day of lounging by a pool or in a park or at the lake.  Mostly what transpires, however, is a race to the end of summer resulting in a Labor Day weekend filled with regrets of summery things not accomplished and repeated statements of “where did the summer go?”

So I stress about summer, when really, it’s supposed to be a time to distress.  Will I be able to enjoy it this year?  Will I find time for the warm weather activities I love so much?  And why am I already stressing about this – summer doesn’t even begin until June 21st!

How do you (or don’t you) make the most of summer?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

NYC French Resto Review: Bar Tabac

What do you do when you have an abundance of French restaurants in your neighborhood and a shortage of time in which to try them out?  You start eating, toute de suite.  First stop: Bar Tabac.

I ate at Bar Tabac on the same day I arrived in New York City, and it was restaurant love at first sight.  Located on the corner of Smith and Dean Streets, Tabac is smack dab in the middle of a lively shopping/dining center in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood.  What struck me first about this restaurant is its authentic Frenchness.  From the simple outdoor seating, to the Francophone clientele, to the wood and brick interior, to the charming French accents of the staff, to the fact that they don’t accept Visa or MasterCard, everything will make you feel like you’ve just discovered Paris’ best kept local dining secret.   Except that you're in Brooklyn.  

Bar Tabac's food is typical French bistro fare (steak frites) with some American influences thrown in (Late Night Giant Bar Tabac Burger...I'm not joking).  The first dish I ordered was their "goat cheese on croutons" salad, with a glass of Chenin Blanc to accompany.  The salad portion was definitely French, but so was the freshness and taste, so I couldn’t complain.  I went back to Bar Tabac a few days later to try their brunch, and this time I ate a truly memorable croque monsieur with a side of fries and salade verte.   The bread on the croque was crispy, buttery perfection, and they didn’t skimp on the cheese.  It wasn't diet food, but it went great with the French Open final they were showing on the flat screen.

The best part about Bar Tabac is its welcoming, low-key atmosphere.  The servers are friendly and the clientele is down-to-Earth.  No Parisian snobbery here, just good food and an easy place to relax, either with a friend, or with your fresh-off-the-presses Sunday edition of the New York Times.   Did I mention they have $3.95 mimosas?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

My First Impressions of New York City

I've been in New York City for almost a week now, and have already started to get a feel for the place.  First impressions are sometimes right, and sometimes proven to be surprisingly wrong, but I'm going to take a stab at outlining mine anyways. 

Impression Number One:  New York is loud.

This city is nothing if it's not noisy.  It's noisy in the morning, noisy during the day, and even noisy at night (and overnight), thanks to  variety of activities such as the DJ who was spinning Euro beats in the courtyard behind my apartment yesterday evening. The soundtrack for this city is a never-ending stream of honking horns, roaring traffic, and an assortment of everyday sounds created by people living their lives. You could argue that New York is loud because it's a big city, but Paris is a big city as well, and I would never describe it as "loud."   When it comes to decibels, New York is on a whole different level. 

Impression Number Two: We're free to be you and me in New York. 

As far as I can tell, New York is quite possibly the most come-as-you-are city on the planet.  There is no standard way of being, of looking, of dressing, or of enjoying life.  Here you are free to be as you are, and no one will pass judgment.   Contrast that with Paris, where staring people down on the Métro is a popular local sport.  You know all those guides telling you how to "Dress like a Parisian" or "Eat like a Parisian" or "Carry Yourself like a Parisian?"  I can't imagine them existing for New Yorkers.  How do you classify the people of a city who seem so eager to let everyone simply be who they are?

Impression Number Three: New Yorkers are Nice.  Really Nice.

Big cities are usually known for their self-absorbed residents who can't be bothered to take time out of their über busy schedules to engage in the pleasantries of polite society.  So far, New York seems to buck that trend (or stereotype, depending on how you see it).  Everyone from my office building's security guards to the guy who sold me coffee out of his curbside cart has been incredibly friendly.  Please and thank you and "here you go, Miss" are genuinely used in all circumstances.  No one has ever called me "Miss" in Washington.  Forget "Minnesota Nice."  Here it's all about "New York Polite." 

Have you ever been to New York City?  What were your first impressions?  And just for fun, tell us your first impressions of Paris as well (mine: dirty and overrated...they've since changed).

Friday, June 4, 2010

Minnesota Dreamin'

No summer could ever be complete for me without at least one visit to Minnesota.  I think my home state is beautiful year round (yes, even when it's -40 Fahrenheit in the middle of January), but it's definitely on its best behavior in the summer.  Lakes, trees, and brilliant blue skies are just the beginning.  There's also the powerful energy that gets created when 5 million people do everything they can to take advantage of the warmth while it lasts.  Minnesotans don't waste a single minute of summer. 

Given all that, and the fact that I dearly missed friends and family, I could hardly wait for my most recent trip home.  Memorial Day weekend in the Twin Cities turned out to be exactly what I needed.  Here's a short photo diary of four glorious days in the North Star State:

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Taking Amtrak

Americans who have spent time in Europe often lament the lack of convenient, high-speed and far-reaching rail service in their own country.  Eurail passes in hand, they've sprinted from London to Paris to Rome quickly and cheaply and wonder why they can't do the same from New York City to Chicago to Los Angeles.  The United States' used to be a world leader in railroads (see the 1800s), but today's network of trains in the New World is nowhere near as developed as it is across the Atlantic.  Nevertheless, options for train travel do exist, and I often wonder if we Americans think we don't have access to trains simply because we're not trying hard enough.  We've all heard of Amtrak, for example, but how many of us have actually used it? 

Until today, I was one of those Americans who had heard of Amtrak but never used it.  In fact, I had never even seriously considered using it before New York City-based colleagues told me to head up to my temporary summer assignment by heading to Washington, D.C.'s Union Station to buy a train ticket.  So, here I am, writing this blog from the comfort of Amtrak's Acela Express with service to Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, and a few other stops in between.  First impressions are important, and Amtrak has certainly passed the test.  Purchasing my ticket was a breeze (I used an automated machine at the station), the train staff is friendly and helpful (lots of "good mornings" and other pleasantries), and the train itself is comfortable and practical (loads of leg room and free wifi).

This train won't travel at the same speeds of, say, France's TGV - a technological marvel that can zip you from city to city at up to 320 kilometers per hour (199 miles per hour) - but, depending on your route and desired time frame, it's a decent alternative to flying.  I left Washington at 9:00 a.m. and can expect to arrive at Penn Station by 11:46 a.m.  It's a longer trip than by plane, but if you factor in the time it takes to check in at the airport, go through security, taxi around runways, wait for your bags, and travel from an airport to the city center, you're looking at an overall comparable time table.  Not to mention the superior comfort of a train, which can offer leg room, urban and countryside views, and the ability to travel with liquids that are larger than 3 ounces and not shoved into a tiny Ziploc bag.

Longer distances in the U.S. are still more manageable by plane.  Taking Amtrak from Washington, D.C. to Chicago will only run you $163 (my trip to NYC is $180, prices can vary), but the journey will take nearly 24 hours.  That's great if you have the time to enjoy a leisurely cross-country adventure, but the two-hour plane ride is more practical if you need to get there now.  Still, I can't help but wonder what would happen if Americans gave this travel option more of a chance.  We do have rails in the U.S., and maybe they're exactly what we need to relax and rediscover the simple pleasures of "getting there," by train, just like we did in Europe.