things i learned

While abroad in Paris, London, the Czech Republic, and Barcelona, I learned many things about cultures different from my own. Since I returned home to Texas, my family and friends have been asking me about my time in Europe. Is it true that Parisians walk around town with an armload of hot, fresh baguettes? (Yes, especially at lunchtime.) Was British beer the most delicious we had ever tasted? (Sadly, no. Washington State’s beer reigns supreme.) How did you get through the rural areas of the Czech Republic without knowing the language? (Luckily, we managed to find a couple of English speakers.) What color was the Barcelona beach water? (Mostly blue, with a tinge of green. And very, very clear.) Well, I have compiled a top-ten list of my most surprising discoveries:

  1. Certain Parisian stereotypes are absolutely true: Men and women, as a whole, are very skinny. However, I suspect it is due mostly to their chain-smoking and alcohol-imbibing habits, not their responsible diets. With all of those appetitite suppressants, how can they possibly eat dinner?
  2. To the French, the English phrase “I see you” translates to “I understand your innermost self.”
  3. French food can get boring. Shocking, but true. Any spice, especially anything hot, is used with extreme caution or not at all.
  4. Londoners are actually very nice people. (Apparently their reputation says otherwise?) Also, they are very tall people!
  5. In the Czech Republic, it is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to drink beer at as early as ten in the morning. Yes, even on a Sunday. (Before mass? After mass? Good question.)
  6. In Czech, there are about ten different meanings for the word prosím, including 1) Please, 2) Here you are, 3) You’re welcome, 4) What did you say?, 5) I’ll have… The list goes on (and on).
  7. Czech food mostly consists of meat and bread dumplings, not meat and potatoes. Maybe potatoes are more of a German thing?
  8. Catalan and Spanish are not at all the same language. Seth and I shared a hostel room in Barcelona with a couple of girls from Buenos Aires, and they admitted they could not understand a thing.
  9. Squid ink does not really taste like anything. It is jet black and kind of creepy looking, but it is actually very mild on the tongue.
  10. I want to live in Barcelona. I want to live there really, really badly.
Also! As an extra treat, I have finally uploaded photos from the rest of my trip. To see pictures from the Czech Republic, click here:
To see pictures from Barcelona, click here:

catching up

Because our friend Toine has been visiting for the past few days, I have not had the time to update on the rest of our Czech Republic trip. We spent the twenty-fourth in Brno and the twenty-fifth in Prague. Brno was not quite what I expected; it was very small and slightly confused. The city felt simultaneously urban and suburban, trash and clean, old and new. It juggled its old city image, with the former town wall, and its new city image, with its reformed Soviet housing and Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat Villa. It was a very strange city indeed.

On our last day in Prague, we shopped for souvenirs (scarves, Czech garnet, and the like), ate more traditional Czech food, and strolled around the Old Town again. It was a nice day. I bought my grandmother a 100 year-old rosary I found in an antique shop. Its beads are handmade, off-white, and beautifully imperfect. I thought the piece was just amazing, and I hope my grandma will love it.

For the past few days, Seth, Antonia, and I have been making the rounds, visiting all of our Paris bucket-list destinations. We stopped by the musée du quai Branly and a few other spots in the fifteenth arrondissement, the Marais (because I love it so much), Belleville, Parc de la Villette, a cute street of single-family homes in the nineteenth arrondissement, and Berthillion. I have really enjoyed taking it easy and savoring my last few moments in the city.

The three of us leave for Barcelona tomorrow. While I am super excited about our trip, I am quite sad to be leaving Paris. As annoyed as I grew with the French people and their language, I do adore this place. The other night, we went to the theater to see Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The movie (a love letter, really) was absolutely beautiful and heartwarming, and it felt extra special to watch it with a group of Parisians. Simply put, there is no other city like this in the world.

[photo: St. Agnes of Bohemia Convent, Prague]

nice was nice

On Thursday morning, I flew to Nice to meet Christina, an old friend I have known since the seventh grade. Since I had visited Nice before, my main goals were to eat good food and get a decent tan. I accomplished both.

After checking in at our hostel, we walked the couple of kilometers to the beach. We talked about girl stuff as we basked in the crisp seventy-degree sun. (We refused to swim, as the water was absolutely freezing!) When we got hungry, we walked to Cours Saleya to scope out a touristy bar and restaurant. By day, this pedestrian-only street is home to farmers’ and specialty markets, but by night, it becomes very Little Italy-esque. Hosts and hostesses stand outside the restaurant doors, flashing their menus and waving patrons to one of the many outdoor tables. It may be gimmicky, but it’s a perfect place to people watch and enjoy the last few hours of sunlight. Ultimately, we settled on a cute little bar for pre-dinner kirs and olives before heading to a pizzeria. I enjoyed a salami and peperoncino pizza, while Christina ordered an eggplant and ricotta pizza. My dish was absolutely perfect—crispy, spicy, slightly cheesy, and freshly seasoned.

The next day, we relaxed at the beach and did a little bit of shopping. Not too much to report. For dinner, we both tried aïoli niçois, a local dish of cod and steamed vegetables served with a garlic mayonaise. I have to say I was not a huge fan, but I was happy to try something new.

On Saturday, Christina and I decided to take the train to Cannes. Since the Film Festival is in a few days, we thought we might see a celebrity or two. No luck. We did, however, enjoy a leisurely lunch of white wine, mussels, and french fries. (Yeah, moules frites are a bit thing in France. It may seem like a strange combination, but it is a completely genius one.) My huge pot of mussels was served with a fresh cream, lemon, and herb sauce which was simply to-die-for. After gorging ourselves, we lounged on the beach and read fashion magazines. It was a really lovely and relaxing afternoon. We managed to gain the courage to walk into the water once. Eeps! It was so cold, our skin was splotchy and red after just one minute. Once the sun began to set, we walked around the old town. There were so many narrow, hilly streets—I’m talking six feet wide—lined with restaurants and boutiques. I wish we would have had appetites to eat there because the atmosphere was just too picturesque.

All in all, I had a wonderful time in Nice and Cannes. After spending the semester with seven guys (not to mention the occasional male visitor), being around another girl, especially one I have been friends with for so long, was a very welcome change. I am looking forward to leaving for London in just a couple of days, this time with Seth. I think it is kind of a big deal to travel with a significant other. What if your travel styles don’t match? Fortunately, I think Seth and I have more or less similar expectations for our adventures.

duncan arrives

For Duncan’s first day in Paris, Seth and I decided to take him to the Conciergerie. Since Duncan is such a history and politics buff, he enjoyed touring the prison and imagining what it must have been like in 1793, when Marie Antoinette and many other revolutionaries awaited their turn at the guillotine.

After sunset, we took the subway to the Eiffel Tower. We laid out on the lawn for nearly an hour just admiring the twinkling lights.

To see some photos from last week, click here:

To see some photos from yesterday, click here:

may day

On the first of May, 1561, King Charles IX of France received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm. Each year thereafter, he offered a sprig to each of the ladies of his court. Eventually, it became customary for the French to give lilies of the valley to loved ones as a symbol of springtime.

Seth and I just returned from a pre-parade gathering at Republique, and we imagine the political festivities were more or less typical to a Parisian Labor Day. Syrians carried their nation’s flag to promote solidarity; Communist, Socialists, and Anti-Capitalists rallied support; Iraqis and Afghanistanis protested United States interference (They carried signs that read, in French, “Yankee, go home! Yesterday Iraq, today Afghanistan. What next?”); international workers sold sausages, kebabs, and yes, lilies of the valley, free of taxation.

Of course, everything in our neighborhood is closed today.

my mom in france

While my mom and stepdad were in Paris, Seth and I took them to as many of the nontraditional sites as we possibly could. We visited the Museum of Natural History, the old Roman ruins, Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, the Pantheon, Luxembourg Gardens, Saint-Sulpice, Le Marais, the Hôtel de Ville, and the Arab World Institute.

On Wednesday night, we dined at Fish la Boissonnerie, a seafood restaurant owned and operated by a very friendly American expat. (He also owns and operates Cosi just across the street.) I enjoyed a three course meal of cauliflower-anchovy risotto; baked salmon with chorizo, sauteed potatoes, baby bok choy, and sweet mustard aioli; and rosemary-mint panna cotta with raspberry puree. (My mom enjoyed the same meal as I did minus the dessert. Blasphemy!) Seth ordered smoked eel with shredded carrots and pesto, cod with a sweet tomato chutney atop a bed of spinach, and a very pungent cheese plate. For Ken’s appetizer, he ordered a heavenly scallop carpaccio. As much as I loved my starter and main course, I thought the thinly sliced, barely cooked scallops were the most to-die-for delicacies on the table.

Yesterday for lunch, Seth and I took my mom and Ken to Le Marais for their first falafel. As much as everyone loves L’As du Falafel, Seth and I are bigger fans of Chez Hanna. Their lines are minimal, their chickpea balls and toppings are super fresh, and their eggplant is perfectly roasted every single time. After lunch, Seth and I explored some new sites alone, including the Church of Saint-Séverin (one of the oldest remaining churches on the left bank), the National Assembly, and Madeleine Church (a temple designed to glorify Napoleon’s army).

For dinner that night, the four of us reunited on the L’île de la Cité to meet some of my mom’s former work colleagues, Pierre and his wife Carlotta and Alex and his wife Helene. Pierre and Carlotta own the most amazing apartment on L’île which looks out onto Notre Dame. We had a class of champagne at their place before walking down the street to Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole. As you might imagine, the food was very traditionally French. After a filling dinner, we strolled to a curbside ice cream cart for an on-the-go treat.

My mom and Ken left Paris this morning for Normandy. We will see them in a couple of days but probably not for long. Seth’s friend Duncan will be in town by then, and we will have someone new to entertain.

[Fish la Boissonnerie: 69, Rue de Seine 75006 Paris]

[Chez Hanna: 54 Rue Rosiers, 75004 Paris]

[Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole: 24 Rue Chanoinesse, 75004 Paris]

arab world institute

This afternoon Seth and I took the subway to the fourth arrondissement for some fresh air and sightseeing. We had both visited Jean Nouvel’s Arab World Institute during our sophomore-year field trip, but neither of us had had the time to explore it properly. Four years later, we finally got to see it.

The AWI building is famous for its metallic screen facade with moving geometric motifs. The motifs are actually motor-controlled apertures which open and close every hour to adjust the amount of natural light which enters the building. The mechanism creates interior spaces with soft, filtered light, an effect often used in Islamic architecture.

On the ninth floor of the building is a fabulous restaurant which overlooks the Seine, Notre Dame, and many other Paris sites. Surprisingly, its lunch menu is not outrageously expensive. We might have to give it a go!

bubble tea in paris

In the magical land of Belleville, Seth and I found the bubble tea fairy. (She does exist!) She concocted very expensive (€5.50) but very delicious tapioca drinks. Basically, she made all of our wildest dreams come true. In other news, we finally booked our flight to Prague! Rejoice! [Bubble Tea: 15 Rue Belleville, 75019 Paris] [photo courtesy of ???]

sugar, spice, and everything nice

Now that Seth and I are finished with school, we actually have time to cook! Lately, we have been craving southwest flavors and Indian food, mostly because we have grown tired of the French’s stinginess with seasonings. In the past week, we have made Aarti Sequeira’s chicken tikka masala, a southwest egg scramble, and spicy lentil chili. Lucky for us, we live just a few short blocks from hoards of Indian markets and unique fresh produce stands. Have you ever heard of karela? Neither had we! Apparently, it is a bitter melon popular in South and East Asian cooking.

This afternoon, we journeyed half a block from our apartment to La Paella. We enjoyed plates of Manchego, chorizo sobreasada, and gambas al ajillo (oh, yeah, and a couple glasses of sweet red sangria). Everything was wonderfully spicy, garlic-y, and oily. After our hefty, food-coma inducing lunch, it was nice to return home to a pitcher full of homemade iced coffee. While I wish we could spend more time frolicking around Paris and dining at chic bistros, I understand that there is plenty of work to be done. Sigh. I am ever so thankful for the huge windows in our apartment.