Archive for November, 2008

From Italy to London

Sunday, November 30th, 2008 by misty

Last week we visited Parma Italy and enjoyed the great hospitality of Andrea, Cristina, and Gaia, who guided us through the old city walls, the nearby Castell’Arquato, and welcomed us into their home for amazing dinners and fun games. I certainly learned how to play better Uno from Gaia.

Paul and I agreed we’ve never had a trip quite like this one, and it will always be one of my favorites. Over wonderful prosciutto, parma ham, and coffees, we discussed the fortunes and pitfalls of Information Architecture. Paul has been working on various storylines featuring Information Architects saving the world, young wizards à la Harry Potter using IA to get out of trouble and thwart evil, and many more I can’t remember but eagerly await their publication.

With only two days in Paris, we both attended the party of our final French class of November, and left for London. The Eurostar is amazing, fast, easy and not expensive. We arrived and dived right into the heart of Leicester Square (after a rest and healthy serving of Fish and Chips.) England starts its Christmas shopping season early, no reprieve of Thanksgiving or Black Friday here, so we struggled through crowds of shoppers, theater goers, and hip young Brits drinking the evening away. We didn’t see any evidence of binging, though, it seemed most people only wanted to get out of the cold.

And it was so, so cold. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner at the gastopub/restaurant Abingdon Saturday night, putting to rest any ideas about the state of good food in London. Sunday, we strolled the insanely crowded Portobello Market in Notting Hill with a fellow Seattlite, Rachel Hynes. Hearing about Rachel’s graduate school program, her feelings on the state and future of theater, and how she is engaging in London’s theater scene was very heartening. We can’t wait to see her show at Northwest New Works come next summer.

After the market, Paul and I walked the length of Kensington Gardens to the Hyde Park Christmas Fair, a truly insane and colorful collection of amusement park rides, beer and sausages stands, and german market stalls. All the park was empty, trees unleaved, fog nestled low, but the fair was pulsing and writhing with overbundled kids and parents passing from one stand, ride, sausage, and beer to the next. Curried bratwurst, by the way, should be avoided as well as the mulled wine.

The dark path back returned us to Kensington Church Street, more pubs, cold, and winter shoppers. We found another sleek gastro pub, watched one of the five football matches of the day, and topped off the night by seeing Quantum of Solace in our premier seats. I say it was just fine, Paul says thumbs down. And at $26 dollars a seat, who can blame him?

Night of 1000 Accordions

Sunday, November 30th, 2008 by misty

On the unveiling night of Beaujolais Nouveau, the streets, caves, and bars are full of people eager to enjoy the fresh wine. It is customary to hire an accordion player to entertain the masses. Lucky for Paul and I, after wandering through the overcrowded sidestreets we settled at the one cafe where the accordionist played covers of the Clash along with French classics. Cheers to Trent who introduced me to the Clash and to Scott, our favorite accordionist. We toasted to you both and to all our friends and loved ones who’ve been reading along with our journey.

Saint-Malo and Le Mont-Saint-Michel

Thursday, November 20th, 2008 by Paul

St-MaloThe walled city of Saint-Malo, in the French region of Bretagne, was once home to privateers, pirates, and the French writer Chateaubriand. The hotel in which we stayed was once the mansion where he was born.

Today, Saint-Malo is a great place to walk along the beach or watch the ocean atop the ramparts that surround the inner city. After that you can pop into a café for moules frites or a galette, a type of savory crèpe made from buckwheat flour.

St-Malo

It’s also a great place to get a plateau de fruits de mer. To give you a sense of this dish, imagine taking a boat into the ocean nearby, letting out a net, and pulling up whatever living thing you found, then placing that onto a multi-tiered platter. What you get a huge pile of oysters, langoustines, pink shrimp, grey shrimp, multiple types of sea snails, clams, some lemon and mustard sauce on the side, set into piles of kelp and topped with a whole crab.

We managed to finish most of it, although I don’t think I would consider sea snails “every day” fare.

The next day we took a bus Le Mont-Saint-Michel.

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Little olive oils

Saturday, November 15th, 2008 by misty

Before I was hit with the rhume de normandaise (a cold from Normandy) that kept me in bed for the last three days, I went to the olive oil shop to buy olive oil. That’s right, the olive oil shop where you buy olive oil. It’s like the bread shop where you buy bread. The meat shop where your meat is waiting. The cheese shop, the bean shop, the underwear shop, you get the picture. The grands magasins are overwhelming in their breadth and price tags, and so much empty white space! But the tiny shops teeming with all varieties of one specialty – like say, an algerian pastisserie displaying 20 trays of 20 different confections – are just more enjoyable places to spend your Euros.

At L’olivier, you get your bottle of olive oil poured from a big keg after you’ve done various taste tests. It’s not revolutionary, there are fancy olive oil shops everywhere but not as many as there are here. I also purchased tiny bottles of flavored olive oils and vinaigrettes. Shake and voila – the perfect amount of salad dressing. Guess what you’re all getting for Christmas!

Now, I must go to the wine shop where you get your to-go wine poured from a barrel!

Speaking of spending Euros, it’s been reported that the EU is officially in recession. Only one country has seen increased spending this quarter. I’d like to say, “You’re welcome, France.” It’s been a pleasure handing over our money.

Also – our Halloween pumpkin! Thank you, Michael, for sending these pics from our night carving pumpkins in Paris. Yes, I did eventually find one and here he is. He’s a French pumpkin.

Bayeux

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008 by Paul

Over the past couple weekends Misty and I have been leaving the confines of Paris to explore the country. The first place we went was the quiet town of Bayeux in Normandy.

Bayeux

Normandy wasn’t always quiet, of course, and many Americans don’t think of Normandy without considering the Allied invasion that marked a pivotal point of World War II. Bayeux is one of the few towns around that area that survived the bombings mostly intact, and now counts itself as a major jumping-off point for tourists wanting to see those historic beaches for themselves. Not that there were really that many in the off-season:

Bayeux

Bayeux is also home to another piece of history, the magnificent Bayeux Tapestry. It was created in 1077 to depict the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. This battle, occurring during the greater part of October 14th, 1066, marked the point when William of Normandy (also known as William the Bastard), defeated Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, and henceforth became better known to us as William the Conqueror.

If you’re not a fan of history, then perhaps this all seems a bit blasé to you. I admit that, two years ago, I couldn’t tell you when the Battle of Hastings occurred — I even lost a pub quiz because of this very question. I suspect many Americans couldn’t do the same; that said, its effect on the history of England and the English language is difficult to understate. There are very few times when the direction of history changes so monumentally, and in such a way that makes for a good story.

The tapestry is wonderful piece of art and a wonderful story. It’s the story of the death of the previous English king, Edward the Confessor; the difficult relationship between William and Harold, two men with enormous ambitions; a cameo appearance by Halley’s Comet; the building of the armada that took William’s invasion force across the channel; the burning of peasant villages and a women and child fleeing the fire; finally, the battle depicted in absolute gory detail, complete with images of decapitated soldiers, both men and horses lying dead, the field flowing with blood.

Unfortunately no pictures could be taken of it, so you’ll have to content yourselves with the pictures on the Wikipedia page.

We also visited the Bayeux Cathedral, where Harold made his oath to support William in his claim to the throne of England, the breaking of which lead to the invasion (or so the tapestry says):

Bayeux Cathedral
Bayeux Cathedral

We were only there for a day so we couldn’t go to the Normandy beaches. We did drink some good Calvados, a yummy apple brandy named for the region.

I’m slowly trying to catch up with our travels — expect another post about our weekend in Brittany!

L’election

Thursday, November 6th, 2008 by misty

Paris certainly turned out to embrace Barack Obama at the finish line of his race to la maison blanche. Forget about the flood of hope, Paul and I almost got lost in the flood of people at the Palais de Congrès. We stood in line for an hour with no hope of entering the giant ballroom filled with Americans and young French people. They were the privileged watching the broadcast on giant satellite tvs, blogging in the media center and noshing on Barack O’Bagels. Most of the crowd stayed outside that night, at the le palais and in other venues all over the city.

Paul and I, unable to enjoy the sardine-thick crowd of loud 18 year olds yelling over our heads, smoking in our faces, and jabbing mentionable and unmentionable places in their frenzy of obamamania, hurried to make it home before the first count was announced. Our cab ride along the right bank was actually the first time we’d seen l’Arc de Triomphe et Champs-Elysées on this visit. Racing along the Seine, weaving through other cabs while smoking and talking on his cell phone about la crise and the lack of toilets for working men like himself, our cab driver whizzed us through narrow tunnels like the one Princess Diana was killed.

And even though we love it here, there is no doubt now that we can return to the US in January and we might even like it!

The girl with Obama Blue Hair

That's right, my hair is blue, gobama!

That

Credit Crisis, Microchip Edition

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008 by Paul

There’s certainly enough French news and commentary on what’s called la crise économique, la crise financière, or simply la crise. Just like in the States, no one is sure when it will end, where it will hit the worst, and what’s going to happen next week.

In comparison with that, the credit “crisis” I’m talking about is quite a bit smaller. It’s the “crisis” of French credit cards.

Since the early nineties, the French bank system switched to using cards with microchips in them to help prevent fraud. Much like a debit card, these cartes bancaires à puce don’t require a signature — just stick your card in a little machine, enter your PIN number, and voilà.

For the French, this is wonderful. For American tourists, it’s a pain because it renders unavailable a lot of the automated payment machines that require chip-enabled credit cards, everything from buying train tickets to those ubiquitous rental bikes you may have heard about.

As Canada and most of Europe switch to this new “chip-and-PIN” credit card, Americans are increasingly being in the cold.

Let’s hope that the larger financial crisis comes to an end quickly, and that American banks start issuing credit cards that work in other countries. That is, if there are any American banks left.