Monday, February 28, 2011

A Weekend in Normandy

Just as Paris was beginning to feel like home, we departed the city and headed north to Normandy and Bretagne (Brittany) for the weekend. We traveled several hours by bus to our first destination, Arromanches, on France's northern coast. Arromanches was one of the beaches used in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The British set up an artificial port floating 2 kilometers off the shore, a great engineering feat at the time. Still today, there are remnants from the port, including many concrete breakwaters. We toured a museum there, strolled the beaches, showered in a sudden downpour and piled back on the bus for more site-seeing.

Our next stop was Omaha beach - site of an American D-Day invasion. We trekked down to the beach, where the waters of the English Channel were glistening in some momentary sunshine. The beach was beautiful and it was hard to remember that such an exceptionally gorgeous place was the site of such great destruction. We were soon reminded of the somber meaning of the beach as we ascended the sandy mount and toured the American Cemetery. Over 9000 graves of American soldiers were lined up in perfect precision. Each deceased seemed to remain a soldier in death: lined up in battalions, each just another addition to the great number of casualties generated by the war.

Exploring a bomb crater at Pointe du Hoc
The stark white of the cross and star of David tombs contrasted greatly with the grass, a vibrant green from the coast's frequent rains, and the deep blue of the ocean, still within view. Escorted onto the bus by another sudden rainfall, we departed the cemetery and headed to Pointe du Hoc.

Pointe du Hoc, situated above the sea on the Normandy coast, was the site of the US attacks on German troops during Operation Overlord. Pointe du Hoc towered over the ocean, the landscape broken up by huge bomb craters, and remnants of German fortifications. We got our fill of crawling in and out of barracks, and for some, mud sliding down into the craters, and then departed for Bretagne.

Apple-Caramel Crepe
We arrived later that night in Saint Malo, a coastal Bretagne town. This walled city looked strikingly similar to Quebec City. We later learned that this was not merely a coincidence - Jacques Cartier, the 16th century explorer who discovered Canada, was from Saint Malo and as such brought a Breton influence to the the New World.

We walked around the winding, village-like streets of Saint Malo and stopped for dinner at a creperie. Crepes, specifically gallettes - crepes made with ble noir (buckwheat flour) - originated from this region. Our whole group feasted on sparkling cider (also a local product), savory gallettes and sweet dessert crepes of all kinds - a delicious exploration into Breton cuisine.  I tried a gallette with duck, potatoes and cheese, and a crepe with apples and salted butter caramel. Yum.

Saint Malo
The next morning, we walked along the city walls, ogling at the beautiful coastline and sparkling emerald sea. We boarded the bus and traveled to Mont-Saint-Michel, sad to leave charming Saint-Malo behind.
Mont Saint-Michel

Our sadness disappeared when we arrived at Mont-Saint-Michel. The beautiful Medieval fortress, become monastery, is atop a tall, hilly island and is perched over the ocean.

We climbed the many stairs up to the abbey - the building itself had gorgeous architectural details, and the views from all the levels and rooms were astounding.

We meandered our way back down the chateau, through windy streets crowded with gift shops and cookie vendors. With some souvenirs, a camera full of pictures and sore feet, we headed back home to Paris. As we approached the city, Paris welcomed us back with a beautiful sunset shining behind the Eiffel Tower.
Back home in Paris

Ballet, munchies and award shows, oh my!

Awesome falafel place in Marais
The past two weeks seemed to fly by in an instant. Classes have gotten into full swing. I have grammar everyday, our director's course twice a week, conferences courses twice a week (art history and theater, but possibly switching to gastronomy) and phonetics each day, every other week. Having classes taught entirely in French is getting more and more normal each day, yet comprehending everything is still a struggle. Mixed in with classes, have been a few fun experiences worth sharing.

My lunch
One day in between classes, I headed to the Marais to walk around. Marais is a great cultural melange. This part of the city has some of the oldest buildings in all of Paris, yet the vibe is hip, current and eclectic. There is also somewhat of a waning Jewish influence, but Jewish bakeries and falafel stands still abound.
The day I visited, I stopped at L'as du Fallafel, popular for its huge stuffed pitas - cheap, portable and entirely delicious.

Opera Garnier
Later in the week, we went to the ballet Caligula at one of Paris's most loved buildings - The Opera Garnier. The Opera house was regal, and I kept waiting for the lights to dim and the Phantom to emerge. Grand statues, chandeliers, exquisite tiling and gold leaf decor line the interior and the exterior architecture is magnificent as well. The ballet itself was quite good. We were scratching our heads trying to figure out the story of the ballet, but meanwhile we enjoyed the graceful dancing and beautiful Baroque sounds of the chamber orchestra (there was even a harpsichord!) playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

Inside the opera house
The day after the opera, I went to Ile-St-Louis with my friend Alexandra, to obtain some of the coveted Berthillon ice cream. I tried the pistachio and praline-orange, both heavenly. I'll definitely have to head back, as there are so many interesting flavors left to try.

On somewhat of a gastronomic adventure, we then headed back to Marais to go to a restaurant we had heard about, Breizh Cafe. They served up authentic Breton fare, mainly gallettes (crepes made with buckwheat), many served with an oeuf mirroir (sunny side up egg). Stomachs full from our backwards meal (Mom always said, Life's uncertain - eat dessert first!) we walked through Marais, by Hotel de Ville and then to the area around Chatelet. Much to our surprise, the area was flooded by lots of car traffic, gendarmes in the streets, and barricades surrounding the Theatre du Chatelet. We had happened upon the   César Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars. We waited outside the theater until the award show had ended and the stars, mostly unfamiliar to us, came out. Our fellow onlookers helped us to identify the celebrities leaving the theater. We saw Lionel Jospin, the former French prime minister, and actor Lambert Wilson (apparently from the Matrix). Wilson came over to the barricade by which I was standing to appease some boisterous, yelling some fans, who called after him, "Lambert - Tu est très cool!" We went home bemused at our luck of walking up to such an event and with a great story to tell our friends. C'est la vrai Paris. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Paige's Visit

Paige came to visit from Madrid last weekend! Friday was the nicest day we've had since I've been in Paris. With the blessing of warm weather and sunshine, we spent the afternoon wandering through the Tuileries Garden, Place de la Concorde and window shopping on the Champs-Élysées. We came back to my dorm and went out to dinner at a nearby restaurant, Le Petit Baigneur. The restaurant was charming and noisy with the chatter of French couples. The restaurant walls were lined with old French signs and iconic posters. I ate a salad of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and pesto, a baked fish dish that came at the recommendation of the waiter (it was somewhat like fish mashed potatoes with cheese on top...) and then creme caramel for dessert. After dinner we met up with some of my friends and walked around the Latin Quarter at night. We sat by the Seine, beautifully reflecting the city lights and the moon in its waters.  
Place de la Concorde
In front of the Saint Michel Fountain
Alexandra and Vanessa by the Seine
The next day, we went to Dominique Saibron, this great bakery near where I live, for breakfast. I had a delicious pain au chocolat et amandes, and a cafe creme. We then made our way to the Arc de Triumph. We climbed the 200 some steps to the top of the arc for a beautiful view of the city. After we descended the arc, we set off on a gastronomical adventure. We went to Fachon, a gourmet food market of sorts where we ate lunch and then picked up some madeleines and chocolates. Then we headed to Laduree, famous for its macarons. We picked some of their traditional flavors like vanilla and caramel, and also some of those more unique like violet and cassis, coffee and cardamom, and my favorite - rouge madame - berries and rose.

At Laduree for macarons!
Under the Arc de Triumph

The next day we went to breakfast with some of Paige's friends from Tulane at a place in Marais called Breakfast in America. And, to no surprise, it was exactly what the name suggests. Eggs, toast, pancakes and coffee. It was great, and a nice taste of home. Afterwards we headed to the Eiffel Tower, as no visit to Paris would be complete without a visit there. It was a great weekend and so nice to share it with an old friend!

With Paige in front of the Eiffel Tower

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

More Parisian Explorations

Last week, we had a free day before classes started!
Alexandra and I went to explore Montmartre. We got off the metro to a swarm of tourist frenzy. The streets were jam packed with shops selling Paris scarves, Sorbonne sweatshirts, miniature Eiffel towers and iconic posters. We dodged hagglers trying to tie bracelets onto our wrists and made our way to the tram to Sacre Coeur. As we ascended hilly Montmartre, we watched all the tired people climbing the steps up to the basilica, confident in our decision to take the easy way up. It was quite beautiful, and atop the butte there was a beautiful view of Paris below. Inside Sacre Coeur, we were in awe of the grandeur and how the building differed in design from Paris's most notable other churches, such as Notre Dame. It was also quite interesting to see the contradictory presence of sacredness and commercialism within Sacre Coeur. Guards were strict with visitors - no photos, speak softly etc. - but at every knoll in the church was a machine to get a souvenir coin, not to mention the gift shop on your way out. Outside, we watched street performers: musicians and a crazy soccer trickster . We made our way to the maze of village-like streets behind the basilica where we watched artists painting in the square. We refueled on hot chocolate and cookies, and later that night feasted on pasta at an Italian restaurant elsewhere in Montmartre. It was a great day and we'll definitely be back. We still have to see the view of Paris from Sacre Coeur at night, follow in the tracks of Amelie and take a visit to the seedy Pigalle area to find the Moulin Rouge.
Outside Sacre Coeur Basilica
Artists in Montmartre
On Thursday, we went ice skating at a public rink outside Hotel de Ville and then went for a tour of the mansion with our class. Hotel de Ville is home to Paris' administration and is used to receive foreign dignitaries. Hotel can be used in French to reference a sense of hospitality, not necessarily a hotel. As such, many mansions have "hotel" in the name. Hotel de Ville is enormous and ornately decorated - chandeliers, sculptures and paintings everywhere. The day we visited, they were preparing to welcome the Lebanese government for some function (we ran into the caterer and some musicians doing a sound check). Afterwards we grabbed some crepes and wandered through BHV (Boutique Hotel de Ville) checking out the last of the winter "Soldes" (sales) in Paris. 
Hotel de Ville
Skating by Hotel de Ville

More to come soon!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Fast food in cultural paradise

Another week down!
Last Monday we went to the Opera Bastille to see Madama Butterfly. It was an interesting experience and for many of the kids in my program, it was their first time at an Opera. The libretto was in French, of course, so I did my best to understand it, but it wasn't always easy. The orchestra was fabulous and Butterfly's aria was beautiful. The production itself, however, was a bit odd. The director is known for being extremely minimalist and as such, there was little scenery and no props (made for an interesting death scene). Next week we're going to the ballet (Caligula?) at the Opera Garnier, which if nothing else, should be extremely beautiful. 

Monday, I also had an equally interesting but far less cultural experience - lunch at KFC, in Paris. Rachel had previously shared with me an article that tackled the question: Should you eat at American chain restaurants when you Travel? And after reading this, I did a bit of my own research. In my travels I've seen a ton of MacDonalds (MacDo for short, here) and Quicks (pretty sure this is actually the only Europe-born fast food chain). And on my way home from school each day I go by a Pizza Hut and a KFC. So after a week of passing by these fast food moguls, I decided I might as well check it out. The menu at KFC was half in French, half in English (leading me to order like this: Je voudrais des chicken tenders) and while the offerings were mostly identical to the chain's American counterpart, there were some notable differences. Biscuits and mashed potatoes were absent from the Parisian KFC's menu, but chicken came with the option of a side of curry sauce. The restaurant was clean and lacked that overbearing smell of grease, present in so many of the American locations. It was also just a KFC. Not the KFC/Taco Bell/Basking Robbins combos you'd find in the US. Prices were jacked up a bit as well. This leads me to believe that while a fast food restaurant is still a fast food restaurant, even on the other side of the world, each country adds their own bit of flare to such establishments. The French are characterized by 2 things (in my opinion): first, an extraordinary attention to detail, and second, an over-appreciation of free time and rest. As such, fast food here seems slightly better (i.e. meat that looks like meat) though it comes with a price - no dollar menu here. You'll also have trouble finding your late night fix of burgers and fries, as the concept of a chain that's open late or even 24 hours is absent in this culture. On a similar note, street food is pretty non-existant, the only exception being crepe stands. Even so, it's weird to see people eating and doing anything else simultaneously (walking, driving, talking on the phone etc.), as the French take a bit more pride in their food and take the time to enjoy it. 

Since then, I've also been to a Starbucks, which was pretty much the same as say the Chappaqua, NY location, including the same comfy velvet armchairs. You might wonder why in a city full of wonderful cafes someplace like Starbucks would be popular and gain a reliable clientele. After being there, I can somewhat understand the appeal. The coffee culture here is wonderful, but not always the most practical. Coffee with milk is primarily drunk only in the morning. When you order a cafe, you'll receive espresso. I'm pretty sure skim milk and to-go-cups are unheard of. If you're in a hurry, you'll drink your coffee at the bar, and kill only half an hour rather than the 2 hours you can burn sipping your cafe creme at an outdoor table at your neighborhood cafe. At the Starbucks, there was a ton of seating and a ton of young people in groups - a much easier and relaxed place to hang out than at a cafe. You could easily grab your coffee (the American kind), chai or favorite half caf-no whip-double shot-frappa-whatevers and sit there forever chatting with friends, doing homework or grabbing hold of the free wifi (here, pronounced wee-fee), a luxury here. 

So while I wouldn't make it an everyday routine (you're welcome, arteries), dining at fast food restaurants can be a small reminder of food at home, yet still offering that tiny bit of French culture, with your side of frites. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

First Week, Check!

It's hard to believe that I've already been here a week. In some respects one week feels like an eternity, but simultaneously and contradictorily, I can't believe it has just been a week. So much has happened within one week, yet I'm still the clueless, American tourist wandering around an unfamiliar city. It's amazing how time can be so transformative and deceiving when thrown into an entirely new environment.

On Wednesday of this past week, we had a relaxing afternoon. We walked around our neighborhood a bit, and feasted on fresh baguette and cheeses we picked up along the way home. We went to the Louvre at night and wandered around parts of the Richelieu and Sully wings. We didn't see many of the Louvre's most notable works of art, but nonetheless we were in awe of the palace and the size of the collection. With our student IDs it's super easy and free to get into most of the museums, so we plan on going back many times throughout the semester.
In the courtyard of the Louvre
View of the Seine, at night

On Thursday, we had a placement exam at the Sorbonne. It was a bit daunting, but thankfully didn't take too long, so we had the afternoon to ourselves. I went to the Montparnasse Cemetery with some friends in search of some of its most notable inhabitants: Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Baudelaire, Serge Gainsbourg and Alfred Dryfus, to name a few. The cemetery was pretty to walk around - many of the tombs were topped with sculptures in all different styles, and there was a great mix of modern and classical styles.
Cimetière du Montparnasse
After the director's course on Friday, we walked around Notre Dame and went to the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore. Notre Dame was beautiful, especially the stained glass windows. When it's a little less windy here, we plan to go back to see the gargoyles on the roof. Shakespeare & Co. was so whimsical and fun. There were cute reading rooms upstairs with a piano and typewriters, and a section just for kids! After that, we ventured to the Picasso Museum, walking by the Centre Pompidou and stopping to check out Saint Merry's Cathedral. We arrived at the museum only to learn that it's closed for renovations. We cut our losses and headed to Angelina, for the greatest hot chocolate in Paris. I had chocolat and Angelina's famous pastry, Mont Blanc - a meringue topped with a mountain of chestnut cream. Delicious!
Me and Elora with some of our favorite children's books
The Centre Pompidou
Mont blanc and hot chocolate with whipped cream

Katie and Vanessa at Musee d'Orsay Restaurant
On Saturday, we went to the Musée d'Orsay. We ate a delicious lunch at the museum restaurant and then spent a few hours in the galleries. I really liked the Degas pastels of ballerinas, the works by Tolouse-Lautrec and the vibrancy of colors in Van Gogh's paintings. Orsay really has quite the collection.

Chinese New Year celebration in Belleville
Sunday, we went to Belleville to celebrate the Chinese new year. Belleville is at the junction of the 10th, 11th, 19th and 20th arrondissements and is very culturally diverse. Being there was an entirely fascinating experience. We got off of the metro to a swarm of people crowding the streets. Small children towered over the crowd on their parents' shoulders, cotton candy and rabbit balloons in-hand. We arrived just before the parades began and the ceremonial dragons were opening the eyes for the first time, which was much cause for celebration. There was lots of music and dancing and even firecrackers. Afterwards we walked around the Chinatown area, met up with many people from our program and had dinner together at a grandiose Chinese restaurant.

What a week!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Slowly getting into the swing of things...

With a stomach full of baguette, I will recall the past few days in Paris!

On Saturday, I met the rest of the people in my program at a breakfast our director arranged for at La Coupole. La Coupole is a restaurant in Montparnasse famous for its intellectual regulars of a bygone era, such as Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Josephine Baker, Hemingway and Picasso, to name a few. The restaurant is huge and has ornate art deco decor. Having been so tired and drawn up in the chaos of getting to Paris, we hadn't eaten anything since we arrived. And for a first meal in Paris? This is was great! A warm welcome to Parisian gastronomy. I had the freshest orange juice I've ever had, followed by cafe au lait served piping hot in two separate pitchers: one with coffee, one with steamed milk. We feasted on assorted pastries. I finished off a pain au chocolat, and a croissant with cherry preserves. Yum!
La Coupole
After breakfast, we strolled to class through the Jardin du Luxembourg. A few hours later, with a better idea of what my program entails, I ventured off with a few friends to find the largest MonoPrix in Paris, or so we were told. MonoPrix is perhaps the French equivalent of Target. Probably nowhere else could I have bought a notebook, a rug and a baguette in a single purchase. Hungry from all of our walking, we headed to a restaurant called Le Paradis du Fruit for dinner. The greatest thing about their menu was that healthy options were labeled with angels, and those options that were unhealthy or "gourmand" as the French would say, were labeled with a devil.
At Le Paradis du Fruit eating "Salvador de Bahia"
Sunday, we did as the French do, and took the day to relax. We walked a bit around our neighborhood, but besides some kids playing basketball in the park, it was quite quiet. Today, we again met for class and had individual interviews with our teacher to help plan out our classes. Afterwards we grabbed a cheap lunch in the Latin Quarter and happened upon the Pantheon. We explored the Pantheon which was really quite beautiful, and then spent a fair amount of time wandering around the crypt. We saw the graves of Rousseau, Voltaire, Marie and Pierre Curie, Dumas, Hugo and Zola, all the while trying not to get kicked out (French guards kept shh-ing us for being too noisy). Afterwards we checked out some of the sales currently blanketing Paris, but after trying on some peculiar Parisian fashions, we left stores empty handed. I rushed on back to my dorm, swinging by a candy stand for delicious, brightly colored marshmallows, and made it back in time for dinner. I dined with my new friends and met some other Americans here as well, and then called it a night. It's been quite a few days and I can't wait for more to come!
With friends outside the Pantheon
Inside the Pantheon