Jumping over the lazy dog

or, taking the bull by the horns.

Oh la, Loire!

France is not a very big place. It’s smaller than Texas by 8,000 square miles, but has a variety of terrain, food and accents to rival the entire United States. During my three trips to France, I got to nibble away at the expansive culture by seeing Paris (the Big City), Provence (the South), Bordeaux and Lyon (small cities), Carcassonne (almost Spain), and most recently, the Loire. Or should I say, there where many a French noble hath laid his head.

The Loire Valley is famous for two things: chateaus and wine. The Brit and I got our fill of both in the four windy days we spent there earlier this month. And we did it all without a car!

First stop, Blois.

We stayed in Blois for the first night, in a rather sketchy hotel, where the concierge insisted we were married, even if we hadn’t had a ceremony, because being in a committed relationship was the equivalent of being married…let’s not get me started on his logic (or lack thereof)…point is, Blois itself is a quaint town, with a charming castle and nice views. Not at the top of my list of places we visited, though the brick portions of the castle took me straight back to Place des Vosges in Paris, one of my favorite places in the world.

One thing Blois did well was a sound and light show that projected images directly onto the Chateau's walls. It was in French, though...so bring a translator.

On day two we left our bags in the hotel, while we hopped on a bus to see two chateaus, one more famous (and beautiful) than the other.

Ah, Chambord.

Chambord was everything I imagined it to be. Enormous. Incredibly beautiful. Drowning in history. Did you know it once housed the Mona Lisa during WWII, when the French (smartly) decided to move the Louvre’s contents to keep them away from a certain mustachioed Nazi?

Cheverny wasn’t as beautiful. Which is why I don’t have pictures. But, right outside Cheverny, the Brit and I did a quick wine tasting of the local offerings, two whites, a rosé and a red. Incidentally, before this last stay in France, I wasn’t a fan of whites or rosés…a couple of picnics in the springtime cured me of that nonsense. Rosés and whites are perfect spring picnic basket fillers.

We spent that night in Tours, in a very charming hotel, a polar opposite of the one we’d just left. Our concierge guided us to the only street open for food on a holiday, and we had one of the best meals I’ve had in France – all local food, all exquisitely prepared and presented, and accompanied with a local red. Mmm.

The next day, we wandered around Tours for a while, and the chill forced me to buy a coat. I had no choice. Eventually, we took the train out to Chenonceau, where I slightly overestimated the amount of time we’d need at the chateau. It’s quite small, but it certainly does deserve a photo. It reallywas a blustery day (I should’ve bought two coats), and I wish we could’ve stayed longer, but the chill sent us running to take the train back to Tours.

Chenonceau floats on water. Oh, and it's equally beautiful on the interior.

The next morning, the Brit and I made a fateful decision. We did not want to take the train, and we did not want to take a bus, but we did want to visit chateaus. So, we rented bikes.

I had not ridden a bike in over 11 years. My last bike was stolen when I was 10, and for every year I didn’t get a new one, my fear of falling off a bike grew exponentially, until I was convinced that the expression ‘like riding a bike’ would never apply to me. Turns out, the expression isn’t as easy as it sounds (who would’ve thunk), but after several start-stops and almost getting run over by traffic, I managed to stay (mostly) on the bike for the 50 miles (I kid you not) we rode that day.

On bike, we visited Villandry and Azay-le-Rideau. Villandry has beautifully sculpted French gardens that, in my opinion, rival those of Versailles. Azay-le-Rideau has a more quiet charm, set on water in the midst of English gardens that make you believe you’re in the middle of a fairytale, something along the lines of Beauty and the Beast, but after the Beast becomes a prince.

Sure, Villandry's chateau is nice. But the gardens are much nicer.

Okay, so in this picture, Azay-le-Rideau looks a bit more ominous than I might have described...

Did I mention we biked 50 miles to get to these two chateaus? Here’s proof.

The first part of the ride was beautiful - flat roads, green and yellow fields, blue skies dotted with white puffs of cloud...

And if you want actual proof of the distances, here’s Google to the rescue (keep in mind, these are the more direct routes…our path was a bit more meandering…). The second half of the ride was a bit more tenuous, as we were pedaling on a ridge with headwind that blew us to a stop several times…but we made it back to Tours, and after much deserved hot showers and carb-loaded dinners, we passed out in our charming cream sleigh bed.

That was the (exhausting) end of our Loire Valley trip. The next morning the Brit and I packed our bags and dashed off to Paris to grab the Eurostar to London, where I went to the beach. Sort of. But that’s a story for another post.

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Filed under: All things French, Around the world, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

She’s alive!

Since February, I’ve:

  • been to India and back
  • had two short stays in Horsham and London
  • had an even shorter stay in Bordeaux, and a slightly longer stay in Marmande
  • spent an afternoon burning up in a hammam and sipping delicious tea
  • wandered around Paris discovering new parks
  • succumbed to H&M’s silky soft dresses
  • tripped and fell in front of a cafe-full of lunch-goers, horribly scraping my (still-recovering) knee in the process
  • said sad goodbyes to two of my favorite Assistantes
  • and heard back from all four graduate programs…

…and that’s why I haven’t written in this blog.

A quick round-up of travel expeditions results in these photos:

The primary purpose of my trip to India was to visit my grandmother. And there she is!

While visiting, I got to sit on this porch and watch beautiful sunsets over the Nilgiri Hills.

(Sunsets like this one, for example.)

I also got to soak up some sun and rest my eyes on some of the local flora.

...and take pictures of a naughty smile.

London was a quick trip to drop off my portfolio with Heatherwick Studios and check out their Rolling Bridge project. The portfolio drop-off didn’t lead to much, but the bridge was pretty cool in person, and I created this short video of it unrolling by shooting in paparazzi-mode on my Nikon.

I went to Bordeaux to visit a friend from VT who’s also doing an English assistantship. I felt very Parisian as I wandered the streets, thinking to myself, “Oh, wow, they’re so relaxed here. There aren’t any cars…it’s like I’m out in the country…” Which, all things considered, Paris is certainly not hectic when compared to New York…but when compared to anywhere else in France, it seems to be pure chaos. And when we got to Marmande, even Bordeaux seemed a bit too urban…

I spent my afternoon in Bordeaux wandering around old alleyways, getting yelled at by prostitutes when I wasn't even trying to take their picture. This presumable John was on the prowl at 2PM. Early to bed...early to rise?

Bordeaux also had some really cool textures, and I got a bit carried away taking pictures of door knobs and stonework, which is why there aren't awe-inspiring shots of Bordeaux's reknown monuments).

This was a bridge with an architecturally interesting form...and an unnecessarily strenuous climb.

As for stuff around Paris, I’ll try and go for a more detailed post later, with more pictures, of course.

And I didn’t forget the last thing on that list: remember back in the day, when I was stressing about my applications to Pratt, UC Berkeley, Yale and Harvard? Well I got into all of them! Now, I’m stressing about which one to choose. They’re all pretty expensive, though some are giving me a bit of financial aid…my heart is leaning one way, but I won’t say anything until I’ve done my choosing – and that’s soon! You (and I) will know by April 15, so look out for that Big News on this blog in the next week!

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Aalto-gether now…

Please excuse that terrible pun, but I couldn’t resist.

I felt quite cosmopolitan as I hopped on a flight last Thursday afternoon, toting my small carry-on packed with a dozen sweaters, double doses of socks and a silly looking hat. I was on my way to Helsinki, which might seem like a terrible weekend getaway in the middle of February, but is actually quite nice. Chattering teeth aside, the city is a strange site, a triple exposure of the far past, the recent past and the present, one that’s easily explorable on foot or via its countless modes of public transport.

The Brit and I chose to visit Helsinki because it was Valentine’s weekend, and I, for one, was happy to finally not be celebrating Happy Singles Awareness day. So I insisted we go somewhere, and it turns out that easyJet had cheap flights to the city where my friend the Argonaut happens to be studying architecture for the year, so the trip was a chance to kill three birds in one stone: actually celebrate Vday with someone I love, catch up with a friend, and see some interesting architecture in a new city.

Upon arriving in Helsinki Thursday night, the Brit and I were quite tired and hungry, but our intentions of a quick dinner and a long nap were thrown to the side as the Argonaut and I spent a few hours solving the world’s problems. The Brit might have gotten in a word or two, but for those of you that know the Argonaut, putting the two of us in a room is much like putting the Roomie and I in a room: good luck getting us to zip our lips. We eventually got to bed at 2AM, with plans for the two of us to visit the city while the Argonaut ran to studio for a crit.

Our wake-up call the next morning went something like this:

Me, barely awake: Hello?

Argonaut, way too chirpy for 10 in the morning: So, if you want to go to the Aalto studio, it opens at 11:30 and they only do one tour, and that’s the only way to see the place, and you really should see the place.

Me: Um…ok yeah sure. How long does it take to get there?

Argonaut: Oh about 40 minutes to an hour.

Me: So we should leave….now?

Argonaut: Yeah, that should be good.

Me, looking at the snoozing lump on the bed: Right. I’ll get on that.

After jumping into our thermal gear and rushing out the door, we took the tram north, towards Alvar Aalto’s studio and home. What the Argonaut neglected to mention was the exact location of the studio. So several text messages, barely understandable phonecalls (have you ever tried to reconcile the sounds of spoken Finnish with the words you see on a street sign?) and a couple of wrong turns, we made it to the studio with a minute to spare.

Let's play a game called 'Guess the chair.'

Now let's play a game called 'Guess the joint.'

This is where Aalto worked, his private studio - the rest of the team worked in a loft down the corridor.

The really nice guide answered all my questions and even suggested a place to grab lunch. Which is how I did the number one coolest thing about visiting Finland in February: I walked on the sea. Turns out, it’s really cold up north in the winter time, so cold that you can not only walk across a frozen snow-covered body of water, but drive a car across said phase-changing environment.

Technically, this is a picture of the bank...but imagine that all that snow extends across the sea, too.

Lunch at the cafe was a tasty salmon lasagna and a not as tasty hot chocolate,, but I’ll cut them some slack on the latter because the best hot chocolate in the world can only be found in Paris. We then wandered back to Aalto’s residence, where I did things like drool over grooved drawer pulls and rub my fingers up and down suede walls.

It was a really comfy chair. No wonder it was Aalto's favorite.

When we got back to the city center, the Brit and I wandered around town, ducking into buildings for warmth before trekking to our next destination. That afternoon, we visited the Helsinki Cathedral, which is sited quite impressively but has an interior that leaves quite a bit to be desired.  On the other hand, we spent some time in the Temppeliaukio Kirkko (Rock Church), whose exterior isn’t that majestic, but whose interior expresses the nature of the sacred far better than the cathedral. A walk through the ‘design district’ looking into windows displaying kitchen accessories and incredible boots left us quite cold, so we rode the tram around town, getting an eyeful from a much cosier environment, before we met back up with Argonaut and his friends for drinks at a local bar.

I believe the ceiling was done in copper. The gray bits are good ol' concrete, and the radial pattern is reminiscient of Pagan Sun-God lore.

On Saturday, I went where no brown person has ever been before. Well, it was certainly something this brown person had never done before: cross-country skiing. The Finns make it look quite easy. Just pop in your boots, swing your arms about a bit and op! off you go! Lies, all lies.

There are things cross-country skiing is good for: seeing the countryside without leaving a trail of carbon monoxide, for example. There are things cross-country skiing is not so good for: seeing the countryside quickly without leaving a trail of carbon monoxide. Unless you’ve got years of experience, are over 5′-0″ tall, or happen to be genetically predisposed to skiing.

Dramatics aside, I did have quite a bit of fun skiing. Once I figured out how to move more than a few inches at a time (read: 2.5 hours after starting), we got to do a couple of hills. I’m a proponent of downhill skiing, where all the effort of uphill transit is transferred upon the ski lift: zero effort, tons of fun. However, with cross-country skiing they have these handy pre-grooved tracks down the windy mountainside, and all you have to do (once you’ve reached the top by wedging your skis at awkard angles) is set yourself in those grooves and allow your skis to zip you down to the bottom. Once, I went so fast my hat almost blew off. Totally worth the huffing and puffing and wedging on my way up.

Sunday in Helsinki is a bit like Sunday in Paris: few places are open for business. After more world-problem-solving at a coffee shop, the three of us visited the Kiasma, Steven Holl’s contribution to the Helsinki architectural scene. The building’s white-clad exterior does little to help it stand out in the cloudy grey sky, but the interior, with its carved openings and sweeping curves, is much more appreciable. The works in the musuem were mediocre, only Adel Abidin’s exhibit really caught my attention. His ability to balance humor and gravity in his films had me delightedly surprised.

In the end, the Brit and I spent Valentine’s dinner in an airport, which is appropriate, he noted, for the way our relationship seems to be a series of transits. That, and the fact that he loves planes, and I love airports. My delayed flight finally landed in Paris at half past midnight, and I rushed around CDG looking for a night bus (as the RER wasn’t running for some reason). My first (and possibly last) experience with the Parisian Noctilien deserves this comment: seemingly efficient on paper, the buses wait far longer than necessary at the stops, resulting in a half-hour journey taking thrice the time.

By 03:00 I was back in my own bed, snuggled under the covers, happy for the heat. It’s hard to believe I’ve only got a few days left in Paris before I leave for India this weekend, and then only a few weeks upon my return!

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Bonne Année! (For reals, yo.)

Captain’s Log. Week 2 (or so) of Holiday expedition. London, England.

The Brit and I made it to London on the 29th with little to no hassle (unlike another Eurostar trip or two that I know of), albeit a bit exhausted from a long day. As we dragged ourselves, and our bags (well, the Brit dragged mine), off the tube, up the stairs and in the vague direction of our hotel, who should we run into but Dino, Roomie, and Ray! Actually, what happened was this: I was sluggishly crawling out of the tube station, when I heard an excited squeal and a yelp that sounded something like my name, and was then engulfed by a large, black, puffy jacket, which when disengaged revealed itself to be a couple of bouncing, blond curls, also known as Roomie. Dino and Ray got hugs too, and after a round of introductions, dropping the bag off at the hotel, and saying goodnight to Ray, the four of us made our way over to a pub for a well deserved beer. After which we ‘crashed out,’ as the Brit says.

Birds of a feather…

It was Roomie’s first time in London, and lucky her – she had four excellent guides: two natives, and two…not so natives. Joining Roomie, Dino, the Brit and I for our goings about town was Mr. VK (another member of the anglais persuasion), who in his free time shows little Italian children around the British Isle, and so became the lead tour guide in our day’s excursion. The day’s events included the following (some images borrowed, sources cited):

  • The British Museum: Where Roomie stood next to an Easter Island statue (stolen from Easter Island), where we saw a bunch of mummies (stolen from Egypt), where Dino took us to see clocks (stolen from…?) and where we discovered a not-ancient crystal skull (stolen, but with no vodka inside – what a shame).

  • The Walking Tour of Everything: From Big Ben to Westminster. Okay, so that’s not a very far distance, but we did walk up and down Oxford street for what seems like ages, and over to Buckingham palace and the place where the guards are on horses, Carnaby Street and Trafalgar square (for a quick stop into the National Gallery), and all of this under a steady drizzle.
  • St. James’ Park: What distracted us from the infamous view of Buckingham Palace were the birds. Some, recognizable (pelicans, swans, gulls, pigeons, ducks, geese), some not-so-recognizable (check out the little guy below). This is also the Land of Very Brave Squirrels, as evidenced by one that tried to climb up Roomie’s leg.

  • The Crazy Candy Shop: Cyber Candy, where they have almost everything you could want, including Nerds (which is apparently what gets Mr. VK excited). Image courtesy of Dino.

The Italian Job

Now, this actually happened on the 30th, just like the rest of the events described above, but it’s very special and deserves its own section. Not because the food was exceptional (it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful, either), but because the service was…Bean-tastic, shall we say. And we ought to have guessed.

Clue number one: If you find three Italian restaurants in a row in Chinatown, remember you’re in Chinatown.

Clue number two: If your tour guide’s recommendation of “They’re all amazing!” is followed by “Well, I think so…I was pretty smashed, so I don’t remember much of any of them.,” do keep that in mind.

Clue number three: If the one restaurant you choose to enter calls itself ‘The Italian Restaurant,’ it probably isn’t.

Clue number four: If the staff avoids eye contact for more than 15 minutes while you huddle around the hostess stand, they’re probably not going to be much more helpful when you’re seated.

Clue number five: If they offer you the basement, just don’t do it.

Clue number six: If your waiter looks like Mr. Bean, and if your waiter acts like Mr. Bean, he probably is Mr. Bean. And that’s about the level of service you can expect

Well, here’s what happened. We weren’t seated for ages, and when we finally were, we were stranded in the Twilight Zone. The Italian waiter took an instant dislike to Mr. VK, for some reason (maybe something he’d done last time, something that he doesn’t remember?), and brought out four meals, completely ignoring Mr. VK’s appetizer and pizza. When we finally reminded him of the appetizer, he brought it down in a not-so-timely manner. He then must have completely forgotten about the pizza, and when his manager came downstairs, we reminded that bloke about poor Mr. VK’s dinner; of course, being yelled at by his manager probably didn’t put the Italian Waiter in a very good mood – so the pizza still didn’t show up.

In the mean time, the rest of us ate our meals. We were interrupted by the following events:

  • The couple at the next table over dined and dashed, I’m pretty sure.
  • An old man came down the stairs, turned on a string of Christmas lights, and went back up.
  • A woman brought down a little boy and girl, had them use the restroom, said something in French, then shuttled the troops up stairs.
  • Mr. VK went to the bathroom, at which point the Italian waiter attempted to descend the stairs, saw he was missing, decided it wouldn’t be worth the effort, heaved the heaviest sigh in the Twilight Zone, and marched back up.

Finally, some waitress must have been banished to the basement, because she appeared out of nowhere and had Mr. VK’s pizza down in 15 minutes; the rest of us had finished eating, of course, and we were all itching to go. The Italian waiter came back around, pulled out his pad as though to take our dessert orders, then said “No.” and walked away.

By the time we got our bill, he’d added a charge for a bottle of still water that was supposedly on the house and we (minus Mr. VK) were hungry again. Incredibly tempted to dine and dash as our fellow diners had earlier, we resisted the urge by paying for the meal but not leaving any tip what so ever (not even the “included” service charges). It was, on one hand, a truly abysmal dining experience; but on the other, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strange parade of events occur around a meal, and the food itself wasn’t half bad, so….

The last day of two thousand and nine.

To end 2009 we went and saw really big things.

  • Dinosaurs: I can’t decide if I was more impressed by the dinosaur bones in the exhibit, or the design of the exhibit and the building itself. If not for the dinosaurs, I think the Natural History Museum would be worth a visit anyway: the over-the-top ornament (with monkeys scaling beak-footed columns), while not my aesthetic, can certainly be appreciated for its technical skill.

  • An enormous column: Or, the V&A museum, which houses a plaster cast of an enormous obelisk from Italy, to be precise. Of all the things in the V&A, (and we saw quite a bit – architectural models, glass work, silver work, jewels, clothing…) I think I was most impressed by the object pictured below.

  • Fireworks! We arrived at the Thames at 18:00, and there were already plenty of people there. Luckily, we managed to find a spot almost directly across from the London Eye, and so had quite the view of the show. For the next six hours, we shivered in our boots (the heat packs stuffed by our toes stopped working after hour 2), chowed down on sandwiches and gummy candies, and tried not to listen to the DJ’s terrible taste in music. But the chattering teeth and frozen toes were worth it – the show was incredible. My favorite bit was when they filled the sky with golden fireworks.

…and the first of two thousand and ten.

It snowed for a few minutes after the fireworks as we weaved our way through the crowd searching for the nearest tube station; I’m told that’s supposed to be good luck, but it wasn’t helping us find the tube! We wandered for at least an hour before we finally found an open station that wasn’t stuffed to the brim with people, and chugged our way back to the hotel, where we met up with a friend of the Brit’s for a champagne toast and a couple of rounds of Catchphrase.

After napping away the early hours of 2010, we perked up as our tummies started grumbling. They led us to some street food (a sausage with fried onions, ketchup and mustard in a hot dog bun – mmmm) and then to wander down the Thames River Walk to burn off those oh-so-tasty calories. We dropped off the Brit’s friend near Tower Bridge, and then headed to grab some dinner before one of the coolest things in the world: The Lion King, the musical.

Dinner was at Sophie’s Steakhouse (near Covent Garden), and the theater where we saw The Lion King was only a few steps away. The food and service were much, much, much better than at The Italian Restaurant. I had fish pie, it was some of the tastiest fish pie I’ve eaten (by the way, whoever said English food is bad was lying – I quite like fish pie and fish and chips and bangers and mash and Yorkshire pudding…). The Brit wasn’t feeling too well, but after we drugged him (hush you, the over-the-counter pain-killer kind of drugs) he was in better spirits and ready for the awesome that is The Lion King, the musical.

Now, did I mention how amazing the musical version of The Lion King is? There are reviews abound, so I won’t bother with the details, but will let you know that the costumes were fantastic (both amazing and fantastical), the guy that played Zazu was brilliantly witty (more than filled Rowan Atkinson’s animated shoes), and the wildebeest scene was a surprisingly authentic reproduction of the film. You’ll just have to go see it to know what I mean.

And that, dear readers, ends our stay in London. Dino, Roomie and I said our good-byes to the Brit early the next morning as we boarded the Eurostar to pillage and plunder Paris. But that is a story for another day…

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Bonne Année!

The French tradition of being allowed to say “Happy New Year” to anyone you meet for the entire month of January is one that gets old, quick. Say, for example, when you’ve met the same person for the 5th time, and their enthusiasm for the New Year does nothing but remind you that you never made it past day one of your resolutions.  On the other hand, it means I can get away with wishing all my readers Happy New Year on January 23rd, and, since it is technically only the second time I’ve “met you” in 2010, you can’t be terribly annoyed, yes?

If you’ll recall, I jumped right into 2010 with the last post, but before Ye Old Year was kicked’th out, there was some Christmas revelry and London-visiting, news of which has yet to make it to these digital pages. And, as you can imagine, it’s quite difficult to cram three weeks of fun into one tiny little blog post, so we’ll take it a week (or so) at a time…

Captain’s Log. Week 1 (or so) of the Holiday expedition. Paris, France.

Trouble on the horizon

It’s not a story-worthy adventure unless it starts with some technical troubles (so that later on, when the Captain regrets forging on despite the tiny leak-producing crack which has now become a full-blown canyon, the tech support guy in India can say “I told you so.”). Our technical troubles coincided with those of thousands of other travelers trying to cross the English Channel on that fateful December weekend. Through BBC articles and Facebook updates, you can piece together our story: Eurostar trains stopped in the Chunnel. Travelers trapped for hours. Eurostar authorities apologize for snow-induced delays. Travelers scheduled to travel over the weekend re-routed to Monday and Tuesday trains. Tuesday travelers (i.e. the Brit) urged to not travel unless necessary.  The Brit arrives at St. Pancras at 06:00 on a Wednesday morning. Eurostar authorities maintain that travelers should avoid travel and that tickets will be handed out on a first-come, first-served basis. The Brit queues in circles (sounds more French than British). Acquires ticket a few hours later and boards Paris-bound train. More weather-related delays on the tracks. Wilting Brit arrives at Gare du Nord at 14:30. Nap ensues.

Jours de fêtes at the Grand Palais

An indoor county fair in the winter. The French sure seem to have somethings backwards...

We met up with that French friend of mine from an earlier post, who now merits a nick-name, having two blog-mentions. Let’s call her Bleue. Bleue and her boyfriend, Norm, met the Brit and I at the Grand Palais, where we wandered around under its enormous steel-framed glass arches soaking up the sights and sounds of an indoor fair. A bit too scared to try any of the truly crazy rides (my mind spins fast enough by itself, thanks, I needn’t have it spin on multiple axes) we did have a go at the bumper cars, or l’auto-tamponeuse. We then wandered down the Champs-Elysées (always a sight to see, but more-so with all the Christmas lights), did a twirl around the giant ferris wheel, la Grande Roue, at the Place de la Concorde, and then hunted down dinner. Well, not literally, but we did try one recommended place, only to be told it was too busy. So we wound up at our second choice, which turned out to be not so bad at all.  At le Tambour, I had my first taste of rabbit (lapin in a mustard-y creamy sauce) and a French wine called Saumur, which is right up there with Brouilly in my books now.

Dinner and a movie (or vice-versa), Christmas-style.

My family has always gone to the movies for Thanksgiving and over Christmas. It’s one of the few times we’re all in the same place, and there’s usually a blockbuster that everyone can agree on. Well, everyone but my Mom, whose vote doesn’t count because she’ll fall asleep in the theater no matter what movie we go to. So in proper Raja-family tradition, the Brit and I went to watch a movie on Christmas Eve. I was surprised the theaters were open, as I thought the French would take any opportunity not to work – but I suppose there are some French people who fancied going to the movies over the holidays as well, and the poor folks had to work at the caisses anyway. We watched Avatar, in 3D (with the cool tech-y looking glasses, not the fake paper ones). Now, a movie review in three parts: not too thrilled with the plot, somewhat impressed by the 3-D, somewhat more impressed by the world-making. It catches your eye while your watching it, but falls flat in retrospect.

Since we couldn’t participate in my family’s (now) tradition of going to a friend’s house for Christmas Eve dinner and White Elephant gift-giving, we decided to borrow the Brit’s “Christmas dinner” as best we could. I had only recently gotten approval for using the oven (which wasn’t as complicated as Mimi made it out to be), and so was a bit wary about preparing an entire bird, and for only two people. Instead, we put ourselves at ease by purchasing dishes from Picard and reheating them in the oven. Which sounds not so tasty, until you realize that even frozen French food is better than some fresh-made American food. And then we slept. Here are some images of our coma-inducing meal (or meals, as the leftovers lasted us through the weekend).

First course: tomato soup, baguettes and turkey, mushroom and foie gras-stuffed pastries.

Main meal: Indian-style jumping potatoes, some more baguette, mixed vegetables, two types of chicken and green beens wrapped in bacon. Tossed down with some more Saumur, of course.

Dessert: Chocolate ice-cream logs sprinkled with nuts. We were so full, we could barely finish these off!

Dessert: Chocolate ice-cream logs sprinkled with nuts. We were so full, we could barely finish these off!

Sleep and other escapades

The rest of the Brit’s stay in Paris included plenty of sleep, many more movies (I couldn’t believe he’d never seen The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!) and a bit of venturing out into the chilly weather. When we dared to face the brisk Parisian breeze, we did things like queue for an hour to ice-skate for 40 minutes at the Hôtel de Ville, or wander around looking at Christmas decorations, or walk six miles in a day to explore the Parc de la Villette and the adjacent St. Martin Canal (which, by the way, is beautiful even in the winter time), or go visit a swish pedestrian bridge and take silly pictures with statues in a park.

Me, ice-skating. Or rather, standing precariously in the way of rink traffic as the Brit tries to quickly snap a shot with my overly-complicated camera.

Huuuuuuge tree at the Galleries Lafayette. It was at least 4-storeys tall!

The Brit in front of the planetarium at the Cite des Sciences, by the Parc de la Villette.

Swish bridge, aka the Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir.

Silly picture.

Until next time, fellow explorers, when we’ll uncover the mysteries of great Eye of London.

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What do Eminem and I have in common?

Um, well…we’re back. And, I suppose, that at times I can be a bit shady, and that once upon a time, I was slim.

These last few weeks have been incredibly crazy. Between having the Brit over for Christmas, heading up for some gallivanting in London, and then having more friends than I have fingers bustling about for a week or so after, I barely had time to finish my scholarship applications, much less blog! But…all that is now a safe distance away, and after a cozy Saturday curled up in bed with a few movies as the rain tapped on my (still-paper-snowflake-covered) window, I was ready to hit the town.  And so I did, in a manner of speaking.

Jim Haynes is the type of person with whom you feel immediately comfortable. And it’s not just the twinkle in his eye and his rosy cheeks that lend him a Santa Clause-y air: the evening he offers is a veritable gift for those able to attend. An apron wrapped around his torso, seated on a wooden stool and notebook in hand, he shook our hands with smile peeking out from below his mustache.

A bit of background info: Aussie called me with some info on an underground dining adventure, one of those “best kept secret” deals, dinner chez Jim. Every Sunday for the last 30 years, Jim has hosted thousands of strangers, people unknown to him, and to the rest of his guests. Over glasses of wine, bottles of beer and a delicious three-course meal prepared by Jim and his friends, strangers become acquaintances, and in some cases, much more.

Yesterday evening, I had the opportunity to meet (among others): an architect from Sydney, an interior designer from Charlotte, NC, a communications consultant from Mexico, a geo-physicist from Italy, and an immunology student from China. Dinner consisted of a potato salad appetizer, followed by boeuf bourguignon, green beans and mashed potatoes, and an apple crumble with vanilla ice cream for dessert. If you wanted seconds, they were up for grabs – in both the food and the alcohol department.  Plenty of interesting conversation and delicious food, all for a small donation (small by Parisian standards, that is).

The evening was a great way to break out of my hermit-ing (understandable, after three weeks of continuous travel), and I can’t wait to go back!

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Green, like Kermit and grass.

I just returned from a screening of The Age of Stupid, part of the Festival International du Film d’environnement, a week-ish-long event in Paris (for you English-speakers, there’s a little British flag in the top right that translates the page to anglais).  I haven’t spent much time on this blog writing about “serious” topics, like the environment or sustainability.  That’s not necessarily because I don’t think about them, because I do, and certainly not because I know nothing about them, because 50% of my courses addressed sustainability at one point or another. But it just hasn’t come up recently.  That is, until now.

I saw an article in one of the Metro issues this week about the affair, and thought I’d give it a go.  I was particularly interested because I saw they were screening Food, Inc., a film I’ve been wanting to see for a while. More about that film in a minute, first I’d like to mention that they have screened (rather, will have screened) 100+ films during this event, documentaries and fiction, feature-length and shorts, all of which address our present and future as a species and a planet.  Basically, there’s something for everyone, even an animated film for the 4-8 year-old crowd.  Start ’em early.

I saw two of the films aired today, because they seemed the most interesting and happened to best fit my schedule (er, I wanted time to actually work on my grad school stuff today?).  The first was Food, Inc.

A smart farmer and giant corporations that mysteriously keep mum. What's not to like?

The title of the film is pretty accurate: it’s a documentary about how the source of our food has transitioned from small farms to big corporations, and the resulting mistreatment of the animals, workers and consumers.  But it’s not just another PETA film, though if you’re squeamish and like little chicks, you might want to cover your eyes for some bits. I was impressed with the film on a couple of points:

  • Story-telling: the documentary interviews characters that are memorable and presents their stories in a compelling way.  One of the individuals, a farmer who grows free-range everything, from chickens to cows to pigs, and has an impressive vocabulary, is interviewed as he slaughters chickens and packages them for sale.  It’s all done in an open tent, and the farmer notes the irony that conducting this work in fresh air is considered dangerous by the FDA as it can lead to contamination of meat (through air-borne particles).  The film then goes on to remind the viewer of the previous interviewees, a chicken farmer who wore a mask to wade through a throng of hobbling hens to gather the ones that had died during the night.
  • Art direction: the film is divided into chapters, of sorts, with catchy headings (that I can’t remember, but I remember they were catchy at the time) done in an artful way.  Oh, here’s an example: when talking about a veil concealing the source our food, the heading first reads “evil” then rearranges itself to “veil.” Subliminal? Not so much.  Point taken, though.
  • Art direction 2: there are bits of the film that are animated, that read almost like graphics from WIRED, reworked in 3D and talking about food consumption rather than the next big gadget. I thought they did a good job integrating these animated bits into the overall visual and narrative fabric of the film.

The other film I watched, The Age of Stupid, is along the lines of The 11th Hour, or Al Gore’s little number, An Inconvenient Truth. Except instead of a straight-up documentary, the team uses a fictional narrative arc to tie the stories together.  An old man, in 2055, looks over “archival” footage from 2005-2008, pondering the inability of the human race to save itself from global warming, thus “committing suicide” and resulting in global devastation.  I found it a bit contrived, but I liked the stories the arc allowed the director to tell: an African village abandoned by Shell and its government, the “not in my backyard” approach of individuals to wind as a power-source, an 80+ year-old guide who still takes tourists and his grand-children for treks in the Alps, even as the glaciers are melting away…

Here's the old man, and the images on the screen are the contrived plot. But the point of the film is a good one...

Perhaps more interesting than the film itself was the information I gleamed from the Q&A with the director and producer after the screening.  One of the question-askers noted the film was quite alarmist, at a time when the public is being bombarded with “be green or be dead” propaganda, and asked the director why she didn’t take a more gentle approach.  The director, Franny Armstrong, noted that they had considered two endings, a positive end, where humans fix the problem, and a negative end, where they don’t. They decided to keep the “nightmare” approach, as opposed to the “I have a dream” approach, because, in the director’s words, “We’re not at a crossroads, we’re at a point, on a path we’ve been on for over 100 years.  We’ve got to turn the whole ship around.”

I even got to ask a question. I was curious, since the film included documentary footage from around the world (Mumbai, New Orleans, the Alps, England, Africa) and spoke specifically about the large amount of emissions made by the airline industry, how the crew kept their carbon footprint low while filming.  The producer answered my question, saying they commuted using trains as much as possible (flying as little as possible), used eco-friendly supplies in the office, were all vegetarian, etc.  For the film’s premiere, they hosted a multi-national satellite event, based in London. Celebrities arrived on bike or in electric cars and walked down a “green carpet” to the screening area, where the projections were all powered by renewable resources. It was the largest film premiere in history, and it produced only 1% of the emissions you’d expect from a Hollywood-sized premiere.

Their approach to marketing and production is quite interesting, too.  Each crew member (104 total) took a pay-cut in order to invest themselves in the film, thus earning a profit as the film earns profit, and not limiting the film’s circulation through contractual means.  To further increase circulation opportunities, the film is available for private/public screenings: that is, whoever you are, you can have a screening whenever and where-ever you want, and keep your profits. Of course, you pay a base fee for the rights to screen the film…but it’s for a good cause?  If you’re interested, check it out: http://www.indiescreenings.net/.

Well, that’s my “important topic” for the month. Don’t expect the next blog entry to be so serious – I’ve got to tell you about my afternoon with Bob l’Eponge.

P.S. Did I mention this whole festival was free, one of many free film festivals in Paris over the course of the year, in fact? I love it when a government puts money towards cultural enrichment and public education. Of course, the people that need to be convinced about the importance of sustaining our environment probably didn’t come.

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Sunny ol’ England, Part II

We now present the second portion of Amrita’s first visit to the UK.

So, where was I? Ah yes, one more museum.

#6: The British Museum. I’m a huge fan of the atrium Foster did at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, so of course I wanted to see the “original,” so to speak.  Foster’s first attempt at the technique was actually at the British Museum, and on our last day in London, the Brit and I decided to check it out.  Well, we made it over to that part of town around lunch time and were both really hungry.  I was determined to eat fish ‘n’ chips before I left England. We walked up and down three streets, apparently the only streets in London that don’t have a fish ‘n’ chips place or a pub, spent over an hour looking for a place and finally gave up.  We grabbed a quick lunch of baked potato and wandered back to the museum.  Guess what we found on the street right beside Foster’s masterpiece? Yes, a handful of pubs and fish ‘n’ chip joints.  Go figure.

Britmus

The atrium at the British Museum. We checked out the actual exhibits, too. The English stole a lot of really nice ancient artifacts.

#7: Hyde Park. I did mention that it was surprisingly sunny and warm for late September when I visited London, right? The Brit and I went for a leisurely walk through Hyde Park, and as we both have incredibly sweet tooths (sweet teeth?), and it was such a gorgeous day, we nibbled on some ice cream as we made our way around the Serpentine.  Deliciously romantic.  When I told Roomie about it, she proposed a Flight of the Conchords analogy, though I’m not sure who is Bret and who is Jermaine…

Not my photo, but that's the park! Thoughts on Hyde vs. Central?

#8: Friends. I was definitely excited about visiting London, because as a design student visiting a new city is a fun way to add to your visual vocabulary. And, of course, I was excited about seeing the Brit after a five-month separation.  One thing I was slightly nervous about was meeting his friends, as anyone in a budding relationship will know. Especially when he told me I’d be meeting two of his oldest friends! But it all went well, no awkward conversations, a lot of joshing around and, as they say, taking the piss.  I think our two groups would mesh rather nicely, though the opportunity for that is a bit slim, since they’re separated by an ocean (or the Equator, in the case of Queen of the Lab).  There’s more to be said on this subject in the post about the next UK visit, as that was the primary goal of the trip.

#9: Slang. Of course, when you’re friends with or dating someone who speaks another language (yes, American English and UK English are different languages) or is from a different culture, you spend a bit of time discussing the socio-linguistic differences. I spent one incredibly funny evening in London hanging out with the Brit and one of his old friends discussing the actual definition of “douche” and the appropriate time to use the word.  Then I learned all kinds of terrible British slang, some of which should never be repeated (um, “wank tank”?), and some of which might come in handy one day.  For example, who knows what “chuffed” means?  Urban dictionary has it kind of right: to be surprised and happy, as in, “I can’t believe I won the lottery, I’m so chuffed!”

#10: Food. And if you know me well enough, you know I can’t visit a place without talking about their food.  The highlights of cheap London dining are as follows. Sandwich places are delicious, the English have mastered the salad sandwich, i.e. chicken salad, egg salad, tuna salad.  They even have chicken tandoori sandwiches, which just sounds wrong, but tastes sooooo good.  The Brit’s mom made us dinner most nights, and it was nice to have some home-cooking (delicious at that) to break up the daily eating out; she made a variety of things, from this Asian-inspired chicken dish to a casserole-esque dish. I don’t know what they were called, I just know they were yummy.  Oh, and at one point we ate out at this South American restaurant, where for £12 we got the largest meal in the world: a steak with an egg on top, lots of rice, salad, beans.  It was iHop sized. The steak was cooked just right.

Well that’s the round-up of the first London trip.  It was quite whirlwind, we covered a bit of ground (physically and topically) in only 4 days. I was sad to leave, but as soon as I saw the Eiffel tower on my way to the apartment, things started to pick back up.

Next time, on Jumping over the lazy dog: Amrita has her first full week of teaching. Dun dun dun.

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Sunny ol’ England, Part I

I have a theory.  God made England sunny for a September weekend so that when I visited London, I’d find it quite pleasant and want to come back, thus not disappointing the Brit and causing him to spend oodles of his own cash with mandated trips down to Paris because I’m terrified of coming up to face yet another rainstorm. As it turned out, it was the Brit’s trip down to Paris that resulted in a downpour or two, and my last trip back up (just a week ago) was pleasant with only a few drops of rain and gusty winds – yes, even in Scotland!

In case you don’t believe me, I thought I’d give you some evidence that England can, in fact, be sunny.  Consider this our first flashback.  All the way back to September, when I left the US (for quasi-good) on a jet plane headed to Gatwick Airport.

I arrived in London at dawn, and after a confusing half-hour stumbling around the airport looking for a coffee shop in the wrong terminal (that’s what happens when you arrive in a country without a cellphone and no calling card), I managed to meet up with the Brit and he shuttled me off to his country estate. Ok, not estate, but rather a nice little house in a charming town called Horsham.  After a recuperative nap and some unpacking, we took a walk around town and through the park, where we ran into the Brit’s paternal unit. A brief chat later, we snagged lunch (a real English sandwich!) and did some more wandering before heading back home to meet the maternal unit and one half of the sibling set.  The meet-the-parents routine went rather well, I think, though I felt bad for bringing a bottle of wine when his mum doesn’t drink (but I’m making amends with my next trip up).

The next three days were devoted to London and trying not to miss our trains. We did a lot of walking, I think I counted 7 miles covered in one day, and saw a lot of the mandated tourist destinations.  I’ve got a couple of images from my own camera, before I discovered the sensor had been splattered with dust, and then a couple from the Brit’s camera that will serve as guides to this exciting narrative.  And just for kicks, I thought we’d go sight by sight, rather than follow a timely chronicle, since I can’t remember what we did first, but I certainly remember what we did.  So here’s the London Top Ten, in no particular order.

#1: The London Eye. You can’t miss it if you go to London, and it’s a great way to orient yourself in the city – kind of what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Structurally I found it quite beautiful, and the view from the top was well worth the price and the wait.  The British certainly like to queue up.  Although I couldn’t help but think of that Doctor Who episode every time I saw this landmark…also, there was some random 4D movie experience, basically an excuse to get misted and have wind blown in our face, with some 3D effects that were better than Disney’s, while watching cool shots of the Eye and some little girl.

eye01
It doesn’t look so big, until you realize each one of those little pill-like cabins contains 15-20 people.
eye02
It’s like a huge, turning, bicycle wheel. But it moves incredibly slowly, so it didn’t seem to activate my fear of hights / motion sickness.
eye03
Better than seeing the Eye from the ground? Seeing sunset over London from the Eye! Who wants to guess the time?
The view from the top.
The view from the top.

#2: Big Ben. If you have to see the Eye, then you can’t help but hear Big Ben. I found its architecture interesting, though I prefer the proportions and detailing of monuments in Paris. When we were at the top of the London Eye, in true British style, a gent asked me for the time. And as a truly ditsy American, I searched my purse for a watch, Big Ben ticking away behind me, while the rest of the cabin laughed.

bigben01
The infamous Big Ben was actually one of the first things we saw. We saw it again and again the next few days, but for some reason I only recall hearing it ring once or twice…
bigben02

Big Ben at night, doesn't he look handsome?

#3: Buckingham Palace. So, we didn’t get to see the changing of the guard, and we didn’t go inside the Palace or the Gardens, but I did get to see a guard and he walked around a bit, so it was almost the same.  It was weird thinking that this essentially huge McMansion belongs to a little old lady that happens to be very rich and the (decorative) head of a small island/important country.  And that Prince Charles grew up there, funny ears and all.

Buckpal

That's the guard! And okay, so he moved a total of 10 feet...but he did change positions!

#4: Piccadilly Circus. The Brit describes this plaza as London’s version of the Big Apple’s Times Square.  I will say, it was cleaner than Times Square.  It was also smaller than Times Square, like waaaaaay smaller. I guess everything is bigger in America. But the tiny size and it’s great aspirations only made it quaintly adorable. Wait a minute, that sounds like an apt way to describe England itself…

piccad

It has a lot of moving images, which are interestingly hard to capture on still digital "film."

#5 Trafalgar Square, National Gallery. The Brit and I made it a tradition to approach relevant bits of public sculpture from the rear, and then forget to see them from the front.  We made an exception for Trafalgar Square, only because walking around the sculpture was key to our getting on our way. The National Gallery itself was beautiful, architecturally, and I was especially fond of its bathrooms – one of my professors always said, you can tell how well a space is designed by how much thought is given to the bathrooms, as they tend to be an afterthought.  The art in the gallery was your usual smattering of stuff, though I particularly enjoyed the Turners on display.

trafsq

From the rear at sunset, as we saw it. Take note of the sliver of moon on the right.

That’s it on London for now.  Look for Part II shortly!

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The sun will come out…

…tomorrow! And today happens to be tomorrow! At least when compared to this weekend. Ok, that might make little sense, but that’s probably the remnants of my fever talking.

Actually, today I feel fantastic.  And the weather concurs – it’s a beautiful day in Paris, with a smattering of white fluffy clouds, and a not-too-chilly 60 degrees in the sunshine.  So I took a small walk before meeting up with The Accomplice, The Tall One and the latter’s sister for lunch at a deliciously cute resto called Café du Marché on Rue Cler in the VIIe.  I had some more confit de canard (duck) and a gâteau au chocolat (chocolate cake) with some ice cream – I don’t think I’m going to need dinner.  The Accomplice and I followed that up with a shopping stint at a MUJI near my flat and wandered through the Luxembourg gardens to digest our yummy lunches.

For your viewing pleasure, here are some images du jour!

So far, I've been treated to accordian music on the metro twice. It makes me feel like I'm really in Paris. I even paid this guy, since he let me take a picture.

So far, I've been treated to accordian music on the metro twice. It makes me feel like I'm really in Paris. I even paid this guy, since he let me take a picture.

This is Rue Cler.  Rick Steves likes it (click the pic to find out why). It's quite nice, though not my favorite part of Paris.

This is Rue Cler. Rick Steves likes it (click the pic to find out why). It's quite nice, though not my favorite part of Paris.

It's not a myth: the French DO actually park this close to each other. In fact, they play bumper cars quite regularly when squeezing into a parking spot.

It's not a myth: the French DO actually park this close to each other. In fact, they play bumper cars quite regularly when squeezing into a parking spot.

A 'vitrine' on Rue Cler - the shop sells all kinds of interesting goodies, from chocolates to specialty soups...

A 'vitrine' on Rue Cler - the shop sells all kinds of interesting goodies, from chocolates to specialty soups...

Entrance to Luxembourg Gardens from Odeon.  They've got all these beautiful potted flowers in the park now, working quite harmoniously with the changing leaves...

Entrance to Luxembourg Gardens from Odeon. They've got all these beautiful potted flowers in the park now, working quite harmoniously with the changing leaves...

Potted plants, again. I should look up the name of this flower - it's like a big fluffy pillow I could just sink into...

Potted plants, again. I should look up the name of this flower - it's like a big fluffy pillow I could just sink into...

A small water fountain and canal.  There were ducks, and it made me a bit nostalgic for the Duck Pond in Blacksburg.

A small water fountain and canal. There were ducks, and it made me a bit nostalgic for the Duck Pond in Blacksburg.

I love how parks in Paris are inhabited by a range of age groups, it's refreshing to see toddlers and teenagers co-exist with the elderly, and it certainly makes for some interesting people-watching.

I love how parks in Paris are inhabited by a range of age groups, it's refreshing to see toddlers and teenagers co-exist with the elderly, and it certainly makes for some interesting people-watching.

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