Jumping over the lazy dog

or, taking the bull by the horns.

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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Tout Paris, dans un week-end

It’s amazing how much you can fit into a weekend. Granted, my weekends are longer than most, especially this one, since I didn’t have to work on Thursday or Friday…but all the same, I saw quite a bit in four-ish days!

Thursday morning I went to the Gare du Nord to pick up my birthday present, i.e. the Brit, to begin our whirlwind tour of Paris. After dropping his bags off in the apartment, and a quick trip to the grocery store, we headed to the Luxembourg gardens for a post-lunch walk in the park.  Our tour on Thursday included a lot of walking, we made it from the Luxembourg gardens up to Notre Dame, then down along the Seine to La Place des Vosges, then back across the Seine to Ile St. Louis (where we ate the most delicious ice cream in Paris, at the original Berthillon shop, all decked out in purples and gold), then waaaaaaaay down the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay (where we learned that I can use my teaching ID card and he can use his EU passport to get in for free – and where we spent half our time watching Asian men take pictures of their wives/girlfriends posing suggestively with sculptures).  We were really knackered by the time we left the museum, so we grabbed something to eat at a restaurant in the 5e, in a small maze of streets bordered by the Seine, Bld St-Michel and Rue St-Jaques (lots of cheapish places to eat there, in case  you’re planning a visit to the city and looking to eat well on a budget).

The Brit in the Luxembourg Gardens - that's the Luxembourg palace behind him, there.  Basically, the gardens were somebody's yard.  Awesome, eh?

The Brit in the Luxembourg Gardens - that's the Luxembourg palace behind him, there. Basically, the gardens were somebody's yard. Awesome, eh?

The best ice cream in Paris.  Worth the money, and the wait.

The best ice cream in Paris. Worth the money, and the wait.

The Gare is beautiful...the 1980s architectural invention looks like it should be either a fortress or a bank, but certainly not an art museum.

The Gare is beautiful...the 1980s architectural intervention looks like it should be either a fortress or a bank, but certainly not an art museum.

Staying up late on Thursday and the subsequent late start the next morning became somewhat thematic of the Brit’s visit across the Channel. That’s not such a bad thing in Paris, where nothing opens until 10am anyway.  On Friday, as I had another training session out in Créteil, the Brit wandered around town by himself, getting into all kinds of trouble.  When I finally got back, it was almost half past seven and so we scrapped our plans to see the Eiffel tower and went to the Louvre instead (getting caught in a rainstorm along the way, so that by the time we got to the pyramids we were thoroughly soaked and my moisture-wicking socks had nowhere to wick the moisture to).  The museum was all but deserted, which meant we actually got to see the Mona Lisa (or La Joconde as the French call her) instead of a throng of Asian tourists. I must say, though, getting caught in the rain before a night visit to the Louvre is not a bad way to spend your birthday, especially for an art fiend like me!  The Louvre was followed by another late night dining experience in the 5e, this time at a restaurant where I was spoken to in Spanish twice, because I’m brown, and where the kitschy Franco-Greek themed décor was only rivaled by the 70s pop music playing over the speakers.  The food itself was quite tasty, I had escargot, duck and chocolate mousse – all good things in my book.

The pyramids at the Louvre are impressive during the day, but exquisite at night.

The pyramids at the Louvre are impressive during the day, but exquisite at night.

Another late start Saturday had us going to the 1pm showing of Funny People at the Pathé in Montmartre.  After two hours of giggling, sniggering and snorting, we wandered past Moulin Rouge (no free show there, but wait till I tell you what we saw on Sunday) and through Montmartre towards Sacré Coeur.  Turns out there was a once-a-year festival at the top of the hill, Les vendange, a celebration of the local Parisian wine grown in that quartier.  If the stalls had been giving away tastings, rather than asking for our limbs in exchange for un goût, I might have something to report with regards to the quality of Parisian wine, though my coworkers tell me it’s nothing to write home about…but we got a good view of the city from the steps leading to Sacré Coeur, and sat for a while to listen to the Afro-French musicians singing American songs: at one point, they even had a guest singer from the audience, a girl from Spain, help them with “Bohemian Rhapsody”.  After that number, we went down to the Jardin des Plantes, got kicked out at closing time by a guard enthusiastically weilding his whistle, and strolled down to Chinatown to grab dinner with some assistants.

On Sunday we thought we’d be French and take our lunch to a park.  A brief detour to the Eiffel Tower, to learn that you cannot, in fact, purchase advance tickets, though you will be able to soon (when is soon in this country, I don’t know…), we walked (a very long walk) down to the Parc André Citroën.  Now, I visited this park when I studied at Fontainebleau in 2007, and it’s one of my favorite parks in Paris. It has beautiful proportions, the side gardens are leafy and inviting, with a balance of views to promenaders and privacy, the latter of which is what probably provoked an incident in French PDA to the extreme.  The Brit and I had slipped into one of the aforementioned small gardens to grab our lunch.  There we sat, having just consumed a sandwich jambon fromage, chatting quietly, when I looked up across the garden to see a curious sight.  It’ll suffice to say that necking in the park is one thing – in fact, an intense make-out session seems to be the default mode for couples in a Parisian park – but addressing romantic issues below the belt (literally speaking) should really be done in the privacy of  your own home.  Needless to say, after a few speechless moments, the Brit and I gathered our belongings and made our exit.  Like two teenagers, we slunk away, giggling, only to happen upon a group of boys leaning over a ledge to observe the sight we had just escaped.  Their surprised yells only made us laugh harder, and by the time we had walked across the park, we were breathless with glee.

One of my favorite mini-gardens at the park. A picture from a few years ago, because I decided it would be more fun to hang out with the Brit than take pictures all day.

One of my favorite mini-gardens at the park. A picture from a few years ago, because I decided it would be more fun to hang out with the Brit than take pictures all day.

As Sunday was our six-month anniversary (now a day to remember, for sure), we went out to Montparnasse, where we soaked in Breton culture and cider, along with some delicious crêpes, at the Crêperie Josselin.  The dessert crêpe was amazing, a combination of chocolate, bananas and coconut ice cream flambeed in rum: mmmmm.  Perfect for the not-so-hidden sweet-tooth in the both of us.

I did have to work on Monday, my first day with students of my own, which was interesting in its own right and will warrant its own post later this week. I managed to wriggle out of work earlier than planned and met up with the Brit to grab dinner and Skype my aunt and uncle in India.

Monday was our last night together in Paris, so we thought we’d splurge by having a glass of champagne while taking in Paris aglow. After only 30 minutes waiting in line to purchase our tickets, we packed ourselves onto the first elevator – I say packed because the close quarters on that journey up the Tower has made quite clear to me the meaning of the phrase “like sardines in a can.” It’s a (mostly) glass elevator, and I was pressed firmly against its clear doors – a great view, to be sure, but for someone with my slight acrophobia, a somewhat terrifying experience.  Nonetheless, we shuffled off the first elevator and onto the second; within minutes we were at the top of the tower with a dazzling view of the City of Lights.  While we were taking in the sights, it seems we were a sight ourselves – a group of children followed us around the second floor and during our descent, whispering amongst themselves and trying not to look as though they were watching us, looking away and giggling when we caught their wide-eyed stares.

Looking East from the Eiffel Tower.  My apartment is just beyond the brightly-lit dome, before the not-so-brightly lit dome (the latter being the Pantheon).

Looking East from the Eiffel Tower. My apartment is just beyond the brightly-lit dome, before the not-so-brightly lit dome (the latter being the Pantheon).

One of my professors has made it his mission to take "the right" picture of the Eiffel Tower.  This might not be it, but I think the composition is quite interesting...

One of my professors has made it his mission to take "the right" picture of the Eiffel Tower. This might not be it, but I think the composition is quite interesting...

This morning we woke at the crack of dawn to shuttle the Brit back to Gare du Nord, and poof! at 7:15am he was gone.  It’s a strange thing, a long-distance relationship, where the highs of meeting your loved one are so quickly tugged down by your longing upon their departure.  It won’t be too long until I see him again, though, we’ve already planned a trip to Loughborough and Edinburgh at the end of the month.  Traveling the world is certainly one of the advantages of living in two different cities.

All in all, a very romantic anniversary outing indeed – it’s going to be a hard one to top!

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

Across the pond…

Greetings! The recent lull in the blog department corresponds directly to a bit of jet-setting that took me to London for a brief tour and then to Paris to settle into my room chez Mimi (that’s the family friend I’m living with).  And I know the story about the road trip has ended on a cliff-hanger…never fear, the conclusion will be revealed in a later post.

Now, I know you’re all itching to see pictures of London, and hear about my adventures there…but there was a mishap with my camera.  I have somehow, despite all precautions to the contrary, managed to get some more dust in my SLR’s sensor.  So I had to use the English boy’s camera…and the pictures are with him.  But don’t worry, they’ll show up on the blog by the end of the month!

What I do have pictures of, despite the dust embedded in the camera body, is my room! I was a bit antsy about moving in, as I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it’s a beautiful apartment, and my room is just *so* quaint.  I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence, but it’s decked out in reds, yellows and oranges – and as we all know, orange is my favorite color! So it worked out perfectly.

My room with a view.

My room with a view.

I have plenty of room for my clothes in the armoire (the door in the back, far left), a couple of shelves for my books and art supplies, a private shower and sink (the door in the back, far right) and a WC right next door, plus the piano (which Mimi says is a bit out of tune, but that’s better than nothing!).  I get a private entrance through the kitchen as well, and about ten paces out the door I have a view of the Panthéon (I didn’t realize how close it was on the map, not even a minute away!) and in the other direction, a view to the Eiffel Tower.

So far in Paris I’ve been trying to settle in and sort out some paperwork.  I arrived on Sunday via train, took the Eurostar from St. Pancras in London to Gare du Nord in Paris.  I sat next to a really sweet Australian family, and as usual, wound up spending the trip chatting about cultural differences and what not. A lucky thing, too, that I got along with my co-passengers, because they were able to help me lug my two HUGE suitcases from the train to the taxi stand.

After unpacking I met with a couple of other American assistantes.  We had dinner at a small restaurant in the Latin quarter, and I must say, for €12.40, I got a pretty decent 3 course meal and a couple of glasses of wine.  Plus, the view out the window was of an old church, and I entertained myself by watching pigeons squabble.  The rest of the girls seem fantastic, we’ve exchanged email addresses and I’ll be seeing them tomorrow during our orientation.

Monday was a productive day…I discovered that nothing really opens until 9:30 or 10:00 anyway, so I let myself sleep in a bit, then wandered over to Les Halles to purchase a mobile phone.  Now, here’s a bit of a challenge: I got the phone just fine, and it came with €5 of minutes (11 minutes), and I was told I could recharge it online or via the phone itself.  Well, when I try to recharge it online, it won’t accept my American credit card, and when I try to charge it via the phone, it asks for some random password that I wasn’t aware I had! So I’m thinking I’ll need a French CB (carte bancaire) before I can refill it online…but I don’t get a CB until I get a bank account, which won’t happen until after Saturday…which means another trip to the phone store to purchase minutes manually so that I can actually use my phone in October.

While at Les Halles I also grabbed a map of Paris – one of those Paris par arrondissement deals that’s in a little book and doesn’t make you look like a tourist unfolding the largest map in the world while standing on a street corner muttering to yourself, “Where’s the damn Tower again?”

After a break midday for some lunch (un sandwich jambon beurre – how I’ve missed those!) I did some shopping.  No, I didn’t get any cute French clothes…just the essentials.  There’s an Ed supermarché (kind of like Kroger, but different) right down the street and I bought some basic groceries – pasta, sauce, some fruits, cheese, etc.  On the other side of the neighborhood there’s a Monoprix which is kind of like Target or Walmart (but also completely different) and I bought some cute dishes and silverware and the regular assortment of shampoos and soap.  I didn’t think it would be an adventure, but let me tell ya, I have a hard enough time deciding which shampoo is right for me when the descriptions are in English…at least they had Garnier and the color coding made it a bit easier to figure my way through the massive choices! Interestingly, they didn’t have any conditioner, just shampoo…or if they did, I was completely lost as to where I could find some! I’m still on the hunt for some chapstick; oh, and gum here is ridiculously expensive.  No way am I paying €3.50 for only 12 sticks!

Today’s plan had me hunting down the Navigo pass.  Mine’s a bit pricey, because I’m staying in Paris (Zone 1) and working in Roissy-en-Brie (Zone 5), but I’m supposed to get a 40-50% discount from the school.  I also went and scheduled an appointment to set up a bank account.  I’m meeting with a representative from Le Crédit Lyonnais on Saturday, and will be rounding up my paperwork this week.  Still to do: add money to my cellphone, send off some paperwork for immigration, and grab a FUSAC to find some part-time boulot. Allons-y!

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

Ahoy, matey, thar be seafood aboard.

Ok, so I’m not really a pirate. But wandering down the West Coast has made me a real seafood aficionado (which I kind of was before, but now even more so).

First, the prize-winner for the best fish’n’chips I’ve ever eaten.  Not that it’s saying much, and it’s game to be contested after my trip to London later this month, but here we go.  Drum roll, please…Mo’s Chowder! For the most part, we tried to stay away from chain restaurants during our trip, to get a real flavor for the localities we were ambling through, but we actually ate at the original Mo’s Chowder on the old harbor in Newport, Oregon.  The restaurant appears to be located in a garage: the 10′ door rolls up to open the space to the street front, letting the scent of batter dipped fish and local beer drift enticingly out to pedestrians. The fish’n’chips are fantastic, and they have quite a few choices (in terms of which fruit of the sea you want dipped in batter).  I did, however, get ‘brownied’ as it came to be called: they skimped out when it came to serving me this amazing bread.  How did I know it was amazing, well, the rest of the table got their share and their eyes rolled back into their heads upon consumption.  Interestingly, I didn’t have any of Mo’s chowder…

It's not my picture, but that's the place.

It's not my picture, but that's the place.

Then there’s the prize for the best milkshakes ever. This award goes to….The Crazy Norwegian’s in Port Orford! Not sure how they did it, but it was smooth and frothy, tasty and not too filling, so I could still enjoy my fish’n’chips.  Speaking of, this place gets second place for awesome fish’n’chips: their batter was tempura based, I believe, which put a nice spin on the classic. As an Interior Designer, I, of course, noticed the interior: it’s really cozy, and I’d attribute that to the pine boards that wrap the walls and ceiling.  It’s almost like being on a boat, or in a Scandinavian log cabin…go figure.

Again, not my pic, but you get the idea.

Again, not my pic, but you get the idea.

We stayed on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, which is where we found the last restaurant on the ‘West Coast must eats’ list: the Franciscan Crab Restaurant.  The first two dining venues in this post were delicious and cheap.  The Franciscan? Not so much.  Very tasty, but with a price to match.  The four of us dropped a cool $100 on a platter of their ‘World Famous’ Whole Roasted Dungeness Crabs, which were prepared in a ‘Secret Garlic Sauce.’ The crabs were good, don’t get me wrong, and I think the method of preparation was exquisite: savory without obscuring the flavor of the sea, and it allowed the crab meat to be pulled in large chunks (as opposed to the slivers you normally spend 3 hours procuring from one measly limb).  The desserts were also quite delicious – we each ordered one and had a tasting feast. You’re also paying for ambiance in this place – it’s got an art deco twist, with some funky lighting, and on a nice day (which we didn’t have) you would’ve been able to see across the bay.  Oh, and their menu was beautifully designed.

I was apparently incapable of taking photos of restaurants.  But them's the crabs.

I was apparently incapable of taking photos of restaurants. But them's the crabs.

So there you have it, three divine dining experiences on the West Coast portion of our trip.  Next up: Vegas, baby!

Filed under: Around the world, , , , , , , , , , ,

Beans, beans, beans!

We all know Seattle has a thing for beans – coffee beans.  But did you also know that Seattle’s starting to fall for the chocolate bean as well? Chocolate bars (pun intended), workshops, tasting tours…we ran into this new craze everywhere during our hunt for food in the city.  It was too much to resist.  So this post features not one, but two of the best chocolate places I’ve visited – and the best part is that you can order their chocolates online!

Let’s start with Chocolate Box.  Right up the street from Pike Place Market, and a few blocks from the major shopping district, it’s a great place to grab a mid-century-modern-inspired seat and savor some gelato or sip on a large bowl of mocha – which is exactly what we did. I had a delicious  scoop of stracciatella and one of those mochas, a combination of temperature extremities that probably did little to help the cold I was starting to catch.  Chocolate Box sells local chocolates and hosts a range of chocolate-themed workshops, so if you’re in town, I’d recommend stopping there first.

A delicate and sophisticated atmosphere at Fran's.  The portrait is actually a photograph of tiled truffles - talk about chocolate art!

A delicate and sophisticated atmosphere at Fran's. The portrait is actually a photograph of tiled truffles - talk about chocolate art!

My favorite chocolate place, though, was definitely Fran’s Chocolates.  It was a chilly morning (well, chilly for me, since I was the only one in shorts) as we made our way to SAM, and nothing in Seattle seemed to open until 10AM.  That is, nothing but Fran’s! There we were, standing outside the museum at 9:40, shivering in our flip flops, desperate for something warm.  A charming floral graphic across the street caught my eye.  I hadn’t actually registered what the graphic was for – I only liked the promising interior, and the designer that I am, I dragged Saarinen and Dinosaur after me.  Open at 9:30 AM, located directly across the street from SAM, Fran’s has the best hot chocolate in the world. I can say this, because I have had hot chocolate from very random places around the world (Paris, which certainly gives Fran’s some competition, and India, which doesn’t, for example), and Fran’s is definitely the best hot chocolate I have ever had.  The barista pulled out a small paper cup, filled it (I kid you not) with dark chocolate chips and topped it with steamed milk – mmmm, delicious.  Fran’s also sells an assortment of chocolate truffles, with the usual flavors…and some unusual ones (chocolate figs anyone?).  These and their hot chocolate mix are available online – I know I’m going to be purchasing some, right now.

Are those diamonds on display or truffles? Either way, a woman's best friend...

Are those diamonds on display or truffles? Either way, a woman's best friend...

Before you get the wrong idea, we did eat some real food while in Seattle.  While at Pike Place Market, we ate at Athenian Inn.  A contender for the best meal of the road trip, it’s also the place where Tom Hanks has a seat in Sleepless in Seattle.  I had the freshest Halibut and green beans I’ve ever tasted, and Saarinen’s seafood alfredo pasta was absolutely divine.

One of Saarinen’s friends recommended Ray’s Boathouse, so we thought we’d check it out.  It’s a bit on the pricey side, and when we got there they said we’d have to wait an hour before we could be seated.  So we opted to eat at Ray’s Café instead – they’re both in the same building, but the view from the deck at Ray’s Café can’t be beat.  As we dined on fresh seafood (everyone had a nibble from another’s dish, of course), we watched the sun drop below the water.  They even provide you with blankets to fend of the chill that sets in at dusk!

The prize for the quickest, cheapest and surprisingly tasty meal goes to Original Deli, one of those last-minute-oh-my-God-I-need-to-eat finds.  Maybe it was because we were so hungry, but their soup and sandwiches were better than Au Bon Pain’s – and I’m a sucker for some Au Bon Pain.

You’d think it would be pretty hard to top our dining experience in Seattle – but there’s a restaurant in Albuquerque that gives the Athenian Inn a run for its money.  And a place in Oregon called the Crazy Norwegian.  Oh yes, just you wait.

Filed under: Around the world, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I <3 food.

That shouldn’t be too surprising to those of you that know me.  One of my earliest baby pictures is of me, arms out, stretching to grab the piece of birthday cake my mom is holding right out of reach.  I’ve been known to drop quite some cash on a nice meal, and many of my memorable travel experiences revolve around the meals I ate and the people I ate them with (asparagus and scallop soup in the Jordaan district, roasted duck in a bistro on the Seine, half-lobster and champagne on the Mediterranean, to name a few).

What is newsworthy, however, is that now I’m <3-ing cooking, as well.  If you knew me well enough to know just how much I love food, then you also know just how little I actually know about food preparation.  Well, that’s starting to change.  This summer I’ve been discovering the pleasures of cooking a three course meal, of baking cookies from scratch, of making up simple dishes as I go along.

What’s at the root of this new path of discovery? A couple of things.

  1. I rediscovered Anthony Bourdain.  He’s an incredible writer, and if anyone can convince me that cooking and eating food is a pleasure as close to sex as you can get, it’s him.  When I read an excerpt from his book, Kitchen Confidential, in which he described the orgasmic pleasure of eating an oyster, I had found my culinary-literary soulmate.  I remember my first taste of oyster: raw, chilled on a bed of crushed ice, drizzled with lemon juice, scooped out of the shell with a small silver fork, placed on a salted cracker and topped with a dash of horseradish sauce.  Delicious!
  2. I’m living by myself.  Well, sort of. I’m in my parents’ house, so dinner is covered, but lunches are all up to me – and Lean Cuisine packets only get you so far before you start craving a real meal for lunch!
  3. Transatlantic dating.  My beau is currently to be found across the pond and, in what my friends describe as a sickeningly sweet tradition, we “dunch” together. That is, we plan, prepare and consume a meal, supplemented with some wine and conversation, via Skype. Go ahead, gag.  I like it. And it’s making me a better cook, so there.

So far, I can catalog five experiments, with a handful of little exercises (i.e. helping my mom with dinner) along the way. I’ve made chocolate chip, pecan, and coconut cookies from scratch, made tuna and salmon sushi, a delicious coconut-honey glazed salmon dinner, a three-course Indian meal and invented my very own grilled tuna with mango salsa over pasta dish.  Any suggestions for my next go around?

Chocolate chip, pecan and coconut cookies.

Chocolate chip, pecan and coconut cookies.

Seasoned and grilled tuna with mango salsa over mini pasta shells.

Seasoned and grilled tuna with mango salsa over mini pasta shells.

Tandoori chicken, "jumping" potatoes and mixed salad

Tandoori chicken, "jumping" potatoes and mixed salad.

Chocolate gulab jambun with vanilla ice cream.

Chocolate gulab jambun with vanilla ice cream.

Filed under: Close to home, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,