dimanche 19 avril 2009


A New Meaning to "Bittersweet"

The title of this entry stems from several sources:  Firstly, the impending knowledge that even though I've just returned to Paris from a ten day "break," I will be only here for another four weeks before my life as a student abroad terminates.  Secondly, this "break," for Easter rather than spring, consisted of a trip to Nice, Venice and the Cinque Terre.  And what, you may ask, is bittersweet about this?  Last night, as Katie and I hid in our hotel in Pisa (I'll explain later, in detail) we tallied up the ATM withdraws and credit card purchases.  She almost passed out.  To be totally honest and as fair as I can be, we indulged only once in a 20 Euro gondola ride in Venice...all other money was fastidiously dedicated to lodging and food.  Thirdly, my love for bittersweet chocolate.  Just kidding :)

So the trip began after a very long and rough night of doing laundry, or attempting to do it, in my apartment.  I went downstairs to find a young man filling all of the washers with his clothes.  Perfect.  I asked, politely, if it was possible for him to spare one as I had two loads of laundry to do between 11pm and 6am before we left for a ten day period of time.  Mind you, I had been babysitting until this point, unable to move in on the laundry facilities earlier.  He told me no and that there were washers in the apartment next door.  I impolitely told him that he was an ass (in my head).  

This did, however, give me the pleasure of getting to converse with Laura, a Californian at her finest.  She let me in the building multiple times until 3am, when I was finally finished stalking my own clothes.  I was in her apartment for a time watching her leaf through a book she was to have read, scanning page by page in to her printer (which she packed up in Cali and flew with her to Paris) so that I might borrow the book for break.  Fabulous and much appreciated effort, though drastic and humorous nonetheless.  As we say, "just box it up."

So the next day we met Alex at the train, Gare de Lyon, whereupon we departed with a car-fill of sweating, greasy, loud French teenagers at the pleasant age of 14/15.  Such a wonderful time during one's life...They shouted, swore, made odd noises, and above all, engaged in disturbing mating rituals and patterns never before seen by many voyeurs sitting nearby.  The ride couldn't end soon enough as the ventilation was lacking and their body odor was starting to waft our way.  Ah, Nice...finally!

We checked in to our adorable hotel, Alex and his Easter bunnies, before heading to the beach and simply plopping ourselves onto the beach of rocks to burn for two hours.  I slept while Katie and Alex were absorbed in what seemed like a deep and meaningful conversation.  I awoke with some sign of being sun-kissed, while it seems Alex was the equivalent of "raped."  We hiked to the top of the waterfalls to view the Old Nice and new at their full glory and marveled at their beauty.  Of course, gelato ensued.

Let me just say, there are vendors with up to 96 flavors of gelato including cactus, lavender, basil, and more...I stuck with more traditional or dessert-y flavors, and enjoyed every bite.

To summarize relatively quickly for those of you who have made it this far (!!!), we relaxed.  We did enjoy an afternoon of roller-blading, or rather, Katie and I did.  Alex got to know the asphalt pretty well, but was quite good-spirited (the entire activity being his idea!).  Katie and I got some great laughs, a nice burn in our muscles, and the physical activity we had been missing and lacking for the past month.  We dined at a Moroccan/Persian restaurant, hoping only to find couscous, meanwhile discovering a pandora to never again be shut.  The owner and waiter was an Armenian man who had lived all over Europe, spoke seven languages, and had no other guests than us three to serve.  We dined and enjoyed.  He lectured us on the etiquette of being a traveler, a foreigner, and better yet, an apprentice of culture.  He offered us free cake, which we ate with alarming gluttony and when he returned with tea as its complement, was distraught to see that we had finished it and had crumbs on our lips.  We drank the tea anyway.  He showed us his hobby of calligraphy, Irish music (he knew my heritage right away and took pleasure in brining it up), as well as his celtic string instrument, which I unfortunately forgot the name of.

After three full days in Nice, we departed for Venice.  What a treat.  Late to arrive to Milan for our connection, and even later to arrive in a city that has no concept of maps and easy-to-find locations.  We arrived in Venice at 8pm and it was not until 10 that we were successfully installed in our hotel (only several hundred meters from the station) and went ravenously in search of dinner.  Delicious pasta, not expensive, but painfully small portions as pasta is only the first course.  We, on the other hand, could not afford two courses.  The next day we walked around Venice, admiring the handiwork of her craftsmen and glassmakers, the overpriced gondola ride, and hundreds of bridges and canals.  We spent the afternoon in Lido, an island across the base of the Grand Canal, at the beach.  Several people had told me that they hated Venice for its smell and pollution, but I thought it rather quaint and adorable, best at night after the hoards of tourists abandoned the main island for Mestre, a cheaper option for lodging (or so they thought).  

Next was the Cinque Terre, another three days of refuge in the Italian Riviera before heading back (today!) to Paris, where life seems all to real and fast.  Katie and I left Alex in Venice and embarked in a female adventure that was quite simply, wonderfully unbelievable.  It is where the French, Germans, and Italians reside during their vacations (as evidenced by the hundreds of Germans with their hiking poles that violently make you aware to mind your personal space).  We had hoped for time to sit on the beach, but the contrary weather of rain and clouds forced us to reevaluate and re-plan.  Not a problem.  We hiked most of the next day in a pathetic excuse for rain to the third village, Corniglia, whereupon we were forced back to Monterosso by train as the hiking path had been shut down due to land slides.  Well, certainly glad to avoid that risk...

Exhausted, we collapsed in our beds after hot showers for three hour naps before the most SCRUMPTIOUS and DELECTABLE dinner of all time.  While I enjoyed my dish, I am actually referring here to Katie's, which I got two nights later when we returned for our last dinner.  Freshly made, hand-carved ravioli bouquets drizzled in a creamy cheese sauce littered a black plate.  Upon cutting these pieces of holiness, the invigorating aroma of sweet pears crawls into your senses and almost causes temporary insanity.  You can bet your balls I will recommend this restaurant to anyone, now and forever, and I'd maybe even be willing to buy a flight just to accompany you there and sample it again.  The owner was spectacular company and joked around with us as well as neighboring tables.  

We finished the hike of the five towns, finishing Montorola and Riomaggiore the next day.  Of course, lots of reading and laying around occurred and I was pleased to have finished all of my homework goals way ahead of deadline.  I am actually quite reflecting on some of the literature I read and have had quite a mental provocation since reading some of Yunus' work.  

Don't think I forgot about Pisa (I know, Piza!).  This was simply a layover location for a cheap flight to Beavais that turned into a nightmare from Hell.  We arrived in the rain and as we left the train station, we had men pushing umbrellas into our arms in a desperate attempt to make a sale.  Little did they care that we had an umbrella out and were wearing virtually waterproof clothes.  We found the cheap and recommended hotel very close-by and settled in.  The only one thing to do in this town is to see the Leaning Tower.  On our twenty minute walk down uneven, puddle-laden streets, intoxicated with pollution and jobless men, Katie stopped me, saying, "Is that a dead animal?"  It couldn't be!  You might expect something like that in Morocco, perhaps even parts of the socio-economic losers of Europe, but surely it couldn't be...

Sure enough, a small black dog (could have been a puppy, didn't look that closely) was sprawled on the ground, mouth hanging open, surrounded by groups of young men (each group of a different ethnicity, of course).  Katie and I then decided, pick up the pace.  After arriving and enjoying the tower for a grand total of thirty seconds, we stopped at the tourist tents selling the most cheasy and horrible souvenirs.  Who in God's name would want a replica of the tower, the size of backpack, for over 20 Euros?  Well, if I had seen someone even approaching the stand to buy one, I would have kindly done them a favor and knocked them unconscious.  Better off that way.  The rest of the night we stayed in and read in fear of seeing more than we had bargained for...and to get away from the Hotel concierge who was fond of kissing, quite too close to the mouth.

Congratulations on finishing this entry!  Worthy of a prize (gelato or ravioli)...but sadly, I am lacking them to give away.  Talk soon, blog more, read less (per visit).

dimanche 5 avril 2009


Marathon de la Vie

So today was the Paris Marathon, a bubbling crowd of about 40,000 people (of which only 30,000 complete the whole 26 mile course) who range from sleekly-fitted spandex fans to men wearing kakis and button up shirts.  Makes sense for one of the biggest races in Europe.  Katie and I departed from our lovely (and quite dirty) apartment around 8 only to arrive at the Palais Royal ten minutes after the gun shot started the herd and masses of seemingly identical runners.  Contestants included a man dressed as a baby,  a man on stilts, a man dressed as a prisoner, as well as many overweight, shirtless men that had little to no chance of finishing the run down to Bastille, let alone back up again towards the Etoile.

Katie and I had a tough time getting up this morning as we were out last night until the dark hours of night closed the RER and Metro and forced us to walk home with the incredible aid of Amaresh and Zach (Amaresh is an Eagle Scout, so we generally listen to him, but we still get sick pleasure from giving him much attitude and sarcasm).   Fortunately for Zach, he beat Amaresh in direction-winning due to his enthusiasm for jogging.  We were heading home late from a Latin/Jazz bar (odd combination, I am aware) and then an attempted-hooka-smoking situation.  We were not served our hooka, just required to order 5 Euro drinks whereupon we got to sit and wait in a room full of French people who were staring at us (as we were the only white people in the bar, and Katie and I were pretty much the only females).  So, after finding out that they were refusing to serve us, we peaced out without paying and I had to tell Katie that, "Yes everything is ok, and no, we won't get shot."  In the end, we were not shot.

We spent a foggy Friday at Giverny, wandering around Monet's gardens and his house, which was quaint and cute.  I am quite jealous of his kitchen and windows.  The gardens were not at all what I expected, much smaller and situated in a neighborhood-like setting rather than an isolated countryside.  We then dined at a small restaurant just across from Giverny where we enjoyed freezing and shivering for a whole hour and a half.  Yes, we sat outside and selflessly gave the heated tables to the kind, thoughtful girls in our program.  We ate salad (mine was sad because I didn't finish it, according to Zach), chicken with potatoes (not very good) and our dessert was watered-down cafe with a slightly unimpressive tart.  Oh well, free lunch.  Then off to Rouen where we were surprised with another spectacular adventure!  A free tour of the town by local French students.  You think they would know their shit, right?  ABSOLUTELY NOT, they read off of computer pages and had to ask each other for verification every now and then.  I just wanted to say, "Ask the paper, it probably won't lie."  A drunk man stumbled over our group, fell down in the road with his cracked cigarette, got up and barely staggered away.  I really was ready to go home when the time arrived and I am glad I will get my 10 Euro deposit back Monday.

Katie and I are currently becoming depressed when we think about how much time has already passed and how soon we will have to return back to the States.  I do now understand this "downward" part of the psychological curve but I fully believe that it is due to the impending knowledge of forced departure, and not as IES so firmly attested, from being upset that we don't fit it.  We fit in though I noticed that I get looks from other Americans on the days when I wear a sweatshirt and sneakers, like I am dressing up as the Devil and running through Notre Dame hitting children with live animals.  Paris, as you can tell, has a great ambiance.

But it really does and my bitter testimony does not convey my real relationship with this city.  We've made a list trying to compile all of her elements that we have not yet seen/visited/experienced so that in our next few weeks here, we can at least finish strong.  I say this only because we have 6 weeks left, and some of this time will be spent in Italy, the French Riviera, the Basque country, and hopefully, Amsterdam.  Spring break is this Friday and I can't believe it's already here.  I've been making plans for my Mom and I, for the last ten days of travel before the dreaded US -of-A (and I admit it depresses me to see the bills stacking up), so I have been distracted from the speed of time.  On the contrary (and bright side) though, we will be staying in a castle in Dublin.  Unfortunately we will also be renting a car, so we might die before ever getting a chance to enjoy our faux-royalty treat to ourselves.

I have also been horribly lazy and not written in about three weeks (again).  Maybe longer, I actually was so lazy to not even check, so I just guessed.  I have since my last entry, ventured to the French Alps, to a small town called Annecy.  It is strewn with parochial canals (that are home to some very sweet, and beautiful swans) that take the water from the lake around the charming medieval town.  The most important thing to note about Annecy is this:  best cheese fondue ever.  Quite simply, EVER.  The Alps are a boat ride across the river away, hikes and bikes and boats, nature and forests, (NICE!!!) people and culture...But the culminating event always involves food, so it was only a matter of time before cheese fondue took the cake.  We ordered our fondue and thinking to ourselves, "Let's die from heart-attacks tonight," we ordered salads to accompany our shared treat.  We received our hot plate with fondue, a basket of bread worthy for the Notre Dame congregation, two extra large salads, a BASKET of POTATOES, and a pichet of wine.  [Note: Potatoes and bread were NOT asked for, just given to us].  And in France, it is just not the same when you unbutton your pants and yawn after a meal.  We actually had to maintain some air of civility, though French couples around us were looking at us with hideous expressions of disgust and worry.  We, proudly, did NOT finish and left quite a bit so as to appear native and to have some sense of self-control.  Though, I must say, best meal in awhile!

It was actually super cool to go to Annecy on a Saturday morning, because the Friday before, we went outside of Paris to visit Fontainbleau and Vaux-le-Vicomte (two castles that if you care to look up, are somewhat historically significant to France).  We then went out to a club called Duplex with Chioma, Shawna, Laura, and some other girls where we spent a cheap 11 Euros per drink on Lady's Night.  We also got to a watch some pretty "good" dancing.  I was just really happy because all of this lead to us going to bed at three in the morning, us getting up around 7, me feeling like I was going to die, me forgetting my 12-25 card, me getting fined by the stupid SNCF man, and then me throwing up in the train.  It was a great start.  I did however get a three hour nap the next day.  

This week we plan to have some picnic action at the Luxembourg gardens and on the lawn at the Eiffel Tower.  Tomorrow morning might be our first official picnic.  This Friday we leave for Nice, then Monday for Venice.  Next Wednesday I will be in the Cinque Terre hiking from one small town to another for five days...then back to Paris. 

Hopefully I will be able to keep up better than I have as I now officially suck at blogging and it's difficult to recount stories weeks, au lieu de jours, after something has happened.