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Our bags are packed

  How odd that the last year of our life can be packed up in just a few suitcases and boxes… 

We’re preparing to move out any day now. We hired XSBaggage, the company who shipped our stuff here in the first place, to help us move back to the US. Basically, we packed two suitcases and two large cardboard boxes with our excess clothes, shoes, souvenirs, kitchen supplies, and chocolates, and we’re sending them on ahead of us. In fact, I’m waiting for the shipping company guy to come pick them up now. 

They should be arriving at my parent’s door in Green Bay in a few days – they might even beat us there. That is, unless the cardboard boxes fall apart, which I’m slightly worried about happening.

Other than that, we’ve returned our rental Citroen car, packed up our Indian spices and our baking/cooking foods and given them off to people who want them (peanut butter and black beans to the Americans, cookie sprinkles to the moms, spices to an English woman who likes Indian food), donated read books to the library, donated my yoga mat to the class…

Since we’re not grocery shopping anymore, we’re just eating frozen food from Picard (I have to blog about that place soon). And now we just have to clean up this place!

The market by the Cologne Cathedral

 My husband and I spent the past weekend eating. Honestly. Just stuffing everything in sigh into our mouths. 

We have an excuse – we were in Cologne, Germany, visiting the city’s many Christmas markets. 

I hadn’t really heard of these markets before, but many German cities have them – they’re basically little areas set up with stalls selling handicrafts, Christmas decorations, lots of German food and gluhwien, or mulled wine. Yum. 

Cologne is about a 6 hour drive from our house, so we decided to go there to get a Christmas Market Experience. The city itself has seven different markets – including a floating one on a boat – but only made it to three of them. 

Cologne is very beautiful, mostly due to an enormous cathedral in the center of town. Construction on it was started in 1248, because the church was to be home to some relics that were supposedly the bones of the three magi, and the church officials thought such relics deserved an amazing church. The cathedral took 600 years to finish and now, it’s quite gorgeous. It’s really huge, though – that’s what surprised me. Enormously tall. It was even the world’s tallest building back in 1884. 

Anyhow, enough about the cathedral. On the markets! We started off Thursday night at the Neumarkt Square market. We had some hot wine, and were temped by the marzipan stollen,  the cookies, the fried potato things we had last time we were in Germany…D. ate a currywurst, but for the most part, we held off so that we could visit Haxenhouse, a traditional German restaurant downtown. 

D. eating a pork knuckle with spicy Chinese marinade

When we arrived, we found out the place was full. But we sat down for a few glasses of Kolsch, the local beer, and when the waitress saw we were still there, she fit us in a place where some other’s had cancelled. How nice of her! D. had an actual huge pork knuckle, and I had a vegetarian mushroom pasta dish. 

The next day, we went to the NS-Dokumentationszentrum der Stadt Köln Museum, which I think translates to something like the Documentation of Nationalsocialism in Cologne Museum. It is housed in the former Gestapo prison, which was left very in-tact – basically, you can still see the drawings and quotes people wrote on their prison cells while they were held captive (some are thought-provoking – some are encouraging others – but my favorite was translated to “Gestapo are assholes.”) 

Weird WWI-era blimp ornament?

Unfortunately, the upper two levels of the history museum aren’t translated into English. We could have rented English audioguides, but we were warned they took 2.5 hours to complete, and we didn’t’ really have enough time.  Still, I found the seasonal exhibit, called “Heilige Nacht” (I know that means “holy night” thanks to nine years of Lutheran Day School) which showed how Christmas has been used as propaganda in Germany, starting with WWI. One example was the Christmas postcards with some sort of bullet on it, decorated with evergreen, and the other was a Christmas ornament of a blimp. Ok. 

Even weirder were the displays of how the Nazis used Christmas. For example, Hitler tried to convince housewives to make “Christmas” cookies that were of mythical Norse winter solstice-type motifs and swastikas. And there were also many Christmas bulbs that had swastikas on them, too. 

Perhaps the weirdest thing to me, though, were the Nazi-esque “advent calendars.” Instead of candles to represent hope, peace, etc., the Nazi party offered up these helpful suggestions seen below. If you looks closely, you will see candles surrounded by “wreaths” of either those mythical Norse-type horses or of a cross made of Viking ships. Hey, Hitler, I think you were missing the point… 

Nazi advent calendars...

Anyway, the exhibit was quite interesting. Done, however, with creepy Nazi propaganda, we decided to move on to more cheerful pastimes – mostly eating. 

We visited the Cathedral market and the Heumarkt — both were great. 

D. ate a bratwurst from there folks (the whole market smelled like Milwaukee, honestly) 

The bratwurst sellers

We had hot wine. We had hot apple cider with calvados. We ate a German garlicbread with olives and red pepper cream cheese on it that was heavenly.

German Garlic Bread - this stall smelled fantastic

 We ate a bowl of fresh dumplings with sauerkraut, creme fraiche and herbs. 

Dumplings & saurkraut/creme fraiche

And then we had to stop. No cheese spatzle for me, no fried potatoes, no fried apples, no pretzel, no nothing more. I was SO full. Too bad… 

D. and I had so much fun on this little weekend away – it really was one of the best things we did all year. I love visiting Germany – the people are so warm and friendly and laid-back. I also got a kick out of how many German Christmas things seemed so familiar to me — advent calendars with chocolate inside for sale all over the place, hearing “Oh Come Little Children” in German on the merry-go-round (mom taught me that one when I was a kid), gingerbread cookies, spritz cookies, gingerbread-lattes at Starbucks (well, they called them Lebkuchen lattes, but they tasted the same to me)… even slightly buzzed German tourists wearing fuzzy Christmas tree hats — it was a little bit like being home in Wisconsin! 

Hoo loves mulled wine? (Sorry, couldn't help it)

Mekong photo exhibit outside Luxembourg Gardens

Now that our time in France is winding down, I’m trying to spend more time visiting Paris. It’s such a nice time of year to wander around the city, too — sure, the weather is cold and rainy, but the Christmas lights are beautiful and the smell of roasting chestnuts on every corner makes my mouth water.

A friend of mine who lives in Paris invited a few of us to come into the city and have lunch with her on Saturday. Because we were looking for a place with vegetarian options (at least, options other than lettuce & tomato or an omelet) we ended up trying a place called Dip’s right near the Luxembourg Gardens. We were pleasantly surprised – the restaurant is cute and chic, and the menu consists of what are basically kebabs or plates of pieces you can “dip” into special sauces (chunks of Spanish tortilla, veggies, tuna, scallops, etc.).

I had a Spanish Tortilla with a really great beetroot-honey-chili pepper sauce for an appetizer, and tuna with a sweet avocado sauce for my meal. Unfortunately, I didn’t have dessert as I was quite full (note to Americans: Do not say “I am full” at a French table. Not only is it considered quite uncouth, it could also be slang for announcing that you are pregnant. Instead, use “J’ai bien mangee,” or “I have eaten well”).

If you are in the area and looking for a reasonably priced tasty lunch, I’d give it a try – it’s a nice change from the “typical” bistros and cafes dotting the area. Oh, and the French fries were amazing.

After lunch, we wandered past Luxembourg Gardens and noted, Le Mékong, histoires d’hommes,  a public photography exhibit supported by UNESCO and the French Senate. The photographs, posted along the  eastern gates of the garden, are the work of photographer Lâm Duc Hiên, and they essentially showcased the biodiversity of the Mekong river from it’s source in Tibet all the way to where it meets the South China Sea. There were some really amazing photographs. I snapped a few of them for you to see (I’m assuming I’m not running afoul of any copyright laws here since the photos are posted in public view?)

This one, of a Laotian girl, was my favorite

Everyone who walked past this photo started smiling...

I LOVE this photo, from Tibet. Love it!

I was impressed that such a nice exhibit was on display for the public to see. I wonder how they make sure no one vandalizes the photos at night? I noticed one photo was a bit damaged by vandals drawing a moustache on a man in the portrait, but that was the only one. Perhaps they use some coating on the photos that allows them to be easily wiped off?

Anyway, I’d suggest that if you are in Paris, you take a little walk and view these great photos. They’ll be on display until January 5, 2010.

As I was leafing through the Christmas ads today, I came across the store GiFi’s toy section. You might remember my initial shock that kids in France have board games. Well, today I was also shocked to see they have play kitchens, too. 

A toy washing machine

 I find this amusing because, from what I can gather about the size of most kitchens in France, these “toy” sets and their accompanying “appliances,” seem to be Life Sized.

As you can see on the left, the washing machine appears to fit about three pairs of pants. The toy oven is just barely large enough for a chicken. You get the point.

And if my American readers wonder why I am including the washing machine as part of a kitchen set, it’s quite common here in France, and in some other parts of Europe, to put the washing machine right next to the stove or sink. I feel like that is really weird, because I hate the thought of my clothing next “dirty” things, but I guess it’s just a cultural difference.

However, washing laundry with European washing machines is frustrating. Oh, sure, kids, it might look fun. But trust me, there’s nothing fun at all about cramming just four shirts and two pairs of socks into a tiny machine and watch it loudly spin and sound like it is ready to explode for the next three hours.

A make-believe Deep Fryer

A make-believe Deep Fryer

Other than the toy irons, vacuums, and dishwasher, the toys I found most interesting were the ones I never see in the United States. Specifically, a toy coffee pot (huh?) and … a toy deep fryer. Not kidding. They actually have a plastic toy “friteuse.” (Apologies for the dark photos, our camera’s shutter battery is low and we can’t figure out where to buy a new one). 

That’s weird, right? I am actually afraid of deep-frying anything, so I give props to kids brave enough to play with one of these.  Then again, the fried potatoes and chicken wing that come with it do look pretty tasty. I just wish I had some kid I could give a Christmas present to.

I would tell their parents I got a toy kitchen item from France, and, being typical Americans, they would think, “Oh, how fabulous, our child will be able to play with something so sophisticated and gourmet! Perhaps it’s a crepe-maker, or a Le creuset Dutch Oven for cooking free-range coq au vin, or maybe she bought play molds for making madeleines!”

And then I would bust out a plastic deep-fryer.

This made me wonder, though, do make-believe kitchen toys always change by culture? If they have deep fryers in France (Which I’m not even certain are really that popular in the French home),  what do they have in other countries?

If we’re on the ‘dangerous appliances’  kick, for example,  do they have toy pressure-cookers in India? Toy spritz-cookie presses in Germany? Or toy asado sets in Argentina?  

It reminds me of the time I was playing with my Pakistani friend’s young daughter, and I saw her rolling play dough with a rolling pin. “Are you making a pie?” I asked her. 

“No, I’m making chapati,” she said. 

Oh. Why didn’t I think of that?

Why is this little gori cooking with Indian dishes?

So I did some Internet research. It turns out that, yes, you can buy toy kitchen sets from other cultures. I just searched for Indian kitchens, and came up with quite a few. And I’m sure if Indian children have these, children from all sorts of other countries have their own versions, too.

I’m going to ignore the fact that there’s a blond girl on this box. Looking at the items inside it, it’s quite obviously for an Indian audience. It looks like there are those metal cups, a lunch dabba, a vegetable grater, and possibly even some sort of idli maker.

The other boxes I saw, including one called “Pure Veg Cooking Set,” have different items. “Let’s Make Dinner Together,” even has all the dangerous toys for kids who want to cook on the edge:  fake gas burners attached to a fake-gas tank and a toy pressure cooker.

Well, I know what my future child is getting for Christmas someday. “Pratima, be quiet and go play with your pressure cooker!”

The $150 Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving!

The girls, in Val's "pilgrim hats"

France or no France, my American friends and I couldn’t go without Thanksgiving this year, so we decided to do it up the best we could. Since Thursday wasn’t a holiday in France, and our husbands had class, we decided to push our celebration back to Saturday.

We invited 17 people over to my place – not just Americans, but also Canadians (same thing, eh?), Israelis and Russians. And the best part? We made everyone pick a traditional American Thanksgiving dish to make. For a few of the dishes, (like the green bean casserole) we handed out recipes and supplies (French’s Onion Rings) that we brought back from America. 

I think people were hesitant about making unfamiliar food, but everything turned out great. Our Russian friends brought the corn pudding, which actually tasted better than the usual stuff, and our Israeli friends made things like candied yams and green bean casserole, which tasted just like the ones my family makes.

The Thanksgiving spread

Getting the turkey was the tricky part. One of our fluent French-speaking American friends went to the weekly market in town and talked to the butcher. It turned out he would be able to get a turkey with some advance notice. The French eat turkey, but in slices – it’s not common to request an entire turkey. He said he had to tell the butcher exactly how he wanted it (no feet, no feathers, no head, gizzards taken out) and apparently the French people in back of him in line were laughing at how silly it would be to get a turkey with its head already chopped off… whatever. It still had a few feathers on it he had to pluck off Saturday morning, he said.

Anyhow, it turned out delicious. I don’t eat meat, but I did have a tiny little bite of the bird and it was cooked to perfection.

Good thing it tasted good, as it cost more than 100 euros! Can you believe it? As my friend said, that whole “supply and demand” thing is really a b****h.

For my part, I made my grandma’s recipes for pumpkin pie and chestnut stuffing (which, to everyone’s confusion, we didn’t actually stuff in the turkey). I also tried a new recipe for vegetarian mushroom gravy, which was good.

Overall, it was a huge success, I have to say. The dinner made sure we Americans didn’ t feel homesick , and our non-American friends said they were happy we shared this holiday with them – no one had celebrated a Thanksgiving before, even though everyone had heard about it in books and in movies. Even better, we got to prove to people that “traditional” American foods are every bit as tasty as those of other countries.

I think it’s a shame that Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday that gets “imported” to other countries much. I mean, it seems like everyone in the world celebrates Valentine’s Day, or Halloween, lately, but Thanksgiving is such a nice family holiday with yummy food and a good purpose — giving thanks for blessings — why can’t we promote that abroad, instead of Cupid and Jack-o-lanterns?

GRE: J’ai fini!

I’m done! No more standardized test-taking for me, ever again!

I finally took the GRE this week in Paris. The only testing location in the city is located in a suburb on the absolute other side of the city from where I live. So, my test day went something like this:

6:10 a.m. Wake up

7:00 a.m. Leave

7:20  a.m. Arrive at train station

7:30-8:10 a.m. Ride train into Paris

8:10-8:20 a.m. Quickly locate espresso

8:20-9:10 a.m. Ride several other metro lines, to their ends

9:10-9:30 a.m Walk to the testing location

9:31 a.m. Wait. Hmm…wasn’t I supposed to be here 30 minutes early? Why is the office still closed? Oh, right, I’m in France. I forgot.

9:40 a.m. Sign some waiver that promises to give my firstborn child to Educational Testing Services if I ever tell anyone about any of the test questions. Or something like that. It sounded serious.

9:45 a.m. Stuff my possessions into a locker, say a quick prayer, and sit in front of a computer.

10 a.m  – 1 p.m. Test time

At the end of the test, you instantly receive your scores, since the verbal and quantitative parts are all computerized. I was really scared because, honestly, I felt like I was making educated guesses on all the math problems. And the verbal portions, which had seemed really easy to me during practice, were quite hard (the reading comprehension ones, anyway).  And, while I’m at it, why did I memorize 5,000 words in my GRE Prep book only to find ONE of them on the exam?

Anyhow, I ended up getting a 680 on quantitative and 690 on verbal, which made me happy. It’s above the average scores for all the programs I am applying to, so it’s good enough for me. It would have been nice to have beaten my husband’s GMAT scores, at least in the verbal area, but I was 10 points off. Darn!

I came home and immediately threw my notebooks — full of vocabulary and equations I never used — into the trash. It felt great. I’m done!!! I feel like this huge weight has been shoved off my shoulders. I can finally relax – a bit – and enjoy my last few weeks in France. I still have to finish my applications, of course, but that can be done in small spurts of work, as opposed to studying, which you feel like you could always do more, always work a bit longer, etc. There’s no end to it. Until now.

The toilet at a champagne-tasting place

With apologies to all those who don’t expect to look at a toilet first thing in the morning – this is what greeted me last week, as I walked away from a French champagne-tasting bar and into the bathroom.

I couldn’t believe it. “How much champagne did I drink?” I thought to myself. “I’m not in India. I must be hallucinating.”

Because, honestly, the only time I’ve ever seen these toilets has been in India. I know they’re common in Asia and parts of the Middle-East as well. I try to avoid them, but sometimes, it’s impossible (like at museums). Most of my husband’s relatives have Western-style toilets, and those that don’t have always been kind enough to arrange things with their neighbors so that I can use their bathrooms, if I need to. Because I think using a toilet like this takes a lot of skill, and some practice, and I’m usually only visiting for a few days.

So, this was really the last thing I expected to see in France, of all places. But my friends told me that these toilets are really quite common down in the South of France, and they’re all over Italy. Interesting…

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