Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for July, 2009

The mouse outside my favorite fromagerie

The mouse outside my favorite fromagerie

There’s only one mouse I like.

He’s this one – the mouse who sits outside my favorite fromagerie in Fontainebleau. He guzzles a fine Côtes du Rhône, chomps on a slice of Emmental, and, most importantly, HE’S CARDBOARD.
That’s right. I like fake mice. Not real ones.
This has become a problem, because I fear we have mice in our house.
The other day, I noticed a suspicious brown dot on our bathroom floor. It certainly looked like a mouse dropping.
Then, this morning, D. noticed two others (smooshed, though, so it’s hard to tell… dropping, or piece of mud from the bottom of my shoes?) in our bedroom.
And, the worst of all… when I changed the sheets on my bed today, I noticed a dropping and a piece of short grey hair UNDER the bedsheet. GROSS. UCK. Disgusting. I don’t know if I can ever sleep again.
Are we infested with mice? It’s entirely possible. As I’ve pointed out before, French people don’t use screens on their windows, and we live in the middle of a forest. So, considering the multiple evenings I’ve left the French doors (do they even call them that, here?) in our bedroom open, it would have been quite easy for a little guy to sneak in upstairs. Gross.
The weird thing is, why would he be upstairs? Wouldn’t he go down to the kitchen where crumbs and flours are there for his taking? We haven’t noticed anything in our kitchen at all. I’m not waiting, though. I’m going to go to Carrefour later this week, buy a bunch of Tupperware, and put everything in our kitchen in plastic containers.
Do you think this is mouse? Or am I exaggerating? If it is a mouse, what do I do? Maybe someone will let me borrow a cat?

Read Full Post »

Tour de France

Just another Sunday in France...

Just another Sunday in France...

When I found out that the last stage of the Tour de France would go by just 20 km. from our village, I knew D. and I had to see it.

While I’m not “really” into biking or anything, I’ve gotten used to watching “le tour” on the TVs at the gym here – the best is when I’m running on the treadmills and watching the TV in front of me, and the cameraman is riding behind all the bikers… it lets me pretend, for a brief minute, that I’m racing through some street in the Alps or something, and not running the pace of a snail in a gym. But I digress.

Instead of fighting the crowds at the Champs-Elysées in Paris, we decided to enjoy the race from one of those rural roads you always see on TV. It took us a while to find the perfect one, but, eventually, I settled on a segment of D67 between the villages of Forges and Échouboulains, which I figured, due to their location away from cities, wouldn’t be too crowded. The place was also located off a big road, where I thought I could find parking.

It was surprisingy easy to get to, and park – given, of course, France’s general acceptance of cars parking just about anywhere on any shoulder of any road.

Our spot

Our spot

We walked up to an intersection and joined the lines of other people who had brought picnic baskets and umbrellas to sit and wait for the race.

First, the “publicity caravan,” came by around 11:30 a.m. This consisted mostly of cars and floats sponsored by major companies – banks, cracker brands, detergent. They all threw out “goodies” to the spectators, and I was lucky enough to get smacked with a sample of laundry detergent. Awesome.

The popular Cochonou parade car

The popular Cochonou parade car

By far and away, the most popular car was sponsored by Cochonou, a sausage company. People were practically climbing over each other to get those samples.

After this mini-parade, everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) retired to the shade and pulled out their coolers. I had packed us a pasta salad and tikka egg salad sandwiches. But as we tried to see what everyone else had brought with them, we saw it was mostly just baguettes and cheese. Nothing else. Interesting.

Picnic-ing

Picnic-ing

 

Anyhow, after lunch, we walked back to our spots in the hot sun and waited. And waited. And watched, as a police officers tried to keep people from crossing the streets (this was sort of worrisome, especially as the race neared). Eventually, we saw a helicopter, which we all knew meant the bikers would be coming soon.

And then, around 1:45 p.m…. we heard cheers… and they were going past us. We were able to clearly see the two leaders Alberto Contador (Yellow Jersey)  and Thor Hushovd (Green Jersey). And… they were chatting.

The two leaders

The two leaders

Yep, that’s right, they were talking to each other as they rode! D. had to tell me later that, at the beginning of the races, they often relax a bit. I was still surprised.

They went right past us, as D. tried to get this awesome photo, while also trying not to get run over.

Close-up

Close-up

 

And then all the others went by… and then that was that.

The rest of the bikers - and my head.

The rest of the bikers - and my head.

Read Full Post »

A long, long time ago, I made a promise to myself:  I would never go to Germany.
Why not?  Long story…
In front of the Münster Palace

In front of the Münster Palace

I grew up somewhat suffocated by the omnipresence of second, third or fourth-generation Germanness in my life. Kindergarten to Eighth-grade was spent at a Lutheran school, affiliated with  a conservative Lutheran church — and that made up most of my family’s  social structure.
Ninety-nine percent of the people I attended school with were of German heritage, and, boy, were they proud of it!
If a family was “Lucky Enough to Take a Trip to Germany,”  everyone treated them like they  had gone to Mecca on Hajj or something.
Me... back in the day...

Me... back in the day...

When they came back, we would have to watch slideshow after slideshow about it, even in class.
 Teachers would throw German words and phrases into lessons, blather on and on about how great Germany was when they visited it.
We would have to hear all about how Lufthansa was the “coolest” airline ever (I can vouch that is NOT the case) and we would sing  “Stille Nacht” every Christmas performance. Kids would say “danke schoen” or call you a “Dumkopf,” thinking they were really cool… ugh.
It was enough to make me realize I never wanted to go there  E.V.E.R. Cambodia? Fine. India? OK. Ethiopia? Why not? But Germany? Hells-to-the-no.

Oh, and the fact that I’m a vegetarian played in, too. My experience with German food — albeit nearly all from Milwaukee’s Germanfest and the handful of well-known German restaurants in Waukesha Country — made me realize that the Germans, apparently, don’t eat vegetables. Or anything other than breaded pork.

Well, long story short, all of this was wrong.

D. and I entered Germany by car. And… well… my first impression of Germany was that everyone had nice cars (compared to the French).

Then I noticed how nice the rivers that we kept crossing were.  Hmm.. it was pretty!

When we finally got to our hotel in Essen, I was all ready to duke it out with some obnoxious German people. Except.. there were none.  We found our hotel to be really nice – even by American standards. Roomy, comfy bed, TV channels in English, ice machine… and cheap. Friendly people who talked to me on the elevator. Wow.

Then we went outside to find a restaurant and found ourselves in some new development of hotels, apartments, offices, a theater… and we found a restaurant chain called Mongo’s, which was like a German version of a Mongolian BBQ. The buffet had tofu on it! As well as other things, like scallops and kangaroo meat. And they cooked the food with red curry sauce, or mango curry, or whatever you wanted, Yum!

Anyhow, on our way back from Scandinavia we stopped in Münster. It’s a really cute college town, reminding me of  Boulder, Colo., or Madison, Wisc. There were parks everywhere, bike trails through the parks, lakes, restaurants on lakes.. it’s was so pretty and so clean!

We stopped in a bakery on our way into town and got a big cup of coffee to-go (yes, they do that in Germany). And they had linzer hearts, which I had seen all the time growing up, but didn’t know were German.

Later, we made it to the farmer’s market, where we found berries galore. Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, even berries we couldn’t recognize. And bakeries, too.

 

Farmer's market, under an ancient cathedral

Farmer's market, under an ancient cathedral

The German bakery is more my style than the French type, I have to admit. It’s less pretty and artistic, but more comforting —  and tastier. We bought a big old rhubarb cheesecake to eat in our hotel room. And then I saw them – spritz cookies! My mom used to make these things at Christmas, in the shape of trees and stars. I had to buy a bag – they were great with our coffee the next day.

One of the many bakeries at the market (where we bought the spritz)

One of the many bakeries at the market (where we bought the spritz)

Then we found this stand with a huge queue around it – all we could see were women frying up something and a sign that said –apfelmus–  which I felt was –applesauce– (did I know this from some previous experience at Lutheran school which I’ve repressed? Possibly….) 

 So we stood in line to get a few. What we ended up with were the greasiest hashbrowned potatoes ever. We couldn”t believe how many people were ordering up a half-dozen of these things!

The women frying potatoes

The women frying potatoes

 

St. Lambert's Church

St. Lambert's Church

We wandered around town, enjoying the buildings and parks. One of the more interesting visits was to St. Lambert’s Church, which has been around for centuries. Two things we learned: First, Münster was heavily bombed during WWII and apparently most of the church was bombed, but the steeple miraculously survived. We were told this by an elderly German lady who saw us paging through a book with old photos of the church.

Secondly, you might see in the steeple three metal cages. Want to know what those were for? Apparently in the 1530s, Münster was a hotbed of religious violence and some Anabaptists took over the town. One guy installed himself as “king,” took 16 wives, beheaded one of them in the town square, etc. Anyhow, eventually people retook their town and killed the three leaders, then hung their bodies in cages from the steeple as a warning to others. The cages? Still there.

 We ended up grabbing lunch at a small brewery, which had a menu featuring two categories: German sausage stuff and salads. I had a Greek salad, which was fabulous. Afterwards, we walked around some more, taking in the numerous bike and walking paths that make up much of the city’s center – many even go around lakes and ponds. Münster is apparently the “bicycle capital” of Germany – and I believe the fact that they have a large university there probably contributes to that, as many of the people we saw biking looked like college students.

One of the many lovely bike/walking paths in the midst of the city

One of the many lovely bike/walking paths in the midst of the city

For dinner, we went to a restaurant which appeared to be a Traditional German Place – blue and white plates, wooden beams all over – you get  the idea. 

Yet what did I spy on the menu? Vegetarische. That’s right. They had three options for vegetarian food -mostly the regular food, but modified. I got a veggie au gratin, which, while fattening, was quite tasty.

So, long story short: I actually really liked Germany and would be happy to go back there. And? I’ve decided to make spritz cookies for Christmas this year. Mom, drag out the spritz maker!

Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht…

Read Full Post »

Us, in Nyhaven, the old port of the city

Us, in Nyhaven, the old port of the city

Those are the lyrics to some song I remember being sung at a meeting of the Danish Brotherhood in Milwaukee about, oh, 20 years ago? For some reason, the song has stuck in my family’s collective memory and anytime someone mentions the city, one of us will bust out that line.

My maternal grandfather was 100 percent Danish, even though he — and his parents — were all born and raised in the United States. So he went to these meetings, and we went along one time. I remember only the song, and the fact that my cousin, who was also a child, won a raffle and got some free beer. No joke.

Anyhow… I’ve always wanted to see Denmark, land of Hans Christian Andersen, the Little Mermaid Statue, the world’s “happiest people,” and my ancestors. So D. and I embarked on a road trip that took us through Germany, to Copenhagen and then to the southwest portion of Sweden.

I’ll admit, my first view of Copenhagen was less than inspiring. We had to drive through a ring of shabby housing (nothing as bad as the French suburbs, just rundown) and we started to worry.

“Umm.. everyone looks sort of white trash here,” D. commented. I agreed.

“No wonder my great-grandparents wanted to get out of here,” I said.

I’m not sure what that was all about, but we got to our hotel, the Copenhagen Island (which I would recommend) things were improving. The place was on a huge canal, surrounded by that modern, Scandinavian architecture every American thinks of as “IKEA-esque.”

View from our hotel room, at night

View from our hotel room, at night

I would say that Copenhagen isn’t a “touristy” town in the same way that, say, Paris or Brugges or Amsterdam is. There are tons of things to see and do, but only a few are really “famous.” The rest of the town is best enjoyed on foot, or, on bike, just seeing how beautiful it is, and how Danes really live.

The back of the National Library, on a canal

The back of the National Library, on a canal

It reminds me of a European Portland. Everyone is outdoors (this being summer) biking, running, sailing, even kayaking on the canals! It’s very earth-friendly, people are nice… really, it was like Portland.

Old stock exchange... people kayaking in front of it.

Old stock exchange... people kayaking in front of it.

There are mutliple places for public swimming in the city, too – including the one pictured below that appeared to have been made in a floating, movable pool. It was in the canal behind a shopping center, next to our hotel. There are also swimming beaches in the actual harbor — we were told Copenhagen is the only city in Europe with ports clean enough for people to swim in. How great is that?
People swimming... in a canal!

People swimming... in a canal!

We took a bike tour around the city the first full day we were there. We used Mike’s Bike Tours, which, though it wasn’t cheap, was pretty cool. We biked around to famous monuments like the Little Mermaid Statue, Hans C. Andersen’s grave, as well as in residential areas. 

Copenhagen is a huge bike city – there are more bikes than people there!. Everyone bikes everywhere and their bike lanes are amazing. In one part of our tour, we got to ride through a “green belt” that was like a huge park going behind people’s houses, schools, etc. It was lovely.

A stop on the bike tour - the  Little Mermaid Statue!

A stop on the bike tour - the Little Mermaid Statue!

 

There are lots of museums to see, but, unfortunately, we didn’t get to all of them. I really wanted to go to the Museum of Danish Resistance, which chronicles how Danes fought the Nazis during the German occupation of Denmark, as well as how they helped save the Danish Jews (95 percent of Danish Jews survived the war, most of whom were evacuated across the sea to Sweden. A German ambassador to Denmark leaked the info about when they were going to be rounded up, and Danish pastors and other community leaders helped get out the word. Some people even just looked in the phone book for Jewish-sounding names, called up the strangers, and warned them to get out before the date. Some even maintained their homes and gardens for their Jewish neighbors until they could return at the end of the war).

There is also a Danish Jewish Museum, but it cost about $7.50 to get in, and we had limited time that morning, we decided to skip it and instead head to the National Museum of Denmark, which is free.

It’s huge, and asks the question “Who are the Danes?” So you find out, starting with exhibits of prehistoric artifacts, then to ancient Viking ships and gravestones, all the way to the 1700 and 1800s and today, finding out how Denmark developed its welfare system. It’s a very neat museum – the only downside is that they don’t appear to have any AC so it was HOT.

My favorite thing, in general, about Copenhagen is the architecture..

New blending with old...

New blending with old...

 

Old behind new...

Old behind new...

The downside? The price. It’s one pricey city. Food is the worst. So, if you go to Copenhagen, here are my tips to keep food prices down (unless you’re on some sort of gastronomic tour, but honestly, if you are, you should probably head to Paris or Spain, instead).

1. The kebab places in the pedestrian drag are your friends. Kebab sandwiches and falafel can be had for about 33 Danish Kroner, which is about 5 euros. They’re not bad, either, especially Shawarma Grill House, Frederiksberggade 36 (strøget).

2. If you go to the shopping mall, you can hit up the food court – including a Danish version of Subway, for about 5 euros a meal.

3. The prices of alcohol are crazy. If you are roadtripping, do what we did – bring some wine bottles with you, eat, and then have a nice drink in your hotel room. Or take a glass down to a park – there don’t seem to be any rules about drinking in public in Denmark.

4. If you need coffee or beer, head to 7-11. They’re all over the place. And they’re cheap. An example? D. spend about 8 euros on a Carlsberg beer at a bar. He went to 7-11 and got roughly the same size, in a large can, for 2 euros. Same thing with coffee.

5. The cafe inside the National Library is also cheap, for coffee or sandwiches. Even better, it has Wi-Fi and a lovely outside terrace where you can sit and watch the canal.

Read Full Post »

Today, D. had a meeting in Paris. Since I have honed my Paris-metro-and-map skills in recent months, while he’s been in the library studying, I offered to come along and help him find his way.

Of course, this meant that when he went in for his meeting, I had nothing to do. I had planned to go to the Middle Ages Museum, but today was Tuesday — the day almost all the museums are closed in France. So what did I do? I found one museum that isn’t run by the government, and therefore, was open —  Le Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme.

Even better, it only cost 6 euros, and was small enough that I thought I could see it during the time D. was in his meeting.

I found the museum just off the Rambuteau metro line. To enter, I had to go through pretty tight security — the entrance is locked and manned by several security guards. To get through, they X-ray your purse, then you go through a metal detector. THEN they unlock the door. It makes sense, though — think about the recent shooting at the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C., and even the bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires some years ago… I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that thoughts of those events crossed my mind as I went to the museum this afternoon. So the security made me feel more comfortable.

It looks much cooler in person...

It looks much cooler in person...

I picked up my English audioguide, which was included in my entrance fee, and started walking. The museum includes items like Jewish gravestones from the 1200s, and many other really old pieces of art and artifacts from Jewish Europeans — a painting of a circumcision in 1700s Italy, old French-style ceramic plates inscribed in Hebrew,  and, my personal favorite, centuries-old ketubahs, or marriage contracts, elaborately painted. It was very cool.

They don’t allow any photos inside the museum, and I couldn’t find any photos of the ketubahs  online. But the museum’s web site does have photos of some other very beautiful things, such as this Holy Ark Curtain from 19th century Turkey…

D. called me when his meeting was done, and I went to the neighborhood he had been in – which was near a Korean store a friend had told me about. We walked there and bought tofu — for a euro. In the grocery stores here, it costs 3-4 euros and is very poor quality. D. bought some other snack mixes and kimchee ramen noodles.

Then we took the metro to the Gare de Nord station, near the Indian neighborhood, where we went to our old standby, V.S. Cash ‘n Carry, to purchase some things we’ve run low on — turmeric, cumin seeds, chana masala mix, urad dal and chana dal. And, since we were so close to Ganesha Corner, our old standby Sri Lankan restaurant, we went there and had our “usual” — a masala dosa with coconut chutney and two dals/subjis for $4.50 — prices almost unheard of in France 🙂

An almost-all-eaten dosa... except this time, ours was much crispier!

An almost-all-eaten dosa... except this time, ours was much crispier!

 After a long ride back to our station, and then an even longer wait for a train to Fontainebleau, we finally made it home. Overall, it was a pretty good day in town – although, admittedly, not your “typical”  tourist day in Paris.

Read Full Post »

D. and I have been traveling for the past week or so, and I haven’t had time to post much at all.

In addition, D’s computer is totally dead (it appears the backlight has broken — and the computer is less than a year old! Thanks a lot, Sony Vaio. Don’t every buy one) so he’s using my laptop a lot, which takes away from my blogging, time, too.

Long story short, I’m way behind!

I’ll try to catch up soon, posting about our road trip through Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

Read Full Post »

In Bruges…

The canals of Bruges

The canals of Bruges

Last weekend, we went to Bruges, Belgium. To be honest, I was a little less than thrilled at the prospect – it’s just that I’ve seen SO many chateaux, castles, cathedrals, old towns.. yawn.

But D. really wanted to go, and people kept telling us how cool it was, so I relented. And it was actually amazing. Bruges is a wonderful place, and I really think I would have been happy spending 4 or 5 days there, instead of the 1.5 that we did.

Love this building in the main square

Love this building in the main square

First of all, the town square is amazing, like in Brussels. But this one has two french fry carts in the middle of it, which makes it waaaayy better than in Brussels. My favorite topping was the curry-ketchup, but the other flavors, like “provencale,” which is tomato and onion, and “samurai,” which is just really, really spicy, were also good.

 

Frites, Bruges-style

Frites, Bruges-style

D. and I started out our little trip by parking our car at the hotel we chose for the night, The ______ , which was located exactly in the middle of everything (I’d recommend it) and walked around. We found a beer bar, grabbed a cherry beer for me and a Bruges beer for D., and sat facing the canal to watch the boats go by. TO be honest, we really didn’t feel like ever leaving, but since we felt like we had to at least see something else in Bruges, we went down to take a canal ride.
On the boat ride

On the boat ride

The canals

The canals

It was so pretty! Really touristy, but completely enjoyable. The canal rides are a must, even thought he lines are long, because everything along the canals is completely amazing.
Afterwards, we went to another beer bar – this one boasting more than 400 beers. I had a strawberry one, and D. tried Hopus,  which they were promoting – it came with a shotglass. The waitress explained that you are supposed to pour almost all the beer in the glass, then pour the stuff at the very bottom of the bottle into the shotglass, and drink it last. Ok. Whatever. D. loved it.
D. pouring his beer

D. pouring his beer

 

Afterwards, we wandered around (Bruges is great for doing that) and eventually went to dinner at a restaurant called Tom’s Diner, about a 15-minute walk from the main square. It’s traditional Belgian food, but with a twist, and they at least had vegetarian lasagna – which is why we went.

The next morning, we had planned to either take a bike tour out into the countryside, or to drive to the coast, which is very close to Bruges. Unfortunately, the weather had something different in mind. So we slept in a bit, had our free breakfast at the hotel (yummy bread and cheese – I think I like the Belgian breakfasts) and wandered around town a bit more. It was raining a bit, but not too bad.

The belfry - didn't quite fit in the frame

The belfry - didn't quite fit in the frame

We took the opportunity to visit the Belfry, which was across from us. We got there right after it opened, at 9:30, to avoid the queues we’d seen the day before. They only let 70 people in at a time because it’s so tight and narrow.

The belfry was built in 1240, and rebuilt after a large fire in 1280. At this time, Bruges was an important center of the Flemish cloth industry. It also was a very rich city.

We paid our 8 euro entry fee, and climbed up the 366 stairs to the top of the building. It gets really creepy towards the top, as the stairs are super steep and you have to constantly negotiate people coming down as you are going up – there’ sonly room for one person at a time! The view, upstairs, is great, though.

View from the belfry

View from the belfry

 

View #2

View #2

 The long climb up the very narrow turret reminded us a lot of the last place we did a similar climb – the southern minaret of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, India. I think that one was even trickier and narrower, though, and it certainly was less touristy. So we started arguing over which was a higher climb – according to my online research, the Bruge belfry is 83 meters high, which is 272 feet.  And… the Jama Masjid minarets are 41 feet, or  130 feet high. So D. was right. But, again, we had to do that one barefoot, so, maybe the difficulty evens itself out.

 

A poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, titled “The Belfry of Bruges,” refers to the building’s checkered history:

In the market-place of Bruges stands the belfry old and brown;
Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilded, still it watches o’er the town.
After that, we visited the Memling in Sint-Jan museum, which is housed in one of the oldest preserved hospitals in Europe. This place was built in the middle ages, when Bruge’s merchant classes had actually  created multiple charity hospitals for the poor and sick int he city – very progressive for that time, wouldn’t you say? Eventually it was taken over by the church.

 

Us, in front of the old hospital

Us, in front of the old hospital

The history of the place was cool, but we were a little disappointed that it housed much more religious art by Hans Memling than old hospital instruments. Oh well.

Read Full Post »