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Archive for December, 2009

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!

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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)

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Last Days in Paris…

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.

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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!”

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