Archive for April, 2012

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Every Bit of French

April 21, 2012

The end is near. And I am thinking about work again. It is hard not to, as when I come back I will have a new boss (random/weird timing). But before I leave for Seattle (via Iceland), here is a comprehensive list of every French word/phrase I have said since being over here:

  • Bonjour
  • Bonsoir
  • Je m’appelle Nicholas Peyton
  • Merci
  • Merci beaucoup
  • Oui
  • Non
  • Parlez-vous anglais?
  • Je voudrais ______, s’il vous plaît.
  • Pardon
  • Uh, for the mademoiselle.
  • L’addition s’il vous plaît.
  • Ça va
  • un
  • deax
  • trois
  • Petit

Who knew you can spend 25 days in France with an understanding of French language that is surpassed by the end of the week in high school French class?

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Coffee Mugs with Red Wine

April 21, 2012

My neighbor Val went to Greece over the summer for study abroad through the University of Washington. When she came back she was married. She met her husband while sunbathing on the beach. She told me it was love at first sight. They were married before the calendar turned to August.

Even though we had been neighbors for four or so years, I had never really got to know her. But when I told her I was going to France for a month in April we became fast friends. We talked for hours, sipping wine in coffee mugs as the rain fell from the evening sky. She told me how happy she was. How it was fate that she met her husband while traveling. And how she is not the type of person to jump feet first into the deep end. But on that sunny afternoon in Greece, she leapt, feet first.

I saw Val a couple of weeks before I left for my trip. She waved and asked if I was excited. I said yes. I didn’t know that would be the last time I would see her. Val was killed by a drunk driver a few nights later. She was 35.

I was walking in Colmar, looking for a place to grab lunch when I see a woman pushing a stroller. She is talking to her friend in French. She looked exactly like Val. I got chills. And strangely it gave me comfort knowing that maybe somewhere out there, there is a version of Val, happy, free, and pushing a stroller while window shopping in France.

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Us Versus Them – Chablis Edition

April 20, 2012

My cab driver from Auxerre to Chablis told me that if I ever wanted to get a woman to marry me, that I just need to take her to Paris. He stopped taking women to Paris years ago. Too many women wanted to marry him. The first thing you notice (besides the endless rolling green hills and brown vineyards) in Chablis is the wood smoke — coming from the tops of chimneys from the tiny little houses. Smoke fills the air. And it reminded me of the middle of winter, not the start of spring. Trucks filled with stacks of wood run up and down Chablis’ narrow streets. Where the wood is going, I have no idea.

Chablis is a town straight out of a children’s book. Old men wear suits and walk with canes. Old women wear hats and scarves. Young petite women in heels walk with petite little dogs. Children, literally, walk with flowers or balloons in their hands. And people carry baskets from the market with baguettes peaking from the top. You can see the baker baking the breads from the windows. And smell the tarts in the oven. The butcher wears a butcher hat and cuts the meat with an oversized knife. The florist sweeps the sidewalk clear.

And there is every building from the Lego City set — a bakery, a school, a flower shop, the post office.

Chablis Collage

Chablis has one bus stop in the center of town. And the bus only comes once at a day at 7:05 a.m. — it also doubles as a school bus. I handed the bus driver two Euros as I boarded. I was leaving Chablis to head back to Paris and then to Obernai. The students, who still had the early morning sleep in their eyes, didn’t even look up with interest as I came aboard with my rolling suitcase. I wasn’t the first outsider to come and to leave their town.

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The Blair Grape Project

April 19, 2012

I actually ran a little bit on my 10k hike through the vineyards. Not because I was trying to get exercise, but rather I got scared. Scared of the Blair Witch.

Let me begin with the admission that I made a couple of missteps with my Chablis portion of my trip.

1a. I didn’t realize that Chablis didn’t have a train station. So the closest option was Auxerre which is 22 kilometers away.
1b. Because of this, I had to take a 50 euro cab ride to town (and you sit in the passenger seat in a cab in Auxerre. The taxi driver told me I wasn’t in America anymore).
2. Because Chablis is a town of 2,800 people, everything, and I mean everything, is closed on Monday.
3. I came on Easter Sunday. Which meant everything, and I mean everything, was closed on Easter Sunday.
4. I was leaving on Wednesday.

So, with everything closed on Monday, I decide to take a hike through the grand cru vineyards of Chablis. The best vineyards of Chablis. Which only represent 2 percent of all of the vineyards of the area. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it was a 10k hike. And I didn’t think I would be the only person doing it.

A short walk through town, across the main highway, you walk up a hill toward the trees. And before you know it, the sleepy town of Chablis fades out of sight.

Chablis Hike

If you look at the map below, you can see that the Chablis’ Grand Crus come from seven different vineyards. The largest is Les Clos (which at one point in history was surrounded by a stone wall. You could see the ghostly ruins of the old walls from time to time) and it was here where I started my hike (I started the hike in reverse).

Chablis Grand Cru map

It was simply amazing. Looking at vines that produce the best wines from this fabled region was inspiring. And walking alone through these vineyards after spending a week in Paris, a city of more than 2 million people, it was a religious awakening.

As you walk along the treeline from Les Clos to Valmur, you descend into a small valley. And Chablis completely disappears from view. The cars from the highway fade into silence. And all I hear is nothing. Not even a bird chirp. Oh, and in the valley, it all of a sudden got tremendously windy and starting to spit rain. And all you can see are endless rows of twisted brown vines. Then, when I didn’t think it could get worse, I come across bundles of sticks tied together along the treeline.

Chablis Grand Cru vineyards

I start thinking how I am a half world away from home. In a town of 2,800. On a hike with no one around me. And now the only thing I can recall are the fragmented scenes from the Blair Witch Project stored in the deep recesses of my memory. No one, literally no one in the world, knew where I was at this particular moment. And it was very unsettling. I knew at any moment the Blair Witch would emerge from the trees.

I started to run.

I turn the corner again and all of the sudden the Chablis reappears. The trees fade in the distance. Cars zip along the highway. An older couple passes me as I cross the road and they say bonjour. I head straight to the only bar in town.

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Popping the Bubble

April 16, 2012

For as magical and the first two weeks of my trip has been (great food, wonderful weather, hardly any problems) arriving in Lyon was the opposite. It starts when leaving Obernai. I had been doing some mental calculations and I knew that I was getting close to needing to transfer some money around. I figured no problem. I would do it Sunday morning.

I login to my account and it says, “BECU is conducting maintenance on its website until 3:00 a.m. Pacific Time. Online banking it not available at this time. Sorry for the inconvenience.” 3 a.m. was noon my time. Which was two hours after I need to check out and catch my train. I say a few (okay, many, many) swear words not suitable for print and run through the different scenarios in my head. I ultimately decide that I will just go downstairs, hand him my debit card, and hope for the best. Then, if I need to, I will try to explain the situation with my bank. In English. Thankfully, my mental calculations were off and I had plenty of cash in my account.

My train is a regional train (about five stops before Lyon; the leg from Strasbourg to Lyon took about 4 hours) and I was stuck in the little tiny vestibule that seats 8 people, has two sets of sliding doors, and is located right before the bathrooms and the bar car. Needless to say, there were a lot of people walking back and forth.

I arrive in Lyon, after about 7 hours of travel, I step onto the platform and it is pouring down rain. More than half the train are departing from it and about that many people are rushing to get on and to get out of the tsunami. It is a crowded, wet, mess.

My hosts in Lyon had told me if I hurried I could catch the 5:10 bus to their place. I shuffle and push my way to the entrance and I have about 5 minutes to catch the bus. I sprint in the rain (with my rolling bag behind me) to the stop, which was about 50 meters from the station. I get there, I pull out my phone and look at the email again. And I realize that I was on the wrong side of the street. I look up just in time to see my bus pulling away from the stop.

I walk in the rain (mind you, it is still pouring. Not like the rain in Seattle. This was a deluge and I stupidly were wearing my nice shoes) until I spot a taxi, wave him down and get in. I ask him if he spoke English. No. I show him my handwritten address. He looks confused. I show him my iPhone next. He stares at it for a while and then he said, “Ah, rue Laurent Carle!” And we are off.

I devour the other half of my sandwich from lunch with a few crackers. I change clothes. And pull out my rainproof, REI jacket, which had been in my suitcase the entire time until now. And I decide to walk out to the grocery store and get some supplies (my place in Lyon is a mother-in-law apartment) for snacking and breakfast. The grocery store is about a half mile away. It is still pouring down rain. My glasses are a complete mess. My shoes are soaked. And I am unbelievably cold. And the wind was blowing like nothing else.

Welcome to Lyon.

I make it to the supermarché. And it is dark. And it is closed. It closes on Sundays at 12:30. More obscenities were said. And again, not fit for print.

I am dejected. I walk back. I make some tea. I strip out of my wet clothes. I pull out my iPhone and check the weather — partly cloudy on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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My First Lie in Paris OR The Couple Next to Me Were Having an Affair

April 11, 2012

Becky and I stopped in at the University Bookstore after lunch (we were working on a Saturday a few weeks back in the U-District, it doesn’t get better than that, right?), when I saw a 2009 Michelin Guide for Germany for a $1. I got excited. Because if Germany was on discount, there was a good chance that the Paris or France version was too — For those who don’t know, the Michelin guide is the guide for restaurants (if you want to read more, there is a fantastic New Yorker article on the subject. In fact Michelin is so important in the restaurant world that a chef committed suicide on the rumor that his restaurant was going to be downgraded from three stars to two stars).

Sure enough, after a few minutes of pawing through all of the unwanted books, I found the 2009 Paris guide. At home I flipped to the section about the Marais (the neighborhood I stayed in my first leg in Paris) and started googling all of the restaurants.

But I was immediately drawn to one restaurant in the guide. Benoit. It was on the same street as my hotel. It was reasonably priced (compared to a 500€ pre-fixe menu I saw that during my research). The guide called it a timeless classic and a throwback to a Paris long ago. The internets rumored that it is the only brasserie in Paris with a Michelin star. I was sold — I went online and made a reservation for my birthday.

When I arrived at Benoit, I knew I was going to have to lie. And lie in English. And hope that they understood me. See they didn’t take reservations online for ‘un.’ On the reservation form I said it was for two. I lied to the host and said, “My partner is sick,” while putting my two hands together and doing the international sign for sleeping. He translated to the hostess who seated me and I heard something like, “La mademoiselle est malade.” She removed the extra place setting and pulled my table out so I could squeeze into the seat.

I had spent a couple of hours in Seattle translating the menu. There were some items that were obvious — even with my non existent French language skills — Escargots. Filet de Bœuf. Foie Gras.

I was seated next to another table of two. A man sat to my diagonal and a woman to my immediate right. He was British and when speaking to the wait staff he spoke in exaggerated, but not over the top, French. The woman, named Tara, had a huge rock on her finger. She was from California. And for the life of me, I could not figure out their relationship. After I placed my order, I came to the only logical conclusion — that they were having an affair in Paris.

Anyway, when I was seated, I was handed a tome of French wines. And had this been given to me two years ago instead of today, I would have been overwhelmed, confused, and would have no idea on how to interpret the wine list. I narrowed it down to two Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s. And went with the older one — a 2006 Andre Brunel “Les Cailloux.” It was quite simply an amazing wine.

For dinner I ordered the Foie Gras and the Cassoulet. But I ended up with the Pot of Vegetables and the Cassoulet. The Second in Command Host/Order Taker (see below) took my order, walked about three feet, turned back at me and said something in French and I realized that he had immediately forgot my order. I said, “Cassoulet.” That bit in French that I didn’t understand — I would later realize it was him confirming my pot of vegetables. I am guessing that this interplay was only realized by the Brit next to me.

The first course was three little gougères – cheese pastries. These were placed on my Benoit fine china. Yeah, Benoit has their own dishes and the silverware is made with actual silver. All of the silverware and plates were cleared and another set of silverware and plates appeared with the second course — a beef, carrot, and vermicelli soup.

Now, I want to take a minute to describe all of the people serving me that evening:

  • Main Host — Greeted me; Explained to the rest of the team that the ‘mademoiselle was sick.’
  • Second in Command Host/Order Taker — Took pity on my sick partner and offered me a French newspaper (I declined his offer). After a couple of glasses of wine I was in a quite happy place and needed no additional entertainment.
  • Wine Steward — She showed, opened, and poured my wine and assisted in all wine related matters. She also took a little sip of my CDP before she poured it to me. Which she was either impressed with my wine ordering that she took a little for herself, or had a hard day a needed a little nip to get by, or most likely, she was tasting to see if there were flaws.
  • Waitress — She knew English, brought me my dishes, and was very friendly.

Why I deduced the couple next to me was having an affair, it seemed like they were catching up on things — important things. Tara, had just gotten done being in a wedding. A wedding where the hotel did not have their reservations for either the hotel rooms or the banquet rooms — note to self, always confirm the hotel rooms, (regarding my eavesdropping, remember the tables were very close together and I was alone, that is why I remember every detail of their conversation). So the question is, why was she at the wedding and not him? He also told her a story that happened to him recently. How come they don’t know these details already if they are together? They were also very acted very romantic to each and that ruled out the friend zone for me.

Anyway, the next course was the pot of vegetables. And it was perfectly fine that I got vegetables instead. Carrot, celery, potato, artichoke, pear (I know it is not a vegetable, but there was a braised pear in there — and it was good), and some lentils, all in this delicate broth — which I sopped up with some bread.

There are two things I like in a nice restaurant. One, I love a slow and paced meal. Two, I love it when it is dark. Like, really dark. So dark that Boomers/my parent’s generation have to use their cellphone to read the menu. At Benoit, the pacing was perfect, impeccable in fact. But it was as bright as day. Literally, day. Like you could get tanned if you stayed there long enough. And my dinner in Chablis, a few nights later, the exact same way. Must be a European thing. Or maybe in the U.S. we like to gorge ourselves in the shadows and between flickers of candlelight in order to not reveal our greed to others.

Now the Cassoulet at Cafe Campagne in Seattle is a great challenge to finish. And it is one of my favorites anywhere. Throughout the night I had observed these petite silver pots being brought to various tables. I figured that it was the Cassoulet. And it looked manageable. But when my waitress brought out a pot, about the size of my grandmothers 5 quart cast iron pan, I almost fainted. It was huge. The waitress simply smiled and said, “You have to finish it.” She removed the lid. Delicately spooned out a plate’s worth — being sure to fish out pieces of duck, sausage, and pork — and said, “bon appetit.”

Benoit Cassoulet

I ate heroically for as long as I could. I didn’t finish.

Meanwhile, Tara couldn’t finish her Foie Gras. She spoke more about the wedding she went to and all of the bad speeches. She spoke how the father of the bride had unexpectedly passed away a few months prior and one of the sons gave a speech based on what he thought the deceased father might say on the occasion. It was not well received. The Brit, laughed with delight.

I needed water. And tap water is not encouraged at these nicer places in France. They want you to drink (or rather, people prefer to drink) mineral or sparkling water. I ordered a ‘petit’ bottle of sparkling water and a glass of 2009 Château Haut-Bergeron Sauternes (dessert wine from Bordeaux). Along with my dessert wine, I was offered a menagerie of baked/candied treats with my coffee and one final course consisting of a baked lemon cake.

Dessert

The Brit offered Tara a rough plan on how they would handle their speeches. And that is when it hit me. They are engaged. And they are getting married. I almost dropped my coffee cup on the floor as the pieces of their dinner conversation illuminated in new light. On my way out, I asked them if they were getting married. And Tara said yes. The Brit chimed in and said in October. Tara asked me if I was in Paris for a special occasion. I said tonight is my 30th Birthday. The waitress, listening to our conversation was crushed. She would have given anything to have known that piece of information before that moment.

I walked out and Tara and the Brit followed me. They smiled at me and walked arm-in-arm as we parted in different directions. The night was clear. The air was crisp. And the moon was out. The lights of Paris sparkled in a way I had never seen before. I straightened my jacket and I stepped forward into my second act.

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Anatomy of a 14€ Petit Dejeuner

April 9, 2012

I have been trying to be pretty frugal during the front end of my trip. Street sandwiches and crepes for meals, carrying a nalgene or a plastic bottle for water (so I won’t be tempted by a 4€ Coke or bottled water), and taking advantage of the great, cheap wine here in France. I want to have extra cash if I run into any problems — Take my unexpected cab ride to Chablis that cost 50€ for example. And if I have some extra Euros burning a hole in my dorky Rick Steve’s Money pocket, I know that I can spend them without any problems in my last three days in Paris.

The place I am staying at in Chablis is probably going to be the nicest place I will stay all trip. It is very affordable (less money than my tiny place in Paris), it has three stars, and the service is amazing. It reminds me a lot of my stay on Lummi Island. Almost spookily so.

When I checked in the hostess asked me if I wanted to make a reservation for dinner. I had already spent an afternoon in Seattle translating the menu and I knew I wanted to eat there. I booked for my last night in Chablis. The hostess escorted me to my room (the last time I was escorted to my hotel room was with Paul and Kelli on Lummi Island) — Room number 1. She asked me if I wanted breakfast in the morning, I said, “Why not.”

Now, I knew if I was going to spend 14€ on breakfast (which is more than three times as much as I have been spending on sandwiches in Paris), I was going to get my €’s worth. So below is a detailed anatomy of a 14€ petit dejeuner.

Round One:
My Petit Dejeuner, Photo taken on April 9, 2012

From Top Left, clockwise. A) Orange juice. B) Ham and chorizo. The chorizo wasn’t spicy at all. C) Yellow Bread, with a whisper of sweetness. I thought it was going to be sweet. But it wasn’t. I put a fair amount of butter on that. You got to slice your own sized piece. D) Baguette. Crispy on the outside. Super soft on the inside. While it looks like a baguette you can get in Seattle, the amazing thing was the texture. Hard to explain but it didn’t have the roughness or the chew that baguettes in Seattle have. Must be the water. I slapped butter on it and put my meats on there. E) Banana. Saved for later — I need to eat more fruits and vegetables here in France, pretty expensive by U.S. standards. F) Café. My first non espresso coffee on this trip. I love the espresso here but I love me some drip coffee. G) Pineapple and Kiwi salad. See E. H) Croissant. I) Pastry, with a hint of apple. J) Pastry, with a hint of chocolate. K) Butter, from France.

Okay, you know, I have been being a frugal and I wanted to get my money’s worth. Well, I went back for round two. Don’t judge me.

Round Two:
My Petit Dejeuner, part II, Photo taken on April 9, 2012

L) Butter, same pat, slightly less. M) Pastry, with a hint of chocolate (it was tasty). N) Dry Toast. I put butter and the various jams you see in the bottom right of the photo. O) Dried Apricot and Fig. P) Jams. See photo below. Q) Ham and chorizo. R) Baguette. S) Chocolate(?) and hazelnut(?) cake. I was unsure what exactly what was in this cake, but it was dry, not sweet and was perfect with butter and jam. T) More café (not pictured).

The Jams
My Petit Dejeuner, the Jams. Photo taken on April 9, 2012

They also had an espresso machine, teas available, yogurt, cereal, milk, brie, and hot chocolate — all of which I did not have. It was well worth the money and I got completely full.