Archive for June, 2012

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Lana Del Rey & the Icelandic Convenience Store

June 15, 2012

Most of my last few blog posts have been long, maybe too long. So I decided that I am going to start writing some posts about my trip that are 250 words or less. Enjoy.

When I was alone, in a strange land, and everything (the stars, the sky, the light, the language, the people, the smells, the buildings, the signs, the writing, the culture, the style, the clothes) is different, I found great comfort when I saw things from America.

After walking in a jet lagged haze around the desolate moonscape that is Iceland, I found myself stumbling into a 24-hour convenience store looking for alcohol (to help me sleep), vitamin water (I was so terrified of getting sick at the beginning of my trip), and lunch for the flight to Germany then Paris when Lana Del Rey’s Blue Jeans played over the speaker.

Her soft, dream like voice, and references to American culture didn’t answer my question, “How the hell did I end up in an Icelandic convenience store?” But it made realize that despite how different everything was, I was okay.

I clumsily put my items in the checkout “ramp,” and the clerk scanned my Icelandic malt beverage (whoops), crackers, ham(?), and vitamin water, and asked if I wanted a bag. I declined. “They’re free,” she added. I relented, why fight her? “751.11,” she said. I gulped hard as I handed her my BECU debit card without knowing how much 751.11 króna was in dollars.

Lana finished with “say you’ll remember, oh baby, say you’ll remember, I will love you till the end of time,” as I left the store. And a few hours later, I left Iceland.

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The Outsider(s) and the Perfect French Couple

June 7, 2012

Sometimes in Paris people would speak to me in English before I even said a word. “Would you like an English menu?” Why yes, yes I would. That is how I found myself outside the Louvre eating a forgettable croque madame monsieur (I ordered the madame) and a glass of Chablis that ended up costing 23€.

No matter how nice I would dress up, no matter how fast I walked, no matter how crazily daring I crossed the street, I was an outsider and everyone knew it. All eyes were on me. This was especially true of all of the places outside of Paris. Take me, a hairy, beardy, Asian man with a faux-hawk with a mastery of French language worse than a two-year old child and you will see all the French natives fix their gaze on to me with a laser-focus that is uncomfortable whether you were on the subway, the tram, or waiting for the bus. The worst were the children who keep staring at you even when you flashed them a glare smile.

What I didn’t know at the time but would learn later is that my 23€ lunch would have a lasting impact on me. I discovered that often, the street food in France was superior to the mid-level restaurants like the one I got the disappointing croque monsieur. I could save money and eat better by hitting street stands and then spend my Euros on places that would not only blow out my tastebuds but also my wallet.

Fast forward to Lyon where after a day of pouring down rain and another day of bitter cold, the clouds cleared, the rain stopped, the sun erupted and Lyon shined in a brilliant light. I confidently walked into Leon de Lyon and requested a table for one.

Over two weeks into my trip to France, I was pretty comfortable eating alone. But I always felt a little out of place. Like a book that is ajar in a perfectly neat and orderly bookcase. I sat down and ordered a Kir Royale. French cheese puffs, two types of bread, and an olive and oil spread were brought to my table.

French cheese puffs, two types of bread, and an olive and oil spread

On my right were two women eating salmon in a cream sauce (I still don’t understand how the French remain so skinny — the cigarettes?). A middle aged couple and their teenage daughter sat to my left — they reeked of cigarettes. A man by himself sat across from me on my diagonal. Across from me sat a man and his wife and their two daughters — aged maybe 3 and 5.

If Paris is the city of love and light then Lyon is the city of food and gastronomy. And Leon de Lyon was mentioned in every guide book I had and received high praise from my Lyon tourist office friend Fatima. Leon de Lyon is famously known for surrendering its two Michelin stars. Chef Jean-Paul Lacombe wanted to prevent his restaurant from escalating prices and uncontrollable fuss associated with Michelin recognition — whether that is fact, fiction, or merely legend, it doesn’t matter when you push open those heavy wooden doors (the same doors that President Clinton pushed open 15 years ago).

The man and the woman with the two daughters were the perfect French couple. The man was smartly dressed in a black suit coat, no tie. The woman was in a white breezy summer dress and golden blonde hair. In a room full of elegant, well dressed people, they stood out, by a good measure. And their daughters, in petite matching dresses, also stood out to that late arriving French lunch crowd. But not for good reasons but rather for their bad behavior.

In a restaurant good enough to serve an American president (and the rest of the G7), they are going to treat squirrelly children with the same attention, class, and respect as they would any one else. In fact, Leon de Lyon took it up a level. The two daughters received soda water, dyed bright green, and finished with a long colored straw. Their buttered chicken pasta was brought before the perfect French couple received their first course. And these two young girls sat perched during their meal on these padded ornate booster cushions (forget those ubiquitous brown booster seats).

Like most children in a room, these two were the center of attention. And if any background music played through the darkened restaurant, it was not heard over the mother’s constant, curt, quick, and loud shushes. The children crawled over their father while he checked his phone (probably looking for any reason to excuse himself from the table). The perfect French couple let their eldest daughter go to the toilet by herself but she came running back perhaps a bit too shy to go by herself.

My dessert arrived — a chocolate brownie with ice cream that may be near (or at) the top of the list of the best things I ate in France.

Leon de Lyon -- Chocolate brownie with walnuts, raw milk(?) ice cream, and caramel sauce

Before, I took my first bite, the perfect French couple paid and fled with their children. Their table, a wasteland of uneaten food and overturned cups, was quickly cleared and cleaned and any evidence of the two daughters vanished. And I felt a little melancholy when they left. For the first time at a restaurant in France, I didn’t feel like I was the center of attention. I didn’t feel like I was the one that didn’t belong. I felt like another book in a full bookcase. While others in the restaurant were visibly annoyed with those two daughters and the perfect French couple, I couldn’t have thanked them more.

I didn’t know it at the time but that day would end up being the clearest and warmest day of my trip. I pushed open the doors of the century-old brasserie and walked out onto the cobblestoned street. It was mid afternoon and I didn’t have any plans so I just started walking.

The rest of my meal:

Outside of Leon de Lyon

Leon de Lyon

Cream of mushroom soup, homemade croutons, and chevre

Leon de Lyon -- Cream of mushroom soup, homemade croutons, and chevre

Duck breast with steamed(?) veggies

Leon de Lyon -- Duck breast with veggies

Espresso (of course)

Leon de Lyon -- Espresso