Archive for April, 2014

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Wine Tasting with Poor Old Garrett

April 27, 2014

Garrett’s wife finally smiled on our last day in Vaison-la-Romaine when Alex said to her, “Good morning.” See, Garrett and his wife (a marina owner) had been staying in Châteauneuf-du-Pape for the past week before our paths crossed outside our bed and breakfast. Garrett and our B and B manger, Laurent, stood under a large leafy tree as the rain began to fall. They were talking about wine. Upon seeing our wine cache we were quickly invited into the conversation.

Garrett is that strange combination of not recognizing social cues and being socially awkward (Alex and I kept on trying to excuse us from the conversation) crossed with also being an arrogant jerk. He not only tells you what wine he has tasted that day, he also includes the price (only if it is expensive) and the Robert Parker score in the same breath. I should mention that he is also from California.

Perhaps after sensing our desire to escape, Laurent paused the conversation and invited us to a wine tasting later and where we would continue our conversation.

Everyone was in the dining room when Alex and I came down. Laurent opened a Viognier (it received 98 points from Robert Parker) and a Gigondas (which could be purchased for 15€). Garrett brought a bottle that he had purchased along the way.

During our previous conversation Garrett claimed he was fluent in French. During our hour long tasting two things became clear. One, Garrett is not fluent in French. And two, we questioned if Garrett’s wife even liked him. In my observations these past few weeks you see how openly expressive the French are. When they like you, they like you. And you know it. When they don’t or are offended by you, they let you know that two. When Garrett thought the woman (from France) didn’t understand where he said he was from, he slowed it down, “Saaan D-iiii-eeee-g-oooo, Cali-forni (yes, he said “Cali-forni”), comprendre?” Her whole body bristled and said that she understood with a level of disgust that even I understood without knowing any French.

Garrett’s wife brooded at the corner of the table as the conversation moved rapidly (in French) from the Michelin guide (Garrett incorrectly claimed a restaurant he visited had two stars, the Belgium couple corrected him and grabbed the guide from the shelf as further proof) to the bright floral notes of the Viognier to the stylistic differences between Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Alex said she could comprehend 1 in 7 words of the conversation. I was more 1 in 40, maybe 50. In general, wine tasting is an intimidating activity. It is even harder when you don’t speak the language.

We were saying our goodbyes to Laurent as we checked out and he asked where we were heading next, “Mt. Ventoux,” I replied. Garrett replied, “Us too.”

So how do you defeat an arrogant Californian? Give him a dose of the ‘Seattle Nice.’

While shaking his hand, I said, “It was nice to meet you. Maybe we’ll see you up there.”

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House of the Rising Sun

April 26, 2014

As Alex and I sipped our cafes after lunch, Alex overheard our French waitress talk to another woman in the kitchen say in French, “An American and a Japanese man.”

Two older men yelled over at us from a park bench in Reims and asked if I was Japanese. “Korean,” Alex responded

Even Takoashi (a Japanese woman, living in Japan), from our Champagne tour asked if I was Japanese.

Everyone thinks I am Japanese.

We waited too long to purchase our train tickets back to Paris from Avignon and the only option was first class. In our car of about 60 seats, there are about 50 Japanese tourists. I look around at the men, of ages, and I look nothing like them.

The Japanese tour leader was translating the French train instructions in Japanese to the group. A bemused train worker yelled over to Alex in French (the only white person on the platform) if she understood that. She smiled and said, “No.”

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Star Chasing

April 25, 2014

We chose Hélène Darroze for three reasons. Is it close to our Paris apartment? Is it French cuisine? Do they take online reservations?

Hélène Darroze Dinner

France is filled with casual bistros. And some of the best plates we have had on this trip has been atop paper tablecloths (take the David Lebovitz recommended Aux Tonneaux des Halles). I don’t know if it was the table side sliced charcuterie, the Champagne cart or the number of pairs of Louboutins, that signaled that we weren’t at any old bistro.

I find it humorous that a tire company has created the most trusted fine dining restaurant guide in the world. This New Yorker profile shows how secretive and thorough they keep the process (they have to order the maximum course option and eat everything). There are people who chase Michelin stars with the same passion as 4:00 a.m. deal hunters outside a suburban Best Buy on Black Friday. I don’t have that passion yet as the closest Michelin star to Seattle is in San Francisco.

I schlepped my Pitch Black Sounders jersey for one photo opportunity at the Eiffel Tower. I schlepped dress shoes, a tie, a white dress shirt, and a suit coat for this meal. Worth every bit of weight and space in my REI bag.

Champagne (we got the rose).  My only complaint is the when the Champagne cart rolls up, you have no idea how much it costs.  We were never going to say no to Champagne, but still.

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Cheese gougères, table sliced charcuterie with a bread that was pillow soft.

Cheese gougeres, charcuterie and homemade bread

Our wine. A 2005 Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine de Beaurenard

2005 C

Oyster with caviar from Aquitaine, and cocoa bean from Béarn

Oyster with caviar

Langoustine with foie gras, onion, and coriander

Langoustine with foie gras, onion, and coriander

Foie Gras wrapped in nori, with Meyer lemon dots and shiso

Foie Gras wrapped in nori

Asparagus with escargot, beef marrow, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Bordelaise sauce

Asparagus with escargot, beef marrow, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Bordelaise sauce

The pigeon with bulgur, foie gras, and harissa

Pigeon with bulgur, foie gras, and harissa

Porc Noir (Black Pork). Served with potatoes with black truffles, and sage herb butter.  Cut and served table side.

Porc Noir

A cart of cheeses rolled up. Much like the cart of Champagnes. I chose the creamy goat and some other aged cheese. It was the oldest aged cheese they had. We could have had more cheeses than just two, but I was so full and we still had dessert coming.

Cheese course

The Baba which is their signature dish. It is cake with Armagnac poured over and served with ruby grapefruit and vanilla bourbon cream. Another cart rolled up and you got to select the vintage of Armagnac to pour over. One from the 1960s, one from the 1970s, and one from the 1980s. I chose the 1985. I told him it was the closest to my birth year.

The Baba

One was a chocolate coffee macaron and the other was some kind of banana treat with edible paper on top.

Bonus

And of course, cafe to end the night.

Cafe

Besides Alex and I and the older Portuguese couple (she of course wore Louboutins and he – much to my delight – also took photos of every course and the wine they ordered) were the only ones left in the restaurant at the end. Then they left. At that time it was nearing midnight. Our server sent home the hostess. And our sommelier had been gone for a while. Our server walked us down the stairs to retrieve Alex’s coat and scarf. He called us a taxi. It was there in seconds.  We hopped in and left.  This dinner was one of the best experiences I have ever had.

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One Day in Champagne

April 20, 2014

The man from Dallas was actually born in Minnesota, so I asked him, “Cowboys or Vikings?” “Vikings,” he replied. I liked him already. I assumed he was an oil man because at one point he asked out loud what time it was in Abu Dhabi (it was 5:00 p.m.) His second/third/(?) wife was from Finland and has been living in Paris for the past 10 years. She clutched a Louis Vuitton (which is owned by the same company that owns Moët & Chandon) bag. The man from Dallas spoke about splitting time between Dallas and Paris. Between love and work.

In the bathroom at Moët & Chandon, Takoashi, the woman from Japan traveling alone, asked Alex if I was Japanese. No such luck. She told Alex that she was in France for two weeks. The first week she was in the French Alps visiting friends. And now, she was in Paris. Last year, Takoashi also came to France (alone) and took a tour in Champagne. At the end of our tour in Champagne, I could see why one would want to travel across the world alone annually for these bubbles.

Aunt Paula, the loud, older, obnoxious Californian, infantilized Takoashi. When hearing her name for the first time, Paula decided to shorten it to “Taco.” Aunt Paula knew enough French and knowledge about Champagne to show off that knowledge to Amanda (our Tour guide) but also lacked a significant portion of knowledge that sometimes when she would ask a question, her question would simply not make any sense or did not apply. The second/third/(?) wife of the man from Dallas could hardly restrain her eye rolls when Aunt Paula became the official spokesperson of the United States of America.

Aunt Paula’s niece Erin, a curly haired blonde from Hollywood, came on the tour as well. Erin is a social worker and complained that the sun in California can be too oppressive. She explained how her brother covered his car windows with cardboard because it was too much for him to handle.

Throw in a hairy bearded Asian fundraiser and a tenured-track professor at a small Jesuit college and you have quite the motley tour group.

There are more than 6,000 Champagne producers in the region and when you compare that to the 700 wineries in Washington and it is hard to comprehend. A committee in Champagne dictates every detail of the Champagne process. From the window when growers can pick their grapes to the minimum amount of time the Champagnes have to be aged in bottle. This level of bureaucratic control is ironic considering Champagne was created on accident by a monk.

A few years ago I helped a board member at my last job clean out her mother’s wine cellar after she passed away (she was 100 years old). She wanted me to see if there were any wines that would be valuable to donate to our annual auction. The wine rack was filled with 1950s Champagnes, old Washington Rieslings, and 1960s California Cabs. However, as I pulled out each of the dusty bottles, most of them had leaked and were severely oxidized. They were completely ruined.

Amanda and several of the boutique Champagne producers told us that unless the Champagne is from a particular year (vintage), it is best not to age them. That they are designed to be enjoyed now. My mind raced back to that dusty wine cellar, with those bottles waiting for a special occasion that never came.

With 6,000 Champagne producers it is easy to find incredible bottle of Champagne for the same price of a forgettable bottle of wine at Trader Joes. There was never any pressure to buy from each of the producers that we visited in Champagne but we were more than happy to load up.

While the man from Dallas and I engaged in a showdown over the last piece of foie gras, Aunt Paula continued with her running commentary on French/American cultural differences. I won the showdown and the Champagne helped make Aunt Paula’s inane comments bearable. By the time we left the final Champagne house of the day, even Alex and Erin engaged in good conversations despite being complete opposites. Behold the power of Champagne.

The man from Dallas and his second/third/(?) wife left on the first train out of Reims. The rest of us were scheduled on the 7:15, two hours later. As Alex and I walked through the old section of Reims we spotted Aunt Paula and Erin sitting in their hotel lobby. I told her not to look but to keep walking. A little while later we boarded the train with our four bottles of Champagne. I can’t wait to open them.

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Icelandic Delay Part Deux

April 11, 2014

By the time we reached the correct ticket counter in Gare du Montparnasse we had been in full panic mode for hours. At that point, despite our best efforts to make our train to Tours, we had resigned ourselves that we would be taking the next train, which was an hour later.

It was 19:16 and our train had supposedly left two minutes before.

See, right before we went bed in our last night in Iceland, I checked into our flight. And in red text I see that we have a three hour delay. No problem, our connecting flight to Paris must have been delayed wherever it was coming from. I went cancel our train ticket and rebook for three hours later. We had specifically paid full price to get a refundable ticket that could be changed even two hours after the departure.

However, since I booked the ticket on my debit card, and I had used that debit card at Target between December 1 and December 15 of last year, my bank had then issued me a new debit card and canceled my card, therefore preventing any refund to be applied to that card.

In the morning to catch our flight to Paris, as we were heading down the elevator, we read a sign taped to the mirrored wall. The three hour delay was due to an airport strike. The workers demanded more money.

We foolishly thought that with this three hour work stoppage, everything would simply be pushed back three hours. That our 7:40 flight to Paris would simply leave at 10:40.

In hindsight, completely foolish.

At the terminal, delay on top of delay. And adding to my anger level, calling out of Iceland proved to be an impossible task (for reasons still unknown, we couldn’t call SNCF no matter how we dialed) and the pay phone I found was disconnected (we were still seeing if there was someway to get our 50€ refunded or applied to another train ticket).

As the lines grew, print and TV media interviewed unhappy travelers. And at precisely at 9:00 a.m., the conveyor belt to load our luggage started to move. When we finally made it through security it was 10:00. The board listed our flight still leaving at 10:30.

We make it to our gate. The woman at the counter tells the man in front of us that it should be 10 or 15 minutes more. Then an hour. Then she tells us not to even wait at the gate.

Our plane leaves finally leaves Iceland at noon (delayed 5.5 hours). Our flight leaves 2.5 hours later that we planned even after the delay. That long buffer that we had built in to get from Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Gare du Montparnasse was erased completely.

We land in Paris and it is 16:40. Our luggage is supposed to be delivered at 17:03. At 17:15 my bag finally comes (it was one of the last bags delivered).

We run to the shuttle. Alex asks me if we should grab cash at the ATM in the International terminal. I tell her that the fees will be higher and that we should wait until we get to the train station (a mistake in hindsight).

We get to the train station in CDG and of course, there is no ATM. Alex asks a man where the closest one is and he says Terminal Three, five minute walk away.

We run into a hotel. No ATM. I tell Alex to wait with the bags and I will run to Terminal Three.

Terminal Three is a 5 minute run away. Not a 5 minute minute walk. I get cash. I run by police with automatic machine guns. I run by police searching an abandoned bag. I keep on running.

The ticket machines to Paris only take coins. So we now need change. Alex takes a 20€ and begs for change at the counter. I ask a man where the change machine is located. He turns to the counter where Alex got change and tells me that you can simply buy a ticket. With cash. And probably with an American credit card. Frantic mode is in full effect.

We get the ticket and run downstairs. After debating if the train in front of us was indeed the right train to Paris, we decide to hop on as the doors are closing. I keep the doors open and Alex runs on. I barely make it with my arm still attached.

It is now 18:00. Our train to Tours leaves at 19:16.

We start running through Les Halles.

We run to catch the 4. I run over a woman’s foot, she scolds me in French. Her words fade the farther I run from here. We cut in front of people. We run in circles. We run up escalators. We run up stairs. We run down stairs. We run from Information Booth to police officer. We run past creepy people. We run past tourists. We run past workers. We run during rush hour, in the busiest station in Paris. We run to the stop. And the stop is not there. We run to a ticket booth and the woman tells us where to go. She gives us a subway map. It turns out the subway map from my last trip is out of date. They added another stop in the last two years. The machine doesn’t take our ticket. We run around some more.

If you could track our running in Les Halles, it would look like a psychotic Family Circle cartoon.

We get off the 4 with 30 minutes left.

The subway station is far, far from the train station. We run up more stairs. And we run through tunnels. We cut left. We cut right. Cutting off more people. More scoldings. We singlehandedly cause four international incidents.

Gare du Montparnasse is huge. And when we get there, we have no idea where to go. We don’t even have our tickets. We run to a ticket booth. I ask the woman if she speaks English. She nods yes. We tell her we are going to Tours and I show her our confirmation number. She points upstairs. We run up more stairs.

We run to the upper level of the train station and Alex has found a woman in a random booth that says she can print our tickets. I give her our confirmation number and she asks me if my ‘j’ is a ‘g’ and I say no. She shakes her head and points across the hall. We run across the hall.

We finally get into the right line. The line for immediate departures. There are four people in front of us. And they all seemingly have complex problems. It is two minutes past our train’s departure when get to the counter. I ask him if he speaks English and he shakes his head no (he seemed to take glee in indicating that). Alex and I figured that we would be working with him to rebook our train. Instead he takes our confirmation number, prints our tickets, and puts up 6 fingers and says, “Six, now.” And we are confused. He again holds up his fingers and says, “Six. Now.”

We run across the hall again. We hear the train powering up. We run into the first open door. Two women run on behind us. Then three more men. And seconds later the train doors close. And we finally stop running.

We would later find out (after we walked/pushed through 15 train cars to our seats) that our hotel in Tours almost gave away our room (they tried Alex’s credit card and it was declined because she booked the hotel with the same card she used at Target). But we called from the train. And they told us that they would wait for us.

The man at our hotel suggests a great place for dinner. And we stroll hand and hand to dinner.

We eat. We drink.

We stroll back our hotel.

There is an energy on the street. It is vibrant. It is alive.

Welcome to France.

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Upgraded

April 6, 2014

It is hard not to compare every aspect of this trip to Iceland/France with my last trip to Iceland/France. Large institutions like airports don’t change very much in two years. Coming up the escalator into the S-Gates in SeaTac, I spied the power outlet and row of chairs I utilized to pass the three hour delay due to the broken plane from my last trip. The seats were just as empty today as it was two years ago.

But my life these past two years haven’t been static like that row of dusty airport chairs. New job. New apartment. Alex and I have gone from measuring our relationship length from the number of dates we went on, to now counting the number of years we have been together.

Two years ago, the beers and the food were on the house on our flight to Iceland. A small benefit for the three-hour purgatory I suffered in the sun soaked window waiting for our new plane to arrive. This time, I paid 1000 Icelandic Krona for the same underwhelming ham and cheese sandwich (I remembered it being better; does food taste better when it is unexpectedly free?).

I emailed Fatima a few weeks ago and asked her first, if she remembered me and second, to see if she would be traveling near any of the places Alex and I would be. Fatima did remember me. But she wasn’t going to be near us.

Three hours into our flight, a flight attendant tapped the shoulder of the man sitting next to the window in our row. She asked him if he was traveling alone. He nodded yes. She asked him if he would like to move up into Saga Class (where I was upgraded into on my unexpected detour flight to Frankfurt two years ago) to give us all a little more room. His movie was still playing while he shimmied out of our row with all of his stuff.

According to the map we are currently over the western shore of Greenland. Less than two hours before we touch down. When we land in Iceland, I will be 32. I have never turned a year older on a plane. But then again these last two years have been filled with unexpected new experiences. Why not add another one?