22 August 2010

The muse has left the building

Apologies to anyone who was actually reading this blog- Rolf has not been inspired to write in quite some while, and you may have noticed he was carrying most of the weight.

Some updates: we are still in Paris! It looks like we will get the full two years, so although we don't have a set return date yet, end of February looks most likely. We celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary (several times, although I was in the US and he was here on the actual date, which is somehow fitting, if you know our history).

We have been traveling a lot this year. Since I last posted in April, I've been to Philadelphia twice, Tokyo, New Orleans; Rolf and I have been to Berlin, Hong Kong, Provence, and the French Alpes. Hong Kong was hands down the most interesting and fun. Great food, great shopping, in a setting of both natural and man-made extremes. The French Alpes were the most beautiful. Just amazingly awesome, with fantastic riding. We were underwhelmed by Provence, but it rained that whole week, and it is pretty much an all-outdoors place.

The revelation of the year was getting a table so we could eat outside on our front balcony. Why didn't we think of that last year?? Other than a stretch of cold rainy days in early August, for most of the summer this has been the way to enjoy our corner of Paris.

(The Eiffel Tower is obscured in this picture, but is off on the top right corner)

As we count down the days remaining, now we're back into trying to make sure we see everything here while we can. I have a longer list of things to do, since Rolf spends time out in the city while I'm at work. He's leaving next weekend for a week of biking in Italy with two of our Philadelphia teammates, so maybe I'll have to hit the sites that he has been reluctant to do twice during his absence.

03 April 2010

One Year In

We're now solidly into year 2 of our French adventure. This comes as a bit of a surprise, since when we arrived we were not sure that we would be here beyond 6 months. But with enough chaos after the merger, and the fact that the incredibly slow and cumbersome French bureaucracy is finally working for us, it looks like we'll be able to stay here through 2010.

So where are we? In many ways, about where I imagined we would be in April of 2009, not April 2010.

Cycling: Rolf arrived in Paris with newly broken ribs last year. The original plan had been that he'd be riding a lot, exploring the area around Paris and figuring out the best routes, which he could then take me on over the weekends. It took awhile to heal, we figured out some of the roads, after ribs healed then knees became an issue, but it has really been in the past few months that Rolf has been spending a lot of time riding around and really checking things out. We now have a bunch of good ways to get out of Paris by bike, and nicer rides to do. I'm starting to at least recognize places I've been through before, though since I usually don't go out by myself I still don't really know where I'm going most of the time. I did one long ride alone last year with the GPS, and when it freaked out and kept sending me in circles, I just followed the signs back to Versailles (on a highway that at least has a bike lane) and from there the GPS knew where it was, and even I had a pretty good idea of where I was and how to finish the ride. We've finally found a really good bike shop in Paris, and just in time, as bike parts seem to be falling apart right and left.

Cell Phones: I really really wanted an iPhone last year, but when we arrived it made little sense to buy one for the 6 months we'd be here. This year, we're in a better place with our cell phone supplier, having already fulfilled a year's service contract, and iPhones are better and cheaper. When my iPod died a week before we were to go anyway to renegotiate our contract (to arrange for fewer hours, since we never talk on the cell phones) that sealed the deal- I was getting an iPhone. It was the same price as a new iPod- what else could I do?? Rolf decided to go for it as well and got his own. And amazingly, here the monthly service is the same as what we were already paying for ordinary phones, and in 6 months we can get them unlocked, which will make them usable back home. Cool.

French language: I had a fantasy that somehow just being in France I'd pick up the language by osmosis. Since I spend all of my work day in an office on teleconferences with people in English, it hasn't happened. We made several half-hearted attempts to look into formal instruction, but Alliance Francaise, Berlitz, etc, were painfully expensive. I'm still on Rosetta Stone Level 1. I do read the free papers every day (Metro, Direct Matin/Soir, 20 Minutes, etc) and I'm able to understand a lot more both reading and listening. But my spoken French is abysmal.

Getting around Paris: I am now getting a much better sense of the city- of the different neighborhoods (Arrondissements) and where they are in relation to each other. The problem of getting around by Metro is that you go underground, travel, emerge somewhere different, and really don't know how you got from point A to point B, or what was in between. The layout of Paris doesn't help either- with lots of streets radiating from multiple circles or public squares- no grid. And the long streets change names repeatedly.

Living in Paris: We've got a pretty good grasp on Paris with regards to the things that make life comfortable- we know the best bakers, butchers, vegetable sources, fish markets, etc for specific food items, we are getting a better handle on how to negotiate day to day things, what are the French equivalents for what or how we do things, what to take advantage of in France (eg, Salon des Vins, Moroccan and Tunisian food), what to avoid in France (beer- go to Belgium; Indian food- UK; coffee- Italy or UK). Some things are still mysteries (can you get any restaurant type take out food delivered in Paris??) We love not having a car to worry about. Even with the frustration of constant strikes, my commute to work is much shorter and more convenient than in the US. I don't have a gym membership, but can easily run, and can ride most of the year before work to keep some marginal level of fitness. I can not get a good haircut in Paris- I've given up on the second salon I tried here, and am working instead with Rolf's haircuts in capitals of the world plan (next up- Berlin in May). I'm enjoying clothes shopping again, and may not dress nearly as well as your average French woman, but am generally much better attired than my previous US comfort-focused (aka frumpy) wardrobe. We're still exploring restaurants. There are only a few we've been back to more than once. For the most part, every Friday night is exploration night.

We're hanging out in Paris for the Easter weekend this year (I only get Monday off instead of both Friday and Monday this time around), but there's a whole bunch of travel (both for work and fun) coming up in the next few months. So more adventures to come.

24 March 2010

La Greve redux

I remember it was about this time last year when we had only been in France a few weeks and we got to experience our first greve (strike). It was exciting then. I'm totally over it now.

The French strike at the drop of a hat, and especially the transit workers. Here's the secret: in France when you go on strike, you still get paid. Why not go on strike? Anyone can make up a grievance if it's going to mean a day off of work!

However, for those of us who still go to work every day (I hear: suckers!!), and who need the Metro to be working to get there, it becomes a major problem.

Yesterday: go to the RER station. I have a variety of options to choose on how to get from point A (apartment) to point B (work), but this one seemed (?) like a good choice, since my other major option includes 3 different Metro lines = 3 opportunities for problems. Rolf had already experienced leg one on that journey in going to get bread in the morning- bad enough that he walked home (30 minutes) from the bakery. But the RER was not immune to the strike- only a fraction of the trains were running, so I had to sit for 30 minutes before the next one showed up (for a 5 minute ride). When I got to the transfer point, the Metro was actually fine. But in the midst of my journey, my iPod died. It froze up, and when I unfroze it I got the sad iPod face. (Ok, it's 5 years old, but still, I love my iPod!) Wahhhh.

Getting home yesterday actually wasn't too bad.

But today. Ugh. So the strike was officially over. But that didn't mean that the commute would be trouble free. No. No problems on the RER, and Rolf let me use his iPod (now that's true love...). But when I got to the transfer point, there was a huge mob about 6 people deep on the platform, all the way down. It took 6 trains before I finally had made my way up enough to squeeze on, convinced that the closing door would smoosh me. The claim was "signal problems." My theory- all of the train engineers who worked yesterday decided to take today off. Hence, Metro chaos.

Clearly I'm not French enough yet. I need to go on strike.

13 February 2010

Je t'aime

Just in time for Valentine's Day, I have a secret admirer.

Yesterday I came home from the market with my fish to find this note stuck on the fence outside our building:

As the only anglophone I know of in the building (well, except for Karen, but we'll ignore that for the moment), there's no question that this note was intended for me. I'm very lovable.

What is in question, though, is who it's from. The gardienne, her sneers perhaps just desperate cover of her longing? Our landlord the disco queen, who has willfully displayed her thong while fixing our toilet? One of the old ladies I get items off the top shelves for in the grocery store? Madame Gantier, who has been saving the darkest kouign amanns for me after my bike rides? The leash-yanker? Maybe a peeping-Thérèse from across the street or across the courtyard? So many alluring possibilities.

If she's been stalking me attentively, the sign might well be followed on Valentine's Day by a bottle of wine, some salted butter caramels, a fresh fish, or a fender for my bike. But with my luck, it's just as likely to be a dead rat under my pillow. Yecch.

It's probably best for everyone involved that I put an end to it before it gets serious. So I'm skipping town before dawn on Valentine's Day for a week in Italy, a solution that has a reasonable chance of creating as many problems at home as it fixes. Hopefully, though, since nothing says "I love you" like a few pounds of cured pork, those problems can be solved by returning with a full load of guanciale.

And just in case it doesn't, Funny Girl and I shared a sumptuous Valentine's Day eve afternoon indulging in chocolat chaud, pastries, chocolates, caramels, and pâte fruits together at Jacques Genin's luxurious salon, wallowing in a little of that fabled romance in Paris. We hope everybody else is finding a way to do the same, wherever they are.


12 February 2010

No more carping about fish

Despite growing up a steroid-abusing baseball player's home run distance from a Great Lake, we didn't eat any fresh fish as a kid that I can remember, and given the PCB levels in the Great Lakes in the 1970s, that may have been the best decision my parents ever made. What little fish we ate came frozen and pretty much unidentifiable as fish, as I remember it. Which suited me just fine-- fish sticks, like tater tots, were good application of technology to food. In fact, the only aquatic food I took any notice of as a kid was shrimp and scallops, and those only because they made me physically ill. There was really no need in my mind to explore any further.

I don't remember when I had my first non-frozen expertly prepared fish. Might have actually been the first time I had sushi, which was neither something I was especially eager about nor a revelation (it was in grad school in North Carolina in a mediocre Japanese chain). But I didn't get sick, and it was way more interesting than a fish stick. Come to think of it, the first real fish I ate might just have been something Karen's dad cooked at one of many Saturday night dinners. He's a good cook, and I recall eating a mean grouper there one evening.

Anyway, I don't cook much fish even now. Not because I don't care for it-- I love fish raw or cooked-- but because I've never really had a decent fishmonger. We're blessed in Philly with great butchers, produce vendors, cheesemongers, and specialty shops. But I've never found a place that sells genuinely fresh fish. And it's so easy to tell. Cloudy, dull, and even sunken eyes, grayish gills, mushy flesh. Old fish is simply an unpleasant eating experience. And apparently I'm not the only one in the world having trouble finding good fresh fish, because I've had more stale fish in restaurants (in Philly, in Paris, on the coast in Italy of all places, and just about every place I've visited except Japan) than I care to remember, even though I never order fish on Sun or Mon.

But all of that has changed, recently. After several unhappy fish purchases when we first came to Paris, I've found a reliable fishmonger. It's not a big place and the selection is limited and variable, but what they have is (almost) uniformly exquisite. Plump striped bass with bright, clear eyes, dorade, monk fish, sole, turbot, salmon pieces so fresh they work even for tartare-- really great stuff. Unfortunately, it's expensive enough that I can't buy as often as I like, but I'm finally getting a chance to learn to cook fish. It takes an attentive and light hand, but it's wonderful to have at home.

The last week has been a fishy one on av Henri Martin, and I'm hoping for more of them.

Skate, cooked on the cartilage, in a pseudo-Provençal fashion, with slow-roasted fennel and tomatoes and tapenade, and also wild rice with hazelnuts and green beans. The green beans weren't supposed to be there, but Funny Girl saw them in the market and insisted they be added on. They were yummy, but the plate wasn't big enough for it all.

"This pan is so no longer suitable for cakes when we get back home." My sauté pans don't fit in our tiny oven, so these 9" cake pans have become my roasting pans. Lamb, pintade, and now skate. Hey, if Maryland can have its crab cakes, why not?

Skate leftovers, this time off of the cartilage, with leek-and-pea (and skate cartilage broth) risotto. Skate has such a wonderful meaty texture and takes just about any sauce or accompaniment in stride. Peas aren't in season anywhere near Paris, but one of the produce places we passed coming home on our Sunday bike ride had them, and they weren't nearly as disappointing as I'd anticipated.

Parsley root ravioli in progress. I don't know that I've ever eaten, much less cooked, parsley root before, but my regular produce guys had it at the market this week, and I couldn't resist. It's definitely got a parsley flavor, but also a bit of a hoppy taste (pair it with a malt-flavored sauce, maybe?? Mmmm, beer food...). Mild and a touch bitter, it also seemed like a good match for a somewhat sweet fish...

... Like this one, a red mullet from my fishmonger today. They're beautiful fish, with yellow stripes down the sides, and their pigment appears to be fat-soluble, because the oil this one cooked in was a lovely red afterwards.

Parsnip gnocchi with squash sauce. Yeah, I know it's not fish, but it was part of our red mullet meal, along with a surprisingly excellent wine we'd bought back in November before Thanksgiving at the "boat" salon des vins. We must have bought that early in the day when we could still taste anything.

Red mullet with parsley root ravioli, sauteed spinach, lemon broth (made of a fish fumet made from the bones/head/tail/etc) and parsley salad. I love the beautifully colored red mullet with dark green. This was one of those rare times that what was in my head exactly came to be on the tongue. Too bad it's just luck when that happens.

10 February 2010

Life's little oddities

You know it's going to weird a day when it starts lying in bed with your wife standing over you, and in the same slightly panicked voice she uses when injured or sick, she says, "I need your help."

Uh-oh. Things have been going pretty smoothly in Paris lately, and I've been trying not to let the other-shoe scenarios intrude too much in my thoughts. But I was raised Lutheran-- the other shoe is always gonna drop.

Swallow hard, focus. "What's going on?"

Scary pause...

"I can't get out of my shoe."

Squint-- think real hard (it's literally now 15 seconds after waking), and... laugh. OK, not super high on the Supportive Spouse Index, but c'mon. Who saw that coming?

Not being able to get out one's shoe isn't a really confidence-inspiring way to start one's day. She'd gotten up early to ride the trainer, something we just don't do. Anymore. Time was, years ago, when we were new to racing and optimistic about our potentials, that we'd be up before 5.00 AM and on the trainer in the basement many days a week Jan-Mar, to get an hour of work in before the long commute to work. We proved pretty conclusively in those years that such diligence didn't matter. So when Funny Girl got up at 6.15 to get on The Beast this morning, I could only be glad that "early" here in Paris means more than an hour more sleep than "regular" in Philly for the previous 8 years of our lives.

Yea, France!

Turns out the ratchet on her right cycling shoe was stuck and just needed a bigger, clumsier set of fingers to release it. Sprung from her captivity, she went about getting ready for work, and I, now awake, amused, and relieved it was something so simple, went about smearing particularly perfectly ripe, particularly smelly and oozy Brie de Meau on pain forainois for her sandwiches. I don't really know that that's what the bread is called. I only know that's (roughly) how it's pronounced, because every item at our bakery except that small, heavily seeded loaf has a sign on it. I looked in the dictionary, figuring it was a variant of four, or oven, but I couldn't find a word that should sound like "foreign." Foreignwah. Four-reine-roi (oven-queen-king)? No clue. Forain is a "stand." No earthly idea how that relates to this whole wheat/rye bread with sunflower seeds baked in and covered with sesame seeds that shoot all over my apartment when I slice it. I'll have to ask Madame Gantier someday, when there's no line, how to spell it. Her opinion of me can't drop much lower, so she'll no doubt get a kick out of that, 4 months after we've been getting 2-3 of them per week.

The last of a loaf of pain foreignwah, proof that good things do come in small packages.

We've both had our revelations in Paris, and the seeded loaf is one of Funny Girl's. I tried to get her interested in Kayser's excellent baguette aux cereals when we first moved here, but she said, "I like seeds on my bread, not in my bread." And so it was, until that first loaf of foreignwah, the perfect bread for sandwiches of sheep cheese. Or nutty alpine cow cheese. Or chevre. Or prosciutto (pork, or cinghiale, or duck, for matter). And just recently, she was waxing poetic about the very baguette aux cereals she'd poo-poo'd 11 months ago, the inside all substantial and light and airy at the same time, rich with flax and sesame seeds, with a super-crackly crust impossibly loaded with more of the same plus sunflower seeds (my favorite part). Lord, that's good. How I'll cope without those breads (or the cheeses we schmear between them) when we get back home, I'm afraid to contemplate. There's getting to be a long list of such items. Swell-- something new to worry about.

Anyway, the day did indeed turn out to be weird.

Not long after Funny Girl set off for the salt mines, I, inspired by the clear blue (if damned cold) skies and for-the-first-time-in-a-week dry roads, put together a new exploratory bike route masterpiece and got suited up to head out. I don't much mind either the cold or the wet, but because ice + steep = injury, I don't like both at the same time. So I'd scrapped riding my cobbled/speed-humped (surely the name of a doggie dating service, somewhere)/hilly-and-twisty routes yesterday to play it safe. Because the circulation in my extremities is nearly non-existent nowadays, Funny Girl sweetly brought a package of 16 pairs of toe warmers back from the States on her last visit. And though they don't guarantee my feet won't be morgue-white/blue at the end of a ride, they improve the odds substantially enough that I stuck those bad boys to the bottoms of my socks before putting on shoes and heavy shoe-covers. Grab the bike, call the elevator, get down to the lobby, and ... waaa?? In the 45 seconds it took to get from the 6th floor to the ground floor, it had gone from nice day to white-out. Huge heavy flakes pouring down. Son of a...

I thought about just going back upstairs. But I'd used one of my precious pairs of toe-warmers, so there was nothing to do but suck it up and ride. Besides, riding in the snow can be a blast. Well, that thought lasted about 6 seconds. It was freaking cold, and the big flakes melted on my face and just accentuated the cold wind created by riding (not to mention the stiff wind blowing of its own volition). It was snowing so hard that I couldn't see and nearly rear-ended a parked construction vehicle on my way out of town. I realize that to the folks in the mid-atlantic, who are getting slammed with their second big-ass storm in 5 days right now, big enough to close Funny Girl's headquarters for the first time in 8 years, a little snow squall wouldn't seem like much. But you see, I'm a wuss. I missed 'cross season, and so what tiny little bit of toughness I once had was lost. Use it or lose it.

The snow was accumulating fast, covering the ice from the last several days and making me think that going out and hitting the roller-coaster roads, including a signed 23% hill we found last weekend, I'd targeted earlier in my sunny living room would be a bad idea. After all, it was almost exactly a year ago that my stupid human tricks mountain bike episode put me in the ER. With a trip to Italy around the corner, I wasn't eager to risk it. So I decided I'd do 1 lap at the hamster track for giggles and then head home where I could feel smug for getting out. Thing is, after a lap I was having way too much fun to cut it short. Yeah, my face and hands were completely frozen (my toes, eh-- cold but still had sensation), yeah my cassette was completely packed with snow making shifting impossible, and yeah, my wheels were snow-packed and rubbing against ice blocks wedged in the brakes. But it was the best ride I've had at Longchamp since I've been here. Riding fresh snow, looking at the tracks I made the previous lap on each subsequent one, like an early morning on the mountain when skiing. There were 2 other people out riding, which shocked me, and we were all smiling and laughing as we made our normally-boring rounds. Good times. It stopped snowing after a few laps, and it was just quiet, solitary fun.

The ride back home was a bit sketchy, over the slippery frozen cobbles through Porte d'Auteuil. I stopped at Kayser to buy a fresh baguette aux cereals for my lunch, and by the time I came back out, it was sunny again, and the traffic had melted most of the snow on Av Mozart.

From there it was just progressively weird life-in-Paris. From the normal-- a woman walking down the street while I was stopped at a light who was body-checked into a shop window by an older woman who suddenly decided she wanted to occupy that space, or an old man patiently waiting for his mangey little dog to finish crapping literally on the stoop of a shop door, leaving it there for somebody else to take care of-- to the odder: later in the day, a group of about 20 really little kids (not much taller than my knees) with 2 teachers got on the metro train car I was standing in, and with pole/railing space limited, one of the little buggers wrapped one of my legs with both arms to keep upright, repeatedly wiping his runny nose all over my jeans (thanks, kid), and finally, in the Concorde metro station after extracting myself from that snotty embrace, I was walking towards the exit when an armed guard, about 5-feet tall with shaved head and space-age sunglasses, backed quickly out of the ticket office and ran straight into me, pulling his gun from his holster with his latex-gloved hand (so he doesn't leave prints??) and pointing it at me (Dude! Breathe... s'il vous plait-- put.the.gun.back.) before pushing me out of the way so his bigger, more hairy colleague carrying a big sack of money could make his way out of the underground. Texas? Yeah, that'd be normal. Paris? First for me.

So yep, definitely a weird day. Can't wait to see what happens tomorrow.

07 February 2010

H1N1 Conquest

H1N1 virus image from www.cdc.gov

I am someone who gets their flu shot every year. I have been for years- it's always been relatively simple to get them at work, since I have worked for large employers (and for a time, hospitals/major medical centers) who always have found it in their best interest to vaccinate their employees. The one year that my employer handed out FluMist (the nasal vaccine) I was even able to convince Rolf, a needle-phobe, to come in and get it too.

I did get my standard seasonal flu shot in October, right on schedule. But this year, of course, the big news is not the plain old flu, it's the Swine Flu, H1N1. Between WHO Pandemic status and the fact that flu vaccines take awhile to make, there has been the conflict between the urgings of major national and international authorities to get vaccinated, and the lack of available vaccine. In the US, supplies have been scarce. In France, home to one of the major pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the vaccine, supplies have been plentiful. But that, of course, did not insure that I could actually get it.

In France it is being distributed by the government in neighborhood based distribution centers. But you need to bring in the letter which documents your coverage by the French national health insurance, which I don't have (I'm covered by my US employer). I asked at work, and they had no plans to give out the H1N1 shots, because the government is giving them out. I asked my primary care doc here, and he did not have the vaccine, because the government was the only distribution point [although that has very recently changed]. Now, despite France being awash in vaccine, very few people here are getting it. Besides the usual (unfounded) rumors that the vaccine will give you other horrible problems, there was also a scare campaign that said that the pharmaceutical companies were behind the whole thing, just as a money making scheme. Conspiracy theories a-go-go.

In the mean time a number of friends got the Swine Flu, and it sounded pretty miserable. I really did not want to get sick. There is no need to get sick, when there is a vaccine for this virus.

I knew I would be traveling to the US in January. I asked if the occupational health center at the US work office had the vaccine- no. I called my primary care doc in the US, but they had already gone through the very limited supplies they had already.

In early January, the government of France declared that they had a huge surplus of vaccine and would start selling it to other countries. (Please, I'll be happy to pay for my shot...)

When I got to the US in late January, I had one final possibility: the CVS walk in clinic. I went, and 15 minutes later was vaccinated. They even took my insurance card and did not make me pay the $15 fee up front. It was such an uneventful occasion, despite the months of asking and 4000 mile journey that it took.

The next day, I got the second round of the Hepatitis A vaccine (the first was before my trip to Colombia last year, from the work occupational health clinic). It's official- I now have all of my shots.

04 February 2010

Travel grinch

While Karen was in the States last week, I got to thinking about what a lousy traveler I am.

I've never really been a very enthusiastic traveler, something my parents recently commented on. It doesn't matter whether it's flying 12 h to Japan or driving 90 min to a race, the act of getting someplace is almost never enjoyable for me. And in the period on either side, the getting ready to go and the getting there, I'm usually even more uptight, grumpy, and irritable than normal. I'm a guy who likes to know what awaits him, likes knowing how to do things, and likes things to "go right." Traveling is all about not knowing what awaits, having to figure out how to do things, and most definitely stuff going wrong.

There was a period in our graduate school-postgraduate training lives where we didn't take a real vacation for 7 years. We'd occasionally manage to travel together to the other's conference or get a quick visit in to one set of parents or the other, but we didn't go anywhere outside of work just to travel or see the world. That long spell broke about a year after we moved to Philly, when we went to visit a fellow former prisoner postdoc from our U of TX days and his wife in their native New Zealand. If you're going to break a dry spell, may as well do it in style. It was both an awful and wonderful trip. Awful in getting there. Flights were interminable, connections were missed, luggage was lost, what a mess. But aside from a couple of days at the start with our friends in Wellington, we just had a car, a map, and a couple of weeks to get to Aukland for our return flight. And so we just set off to explore the South Island, quickly figuring out how to get information in each town, learning not to worry about hotel availability at that time of year, and having a slew of unexpected memorable experiences.

That unplanned traveling model worked for us the first trip we took to Italy, as well. After 10 days of riding with a group, we dumped our bikes at a hotel in Pisa, got on a (wrong) train south, and after a pretty eye-opening evening in Naples, rented a car and drove to the Amalfi coast with no reservations or plans. A few bewildering, frustrating hours later, including stopping at and then running away from a little Bates motel-like spot recommended by the only Italian we knew, we took a break to eat at a little road-side restaurant for lesson #1 of the trip, which is that when you're sitting at an outdoor table on the side of a cliff looking over the Mediterranean, you order the simple grilled fish and local wine and then shut the hell up and just listen to what the place is saying instead of trying to make the place match up with some preconceived ideas. We got back into the car, drove 30 min down the breathtaking cliff-side highway and stopped at an intriguing little white door that turned out to be a hotel cut into the cliff face, with balconies cantilevered out over the water, where we got a room for about a quarter of the normal rate since they'd just drained the pool and were only going to be open another week. The only thing more perfect than that hotel was the untopped pizza crust that served as the bread basket at one of the little family-run restaurants we ate at one night. 9 years later, I still dream of that bread at night.

And so we travel. And Karen puts up with my increased anxiety and grouchiness at the start and end of the trip, and plenty of times in the middle of the trip until food calms me down again. We never show up with an itinerary, and we sometimes haven't done enough advance reading to generate a list of things we want to see. I'm sure we miss some amazing sites and sights, but for us it's so often the chance encounters with somebody or something that we remember most from a trip that aside from reserving a room somewhere, we pretty much wing it. And so far, cross fingers, it works out. We have never traveled so much in our lives as we have this past year. And though I'm no better at it now than last February, I hope it continues. I had fantasies after the Japan trip of really getting off the beaten path. But I'm not sure I'll ever be take-it-as-it-comes enough to handle that kind of adventure.

My most recent traveling has been on the roads just outside Paris, on the bike. When we moved here, we started riding the hamster track at Longchamp, and then I started getting out into the country to ride, using a route from here to get to the open spaces to the west, using a route learned from friends to ride in the Chevreuse valley, and taking regional trains to explore the countryside to the south and north. As much fun as that kind of riding is, 2 or more hours on bike or train just to get to and from the interesting riding just isn't practical on a daily basis.

Like more distant traveling, familiarity is a big help in finding routes. It's hard to take the dive to explore when you have no idea which towns are where and have a hard time understanding the complicated directions that asking for help enlists. In rural Italy, or even in the open countryside around Paris, it's easy to ask which direction town A is, because you're standing at an intersection with the next road 5 k down the way. Immediately outside Paris, it's hard to even know what town you should be asking for because they're packed in together with oddly shaped boundaries, and there are hundreds of possible roads, many of them 1-way in one direction for 2 or 3 blocks and then in the other direction for the next 3.

Thank goodness, then, for Google maps and especially street view. Since the French atlases are useless for this kind of thing, the reasonable accuracy of the online maps is incredibly helpful for finding unlikely arteries through suburbia, and it's easy to preview for traffic light density (French police take seriously the running of lights by cyclists) and potentially dangerous high-speed highways. Recognizing key traffic circles before you find yourself in one with no street signs to be seen is also a benefit of the street view capability.

The recent local exploring has been enormously satisfying on all accounts. Aside from making me feel like I've not completely given up on the bike, I've found some great rolling suburban and urban roads full of punchy ups and downs punctuated by cobbles and speed bumps that make riding on the road a little like mountain biking at Fair Hill or White Clay (man, I miss my mountain bike), terrain that's otherwise hard to hard to find in this area. I've learned to connect some beautiful areas just outside of Paris with twisty narrow low-traffic roads, making for good riding and just good learning about the area. And I've now got a bag full of 1.25 - 4 hour rides from my apartment door that I can choose from with a minimum of "getting to." I have aspirations of listing rides someplace here for future Paris-frustrated cyclists, since I've been unable to find any since moving here. Hopefully I'll find a mechanism to do that.

Best of all, unlike my other travel, the only times riding makes me grouchy is when the weather is nasty and I can't get out to explore more.

03 February 2010

Ragu re-runs

A no-frills food post:

Uninspired to be creative this week, I pulled the frozen duck ragu out and stretched it out for 3 nights.

Fist up was duck lasagna. I made some chestnut pasta and alternated layers of duck ragu or béchamel enriched with just a little mascarpone. It was going to be 2 nights' worth, but I'd ridden and not eaten lunch, so screw it-- I made it twice as deep, and we ate the whole thing. I'd kind of hoped I'd get some of Karen's, but when I reached over for a little supplement, she growled and bared her teeth. Don't mess with Funny Girl's dinner!

Next was a more traditional use of ragu, with wide noodles. This time chocolate. I've struggled with getting the right proportion of cocoa in my chocolate pasta, and this one was (a lot) closer: a teaspoon of cocoa per 2 servings (2 eggs' worth of pasta). A little short, maybe, but better than the overkill of previous efforts. I still like the slight sweetness of the chestnut pasta with duck more than the slight bitterness of the cocoa, but Karen liked it.

I only had a little ragu left after splurging on the lasagna, so a stuffed pasta seemed the best way to stretch it. I had planned to go to the Italian coop here in town for some of their amazing ricotta, but after having to wash my bike after a wet ride today, I recalled seeing sweet potatoes at the local produce vendor. So it was a mad dash to get the potato cooked, get it pureed with mascarpone and butter (everything's better with mascarpone and butter) and turned into agnolotti in time for dinner. Served with some orange-peel-and-garlic-scented sauteed spinach, just because we've been a little light on greens this week. Not really Italian, but there're no real Italians here to report us.

OK, so these weren't leftovers. We had a little unexpected celebrating to do tonight, and I recalled we'd bought a dessert red wine at the on-the-boat salon des vins in Nov for our Thanksgiving dinner, specifically for the opera cakes (almond, chocolate, coffee) we'd intended to buy, but couldn't because they'd sold out. So with the one egg I had left, I faked a chocolate cake recipe made with ground roasted hazelnuts instead of flour, espresso instead of vanilla, and a boat-load of butter, cocoa, and good chocolate. I can pretty much put together any pasta at the last minute, but I don't bake nearly enough to have ratios and methods memorized. And so it was no surprise that whereas the 3 individual cakes looked beautiful coming out of the oven in their ramekins, once unmolded, they collapsed in the center. This runs in the family. When we lived in Austria many moons ago, the only cooking I remember of my mom's (aside from bringing home a chicken with the head most definitely attached) was the first chocolate cake she made that came out of the oven with 3 fist-sized indentations in it, the same as mine tonight. Like hers back then, these little cakes were delicious even if saggy, and more importantly, they served as a perfect excuse for a fabulous half-bottle of wine.

01 February 2010


I've never been to Spain. But I kinda like the music.

OK. The first part isn't technically true. I spent about 4 hours in Spain in the early 1980s, a short train ride across the French border from St Jean de Luz one Sunday morning to find no way to change money, nothing open, no place to eat, and nobody interested in making exceptions for a 6' 4" 135 lb, perhaps smelly, American backpacker and his similarly undernourished and aromatic Austrian companion. So we wandered around an empty town for several hours until the first train bound for France carried us off (imagine that-- France was the friendly place. Ha!).

It is true that, despite realizing that my unpleasant experience there was my own fault (expecting things to be open on Sunday? Not knowing a single word of Spanish? C'mon...), I've never been back. And it's almost true that I've never even been all that tempted to go back. Something about not liking hot, or even warm, climates much and figuring that Italy fulfilled my Mediterranean culture interest.

But things change, and the case for going to Spain at some point had been building for a few years. With a 2-week block of vacation for Karen over the holidays, some cheap flights available, and cold dark dreary days fully enveloping Paris of late, we decided to go to Barcelona for 5 days just before Christmas. The 5th major city outside France we've visited since moving to Paris, it might just have been the most fun. Hard to compare with Tokyo, where we spent more time, and which was more fascinatingly foreign.

Since a month has passed since we were there, this'll just be a list of stuff we liked, making it easier for all of us.

1.) Architecture. It's hard to go to Barcelona and not get caught up with Gaudi. Not impossible, mind you: my mom remarked before we went and after we got back that it doesn't take long to get over that stuff. I can see her point. A lot of it is a little over the top and can actually get a bit monotonous. And all of the technical issues, like making the arches a slightly different shape so there would be perfectly balanced forces in compression, don't seem to my non-engineering mind to be terribly significant. It's not like the cathedrals built in the 1100s with the old arches have come crashing down unpredictably. But even in the most distractingly embellished buildings, there are moments of pure aesthetic elegance, curves and meeting of curved planes that are both breathtaking and serene at the same time. I absolutely loved the cathedral, a non-Gothic take on a Gothic form. The font is different in Gaudi's cathedral, but the text is the same-- it's telling the exact same stories with the same level of ornamentation and over-the-top presentation as the cathedrals of the middle ages. I dug it.

And there's plenty else aside from Gaudi. The colorful 19th century Eixample neighborhoods, the beautifully austere Romanesque Sant Pau del Camp, the twisty streets of the gothic quarter, and the 15th century hospital de la Santa Creu offer very different experiences of space and place. I've commented before on the pros and cons of Haussmann's Paris. There's a harmony and elegance, but there's also a bit of stifling sameness. Barcelona didn't suffer from that at all.

Casa Mila, a Gaudi apartment building.

Casa Battlo, an even gaudier Gaudi building.

The passion facade, by Catalan sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs, on the Sagrada Familia cathedral is powerful and bleak.

The interior light in the unfinished cathedral is magical, and the stained glass, which doesn't photograph well with my crappy cell phone, was like jewels.

Gaudi's peaks culminate in colorful plant motifs, which seem pretty whimsical...

... but are they really any sillier than the giant marble cows (said to be among the finest gothic animal sculpture around-- not sure how much competition there is for that honor) atop the 12th century cathedral in Laon, France? 

The courtyard of the Hospital de la Santa Creu feels like an Italian villa...

... and Sant Pau's cloister is one of the most intimate and blissfully peaceful places I've ever been.

Sant Pau del Camp's simplicity reflects in part its role as a defensive structure, built outside the city's walls.

You're not allowed to hang your laundry outside in Paris. I like it-- it gives the sense that a place is lived in.

2.) Food. You can run the gamut in Barcelona, from the simplest snack foods (egg-and-potato omelets/tortillas) to the most cutting edge cooking technology. I loved the fish in romesco sauce I had one night, the stews of white beans or chickpeas, and the dishes that mixed fish and meat. But our favorite meal of the trip was lunch at Casa Lucio, a modest little place that does "standard" tapas at the bar up front and more inventive fare in the dining room in the back. Not having reserved, we got a couple of stools at the tapas bar and tried to communicate with the owner, who asked the other folks in the bar to help with some English. With a Catalan patron's help, we explained my shellfish allergy and that we were game for anything else. The owner pulled a little slip of paper out of the cash drawer that simply read "Trust me," and then mimed that we just needed to tell him when we've had enough. The parade of plates was amazing, marinated fish and vegetables, outstanding sausages, croquettes of Iberian ham, and one of the best cheeses I've ever had in my life. There was earnest pride and respect in the progression of the meal, and it was the kind of perfect simplicity I should be aspiring to in the kitchen. It was a truly memorable meal, both for the food and the intimate cultural experience. This, ultimately, is why I travel.

One of seemingly thousands of comfortable neighborhood wine-and-tapas bars, this one Bar Mut in the Exaimple, where we had a very good lunch our first, and only sunny, day in Barcelona.

La Bouqueria, the big and busy food market off of the Ramblas, wasn't such a novelty coming from Paris or even Philly. But local eating habits were on display in the dozens of stalls selling Iberian hams and the lamb's heads in this butcher case.

A little ways down the aisle was this cooler of small wild game. Now that's what I want at my butcher shop. Thoughtful of them to line the bottom of the cooler with red, rather than white, paper...

A small sampling of the treats at Casa Lucio's tapas bar, where we had a trip-defining lunch.

3.) Wine. You've got to wash all that good food down with something, and the Spanish wine washes down pretty well. In a world where vineyards of indigenous grapes are being replanted with French grapes to make generically international wines, it was really easy to find good Spanish wines made from the traditional Spanish grapes at reasonable prices, whether in the wine bars before dinner or at the table.

4.) Art. Though the museum capitol of Spain is Madrid, there's still plenty to see in Barcelona. The highlight for us was the Fundacio Joan Miro, both for the broad collection of Miro's own moving work and for the outstanding temporary exhibition of Frantisek Kupka's paintings and drawings. Our time-to-museum-saturation is usually fairly short, but we spent forever there.

It was raining, so I didn't stop to write down the name of the artist who created this sculpture outside the Fundacio Joan Miro.

A Kupka painting, the picture downloaded from the Fundacio Joan Miro's website, since I was about the only person in the museum complying with the no-indoor-photography request.

5.) Shopping. We don't spend much time shopping, generally, but something about Barcelona drew us in, and we had a lot of luck finding stores with a good combination of style, fit, and price. It didn't hurt that it rained almost constantly after our first day.

5.) People. I heard a number of (presumably non-Catalan) people in Barcelona make cracks about the impersonal and prickly Catalans, but we were impressed by how graciously hospitable people were.

6.) Vibe. Though the feel and prosperity of the city change depending on where you are, the central part of town has an energy and movement that's charming and compelling. Maybe that reflected our mood more than the city itself, but we had a sense of moving and looking forward. I suspect some of it's the whimsy and exuberance in some of the architecture and art in public spaces. I think I've said before that Paris, like Philly, has a bit of a yesterday-centric culture about it, even beyond the preservation of their histories. Barcelona felt optimistic, somehow.

Even the giant crustaceans in Barcelona are optimistic. You can't see it in this picture, but this menacing creature along the recently updated waterfront wears a goofy smiley face.

The very few negatives of the trip were the kinds of things one runs into anywhere-- a hotel that, while cool looking and nicely appointed, was lacking sound proofing and design common sense (are clangy metal shelves and minibar cubicle doors a good idea in a minimally soundproofed place? Not so much.), a hugely overpriced meal at Cinc Sentis that, although stunningly plated, fell well short of its mark both in service and taste (a chef needs to use more than 3 of the 5 tastes at that level-- where on earth was acid or bitter?, expensive wine pairings need to highlight the unique flavors of both the food and wine rather than pile the same gustatory experience on your tongue course after course, and with 48 h notice on allergies, the management needs to be more flexible in a tasting menu), and my umbrella was stolen from a store umbrella rack. Spain still has a reputation for petty theft, and it doesn't get any more petty than my 7-euro-buck folding umbrella. A tiny dose of bad luck. C'est comme ça.

I'd have put the mediocre coffee on the negative list, but it was still better enough than what you get in Paris that I think I have to put that on the win side, along with 95% of the rest of our Barcelona experience.

Goodbye, Barcelona. We'll probably be back.