Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why they call it puppy love

As if the hotel in La Rochelle wasn't perfect enough, what with its kitchenette and bright yellow bathroom with an actual bathtub, I found this cutie peeking around the corner at me while I was enjoying my lovely, sun-filled patio:

Of course I had to say hello. Er, bonjour. I mean, that face. Those paws.

I can't describe to you in words the softness of his fur, or the sublimely delicious puppiness of his tongue devouring my hands.

The breed of dog I want to have when I grow up changes weekly, but this week I would definitely have to say boxer.

I went back inside and laid down to rest and watch some télé, leaving the patio door open for air. A little while later my new friend, released from his constraints, found his way in to my room (with only minimal encouragement on my part). He rushed to my side and planted himself against my leg, a giant love lump, as his owner called after him, to no avail. Shirtless, still in his bathing suit from the pool, the man alternated reprimands and apologies, as my pleas of “Mais je l'aime” were largely ignored. Collarless now, the new object of my affection was dragged unceremoniously by the scruff of the neck, padding unwillingly away from me on his giant puppy paws, as I murmured to him sweet nothings and whispered a last goodbye.

Yes, other than the lack of internet, and a transportation strike that kept me from going to the beach on the Ile de Ré, La Rochelle was practically perfect.

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Back in Paris, my first order of business was the Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore. With my usual impeccable timing, I finished the book I was reading last night, thus leaving me bookless for a three-hour train ride today, a situation I decided to rectify as soon as possible. I also had three books that I had finished reading, and though they were ones I really would have liked to keep, I cannot justify schlepping them all around Europe to my aching shoulders any longer. If I want new books, the old ones have to go, I decided. It's becoming more and more painful to keep spending money on books here. In general, I'm not a bookstore person. I'm a library person. I like my books for free; I like tearing through them and then giving them back, as quickly as possible. Nothing gained, nothing lost; it's a closed system, and that's the way I like it. Therefore it's extremely uncomfortable to acknowledge the fact that in less than a week I've spent over 30 Euros just on books. If you convert that to dollars American, that comes to somewhere around $50, and that was just for three books. It makes a thrifty bookworm like myself cringe a little.

After Shakespeare & Co, I wandered to the Blvd St. Michel and sat myself down at a bustling sidewalk café to browse through my expensive (but necessary) new purchases and partake of a refreshing beverage. Traffic swirled by, Americans were everywhere, talking loudly, the late afternoon sun beat down on me, and somewhere to my left an unseen marching band played. I was made for loving you baby and you were made for loving me. My Orangina arrived, with a glass with ice cubes, even, and the check. €5,10. Holy hell. I shuddered to think what that amounted to in dollars. Best not to. Too late. This better be the best Orangina I've ever had, I thought.

Turns out, it was.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Why there's never a dull moment in Amboise

Yesterday was a long day of travel, starting at 11:00 in the morning, and ending at about 10:30 last night. And while it was long, it was fairly easy and uneventful, spent on planes and trains, and waiting around in airports and train stations. I rediscovered my love of trains, and oh, if I could take a train everywhere I go, I would. The gentle, rocking motion, the constantly changing scenery outside the window, the unlimited potential for daydreaming. I marveled at how late it gets dark here; not until about 10:00. I delighted in how green everything is here, how many trees, and how much countryside, as we passed through farms and fields and the occasional small village. After about an hour and a half I spotted a château out the window in the distance and sighed happily. As I said, it was a mostly uneventful trip. That is, until I arrived in the small, sleepy town of Amboise at about 10 p.m. last night. I figured I would just take a taxi from the train station to the hotel, but to my dismay there was not one in sight. And the station itself was closed for the night, dark and abandoned. "Excuse me," I asked a passerby. "Do you know if there are any taxis?" "Sorry," she said. "I don't know." I assessed the situation and decided it didn't look good. I was all alone and disoriented in a strange town, loaded down with bags, and with not even a phone number for a cab company or even for the hotel. I took one last shot on a group of French people also exiting the station. I repeated my question, to which the woman replied, "Of course there are taxis! They're right...Oh..." she trailed off as she rounded the corner and saw the abandoned parking lot, the empty taxi queue. "How strange...No, there's nothing," they murmured amongst themselves. "Where are you going?" the man asked. I told him the name of my hotel. "Well, we can drop them off in centre ville," the man proposed to the other members of his group. "I'll go get the car."

Them? I wondered. Then I noticed another lone and stranded traveler, like myself, who had happened to find this group of kindly strangers before I did. She couldn't have been more than fifteen, and she looked so young and lost and confused that my heart immediately went out to her. She had a piece of paper from the language school here, the same language school that my students will be attending in a couple weeks time, and so I told her she could come to the hotel with me and we could ask for directions or a taxi there. And so five of us and all our assorted luggage all poured into a tiny Renault, and we headed to the center of town. "You have happened across a very nice man," the woman told me, sandwiched between me and my fellow traveler in the backseat. "Yes!" I chirped. "Luckily!"

"He's my brother-in-law," she continued. "And this is my husband." Then she proceeded to give us the tour of the town, pointing out the important landmarks. "Ca c'est la Loire...et voilà le marché. Is it open tomorrow? Yes, it's open tomorrow. Pedestrian zone, more pedestrian zone...And there's the Château d'Amboise. It's beautiful, no?" I oohed and ahhed enthusiastically as she pointed an elegant finger out the window. And then we had arrived, and I thanked them all as emphatically as I could, given my disheveled and travel-weary state. But seriously, thank heavens for the kindness of French strangers.

Once in the hotel, things did not go any better for my young companion, unfortunately. The address she was looking for was at the other end of town, and a call to the two (?) cabs in town revealed that both were finished for the night. "Well, it's not so far," the concierge back-tracked. It's just a bit complicated. Here, I'll show you on the map." He handed her the map. "Sorry I can't take you myself," he apologized, "but I'm here alone." I couldn't imagine sending this young girl out into the dark empty streets by herself, braces and all. I tried to put myself in her place, at her age, alone, lost in a foreign country, scared. I was sure there had been some misunderstanding, some communication breakdown in her plans somewhere. People don't just send kids that age off to another country by themselves without making sure there's someone waiting for them on the other end, even in Europe. I wanted desperately to help her, but I couldn't think of how. I was on the verge of saying, "I have a room here! You can stay with me for the night and then we'll find you a cab tomorrow." I contemplated whether this sounded as creepy as I thought it did, and decided that actually, it was creepier. And so I looked her in the eye and said, "Ca va?" She held my gaze with just the slightest bit of moisture in her eyes and said that yes, she would be fine. And off she went into the dark night, pink backpack on her back, dragging her suitcase behind her. And I spent the night worrying about her, wishing I had done more to help. Perhaps because she was the same age as my students will be, I felt responsible for her somehow. I hoped she was ok, that she had found her way, that there was someone waiting for her on the other end. Though this small, sleepy town seems fairly safe, I hoped something hadn't happened to her on the way. I didn't know if I would ever find out what happened to her, but I admired her for being a much tougher kid than I ever was, and I wished her the best.

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This morning while in the shower I heard a noise like an explosion, like a hollow bang, like far away rumbling thunder, followed by voices. Having no idea what it was, I somehow convinced myself that it was the maid opening the door of my room, loudly. But when I came out there was no one there. Had there really been anyone at all? I didn't think any more of it and went downstairs to breakfast. There was a gendarme in the lobby, talking to someone. Weird, I thought, but again, I didn't think much about it. Finally it all came together when an overexcited and chatty older lady came into the dining room to announce to the server, "It's too bad about that car out there!" She pointed towards the window. "And you know, I had a dream last night that there was a car in the hotel! And now look!" she said, obviously proud of herself. And then I understood that the sound I had heard wasn't a maid, or rolling thunder, or an explosion; it was the sound of a car crashing into the hotel.

So far, there's not been a dull moment in Amboise.

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Then this morning I was walking by the château, and in one of those absolutely unexpected and serendipitous moments, who did I see but the no longer lost young traveler. "Bonjour!" I called out. "Ca va?" She was fine, she said, and she had found the house she was looking for. Both her French and her English were halting, so we didn't get much farther than that, but I told her that I had been worried about her, and that I was glad she was ok.

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Oh, and there were fireworks last night at midnight, over the château. I could see them out my window, through the branches of a suddenly much under-appreciated tree.

France, France, oh what you do to me.

Why you may never look at ham the same way again

Ok folks, here's a quick wrap-up of Spain in pictures so I can go ahead and move on to France. Things are happening here faster than I can write them, I swear.

First, yet another new culinary experience for me: canned mussels and potato chips. Yet again I was skeptical. Yet again I was won over by the ingenuity of these clever, clever Spaniards and their love of canned food items.

Moving on to Other Foods I Was Initially Suspicious Of, Thus Provoking Molly's Eternal Disdain...I've already described it to you, but I truly feel this is something that must be seen to be believed. Walking into Molly's kitchen, this is the sight that presents itself to you. But oh, what horrors does that terry cloth veil conceal?

Cover your eyes!! It's hideous!!!!!! Oh, the humanity...

This little piggie went to market...and now he's a delicious food product. Please to note hoof. Also, hair.
And now this is the point where I suppose I tell you that I did eat it and that it tasted, in fact, a lot like ham. Although I could have lived my whole life without knowing that the ham I eat comes from hairy-ankled pigs. That's a little TMI for me.

But as Grumpy mentioned in his comment on my last post, it really is true: ham is everywhere in Spain. Even, I discovered, at carnivals. As opposed to carnival games in the U.S. where you can win a giant stuffed animal, or a goldfish in a plastic baggie, in Spain you can win practical things, like...an iron. Or yes, even a ham. (I was tempted to try to win one but was discouraged by the thought of having to hoof it around Europe. Har. Har har).

And now, on to less meat-related topics. Reason #475,281 that Molly is the awesomest host ever: not only will she spend her week escorting you around the city, cook awesome meals for you, and do your laundry for you, but she will also iron your pants for you, even in the face of your loudest protests. Or, you know, as you lounge on the couch with your cafe con leche, murmuring weakly, "No, stop, don't...Well, ok...if you insist." Don't ask me why Molly is so nice, for it defies all reason and logic. All I know is I'm damn lucky to have her as a friend.

All in all, Spain was tons of fun. But now it's off to France, where new adventures await.
Hasta luego, Espana. Y gracias, Molly.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Why I apologize in advance to any recorder players

There is a man here who stands outside and yells the name "Paloma" very early every morning. He yells it loudly and as if his heart were breaking, and I like to think he's calling out to a lost love, perhaps one who used to live in this very building. No one ever answers, and it's all very Streetcar Named Desire. Sometimes this man plays the recorder, too.

This morning the yelling and recorder-playing were followed by the sounds of violent, ear-shattering retching. I have only heard one other person vomit like this in my entire life, and I remember thinking that the sounds coming from this person's body didn't even sound human; I mean, I know throwing up isn't fun, but do you really have to scream while you do it? The only other sound I can compare it to is my grandmother sneezing, a sound which scientists have actually reported picking up on seismometers in China.

I stumbled into the kitchen this morning and mumbled a hello to my wonderful host, Molly. "Did you hear Paloma today?" she asked me.

"Yeah, I did," I replied. "Did you hear that god awful noise he was making, too?"

"Yeah," she replied with disgust. "I think it was a recorder."

"No, I mean...Well, yeah," I agreed. "Yeah, I think you're right."

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For my fellow foodies, this was my breakfast this morning:


What you're looking at is tomato pulp on toast with a slice of turkey on top.



After my early-morning vomit serenade, being greeted by a bowl of watery, chunky tomato pulp was a bit hard to stomach, quite literally, and so I was understandably a bit skeptical. But never wanting to be one to step down from a gustatory challenge, I partook, and I have to say that with a little olive oil and salt mixed in, and a slice of turkey on top, it was quite tasty. Of course Molly may still be a few steps ahead of me, foodie-wise, as she voluntarily eats pate for breakfast, and I love me some pate, but for breakfast give me some Nutella any day. Also there is currently in her kitchen a ham, and this ham has a hoof, and it has hair, and Talia, I am just warning you now, so be prepared. These Spaniards, even the adopted ones, love their meat, it seems, perhaps almost as much as the Christians do.

Tonight: paella. To be continued...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why you should feel sorry for me

To my reader who expressed interest in what I'm eating here, this is what I had for breakfast yesterday:

Coffee, toast and chocolate

And this is what I ate for a mid-morning snack:

Churros y chocolate

I'm noticing a pattern here, are you?

In other news, it appears that there is some great shopping to be had in Madrid. For instance yesterday I found the most perfect purple dress with pockets and a slight ruffle (but not too much of a ruffle) in a store called Mango, and did I mention that it had pockets? Unfortunately, even if I had the money for a perfect purple pocketed dress, which I don't, I don't even have one cubic inch of luggage to spare, and as I said to Molly, I am in Europe and I can't even go shopping, and why is my life so hard??? Truly, I am to be pitied.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why I'm water-logged and world-weary

This is what my first day in Spain looked like:

3:00 p.m.: Arrive at Madrid airport
4:00 p.m.: Arrive at casa de Molly
5:00 p.m.: Lunch
6:00-9:00 p.m.: Siesta
10:00 p.m.: Dinner
12:00-1:30 a.m.: Turkish baths

The Turkish baths are apparently where all the young couples in Madrid go to make out.

There were a lot of couples. And a lot of making out.

This picture is not representative, you see, because there is no making out. I didn't take any pictures myself; I stole these from the website. But you can bet that if I had taken pictures, you would see a lot more making out.


All in all, the baths were wholly enjoyable and relaxing. There was a tepid bath, a hot bath, and a cold, and I mean cold bath, and you were meant to move from one to another in that order.


Eastern music was piped in over the speakers, and the rule of complete silence in the baths was mostly disregarded. I spent most of my time in the tepid bath, shunning the two extremes, with my ears submerged until the noise around me became muffled, and the only sound was my own breathing.


I watched the light play against the cavernous ceiling and relaxed, letting the water soothe my travel weary joints and muscles.

I'd like to say I came home and slept like a baby after that, but alas, the restorative powers of the three-hour siesta were too strong for me, and I lay awake for many hours before finally drifting off sometime before dawn.

I guess I still have a lot to learn about this Spanish life.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Why everything always looks brighter after a glass of wine or three

I'll be honest: my first day in Paris started off pretty crappy. I have too much luggage, through no fault of my own, since for once in my life I was actually a very responsible packer. But thanks to program requirements I'm carting around a laptop, various other wires, cords, and equipment, as well as approximately 29 pounds of student files and paperwork. Which, thanks to the "no wheels on luggage" stipulation, I am draping off of my lanky frame in the form of three quite heavy bags, and seriously, a wheeled bag would be heaven right now, and this is one time I'm kicking myself in the rear for being such a rules follower. Having finally navigated from the airport via the RER to my hostel, I dropped my bags in a disgusted heap in a storage closet and set of to kill about 4 hours before I could check in to my room. I left a voicemail with a friend who also happens to be traveling in Paris right now to try to meet up with her later, and then set out to find some money. I put my card in the first ATM machine I came to, and it spit it back out again. Interesting. I tried again. Nothing. But no problem, I moved along to the next ATM. This time it let me get all the way through the procedure, taunting me, before informing me that my bank does not allow this kind of transaction. What the...? Frantically I ran from bank to bank with the same same result. *Gulp.* My stomach was growling, I was tired and my feet hurt and I was becoming more anxious about this money situation by the minute. Luckily I had 4 Euros left over from a previous trip with me, which was just enough to stop into a cafe for a soul-restoring croissant and an espresso. After going on a wild goose chase looking for a bureau d'echange that was open on a Sunday I headed back to the hostel, getting lost on the way, of course, to ask for their advice. Head to St Michel, they said. If there is a bureau d'echange open, it will be there. This involved getting on the Metro, and not having enough centimes left for the trip, I could only hope the ticket machine accepted my xenophobic bank card. I tried it with one card. No dice. Then the other. "Carte muette," it said. But there was a guichet open. "Excuse me," I said to the woman, in French, bien sur, "but what does 'mute card' mean?"

"It mean's it's mute," she explained. "It means...it doesn't want to talk."

"Ahhh," I said.

"But here, I can do it here," she said. "You just have to come to the window." I bought a packet of 10 tickets in case my card continued to not feel like talking at inopportune times. I felt a little better. My bank card was xenophobic and my credit card had suddenly developed a debilitating case of shyness, but I had transportation, and I had arranged to meet my friend and her husband, who, if worst came to worst, would hopefully bail me out with some cash in the correct currency. Luckily it didn't come to that, as I right away found a bureau d'echange that was open, where I immediately cashed in the entire $250 advance on my salary for a depressingly small amount of Euros, and thank god for that advance because otherwise I would truly be up a creek. The echange guy thought I was Italian and threw in a couple extra Euros because I was "jeune et belle." God I love France.

Lodging for one night: 55 Euros
Carnet of 10 Metro tickets: 11.70 Euros
Not having to eat dinner alone in a foreign city: priceless


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Why I will probably never live in the South

Why, hello there! You look different. Are you taller? Thinner? Did you get a haircut? It must have been years since we've last seen each other...What's that? Eight days? Really? Did you miss me? Well, I sure have missed you. Let's never be apart again.

So here I am in North Carolina in what must be the longest staff training ever for a 25-day gig. We just got back from summer camp and I'm sunburnt, mosquito-bit and grass-scratched, and yes, I said I went to summer camp. This was a bit of a surreal experience for me, because being 28 years old I really thought I had passed the camper stage of my life. But this was the real deal: cabins, bunk beds, rolling green hills, cows, and a lake. There were silly team games, kickball, hula hoops and a swimming pool. There were front porches and rocking chairs and marshmallows and a campfire, and yes, there was even singing. It brought back memories of a summer camp that I went to for several summers as a kid; memories of wooden buildings and dining halls, morning announcements, the thrill of free time, and name tags dutifully draped around sunburnt necks. Things I hadn't thought about in fourteen years. But what was really strange was that suddenly, thrown into this strange situation and this group of supremely confident, sporty and outgoing new people, I found myself feeling as if I was fourteen years old again. Suddenly I was the gawky, shy teenager all over again, hanging back, never knowing what to say, hesitantly approaching tables with my cafeteria tray asking, Is it ok if I sit here, guys? The first couple days were rough, is all I'm saying. And it did get a bit better, I suppose, but even now I'm here in Raleigh typing in my room while other people are out, watching a movie or shopping for supplies or who knows what. I guess the difference is this time it's by choice. (Because who knows when I'll have the chance to blog again!) This whole experience is a challenge for me, because for the last eight days, I have been surrounded by at least 80 other people all the time, 24 hours a day, and honestly, I find being around other people all the time exhausting. (It's called being an introvert). Even when I went back to my cabin to sleep at night I was surrounded by twenty other girls and their collective snoring and rustling and sighs, with never a moment to myself, not a second of solitude to recharge. Then yesterday we came back to Raleigh to air-conditioned two-person dorm rooms, and hallelujah, the girl who was supposed to be my roommate never showed up and I have the room to myself. And it. Is. Delicious. I'm tilting back in my chair with my hands behind my head right now, breathing a deep sigh. Ahhhhhhh. (Yes, typing without hands is hard, but it's a skill of mine). It's been a learning experience, and I have newfound sympathy for the students who will be coming on my trip, some of whom will likely be just as nervous as I was.

In other news, I have been learning a lot about this region called "The South," and North Carolina in particular. For instance, did you know it's hot here? I mean really, really hot. And humid. I think it was supposed to be a high of 99 today. Ninety-nine degrees. After living in Boston for the last five years, I can't remember the last time my body felt 99 degrees. I have to say...I don't really like it. After loudly proclaiming for most of my life that I love summer! and yay hot weather! and gimme more I can take it! it seems that New England has taken it's toll on me, and instead I find myself saying things like, I'm so sweaty, and this is gross, and seriously, I just showered. I mean, there is a limit to what deodorant can do in this weather. And do you know what the high was in Boston today? Go ahead, guess, I'll wait. 59 degrees. Fifty-nine degrees. That's like, a 40 degree difference, if you do the math. And while I know that if I was there I would be complaining bitterly about a high of 59 degrees in June, there is a part of me that says that it has to be better than this.

Also, if I may make a sweeping cultural observation regarding southerners in general, and Christian southerners in particular, it's that they really don't understand the concept of vegetarianism. You see, this summer camp we went to happened to be a Christian summer camp, and as such, drinking, swearing, and smoking were prohibited, along with, apparently, fresh vegetables and healthy food choices of any kind. Now, I'm not complaining, as I happily stuffed myself full of eggs, sausage, biscuits and hash browns every morning, and fried chicken, pot roast, and meat meat meat the rest of the day. But among this group of intrepid campers, trekkers, scuba divers (and the few lowly language nerds like myself), there were quite a few earthy and environmentally-friendly vegetarians in the mix, which the company knew, of course, and warned the camp and cafeteria staff of well in advance. Imagine their collective surprise when, for instance, the only non-meat alternative to ground-beef tacos at lunch was a stale tortilla shell stuffed with diced tomatoes and iceberg lettuce. Yum. It just went on and on like this, and I guess the vegetarians ended up eating a lot of pb&j, and to their credit I never once heard any of them complain. The cafeteria staff were reminded, of course, of their duty to the non-carnivorous among us, and their sole response, which I was witness to, was a doubtful, "We don't usually get many vegetarians comin' through here," amended by an, "Actually, we don't usually get any vegetarians comin' through here." Interesting, I thought. Having grown up in a religious household, I was familiar with the concept of, "Jesus made the animals for us therefore it is ok to eat them," however, the concept of "Jesus made the animals for us therefore we MUST eat them" was novel to me. As I came back through the kitchen for a second dessert I was quite amused to see a group of three kitchen staff huddled around one very patient vegetarian, asking him in genuine befuddlement, "But wha? Wha don't you eat meat?" He was quite nice about it, tolerantly explaining his views on social and environmental responsibility as the staff gaped at him, eyebrows knit in concern. After hearing him out, they resolved their dilemma with a hilariously condescending, "It's ok. Jesus still loves you, even though you're a vegetarian."

And that, my friends, is what I've learned in North Carolina.

Next post from Europe! Look for it on Sunday or Monday! Ciao for now, my chickadees.