It began as most mornings would at home. Waking up to a water-powered alarm clock...no, really. We needed an alarm clock, so we bought one. Is one that runs on water that weird?
Dragging ourselves out of bed was harder than usual this morning. Perhaps it's the dearth of rest we've gotten on this trip, traversing La Ville de Lumières. I should have been more excited to visit the mystical boulders of Fontainebleau. For those of you who do not climb, a quick lesson. One, bouldering is climbing boulders without a rope to get on the top of them. There are often many ways to get to the top, some more difficult than others. Yes, it is quite a workout, and no, I do not wear gloves. Two, Font is revered as the largest and most developed climbing area in the world. People have been climbing on these sandstone boulders since the late 19th century.
Flashback to last night. Much to our chagrin, we discovered that the Chateau of Fontainebleau is closed on Tuesdays. Yes, folks, it is Tuesday. Visiting the chateau was supposed to be the counterbalance to the climbing and the alternative to Versailles. Why we never noticed that essential bit of knowledge before 23:00, I'll never know. After much discussion, we decided to go for it anyway. The gardens were open, and the transportation was little more than a train...then a bus...then a bike rental...and some unmarked forest trails on rickety mountain bikes.
No, this isn't turning into a Deliverance story. We saw no albino children and heard no banjo music. The trip there was expedited by our trusty two-wheeled steeds. The walks from the train station to town to the forest alone would have been close to 50 minutes one way. With the bus and bikes, it only took us twenty.
[Disclaimer, because of aforementioned poorly marked forest roads and limited directions from the Bleausards I contacted online prior to our excursion, the discovery of said boulders took closer to an hour. The weather was nice, and the sky only threatened to rain.]
While I explored a very small area of a vast bouldering playground, my better half dug deeper into The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and occasionally snapped my picture. The weather turned out glorious in the woods, and despite our utter lack of French language expertise, we were able to purchase sandwiches at the boulangerie in town, rent bikes, and find our way back to our apartment in the Latin Quartier.
Rest now for the weary. I soaked in some climbing history, climbed on some sloping sandstone, and had a marvelous day in the woods with my wife. I believe I owe her a ballet show or a back rub. I'm sure I'll wind up doing both in the very near future. If I wind up in France again in coming years, I will be sure to arrange a meeting with a Bleausard guide so the journey there is a little bit easier.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Monday, July 12, 2010
This is my first trip overseas. The trials and tribulations of going it alone for the first time have been minor at best. I have the knowledge of my better half's travel experiences to build upon. Stay in a hotel? Crazy talk. Apparently, eating out three meals per day for a week or more really wears on your nerves. Unfamiliar foods can induce culture shock. I've loved most of the meals we've had and merely liked the rest. More on that when I return.
Where to stay if not in a hotel? Rent an apartment, of course. It's brilliant. Where else can you get out of the tourist bubble and learn the ins and outs of shopping at the market? How else would I learn that you have to weigh your produce at the grocery store before going to the cashier? Actually, I think someone may have told me that tip in the past; however, it took me being in line and trying to pick up social cues before the memory was triggered.
Our first nights here, I made some pasta from the bottega with sauteed vegetables from the fruit stand and chicken from the boucherie. It wasn't too different from what we often make at home. Aside from the lack of spices and herbs, it was no different really. Homemade Italian food in France? Oui. Our French diet has been expectedly devoid of les légumes. This allowed us to indulge at lunchtime and not feel like our sang was turning into beurre.
Enough of the French-English mishmash. Time for tonight's recipe. I want to recreate this at home, but it may be a little more difficult. Tonight, I made what I'll call a Virginia cheese steak...minus the cheese, and pork instead of steak. Yeah, I need to work on the name. Suggestions welcome.
1/2 lb. center cut pork chop, cut into strips across grain
1 Granny Smith apple, cut into half circle slices
2 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
1/2 onion, julienned
1/2 zucchini, julienned
Salt & pepper to taste.
1. Heat oil in pan. Saute onions & garlic until they begin to brown.
2. Add zucchini. Cook until they begin to soften.
3. Lay apple slices between everything in pan. Flip when browned.
4. Add pork. Stir until done.
5. Layer individual ingredients into baguette so that each bite will have every flavor. Bon appetit!
Fresh ingredients are clutch. A good recipe is only as good as the ingredients that go into it. I made this for less than ten euros. It served two. The key to recreating this sandwich at home will be locating a proper bakery that makes a good baguette. I fear that may be the hardest part. I know that adding to this recipe will be the easy part. Cinnamon or a dash of cayenne might make this just perfect. A soft cheese such as brie or gouda might also be a nice accompaniment.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
I went searching back through my blog archives to see if I'd posted anything about my last trip to a room filled with Impressionist masters. It wasn't in the lifetime of this blog, though it may have been on my slightly more regular Myspace postings that have since been deleted. I think I saved them somewhere at home. Is it weird to backdate a post by over 3 years?
Let's flashback, if I can, to my trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. I last went there in 2006. It is an impressive museum, and my visit was one of the first times I can remember being truly lost in exploring a museum. The collection of Monet alone was enough to render me speechless. Imagine if you will stepping into a room with 20 paintings, totaling in value more than all but the Forbes listed could ever afford.
Fast forward to today. Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France. What formerly was a train station now houses a superb collection of art. And, yes, there are a few Impressionist period masterpieces there.
Walking among the greats now, especially Monet, is more exciting because of our recent day trip to Giverny in the French countryside. Monet was a Parisian by birth, but when he began to paint, he fell in love with the small town of Giverny in the Normandy region. We walked among the Japanese water gardens where his water lilies bloomed. We stood underneath the willow trees where he dappled his brush to depict the blue waters. We strolled across the bridge that appeared in some of his most famous pieces as well.
So, in honor of his not-quite-sharp style of painting, I shot about half of my photos in almost focus. I can't wait to see how they turn out on my computer. I'm thinking I'll be compiling mixed media videos with the shots that turned out the best. Of course, the best of the photos will find their way elsewhere.
Saturday, July 10, 2010
"But you know what the funniest thing about Europe is?...It's the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit over there that we got here, but it's just – it's just there it's a little different," said Jules in Pulp Fiction. Man, was he ever right!
Dead on our feet last night, she and I were discussing some of those differences. Because of Pulp Fiction, I kind of want to go into a McD's and get a beer. Just because I can. I doubt it'll happen though. There's so many other places to go.
The one thing I've always wanted to do stateside, but just can't bring myself to is go to specialty stores for foods. Farmers' markets for vegetables. A proper butcher for meats. The Southwest waterfront for seafood. A bakery for bread. You get the picture. Aside from not knowing which places are good, our lazy American economy just doesn't support it. We as a population prefer to go to one supermarket, get it all in one place, and be on our merry way. The problem with the new system is that when one place tries to do it all, it does none of it very well.
Downstairs from our apartment, there is a boulangerie. On our first day in town, we stopped in to get a baguette for breakfast on our way to Montmartre for the day. Fresh bread with camembert. Flaky, chewy, crispy, smooth, rich. Beyond compare. Down the street and around the corner, there is a small fruit market. Fresh produce daily. Our first day here, we stopped for some petit fraises. Unlike the Plant City strawberries to which I am accustomed, these were tiny, bite-sized, and full of flavor. Yesterday, when we went our our bike tour to Giverny, we stopped at all the little markets in nearby Vernon to get our picnic supplies. Cheese from the fromagerie. Bread & beignets from the patisserie. Amazing.
I understand that long ago, this is the way things were in the states. We had gourmand proprietors that took up the jobs that their parents had and their parents before them. Butchers' kids became butchers. Bakers' kids became bakers. You get the point. I would posit a guess that the foods from those small shops was higher in quality by a large margin, though likely with the accompanying higher price.
My new mission in life when we return is to seek out the small places that have the higher quality foodstuffs that make meals more pleasurable. I already know there's a butcher like that in Alexandria. To higher quality food and the small businesses that sell them!
In the comments, make suggestions as to those places inside the Beltway where such quality can be found. Merci!
Thursday, July 8, 2010
It isn't so much that I don't want people to perceive me as an American. On the whole, I'm proud to be one. Are there aspects of our culture I'd love to change? Absolutely.
Just as when my neighbors say something to me in typically broken English, I would like the opportunity to try my hand with broken French. Last night at dinner, the waitress afforded us that opportunity. An older woman, I doubt that she has much patience for rude tourists that expect her to speak another language. She was slow and patient, and we were able to order our meal.
She, a French caprese salad, something that resembled roast pork, and a slice of chocolate tart. Moi, bean soup, boeuf provencale, and sorbet (two flavors: framboise & cassis!) I reckon it's the kind of place that only locals go to, despite Frommer's recommendation. Several people asked us questions in French as we sat at our sidewalk table outside.
Today, I resolved to do even better. It's the little things that peg you as a local or not. The tiny customs. How people greet one another. How they cross the street. How to get off the Metro train at your stop. Today, I tried to scoop all that information up and then some!
We were able to order breakfast and lunch, mostly in French. Good thing too because the boulangerie for breakfast is right across the street from our apartment in the Quartier Latin. I believe we'll be in there again. That baguette was the best I've ever had...with soft camembert to boot!
Tomorrow, a ride through the French countryside to Giverny. I'll continue with the picture taking opportunities. I believe I'll try my hand at some more intentionally out of focus shots, in homage to Monet. Impressionistic photography if you will.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
There, now that's out of the way. Post on that when we return from La Ville de Lumieres. See? I'm not so bad when I can write it down. Perhaps I should just carry around a whiteboard and dry erase marker, so my utter lack of French skills would be less evident.
In any case, we left on our trip woefully underprepared to deal with the language barrier. We can both speak passable Spanish and have reverted to it when our minds are overwhelmed with not understanding the French going on around us.
Well, it seems that way. I think what's most likely happening is I fumble for a French phrase I've just tried to read in the travel book. I get a response that is gibberish to my ears. "Uh..."
The morning we left, I read a blog post by an American expat living (or who has lived) in Korea. She made several good points about living abroad and Americans in general when they are there. I hope my perspective changes on this first trip abroad.
Quick anecdote before we head to dinner after 9pm..excuse moi, 21:00.
We found a fruit stand around the corner from the apartment we rented. I wanted to buy some fraises, but I was hesitant to go to the clerk. While waiting, an American in a Spain soccer jersey walked up and asked where a particular street was. His question seemed phrased ok, and I was able to understand him. Speaking slow helps me when I have context. An older French gentleman standing nearby answered him in French.
Frenchman tries again, "Se habla espanol?"
A shake of the head. Frenchman laughs, and asks, "How about English?"
Relief washes over American masquerading as Spaniard's face. They sent him on his way. The way they saw him must've been the way the waiters saw us at the cafe this afternoon. Only my attempt at French was immediately discounted and traded for English with nary a thought by our waiter.
Off to try again. Au revoir!