Milwaukee to New York by train

Would you believe that I, a travel enthusiast who has lived in various cities around the world and been to places like Morocco and Iceland, had until very recently never been to New York City? Me neither, and I can only ascribe this oversight to my younger self’s burning desire to always head for more remote and exotic places. Every time I would travel, back when I lived in my native USA, it was over the state of New York to farther destinations, very often France.

It wasn’t that I didn’t ever want to see it. I just figured NYC wasn’t going anywhere and I would get there eventually. But this glaring omission became more and more embarrassing after I moved to France and casually admitted to several French people that I hadn’t been to NYC yet. This city is – understandably enough – any French traveler’s first and main destination in the US, and for an American to not go there is incomprehensible. It would be like someone from Avignon in southern France never bothering to visit Paris.

And they have a point – never visiting a world capital like this one is something to lament. But the difference between these contexts lies in the distance separating one’s place of residence from the destination city. In Wisconsin, where I grew up, our country’s cultural capital is far enough away (880 miles/1,416 km) that planning a trip there entails a certain amount of planning and hassle. And you also have to fly there, emitting unmentionable quantities of greenhouse gas into the air.

Or do you?

milwaukee-to-nyc-train.jpg

Well, most people opt to fly such a distance (roughly equivalent to Paris-Warsaw), because the alternatives are 14 miserable hours in a car or 23 even more miserable hours in a bus. But wait, isn’t there another option? What did people do before cars and buses? Okay, yes they took stagecoaches, but they also took the TRAIN.

Amtrak Viewliner

So this summer, wishing to rectify my offense and shrug off the growing shame of it all, I wondered if I could fit in a visit on my way back to France from Wisconsin, but without flying. First, I already felt bad about the carbon cost of my trip to the States and wanted to avoid another flight’s worth (trains have a carbon footprint too, but a much smaller one). Second, I hate flying anyway (too much space between me and the ground!). And third, as a fan of train travel and old movies, I wanted to try the sleeper-car experience. This was my chance!

North by Northwest compartment.jpg
North by Northwest (1959). My compartment was slightly smaller.

Making this trip by train takes just as long as by bus, but the experience is so much nicer, even if you opt just for a seat and not a sleeper car. You can get up and walk around, move to the observation car and admire the landscapes, eat in the dining car or snack bar car and engage in conversation with different fellow travelers (and not just your one seatmate on the bus). And if you get motion-sick in buses like I do, the choice is especially clear.

Amtrak observation car
The Amtrak observation car is a nice place to soak up some sunlight and admire the views.

But I was determined to have my own sleeping compartment, just like Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest but probably without the stowaway. With some luck, admittedly too close to my travel date for comfort, I found both a decent price and an itinerary (the Lake Shore Limited) that wouldn’t have me changing trains early in the morning. After an hour-and-a-half ride from Milwaukee to Chicago in a normal coach car, I transferred at Union Station to the train that would take me all the rest of the way, leaving at 9:30 pm and arriving at 6:30 pm the next day.

IMG_0816.JPG

Amtrak’s smallest private room, the Viewliner roomette, is a compact space – measuring just 3’6″ x 6’6″ (110 x 201 cm), it’s no wider than what you see in the photo above. It makes up for this in height, however, with a very high ceiling to accommodate the adjustable upper bunk, so it didn’t feel too confining. It’s designed to sleep two, but I think with two people this tiny space would quickly feel MUCH smaller.

The compartment contains a small sink that folds down from the wall, and… wait for it… a toilet! Yes, and it’s out in the open with no wall separating it from the rest of the room. This is where things could get weird if you’re traveling with someone. It’s just as well that I never bumped into Cary Grant and had to hide him from the police! Rest assured, though, that if you book the roomette alone, the entire compartment is yours and nobody else will be traveling in it.

When I boarded, my room was in its default configuration with two facing seats, but in the hour after our departure the car attendant came through to convert everyone’s roomette for sleeping. You have the option of sleeping in the upper bunk or having the seats below converted to a bottom bunk (my choice).

Don’t miss this comprehensive video tour of the same roomette I had:

IMG_0828.JPG

My fears of being unable to sleep in a rocking, creaking, groaning metal box proved groundless – the bed was very cozy and I actually got a great night’s rest. When I awoke, the morning sunlight was gently filtering in through the curtains and we were chugging along the eastern coast of Lake Erie somewhere in Pennsylvania or New York state.

Starting at an early hour (I think 6 am), complimentary coffee and orange juice are made available in the hallway of each sleeping car. For reasons I’ll get into later, I’d brought some food along and had these coconut-cashew bites for breakfast in my room.

Another very cool thing about traveling in a sleeping car is you can take a shower! And even though I could have just waited until I got to my destination to take one, I wasn’t about to pass up this rare (not available to coach travelers) and kind of amusing opportunity. Plus it’s always nicer to be clean. Each sleeper car has one shower room at the end of the hall with a little cubicle and a tiny space outside it to stand in and get dressed. Towels, soap and these strange put-them-together-yourself shower slippers are provided. The water flow was minimal (or maybe not much was left?), so it took me a long time, punching the button every few minutes to get more water to come out, like with a campground or locker-room shower. And it’s a rather precarious business, what with the train rocking and jolting and you being all soapy and slippery. There’s a large metal bar you can grab onto, but I could also see how with the wrong timing you could end up lurching into it headfirst and getting knocked out cold. That must not happen too often I suppose, or there would be no more showers on trains. I, at least, escaped injury.

Next it was time for lunch, and this is where my story takes a kind of Twilight Zone turn. Before my trip I’d checked the avid Amtrak travelers’ forums to see if any vegan options were to be had, and everything seemed to indicate I needed to call and reserve a vegan meal at least three days ahead of time. So I did that, only to have the Amtrak lady on the other end of the line tell me that actually my train was not going to have a dining car and that no vegan options were possible. Other people would have a standard meal delivered to their rooms, but no special meals like vegan or kosher could be had. Disappointed but not surprised, I thanked the lady anyway and grumbled about this for a while to my family members. And I duly brought a bunch of food with me on the train, although it wasn’t quite enough and I wasn’t able to find anything decent at Union Station in Chicago.

IMG_0887

So I was not only shocked but also relieved to learn that actually there was a dining car on my train and that a completely vegan meal was part of their permanent menu (!?), no need to reserve anything. Who knows how such contrary information was provided… my phone call may have gotten routed through a wormhole to the 1990s. But now you know: if you’re traveling on the Lake Shore Limited, you can have this very nice Asian noodle bowl. It seems there’s also at least fruit as a vegan option for breakfast. Still, it’s always a good idea to have some extra food on you, since life is unpredictable.

I spent the rest of my time relaxing in my little room, reading Orlando and watching the various stations of upstate New York file by. Finally, as the sun dropped lower over the horizon, New York City loomed into view.

All in all, I was quite satisfied with this train adventure. Of course, it was a somewhat expensive option ($375 for the roomette, all included vs. about $175 for just a coach seat) and definitely more than air travel (maybe $120 one way). You also need the luxury of time to be able to travel this way. But with our environment in the state it’s in, I’m in favor of a shift back to slower transport and a more relaxed attitude to work schedules, for example, to make such travel more realistic. Efforts should also be made to lower train fares and make trains more efficient. If this had been a high-speed train such as the TGV in Europe or the Shinkansen in Japan, the trip would have taken much less time. In the meantime, if I were to make this trip often, for cost reasons I would probably sacrifice my comfort some of the time and go for the coach seat.

I would also like to see Amtrak make a bigger effort to reduce single-use plastic. Two plastic water bottles were provided in my roomette, but there also seemed to be a drinking water tap in the sink. And although the lunch came in a balsa-wood box (along with a card explaining that it was to help save the environment), everything inside the box was wrapped in or composed of single-use plastic. Perhaps some of it was biodegradable, but it still seemed like a lot of unnecessary packaging. BUT, three cheers for Amtrak for (after all) having a vegan choice on their normal menu.

Have you ever traveled long-distance with Amtrak? How was your experience?

If this post has intrigued you and you want to prolong the train-riding mood, make yourself some popcorn and check out one of the many films set on or around trains. In addition to North by Northwest (1959), I especially recommend The Ghost Train (1941), Mystery Train (1989) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017 or earlier versions). An honorable mention goes to The Darjeeling Limited (2007; not my favorite Anderson film, but you can’t beat his aesthetic). If you have others to recommend, leave them in the comments!

Be sure to also take a look at the English royal family’s own private train.

Click here to see what happened next!

Chickpeas in spicy tomato sauce

Several people have recently told me they’re interested in eating more plant-based dishes as a way to lower their carbon footprint, but that they don’t know where to start, don’t have much cooking experience, or can’t easily find some of the less common ingredients such as seitan. It can seem daunting at first. And because some of the fancier vegan foods are often found at organic stores, there’s an unfortunate misconception that a plant-based diet is more expensive than a conventional animal-based one.

So today, I decided to show you a super simple, super yummy dish I’ve been making lately and really love. It’s based on a few very common ingredients – onion, canned cooked chickpeas, prepared tomato sauce plus optional soy yogurt and scallions – that can be found at even the most basic grocery store. I found all of these things at my local Monoprix, the French equivalent of Safeway in the US or Tesco in the UK. If you stock up on canned chickpeas and tomato sauce ahead of time, whipping up a dish like this is a breeze.

Legumes in particular are very easy on the planet, requiring far less fossil fuel and water to produce than meat and other animal-derived foods. This makes them an ideal food for a future marked by increasingly common droughts due to climate change.

Chickpeas (and other legumes) are also extremely good for you, packed with protein and offering long-lasting energy.

Furthermore, this is a super low-cost dish. To make the two servings in this recipe, I spent just €4.49, or €2.25 per serving ($2.55 or £1.91). That’s about half the price of a cappuccino.

The cost breaks down as follows: 2 cans chickpeas (€1.30), 1 jar arrabbiata sauce (€1.69), 1 small red onion (€0.32), 2 small 100 g containers of soy yogurt (together, €0.56), 2 scallions (together, €0.28) and 1 lime (€0.34). I also used tiny amounts of olive oil and ground coriander which would come to a few cents’ worth each.

This dish is fairly foolproof and can easily be adapted to incorporate other ingredients. You can use any other legume (navy beans, kidney beans, lentils) in place of the chickpeas, for example. I recommend not using red lentils, however, as they tend to turn into mush when cooked and you would end up with a kind of tomato-lentil mash (although it would probably still be delicious). But you can easily add other vegetables to this dish, perhaps adding extra tomato sauce to cover everything. You can also opt to serve it over rice or couscous if you happen to have some on hand, but it’s already very filling on its own.

Did I mention how yummy it is? The idea of chickpeas may not spontaneously inspire you, but when they’re prepared ahead of time (ie, coming out of a can), they’re wonderfully moist. I love their texture combined with the heat of the rich, spicy tomato-y sauce and the cooling yogurt and tangy lime juice. The flavors are somewhat reminiscent of Mexican cuisine.

A dish such as this is perfect as a make-ahead packed lunch too. Why not give it a try?

Chickpeas in spicy tomato sauce

Makes 2 servings

  • 4 cups (530 g) drained chickpeas or navy (white) beans (two 14 oz/400 g cans, before draining)
  • One 14 oz (400 g) jar arrabbiata or other tomato sauce
  • Drizzle olive oil
  • 1/2 cup (80 g) onion, any color, or shallots, chopped
  • ground spices/herbs such as coriander, curry, cumin, herbes de provence (optional)
  • 1/2 cup (200 g) plain unsweetened soy yogurt (optional)
  • 1 or 2 scallions (green spring onions) or bunch of chives, chopped, for garnish (optional)

Note: I was using a small frying pan, so the amounts shown in the photos below are for one serving. To make two servings at once, use a larger pan and the total quantities listed above.

The first thing you’ll want to do is roughly chop your onion (or shallot). You can either slice it, as shown, or dice it  do it however you want, cause this is an easy recipe, remember!

IMG_0499

Drizzle some olive oil into a frying pan, heat on medium-high, and sautée the onion for a few minutes. If you like, add a dash of herbs or spices (I often add ground coriander and thyme), but since the arrabbiata sauce is already seasoned, this isn’t strictly necessary.

IMG_0503

When the onions have become a bit translucent, add the chickpeas. Save the liquid from the can if you’d like to make meringues or something with (do a search for “aquafaba” on this blog to find recipes). Sautée, stirring often, for a few minutes to heat the chickpeas and allow the flavors to begin mingling.

IMG_0507

Now add your arrabbiata or other tomato sauce.

IMG_0508

Continue to heat until the sauce begins to simmer. Take off the heat soon after so the sauce doesn’t become dry.

Transfer to a serving bowl and top with a dollop of plain soy yogurt plus chopped scallions or chives. The yogurt has a nice cooling effect, counteracting the heat of the spicy sauce, and reminded me a lot of sour cream in this dish. I used the most basic grocery store soy yogurt, but you might want to try the thicker Greek-style soy yogurt that’s now becoming available (in France, look for the Sojade one at organic shops).

IMG_0539

Another nice touch to this flavor combination is some fresh lime or lemon. The vitamin C in the citrus juice also helps your body absorb the iron in the legumes.

IMG_0545

Enjoy!

Variations: serve on top of rice or couscous, add vegetables (spinach, bell peppers, potatoes, mushrooms etc.), experiment with spices.

Chickpea of the sea salad

Chickpea of the what?

Allow me to explain. Those of you who live in the US will probably be familiar with the Chicken of the Sea tuna brand. I never knew why they called it that, but a quick visit to their site the other day revealed that fishermen of yesteryear used to refer to white albacore tuna this way because its light color and neutral flavor made them think of chicken.

Today, amid concerns about mercury levelsoverfishing and bycatch (the needless demise of non-targeted fish and other species such as dolphins and turtles), more and more people are reducing their fish consumption. Happily, for those who like the taste of certain seafood dishes, there are ways to reproduce the flavors.

This very easy chickpea salad has a mayonnaise-mustard-caper dressing that gives it a tangy flavor reminiscent of tuna fish salad (hence the name). It’s also filling and protein-rich and has a bit of crunch thanks to the celery and onion. Furthermore, it is a versatile and forgiving recipe—the quantities of the various ingredients don’t need to be exact, and if you add too much of one thing you can easily balance it out by adding more of another. Also, if you love onion, you can add more that the amount specified, or less (even none!) if you’re not so much of a fan. If you don’t happen to have celery on hand, you could add other crunchy things like radish, green apple or even walnuts. This is a recipe where you can let your imagination loose and experiment endlessly.

It can be served in the same ways as a tuna or chicken salad: on bread for an open-faced or traditional sandwich, atop a green salad, on endive leaves, in lettuce cups or even on halved canned peaches! (yes, I’ve tried this and as strange as it sounds, it’s good!).

Without further ado, let’s move on to the recipe!

Chickpea salad

Makes about 2 cups of chickpea salad

Ingredients

  • 14 ounces (400 g) cooked chickpeas
  • 1/4 cup (40 g) finely diced red onion
  • 1/2 cup (112 g) diced celery
  • 1 teaspoon whole capers, or more to taste
  • 3 tablespoons vegan mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon brine from the caper jar
  • 2 teaspoons dried seaweed flakes or shredded nori sheet
  • 1/4 cup (5 g) chopped fresh parsley, plus extra for garnish

 

IMG_9846b

IMG_9848 (1).jpg

Begin by dicing the onion and slicing the celery. If your celery branches are very wide, cut them in half lengthwise so the pieces are more bite-sized.

IMG_9855 (1)

Drain the chickpeas, saving the water from the can if you want to make something with aquafaba later.

IMG_9862 (1)

Transfer the chickpeas to a bowl and mash them with a potato masher or fork. They should be broken but not pulverized to the point that they become hummus (for this reason, it’s best not to use a food processor). There should still be visible chunks of chickpea in the mixture.

IMG_9876 (1)

Now, in a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice, caper brine and seaweed flakes or finely shredded nori sheet.

IMG_9879 (1)

The mayonnaise mixture will look like this when ready. Taste it and adjust to your liking. You may find you would like it to be a little more spicy (add more mustard) or less so (add more mayonnaise), or more “tuna-y” (add more caper brine and/or seaweed).

IMG_9882 (1)

IMG_9884

Add the onion, celery and capers to the mashed chickpeas and stir to combine.

IMG_9890 (1)

Finally, fold the mayonnaise mixture into the chickpeas and stir until thoroughly integrated. Add the shredded parsley and stir a few more times to combine. Your chickpea of the sea salad is now ready!

IMG_9924

The chickpea salad can be served in many ways. Here, I have prepared some mini open-faced sandwiches on a type of rye bread often found with the name Baltik or Artik in bakeries in France.

IMG_9943 (1)

chickpeas peaches.jpg

Enjoy!

Variations: Make a curry version of this chickpea salad by adding curry powder and omitting the capers and caper brine. Add any of your favorite nuts and seeds (pine nuts are quite good in this). Serve in endive leaves, lettuce cups or on halved canned peaches as shown above.

Short days in Scandinavia

I usually spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve either in Paris or back home with my parents and sister. But this year, for something different, I went north to Denmark, where my brother is now living. To make things more interesting (and give my trip a much smaller carbon footprint), I decided to travel there and back by train rather than flying. This took me through Germany (with stops in Hamburg and Hannover), which was fun as I hadn’t been there for a few years. And as I also spent an afternoon in Malmö, Sweden (only a half-hour from Copenhagen by train), this trip took me to three countries, two of them new to me. I love this about Europe—with these relatively small nations (compared to the US), it’s so easy to cross borders and experience other cultures and languages.

Another excuse for traveling by rail was the chance to take a train that crosses the Fehmarn Belt strait by ferry! Yes, it drives right into the ferry at Puttgarden, Germany alongside the cars and patiently waits for the boat to reach Rødby, Denmark on the other shore 45 minutes later. During this time, passengers must leave the train and go up the stairs to the upper levels of the boat, where a plethora of duty-free shops and pricey food services can be found.

When you get this far north at the end of December, the days are pretty short—the sun sets at about 3:30 pm. I was hoping that it would still be somewhere in the sky for the beginning of our ferry crossing, but some technical delays meant that we couldn’t get started until around 4 pm. So my photos are a bit dark (click on them for a larger view), but for a better look you can also check out this short video that someone made in the summer.

A good share of the vacation was spent cozily on the couch, indulging in movies with my brother and his wife and kids, with candles and plenty of popcorn (this was where the mysterious Danish hygge was to be found, for me). We watched some Christmas classics, such as A Child’s Christmas in Wales and The Shop Around the Corner, and some of our childhood favorites including Coming to America and The Muppets Take Manhattan. But there was of course also a Denmark outside waiting to be discovered!

Because I was in Copenhagen right in the middle of the holidays (plus a Monday), most museums and restaurants were closed, but I did manage to stroll through the city streets and also explore a bit of Freetown Christiania, a self-proclaimed autonomous neighborhood that happens to lie within the borders of Copenhagen. One restaurant I did get to visit (twice!) is SimpleRAW, which I highly recommend. Despite its name, it does offer a cooked burger plus another cooked dish of the day (dhal, the week I was there), and hot drinks like coffee, tea and matcha latte, of which I was very glad as it really was SO COLD outside. Their raw lime cheesecake was simply divine.

The weather was gray and drizzly most of the time, but I still managed to get some fun and colorful photos. Here’s a selection.

I took one afternoon to go and explore Malmö, Sweden, which as mentioned above is only a short train ride (more trains!) to the east of Copenhagen. Trains leave in both directions several times per hour, and the cost is only around €10. I loved Malmö, a very cute smallish town with lots of old-timey charm. It didn’t hurt that it was also a nice sunny day.

Thanks to some advance planning, I managed to visit two vegan restaurants that were not closed during the holiday period. First, Lotta Love Açaí Bar, where I had—what else?—a huge açaí bowl covered with fruit, nuts and cacao nibs. And later, Vegan Bar, which is more like a restaurant with a bar in it and offers a range of super yummy burgers, including a portobello mushroom one. I also happened upon a thrift shop with lots of cute things (candleholders, clothes and dishes that would have been perfect for my food photos). It was sad, but probably also lucky, that I couldn’t buy anything due to insufficient room in my suitcase (and my apartment!).

If you ever visit Malmö, don’t miss Lilla Torg, a little square with a lamp installation that is lit both at night and during the day, but is most interesting after sunset.

We also took a day trip to Denmark’s second-largest city, Aarhus, to visit the impressive ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum. Established in 1859, it is Denmark’s oldest public art museum outside Copenhagen. It has been especially attractive to visitors since 2011, with the addition of the circular skywalk installation Your Rainbow Panorama by Icelandic-Danish artist Ólafur Elíasson. Inside, we enjoyed various exhibits on multiple floors, most of them featuring Scandinavian artists apart from a temporary exhibition devoted to works by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos.

The final excitement of my trip was the New Year’s Eve party with some friends of my brother, for which we made a huge dinner. My contributions included a spinach, red bell pepper and tomato quiche and some almond-apricot cupcakes decorated with toasted slivered almonds and edible gold dust. Everyone in the neighborhood was setting off fireworks the whole evening, but at midnight they multiplied their efforts by 10 and there was no break in the booming, crackling and colorful explosions of lights for a full 35 minutes.

Soon after that, I was back on the road (or rather, rail) again to return to Paris. I stopped for the night in Hannover, where I got to try out the highly acclaimed restaurant Hiller, and the next evening was home and reunited with Sésame, who greeted me with many kitty kisses.

DIY gift wrapping

Store-bought gift wrapping has often struck me as a senseless waste, given that it’s usually thrown away after just one use. Of course, it sometimes can be reused without too much social disapproval, for example in a family or among sympathetic friends. But another option is to make your own wrapping paper out of things that were going to be recycled anyway. Not only is it more sustainable and cost-effective, but it’s also a lot more fun. You can select specific images for each gift, either to match one of the recipient’s areas of interest or to hint at the package’s contents. Choosing and matching colors and patterns is also something I find quite satisfying.

img_3705

This year, as I set out to wrap some Christmas gifts, I looked through my magazine piles and selected some free publications that I wasn’t going to look at again. These included an old Air France magazine, a Palais des Thés tea catalogue, a free cinema magazine from a local theater, and the summer edition of my district’s magazine (yes, in Paris each of the 20 arrondissements has its own free magazine to keep residents in the know—nice, huh?). Other things that can be upcycled into gift wrapping are brochures from art exhibitions, newspaper pages, comics and even old maps. Anything with interesting colors and visuals can work as long as the paper is thick enough.

I put some Christmas music on to create a festive mood, made myself some tea and began selecting pages.

img_3712

Magazine pages are especially good for small items. This particular gift was wrapped with a page from the tea catalogue. I then wrapped a smaller accompanying box with a strategically selected section of a page showing a map of Air France destinations.

img_3732

Sésame took a break from his busy day to help out by supervising my work from beneath our “tree” (pine branches in a vase). He approved overall, despite the disappointing lack of cat images.

img_3745

Pages from a cinema magazine are especially nice when you’re wrapping a gift for a film-loving friend. For bigger items, you will need to tape two or more pages together (taping them on one side is usually enough). Here you can see that I’ve chosen to leave the ripped edge as is, rather than trimming it, partly because cutting it would mean losing part of the image, and partly for an artisanal deckle effect. For this kind of homemade item, precision and perfection are actually not what you want.

img_3748

The item I was wrapping was too big for just the two magazine pages to cover it, so I added more to the top, choosing contrasting colors. Keep in mind that the edges will not be visible once the paper is folded around the gift, but with some maneuvering you can probably get the right part to show.

img_3758

Finally, add some colorful ribbons and possibly some washi tape, and you’re done!

img_3986img_3985img_3988img_3761img_3980

Barcelona’s best and brightest

vegnews-december-2016-450x600bA few months ago, I had the chance to spend three weeks in sunny, veg-friendly Barcelona. I owe this good fortune in part to my choice of career, since in the freelance life there isn’t all that much to stop you from packing your bag and heading somewhere new—like a turtle with its shell, you really only need your laptop with you (although mine feels about as heavy and cumbersome as a person-sized turtleshell).

The most tangible result of my stay in Barcelona is the VegVacations feature I wrote for the December 2016 issue of VegNews, which has just come out. In it I describe Barcelona’s main attractions and neighborhoods and recommend some things to do and nice veg eateries to visit.

Barcelona certainly has some beautiful architecture, fascinating museums and great restaurants. But what I’ll remember most fondly, what made my stay truly meaningful, are the great people I met there. Some were locals, some expats. All were warm and welcoming individuals, each using his or her own talents to make the world a better place for people, animals or both. I’d like to introduce a few of them to you.

Petronila — organic coffee from a women’s cooperative in Guatemala 

12196263_1662468663994708_3128329899023612902_nPetronila is a lovely person in many ways, but one of her best qualities has to be her great patience. As she was my host in Barcelona, we had many opportunities for small conversations between our various comings and goings, and she handled the many gaps in my rusty Spanish with good humor. She even managed to make sense of what I said when I accidentally inserted Spanish-accented French words into my sparkling conversation. Hats off!

As we shared our backgrounds, Petronila, who comes from a coffee-growing region of Guatemala, told me about the coffee import business she was in the middle of launching: El Café de Petronila. All organic and fair-trade, her coffee is sourced from a cooperative of women coffee farmers in Guatemala, helping ensure a decent income for these rural workers. The company name Petronila chose has special significance, for it not only refers to herself but is also an homage to the grandmother for whom she was named. Below are a few photos she sent me of the coffee farmers at work. The coffee, in case you were wondering, is smooth and delectable!

Roberto — messages of hope for animals on T-shirts and billboards

dsc_0219bIt was at the Feria Vegana, Barcelona’s twice-monthly vegan fair, that I first met Roberto. It took some time before I could approach the table where he sold his screen-printed T-shirts, since quite a few people were already crowded around it when I arrived, rummaging through the stacks in search of the perfect message, color and size. When I finally pushed my way through, I understood better—these were some cool designs!

Roberto began his screen-printing business, Serigrafia Vegana, about two years ago, first selling his merchandise only at fairs and then branching out into online sales as well. Most of his designs center around the idea of animal liberation, with elegant illustrations of birds flying free and messages reappropriating traditional sayings involving animals. One such phrase is Fueron felices y comieron perdices, which literally means “They were happy and ate partridges”. Often appearing as the last line in a happy ending to a fairy tale, it is equivalent to our “And they lived happily ever after”. The updated, kinder version on Roberto’s shirts is Fueron felices y liberaron perdices (“They were happy and FREED partridges”). That’s more like it!

A native of Uruguay, Roberto has been living in Spain for 10 years but doesn’t believe in artificial borders and prefers to consider himself a citizen of the world. Fair treatment for immigrants and refugees is another cause that’s dear to his heart: one of his bestselling T-shirt designs reads Ninguna persona es ilegal (“No one is illegal”).

In spring 2016, together with three other local activists, Roberto launched the Liberación Animal Ahora project to raise awareness of animal suffering by placing billboards in the Barcelona metro. Similar display campaigns in other countries, including France this past summer and right now, have proven effective at reaching large numbers of people. Funds to rent the advertising space were raised in just 13 days through donations from people in the animal-rights community, and Canadian photojournalist and activist Jo-Anne McArthur granted the campaign the right to use a poignant image of a veal calf from her We Animals project. The billboards went up in May and the campaign was a success, bringing the plight of animals to the awareness of thousands of metro users every day.

Side note: The Feria Vegana is a fun event to visit if you happen to be in town when one’s taking place. People from the city’s vegan community bring home-made food, clothing, jewelry, soaps and other items to sell, and there’s often live music too. For those of you wanting to practice your Spanish, it’s also a nice chance to meet locals (many people also know English, and I even happened upon a French speaker there). Check their Facebook page to find out when the next one will be. In the meantime, a few photos:

Àlex — a sanctuary for abandoned and homeless cats

a_salvadorI learned about El Jardinet dels Gats, a cat sanctuary in Barcelona’s old town, on Facebook while planning my trip and immediately contacted them to arrange a day to stop by. I met with co-founder Àlex (pictured here) and Venezuelan-born volunteer Johanna, who showed me around the sanctuary and explained its history and how it operates.

El Jardinet dels Gats (Catalan for “the cats’ little garden”) is a non-profit organization founded in 2008, when the sanctuary was set up in the yard of a former kindergarten. The El Jardinet team rescues stray and abandoned cats from the street and gives them a temporary home in the garden, where they are fed and cared for by sanctuary volunteers and staff from a local veterinary clinic. At first, incoming cats can be quite wary of humans (with good reason!) and shy away or hide, but most eventually warm up to their caregivers and end up becoming socialized. After some time in the garden, cats move on to foster homes, where they continue to be socialized until they are adopted. The non-profit occasionally holds special events to raise funds and adoption fairs to help find new families for its cats.

Since its founding, El Jardinet dels Gats has rescued and saved over 1,000 cats. If you’d like to make a donation to help them help more cats, please visit this page. The cats thank you!

Tim and Julien — eco-friendly business reviews and sustainable massage services

15032838_1114068485336895_6601207520169929573_nI met Tim online prior to my trip as I searched for interesting veggie-type people to hang out with, and got together with him and his partner Julien one evening for dinner at the amazing Rasoterra. As we chatted and sampled each other’s dishes, they told me their story. They moved to Barcelona two years ago (Tim from Belgium and Julien from France) and have been loving it there, thanks in large part to the city’s relaxed pace. Soon after their relocation, Tim founded Good Goal, an independent site offering unbiased reviews of eco-friendly, sustainable and community-oriented places in major cities around Europe. These include craft beer makers, vegan and slow food restaurants, hidden green spots, specialty coffee bars, slow fashion shops and green hotels. The site also features a blog, and Tim has recently launched a series of pocket guides to sustainable options in various cities.

Julien runs a massage institute, Under Pressure Massage, with a sustainable, eco-friendly approach, using only organic massage oils and creating a relaxing ambiance with candles he makes himself from recycled oils. He offers various types of massage (Californian, Ayurvedic, Thai and more).

Ales and Laura — healthful living-foods cuisine prepared with love

Ales&Laura-PetitBrot.JPGAmong the many restaurants on my itinerary, one of the ones with the highest recommendations from local friends was Petit Brot (Catalan for “little sprout”), a living-foods eatery and cold-pressed juice bar with a focus on optimum nutrition but also a definite flair for flavor and creativity. After my very tasty and colorful lunch (a beet soup, curry over cauliflower rice and a raw version of crema catalana), I chatted a bit with the owners. Ales, who hails from the Czech Republic, and Laura, a native Catalan, first took an interest in a different way of eating after seeing a video featuring Gary Yourofsky. As they were especially intrigued by the health benefits of juicing and a vegan diet, they soon began investigating raw foods. This led to their opening a restaurant of their own in Barcelona. Now, more than one year on, their business is flourishing and the lines at the juice bar are getting longer and longer as locals and tourists alike flock to Petit Brot to experience this type of cuisine for themselves.

Slowly Veggie

This last item isn’t about anyone I met, just a cool find that I wanted to mention. During my stay in Barcelona, I learned about a Spanish version of Slowly Veggie, a newish vegetarian/vegan food magazine we already had in France in a French version. I soon found a copy at a newsstand in the Gràcia district and of course could not resist adding it to my collection of food magazines from around the world. The concept is great for people who are just discovering plant-based eating, since the first half of the magazine features vegetarian recipes and the second half vegan ones—allowing people to get an idea of both. The photography is beautiful and quite a bit of creativity seems to go into the dishes. Slowly Veggie is also available in German, Italian, Romanian and Polish. If you speak any of these languages, check out the sites as there are some free recipes there. Here are a few of the dishes that caught my eye. Perhaps they appealed to Sésame, too… in any case, he was kind enough to help me with this photo shoot back home in Paris.

Barcelona is a truly beautiful and very veg-friendly city with a dynamic community of people working toward a more eco-conscious and compassionate. Perhaps you have read my VegNews article, or even feel inspired just by this little post. Either way, I highly recommend putting Barcelona on your list!

Vide-grenier

Every fall, an event is held in my neighborhood that I look forward to with much the same excitement I used to feel when I was little and Christmas was approaching: the vide-grenier. Literally “attic-emptying”, it’s what we in the States call a rummage sale.

Paris is also home to the largest antiques market in Europe, Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen just north of the city limit. It’s like a gigantic partially outdoor museum of beautiful furnishings and art, and I love to visit it, but it can be a source of frustration in that the prices are often prohibitive. This is where rummage sales become an attractive alternative. But they’re also an excellent way to renew your wardrobe or book collection at low cost while helping maximize the longevity of consumer goods and protesting planned obsolescence. Plus, pretty much everything you find is unique.

img_0919b

For a small sum, neighborhood residents can sell unneeded items from a space on a street bordering the park or an adjoining street a block away. Like at rummage sales all over in the world, you can find dishes, clothes, books, jigsaw puzzles and Scrabble games.

img_0940b

Everything 60s at this table. I adored the color of the deep turquoise ashtray, but couldn’t talk myself into buying an ashtray.

img_0931b

Pre-loved mystery novels with yellowing vanilla-scented pages. I love the typeface and simple illustration.

img_0914b

I quite liked this large oil painting, but don’t have enough wall space at my place. But it would be perfectly at home in a cobbler’s shop (of which there are still many in Paris).

img_0907b

Like Proust and his madeleines, one look at an album like this whisks me back in time to my grandparents’ house.

img_0922b

This table was run by a man and his pre-teen son, who seemed to be liquidating his toy-car collection in preparation for adulthood. I bought the Paris bus (more on that later) but soon noticed that one of the wheels was missing. The boy briefly rummaged around for it at the bottom of a box to no avail, and then, regaining control of the situation, puffed out his chest and instructed his father to refund me 50 cents.

img_0929b

What seems like a reasonable thing to buy while on vacation often ends up at a rummage sale. Souvenir plates from various European destinations are a mainstay of Parisian sales. Andorra is a common one, for some reason.

img_0925b

Another item you always find at French rummage sales is ceramic fèves from inside the galette des rois (king cake), which is traditionally eaten in January. Whoever gets the piece with the fève hidden inside is the king or queen of the evening, and gets to wear the paper crown supplied with the cake. Some people become serious collectors of fèves, which are often figurines of people in medieval dress but can take other forms. The word fève means bean, as a dry bean was originally the thing hidden inside these cakes when it first came into being some 300 years ago. I picked up two of these for 50 cents each.

img_0948b

An ingenious telephone-lamp, from the 60s and made in the 60s, as the stand-keeper explained. Both parts work! Somehow I can’t help thinking of Jemaine’s camera-phone on Flight of the Conchords.

So what did I end up taking home?

img_1029b

One of my best finds this year! A recipe book whose title could be translated Cooking with the Mafia—now that’s something you just can’t refuse. The lady at the stand, recognizing my accent, told me in very good English that her mother was American. She threw in this little cookbook for free. What is American cuisine? Even I am not sure.

img_0975b

A set of presses for making beautifully shaped turnovers and ravioli. May just come in handy for the Mafia book!

img_1051b

A set of old metal canisters for tea, coffee and sugar.

img_1055b

My personal collection of fèves, with a 50 euro-cent piece (similar in size to a US quarter) for scale. The pink lady and purple guy in the back row are the new acquisitions.

img_1026b

The bus! I think this is my favorite among all the things I found. I love that it’s a replica of the real buses of Paris (even bearing the RATP logo), and I find it so charming that a vehicle as decidedly unglamorous as an articulated city bus was manufactured in miniature for children who, one imagines, would normally be more interested in racecars. I also couldn’t resist getting this mini Paris garbage truck for my three-year-old nephew, who has a burning passion for anything on wheels. I often take photos for him of the real thing—much to the amusement of the garbage-truck men, when they catch me—and send them to his mom via Telegram. Actually, I have a feeling he’ll end up with the bus too.

img_1020b

All aboard for Porte d’Italie!

My neighborhood has its big vide-grenier only once a year, but there are other ones in different parts of the city most weekends. Sometimes they’re devoted to higher-priced antiques, art or stamps, in which case it might be referred to as a brocante. Whether you live here or will just be passing through, you can check out this dedicated site to find upcoming vide-greniers all over France.