I heart New York

When you last heard from me, I was explaining why it took me so long to make my first visit to New York City and showing you my nostalgia-fueled journey there on the Amtrak. But did I like it there? As the title of this post suggests, yes, yes and yes! Let’s take a look at the highlights.

invader-ny_157.jpgFirst, I had the good fortune to be hosted on the Lower East Side of Manhattan by an old friend and former roommate from my undergrad days. Being roommates again was a high point of my stay, reminiscing about the good old days and learning about this new-to-me city from someone who’d already explored it a fair amount.

Right from the start, on my first day walking around, I discovered that one of the ideas I’d had about the city was wrong. In the US, New York City has a reputation for being unfriendly. People there, I’d always heard, were constantly in a hurry, invariably gruff and surly and probably planning to rob you. Even Sesame Street made sure we knew what a tough city it was.

So although I knew stereotypes don’t always reflect reality, thank heavens, on some level I’d mentally braced myself. “Do your worst,” I told the city. “I live in Paris!” Nothing could faze me after 10 years in the French capital.

Doughnut PlantBut it turned out that while the reputation Paris has is (generally) well deserved, New York City’s isn’t. Throughout my entire stay, I consistently heard Excuse me, Sorry and Thank you, and on several occasions people spontaneously offered me help when I looked like I needed it. On my way into the city, loaded down with a heavy suitcase, I was looking at a flight of subway stairs in dismay when a passing woman volunteered that there was an escalator a bit further down the hall. Another time, I was sitting on a bench applying band-aids to my blistered heels when another passerby offered to supply me with more band-aids should I need them. And on the train to the airport on my last day, my fellow travelers (who could see from my luggage where I was going) helped me figure out what to do when the train service was temporarily halted, without my even having to ask.

So perhaps most New Yorkers are only “rude” in comparison with, for example, invasively friendly Midwesterners. In small-town Wisconsin, strangers actually get a bit too much into your business sometimes, so I can imagine rural folk who haven’t traveled much being disappointed by city-dwellers who don’t always have time to chat with you.

IMG_1133But on several occasions, locals actually did strike up a conversation. One afternoon, taking a break from a street art expedition in Brooklyn, I sat down in a café with a matcha latte and pulled Orlando out of my bag. The middle-aged gentleman working on a laptop at the table next to mine took his headphones off to remark on a coincidence: he was in the middle of writing an opera based on another of Virginia Woolf’s books! We spoke for a few minutes about the smallness of the world and the difficulties of adapting stream-of-consciousness literature to a musical form. When I asked when he expected to finish the piece, he chuckled and said sometime in the next decade. We each went back to our respective occupation and, making a mental note to pay more attention to operas, I wondered if he were somebody famous.

Little encounters such as these add a nice human touch to one’s existence, I find. This dimension of city life is something I’ve talked about on this blog before, and my stay in New York City only reinforced the fact that I truly miss it.

As for the city itself, one of the things I was most interested in was its background. I’d already learned about its Dutch roots at museums in Amsterdam and was curious to know more about other ethnic groups, like Jews and Italians, that don’t have so much of a presence in the region I’m from.

The Lower East Side, as it happens, is an ideal starting point to learn about the city’s history of immigration. Just a few blocks from my friend’s apartment, I discovered and fell in love with the Tenement Museum, a learning center that explores the uniquely American story of immigration and the rich, diverse landscape it continues to create. For me, an immigrant myself, this topic has special resonance. Founded in 1988, the museum is made up of two former Orchard Street tenement buildings, each featuring several apartments restored to the way they would have looked at different points in history. The museum offers different guided tours designed to focus on particular themes telling the stories of actual families who lived in the buildings. I opted for the Sweatshop Workers tour, which takes you through the cramped living spaces of two Jewish families, the Levines (c. 1892), who operated a small garment factory in their sitting room and kitchen, and the Rogarshevskys (c. 1908), who worked at apparel factories outside the home and therefore had different living circumstances.

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Orchard Street in 1898. This area was once the most densely populated place on Earth.

On this tour, and also a separate Tenement Museum walking tour that I joined, I learned that Orchard Street and surrounding areas were once the beating heart of the nation’s garment industry, with most families doing piecework in their homes for long hours six or seven days of the week. Walking down the street, you could have looked up and seen someone bent over their sewing at just about each window and heard the whirring of sewing machines from all sides. It was also a street clogged with pushcarts since itinerant vendors were a convenient source of groceries in the day.

IMG_1717The district has been home to various ethnic groups that arrived and dominated, population-wise, in waves. In the 1840s, so many settlers from the German states had come that the area became known as Klein Deutschland. Next were Italians and Eastern European Jews, and by around 1920 the Lower East Side had the largest community of Jews in the entire world. After World War II, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans began to appear in greater numbers. Today there’s a prominent Chinese presence, but a mix of other ethnic groups live there too.

To learn more about New York City’s immigrant history, check out the Tenement Museum’s podcast, How To Be American.

To take a peek inside 97 Orchard Street, watch the video below. If you look around YouTube a bit, you may also find a funny Saturday Night Live tribute to the museum.

And for a deeper dive into the immigrant experience, I highly recommend Betty Smith’s semi-autobiographical novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn focusing on an Irish-Austrian family living in the Williamsburg slums in the early 20th century. Titles of other fiction and non-fiction works about immigrants in NYC are listed in the museum’s shop.

A vestige of the Lower East Side’s Jewish days can be seen in the beautiful and painstakingly restored 1887 synagogue now known as The Museum at Eldridge Street. Below are a few glimpses into its interior.

The two other museums I saw on this trip were the Guggenheim – the building was the main attraction for me since Frank Lloyd Wright (a Wisconsin native!) is my favorite architect – and a museum devoted to Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

Other art can be seen on the city’s walls for free. There are quite a few impressive murals by Brazilian street artist Kobra, and Invader has quite a few pieces there too. I also saw some pieces by Stik and Frank Ape.

And what about the vegan food scene? It was, of course, amazing! Much like in London, you can find decent vegan items on the menu of just about any mainstream restaurant, and there are many fantastic all-vegan places. Within a three-block radius of my friend’s apartment, I counted three places to get vegan ice cream. Just down the street from the Tenement Museum is Orchard Grocer, a little food shop and delicatessen with a range of delicious made-to-order vegan sandwiches. I was very impressed by their Bowery breakfast sandwich and their Edith bagel with cashew cream cheese and carrot lox that could easily be mistaken for smoked salmon. Adjoining this shop is Moo Shoes, which has a nice selection of vegan footwear, bags and T-shirts.

Other places I loved included Riverdel inside Essex Market, which offers a wide range of gourmet vegan cheeses plus hot and cold sandwiches (their hot breakfast sandwich was divine!), Beyond SushiDun-Well Doughnuts and Van Leeuwen ice cream. There were some spots I didn’t manage to get to, like Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Modern Love in Brooklyn, so those will just have to wait for my next visit!

So there, in a rather long-winded nutshell, you have my first visit to New York City, a place I strangely felt at home in right away. Maybe because it combines the things I like about Paris (a major international city filled with people from all over the world and lots of art and culture) with the things I like about the US (friendliness, the ability to chat with strangers, greater acceptance of veganism and a wide availability of vegan food) and of course the fact that I blend in and don’t have to be an ambassador for my country.

10/10 would visit again! I have to, anyway, since I still have so many more things to see there.

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Have you been to New York City, and how did you like it?

 

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?

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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!

29 hours in Clermont-Ferrand

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Vercingetorix (82-46 BC)

Three and a half hours south of Paris by train, almost in the center of the country, is one of France’s oldest cities. Before the Romans arrived around 50 BC, it was Nemossos, the home of the Gaulish Arverni tribe led by the famous chieftain Vercingetorix. The invaders renamed it Augusta Nemetum, and then in the 9th century it became known as Clairmont after the castle Clarus Mons. Over the centuries, it was attacked by Vikings, Normans and Visigoths and also served as the starting point for the First Crusade (1095-1099). In the 18th century, it merged with the neighboring city of Montferrand and took on the name we know it by today.

How about now? What draws visitors not interested in invading or waging a religious war? Clermont-Ferrand is famous today for being the home of multinational tire manufacturer Michelin and hosting the world’s biggest international film festival dedicated to short films. It’s also surrounded by a chain of dormant volcanoes whose highest point is the lava cone Puy de Dôme, which can be seen from many parts of the city. And of course, street art—the main reason for my quick trip to Clermont-Ferrand the other weekend.

I arrived just after noon on a beautiful sunny day and left the next day around 5, so was there for only about 29 hours. But that was long enough to form an idea of the city, supplemented by vague memories of an even briefer trip there back in 2006. I can therefore share only a few things about Clermont-Ferrand, and this article will be more of an introduction to the city than anything else.

Day 1: vegan lunch, space invaders and dinner from a grocery store next to the freeway

As always when arriving somewhere, anywhere, directly from Paris, I immediately noticed how much cleaner the air and streets were. I then became enamored with the city’s splendid colorful houses and the deliciously ancient feeling that reigns in the area around the spooky Gothic cathedral made entirely of black lava stone. After navigating a few narrow medieval streets, I arrived at Myrtille, a beautiful little eatery where almost everything is vegan.

I had the beet and orange soup garnished with soy cream, chives and toasted hazelnuts for a starter and then a quinoa and azuki bean salad with arugula, potato and sweet potato, green beans, carrot and squash seeds. Both very nice, especially as I was famished after the longish train ride.

Clermont-Ferrand has a total of three vegetarian restaurants (no fully vegan places), which is not bad for a French city of 142,000 souls, and only Myrtille and another one called La BerGamoThée were open this particular day. As I wanted to try both, I headed to the second one for coffee. Although the owner of La BerGamoThée was washing dishes after the lunch service when I arrived and was starting to think about closing, she gave me a very warm welcome. I ordered coffee and a scoop of sorbet, and as the caffeine revived me from my sleep-deprived state (it had been a very early morning), I began to feel more like my usual self. The owner was curious to hear my story (what was a foreigner doing in those parts?) and we chatted a bit about our lives. She wasn’t a native of Clermont-Ferrand but had been there for some years after trying various other cities including Paris. One of the nice things about Clermont-Ferrand, she said, is that it’s almost always sunny, even in the winter. As someone who starts having an existential crisis every November, when the gray season in Paris begins, I made a mental note of this key detail.

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Invader’s CLR_09 from the 2016 wave greeted me at the station as I exited my train from Paris.

Back to our history lesson. Some 2,050 years after the Romans, Clermont-Ferrand was invaded yet again… but this time the intruders were a whole lot cuter. French street artist Invader placed his first mosaic on a city wall in 2001, then returned a few times to add more, culminating in 2016 with an impressive wave of 31 more creative and ambitious pieces paying homage to the things the city is famous for. As you stroll around town you may notice 8-bit aliens wearing 3D glasses, holding popcorn, featuring in film frames or fleeing volcanoes. A few pixelated bats, most likely escaped from the belfries of the ominous Gothic cathedral, can also be seen lurking about.

Those of you who follow my Instagram already know about Flashinvaders, the GPS game the artist created so his fans could “collect” his works around the world and score points for their finds. For every new city, you get 100 bonus points. Clermont-Ferrand is a particularly good city for this game as a lot of the works have high values and most of them are pretty close to each other.

After a long afternoon of exploring the city and finding mosaics, I headed to my hotel, which turned out to be a farther hike from the downtown than I’d thought when planning my trip. Moreover, it was right next to a busy freeway interchange surrounded by desolation. Once there, I scrapped the idea I’d had of returning to the city center for dinner and began looking for something nearby.

It turned out there was nothing much, and definitely nothing likely to have vegan options other than fries and iceberg lettuce, so it was time for Plan B: the large Intermarché grocery store on the other side of the freeway. Rain clouds were beginning to gather in a suitably dramatic sky, but I just thanked my lucky stars there was a store in that area at all and set out, umbrella in hand.

IMG_3374At the store, I had some trouble finding the hummus (every vegan’s lifesaver) and began to worry there wouldn’t be any, but in the end emerged with enough provisions for an evening meal and breakfast the next morning.

I spent a cozy evening at the remote but otherwise nice hotel eating hummus, resting my feet (12.5 km covered that day), editing photos and watching vintage episodes of The Simpsons in French. The French version is pretty good, although some jokes are untranslatable and the voices always seem a little wrong. Fun fact: they blur the Duff Beer brand name when it appears on screen because it has become a real beer in Europe and France has strict laws on alcohol product placement on television.

Day 2: a museum of tires, a ghost town and more street art

The next morning, after breakfasting on the remaining hummus plus some hotel coffee, it was time to learn about tires at L’Aventure Michelin! Back in 1889, brothers Édouard and André Michelin were running a rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand when they developed a removable pneumatic bicycle tire. Two years later, these tires, which they patented that same year, were used by the man who won the world’s first long-distance cycle race, the Paris-Brest-Paris (an ancestor of today’s Tour de France). The Michelins then shifted their focus to rubber tires for those newfangled horseless carriages, and the rest is history.

This museum is quite interesting, especially if you’re like me and have never thought much about tires and what went into developing them. For example, at a certain point different types of coverings to protect the tires from puncture were tested—the materials included leather, fabric, cork and steel rivets, each of them presenting some kind of major disadvantage. Michelin eventually developed innovations making these additions unnecessary. Later, in a bid to promote their brand, they added an “M” tread to the tires to leave distinctive tracks everywhere the cars went, and accidentally discovered that it improved safety too.

It so happened that this year marks the 120th anniversary (birthday?) of the Michelin Man, who over the years has become a familiar character around the world and was even named “best logo of all time” by an international panel of experts in 2000. To mark this anniversary, L’Aventure Michelin had put together a special exhibition about the man made of tires. Like many cartoon characters, his appearance has changed over time, going from a Teddy Roosevelt lookalike to his current incarnation. Presumably, his designers wanted to make him seem more friendly and approachable, and perhaps less likely to encourage smoking, but I’ll always prefer his original look.

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Of course, there’s also a Michelin Man invader! (CLR_37 from 2016)

After the museum, I set about hunting down the last few invaders on my list. Incidentally, it was lucky I’d bought so much bread the night before, as it turned out that Clermont-Ferrand is almost a complete ghost town on Sundays. Even if I were a meat-eater, it would have been difficult or impossible to find anything to eat. To get a much-needed coffee in the afternoon, I had to duck into a hotel and bother the front-desk guy. The streets around the cathedral, bustling and packed with people on Saturday, were eerily empty on Sunday. The cathedral itself even seemed to be closed (!?), so I sadly can’t report on the inside of it this time.

The most challenging invader to add to my score on this trip was CLR_35, located on the wall of a freeway of sorts right where it forms a bridge (making the mosaic invisible from the street level below). With coaching from an expert invader-hunter friend, I discovered there were nevertheless two ways to “flash” it with the app: 1. entering the freeway on foot from the nearest entrance ramp or 2. scaling a small but steep slope next to the bridge. Preferring to avoid activities that could lead to arrest and deportation, I chose the more discreet option 2.

Clinging precariously to the fence, the thorns in the poisonberry bush next to it digging into my skin as rain clouds menaced overhead, I still couldn’t see more than the tips of the invader’s ears. But I held my phone up above my head and hoped for the best. This, by the way, was one of the “What am I doing?” moments that everyone with an obsessive hobby reaches at some point. Happily, it worked after just a few tries—the left-hand flash capture above shows how little of a piece needs to be visible sometimes. And best of all, I didn’t get arrested. On the right is the official photo of the invader in all his glory as he races down the road.

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Another fun one was this large 100-point piece of a certain French singer on Rue Serge Gainsbourg…

But Clermont-Ferrand also features creative works by other street artists, such as Lyon-based Lasco, who—true to his name—paints animals inspired by the prehistoric paintings in Lascaux Cave in southwestern France. Made around 17,000 years ago, the paintings were discovered by chance in 1940 by a group of teenage boys and are now among the first things mentioned in timelines of the country’s history. I, in turn, discovered the street art paying homage to them completely by chance and was delighted!

Several trees and posts in Clermont-Ferrand had been yarn-bombed when I visited. In French, this is known as tricot urbain or “urban knitting”—love that term! These pieces are by a group calling themselves Les Peloteuses du Kfé Tricot.

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A collaboration in Rue Savaron by Apogé (left) and Repy One (right).

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If you love art too and are planning a trip to Clermont-Ferrand, you’ll want to pick up the free Such’art map of art galleries and street art from the tourist center in Place de la Victoire for a self-guided tour of works by Invader, Lasco and others. On Instagram, you can follow the latest street art developments in Clermont-Ferrand at @such_art_63.

At 5 pm it was time to board my train, and a good thing too because after 22.2 km of walking that day (!) and 34.7 km for the weekend as a whole, I was ready for a bit of a rest! The skies continued to offer dramatic clouds as the train sped northwards and the sun began to set.

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The places mentioned in this post:

  • Myrtille restaurant: 4 Petite Rue Saint-Pierre, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand
  • La BerGamoThée restaurant: 1 Place du Mazet, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand
  • L’Aventure Michelin: 32 Rue du Clos Four, 63100 Clermont-Ferrand
  • Maison du Tourisme (tourist office with street art map): Place de la Victoire, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand

Aquae Sulis and Mr. Darcy

My most recent travels saw me arriving in a beautiful little English town once known as Aquae Sulis. Doesn’t ring a bell? Today, it’s called Bath and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its rich past. If you’re into history, either of the Roman era or the Georgian period (or both!), this is a destination for you. It’s an easy trip from London, just 97 miles (1.5 hour by train) west of London. You’ll love it even more if you happen to also be a fan of Jane Austen, who lived here at several points in her life.

As you may have guessed, all these things fascinate me. Well, it was much more the Georgian era that drew me to Bath, but I was pleasantly surprised, upon visiting the Roman Baths center, by how the site managed to captivate me. In the interest of sticking to chronological order, let’s talk about that first.

When the Romans arrived in Britain around AD 43, they found a settlement of Celtic Britons around a site with a large natural hot spring and a shrine dedicated to a goddess named Sul. The invaders duly named the town Aquae Sulis – Latin for “the waters of Sul” – and built a major bath complex and temple around it (as shown above; click to enlarge photos). They encouraged the natives to continue worshipping Sul, with whom they identified their goddess Minerva, a factor that helped the Britons to accept the invasion.

In the Roman days, the large bath shown above was covered with a vault roof. After the baths were rediscovered and restored in the 18th century, they were left without a roof and the sunlight stimulated the growth of algae, which is what’s responsible for this green color. There were other baths (hotter and colder ones), as well as various other rooms (saunas, massage rooms) similar to what you find in modern spas today. This center is really well done – in addition to seeing the baths themselves, visitors are taken through the site’s history with interactive museum exhibits and a high-quality audio guide available in some 15 languages.

In 1979, some archaeologists poking around in the Sacred Spring, the innermost pool of the bath complex (shown in the cover image of this post), found a number of “curse tablets” that had been thrown into it during the Roman days. Unhappy individuals would carve requests for vengeance upon those who had wronged them onto bits of flattened lead, roll them up and toss them into the waters for direct delivery to the goddess Sul/Minerva who, they hoped, would proceed to take action.

The most common complaint was of theft, and the punishments sought tended to be rather harsh, along lines such as “may whoever nabbed my cloak while I was bathing lose his eyesight and his mind and never recover either until such day as he has returned my belongings to me”. Sometimes the accuser would make things easier for the goddess by listing the names of suspects. Did the curses work? We’ll never know, but a simple locker room could have prevented a lot of trouble!

(Don’t miss this great tutorial for making your very own curse tablet! And see if you can figure out what the author’s curse was.)

Also discovered in the baths were beautiful engraved semi-precious stones and colored glass that probably fell out of bathers’ jewelry, loosened from their settings by the heat.

The site does an excellent job of helping you travel back in time to the Roman days. Alongside some of the ruins, reproduction walls have been set up, but with a space between them and the floor to remind you which parts are real. In the various dark spaces of the labyrinthine baths, hologram-like projections of Roman bathers, complete with the sounds of their murmurs and dripping water, spookily recreate the mood of the distant past. These translucent beings were rather like ghosts… I wondered with a kind of delicious frisson whether one of them might turn and look at me.

Today, it isn’t possible to actually bathe in these baths, which are still lined with lead, but you can head to the Thermae Bath Spa for a steamy rooftop swim. Imagine how nice that would be in winter!

Fast-forward about 1,800 years and you’ll have arrived in Georgian Bath, the age of an author so loved by the people of England that they put her on the 10-pound note. I agree with this honor as she’s one of my favorites too. In Bath, you can visit the Jane Austen Centre, located on one of the same streets she lived on. Although it isn’t her former house, the center offers information about her life as well as artifacts from Georgian households and a short film hosted by the guy who played evil Mr. Wickham in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. At this point I should confess that Mr. Darcy himself doesn’t really have any connection with Bath; I’ve just shamelessly used him as shorthand for all things Jane Austen, and also because I liked the idea of contrasting him (in the Colin Firth incarnation) with Emperor Claudius above. The city features prominently in some of her other books though, in particular Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

If you’re already very well versed on Jane Austen’s life, touring the Jane Austen Centre probably won’t teach you anything new, but there are nicely done wax statues of her and Mr. Darcy, and you can dress up in Georgian clothing and have your photo taken. You may also like to browse in the gift shop (Darcy and Lizzie Christmas tree ornaments!) or (unlike me) have tea and fancy cakes in their upstairs Regency Tea Room. A brochure for the tea room even mentions vegan options, though I suspect you would want to call well ahead and check on that.

Every year in September, the city also hosts a Jane Austen festival.

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The Jane Austen points of interest continue at the Pump Room, located right next to the Roman Baths, where people used to go to drink medicinal waters in the hope of curing their various ailments. It was also just a fashionable place to be, to see and be seen. It is here that Catherine, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, first meets a special someone. The Pump Room is now a restaurant but still serves water from the spring that supplies the Roman Baths. The illustration above, by Thomas Rowlandson, shows how the Pump Room appeared in 1798. At left in the foreground, we see someone in a Bath chair, an early wheelchair invented in the city for the many invalids who flocked there.

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Another highlight of my visit was a tour through the beautiful Georgian home at No. 1 Royal Crescent, decorated as it might have looked between 1776 and 1796. Those of you who enjoyed my last post can imagine it as George Warleggan’s house (keep that in mind in a moment when you see what’s kept right next to his bed!).

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A cheerful table laid for breakfast. While you ate your toast and sipped your morning beverage (hot chocolate? coffee?), you could catch up on the latest gossip in the local newspaper. Who has lately arrived to take the waters in Bath? Who has just promised their innocent daughter to that gouty old man living on Cheap Street?

A gentleman doing well enough to live in this home would also have had the latest scientific gadgets, including an updated globe (this one appears to be Italian), and a device you can use to cure your own ailments at home using electric sparks (I didn’t get a photo of that).

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All ready for tea in the sitting room. Notice the cups have no handles, in the style of the cups used in China. For this reason, this type of cup is often called “tea bowl”.

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The elegant dining room set for dessert. The curators of this house did an excellent job of recreating the intricate molded blancmanges and other fancy desserts of the day out of silicone. The plates used here each illustrate a different scene from Aesop’s Fables. There’s more I could say about this room, but I should leave some things for you to discover on your own when you visit (don’t forget to ask about the pineapple and what used to happen behind that folding screen in the corner!).

Below stairs, in the kitchen, chunks of sugar were cut off of loafs and then ground up in a mortar. For any food historians reading this: the cookbook on the table is Food and Cooking in 18th-Century Britain by Jennifer Stead. Meat was sometimes cooked on a turning spit powered by a dog in a sort of dismal hamster wheel. The breed normally used for this purpose has since become extinct. Thankfully, this practice was already on its way out by the advent of the Georgian era.

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The gentleman’s bedroom, across the hall from his wife’s. Its furnishings include a washstand chest with a… chamber pot (?!) in its bottom drawer. Or perhaps it’s designed for footbaths. But if it IS a chamber pot, it’s hard to imagine how they could have kept that from smelling terrible even when closed.

But then perhaps no one would have noticed, as personal hygiene was shockingly basic in this period. Ironically, given the name of the city and what should have been easy access to healthful spring waters, people bathed and washed their hair just once a year. Women wore wigs day and night and kept their faces spackled with various substances including lead, followed by an egg-white wash and beauty patches to cover their smallpox scars. They also made liberal use of lavender, orange-blossom and rose essences, but one wonders how much difference that can that have made. The people of Bath were of course no different from the rest of the Western world in this regard, but the Romans, who not only washed but also exfoliated on a regular basis, would understandably have been appalled if they could have glimpsed into the future.

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Apart from its museums (and there were many more I didn’t have time to visit), Bath is also just a very pretty town. Here, the Avon River is spanned by Pulteney Bridge, famous for being one of the world’s last bridges to still have shops along its full length on both sides. It was used in the 2012 film Les Misérables to recreate the look of Revolutionary-era Paris – Russell Crowe as Javert jumps off it to his (Javert’s!) death.

You can always stroll through Bath on your own, but a nice way to get a broader view of the city is to go on a walking tour. I went on this one with the charismatic and knowledgeable Mr. Elliott and definitely recommend it.

“What about food?” you may be wondering. “Are vegan options hard to find?” you may or may not be about to ask. The answer is no, they’re blissfully easy to find, as they generally are in the UK.

As much as Bath is steeped in ancient and less-ancient history, it also has one foot resolutely in the 21st century, so plant-based food is a thing there. I went to and recommend Chapel Arts Café (all vegan), where I had garlicky mushroom flatbreads with cashew crème fraîche, followed by carrot cake, The Green Rocket (mostly vegan), which offers a seitan and leek dish with puff pastry, a salad platter with hummus and tatziki sauce and onion rings, and Zizzi (a UK-wide omni chain with lots of vegan options – ask for their separate vegan menu), where I had “beetballs” and pizza with housemade vegan mozzarella. All really good! There were more veg restaurants than this, but sadly not enough time to try them all.

So there you have the lovely city of Bath, in a very brief and non-exhaustive nutshell. Definitely worth the detour for a weekend if you’re going to be in London. In the meantime, for a closer look at the city, check out the many mini-documentaries on YouTube (like this one about the Roman Baths, or this one about houses in Jane Austen’s day).

Bricks, doughnuts and sunshine

A few weeks ago I had the extremely good fortune to get invited to stay a week in London completely for free (well, after train fare). That’s an offer you just can’t refuse. So I packed up my laptop, arranged cat-sitters for Sésame and was off!

I love London and try to visit once a year. As a native English speaker living in France, it’s always somewhat refreshing to step on a train and in a couple of hours arrive at a place where I can just open my mouth and start talking with zero thinking-ahead time. Or rather, knowing that whatever I say will be completely normal. Or as normal as American talk can sound to English ears, I guess. 🙂

But more than that, when I arrive in London I always feel a general sense of comfort that I don’t get at “home” in Paris. It’s less densely populated, for one thing, and sidewalks are wider. People are much friendlier, something that even my introverted self values highly, as loyal readers will recall from this episode. And it’s also one of the vegan capitals of the world. So even though I like many aspects of living in France, a trip to London always feels like a visit almost-home.

Since I visit fairly often, I have the luxury of exploring the city at a leisurely pace and visiting just a few sites in each trip. This time, I mainly hung out with the friend who invited me, worked (as I couldn’t take the time completely off without longer advance notice) and enjoyed the city’s street art.

Allow me to take you on a little guided tour of my week.

First, the bricks! One of the first things I always notice when I get to London are the many brick buildings – bricks being rather few and far between in Paris. There’s something very grand and majestic about them, and something warm and inviting too, don’t you think? The university I went to in Milwaukee had several old brick buildings with ornate decorations (a bit like the one with the green door above), so bricks often bring me comforting memories of strolling about the campus, my mind filled with some fascinating thing I’d just learned, and of breathing in the vanilla scent of an old book I’d just cracked open at the campus library. I miss those days.

And the doughnuts! Somehow I’d never noticed before that doughnuts are largely absent from the pastry landscape of Paris. Logical enough, right? Since they’re not a traditional French thing. But neither are cupcakes or chocolate-chip cookies, and those are all over the place. So I think some room could be made for doughnuts. When I was still living in the States I wasn’t particularly a doughnut-eater, past childhood at least, but I was fascinated by the doughnuts London seems to suddenly have in abundance, and with very original flavors/themes. The nice thing is that most mainstream doughnut purveyors now offer not zero but several vegan options! The same is true for cupcakes (see photos). This was not the case just a few years ago, so things are really starting to move.

From this excited description you’ll probably assume I spent my time in London eating doughnuts. But I was actually more interested in their existence, and in taking photos of them. I ate just one during this visit: a massive caramel buttercream and speculoos-encrusted affair with coffee glaze called Houston, We Have Biscoff from Doughnut Time.

It also happened to be unseasonably warm and sunny the week I was there, especially for a city known for being overcast and foggy. The first day was as chilly as can be expected for mid-April, justifying tights and a light jacket, but after that it was positively summery. The sun shone brightly the whole rest of the week, and fruit trees were in full blossom. At the end of my stay, a local joked that I’d just experienced all the sunny days London would have in 2018. That could very well be true! In any case, I felt lucky to be able to soak up the sunshine and synthesize some vitamin D after the long, gray and depressing winter we had.

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I really appreciated the nice weather as I walked around the city in search of street art! The piece above is by Steve Powers. Incidentally, when making this piece he commented, “I love working in public and I love painting brick walls. London has some of the finest brick walls in the world.” You see what I mean about those bricks!

Two works by the world’s most famous street artist, Banksy. The one on the left appeared last year on a wall of the Barbican when a retrospective show dedicated to Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat opened there. In it, we see how Banksy imagined the late artist (depicted in Basquiat’s signature style) being received by the British police when arriving for his own exhibition. Surprisingly enough, the Barbican did not repaint the wall and even put up some Plexiglas to protect the street art.

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A piece on Old Street by Ben Eine.

Left: Queen Elizabeth II as the guy from A Street Cat Named Bob, down on her luck and trying to sell copies of The Big Issue (Loretto). Right: giant stick people look down benevolently upon Shoreditch (Stik).

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I also did some hunting for mosaics by French street artist Invader to up my Flashinvaders score. At the time of my visit, London had 84, so this became a rather big undertaking. With the help of a local space invader hunter, I was able to find 77 of them by the week’s end. Below is a selection of my favorites.

My space invader hunt took me to a place I somehow hadn’t been aware of but that’s now my new favorite London museum! So I’d like to take a moment to share some glimpses of it with you…

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If, like me, you love the city of London and also enjoy seeing how people of the past lived, this museum is for you. It takes you through the city’s history from Roman times to the present, giving you a sense of how things once were in the form of artifacts and models. Included are souvenir mugs commemorating Charles II’s coronation, amulets for warding off the plague, very old false teeth, the actual wooden walls from a 1750s prison cells complete with graffiti by prisoners, a series of streets and shops from the Victorian days, fashions of the 20th century, models of row houses, Elizabeth II’s coronation memorabilia and finally books printed in other languages for immigrants to England (including a book designed to teach children of Polish immigrants to read and write their parents’ language – Polish now being the second-most spoken language in the UK).

By now you may well be wondering what there is to eat in London besides doughnuts! We did of course visit some of the city’s many fine veg*n eateries, such as Mildreds, By Chloé and Temple of Seitan.

My very favorite this time was a new 100% vegan pub called The Spread Eagle near Hackney. It opened in January and right from the start, a waitress explained to us, the owners made sure that everything used there was vegan, from the alcohols and other beverages (free from animal-derived filtering agents) down to the cleaning supplies and hand soap in the restrooms (from brands that don’t test on animals) and the upholstery on the bar seats (something other than leather/wool).

From Wednesday through Sunday every week, they serve super-delicious vegan Latin dishes by Club Mexicana. We had the chick’n “wings” with hot sauce and salsa verde, beer-battered tofish tacos, jackfruit and garlic tacos, a giant salad with popcorn chick’n and finally deep-fried ice cream with Mexican chili-chocolate sauce and cinnamon. It was so good that before we even finished eating, I started feeling sad that I couldn’t have it more often. If you’re in London but can’t make it as far as this pub, or the days don’t work out, you can find Club Mexicana fare at Camden Market seven days a week.

Another pleasant surprise in the good-vegan-options-at-mainstream-places category was Leon, a chain with locations all over the city. One evening when I was tired from walking too much (see “street art” above), not wanting to go anywhere far from the place I was staying, I wandered in to see what they might have.

I tried their meatless meatballs – made with eggplant/aubergine, black olives and rosemary and served over rice with some kind of magical tomato sauce and garlic aioli – and was blown away! I’m hoping and praying they come to Paris! Incidentally, I found their recipe for the meatballs, but they don’t say how to make the sauce… I think it’s too top secret to share. 😉 Another time I stopped in, I found that they also offer several vegan dessert/pastry items, like this baked pistachio & rosewater doughnut. So I guess I did have more than one doughnut on this trip after all! But this one was normal-sized.

So there you have a few ideas for things to do and places to eat next time you’re in beautiful London.

Canals, bikes and tiny cars

How could I let so many years go by without ever visiting Amsterdam? This is the question I began asking myself almost as soon as I arrived. It’s so close to me (just an easy three-hour TGV from Paris) and has so much to offer.

I soon fell in love with this charming city teeming with bicycles and crisscrossed by canals. I adore the stately narrow houses standing guard alongside them, topped with ornate gables of various kinds. My favorite is the stepped gable but the other kinds—with a vaguely Haussmannian sloping slate roof or a piping of white frosting trim—are beautiful too.

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In the second photo above, you can see a hook hanging down from the top of the building. These were installed on most houses for the purpose of moving furniture in through the windows rather than up the stairs (the stairs in many buildings are steep with shallow steps—I would have appreciated a hook option to get my suitcase up to my hotel room!). These houses were also built to lean slightly forward so the items being hoisted up and down wouldn’t scrape across the façade. For houses without a hook, people use the same kind of exterior elevator you can sometimes see in Paris.

This trip was also the chance to increase my number of countries visited and get a bit closer to beating my brother in our friendly “who’s traveled the most” competition. He is frustratingly one country ahead of me at the moment, although I still think he shouldn’t be allowed to count business trips! (sore loser, yes). 😉

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Another thing I enjoyed in Amsterdam were the chances to try figuring out the exact meaning of signs and writing (and overheard talk) using the bits of Dutch that I know thanks to the Belgian delegation of my United Nations of friends.

Of course, their purpose is obvious right away… the first one means that if you’re not careful, a giant angry dog could burst out of nowhere and dispatch you to the hereafter, but how do they say it exactly? In English, we get right to the point with “Beware of dog” while in French it’s “Chien méchant” (mean/dangerous dog), which gives only an implicit warning. In Dutch the sign reads “Hier waak ik” or “I’m watching (over)/guarding here”—again requiring the would-be trespasser to draw conclusions. The different approaches to conveying a single message are interesting.

In the second photo, a sticker alerts mail carriers to the types of junk mail the occupant does or doesn’t accept. And in the third one, a friendly-looking sign with a rhyming poem tells people that they can park their bikes there if they’re going into the nearby café. As a translator, my natural impulse is to try coming up with an English equivalent that also rhymes… something like “Coming in for a beer? Then you can park here.” But then the idea of tea is lost, and the syllable count isn’t quite right. But this gives you an idea.

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The first thing you notice upon arriving in Amsterdam is probably how very many bikes there are. In the city center they far outnumber cars, and as you explore the streets you see them chained to any and all conceivable fixtures, even (or especially?) when there’s a sign warning people not to). It seems an extremely practical way to get around, and very eco-friendly of course. For those times when biking isn’t possible, there are buses, trams and even a subway with a couple of lines. As a pedestrian, however, you have to be very careful when crossing streets as the chance of stepping in front of a silent but rapidly approaching bicyclist is always high. Especially at night, when bikes are not only silent but practically invisible. I suppose when you live there you have the reflex of looking carefully both ways even in the absence of engine noise.

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The second thing that stands out is the number of canals. I’d already known there were canals there, but hadn’t realized how extensive they are. This city of 219 sq. km has over 100 km of canals (spanned by some 1,500 bridges, each with its own name)—far more than in Venice. In fact, Amsterdam is often referred to as the Venice of the north. The canal ring area, dug in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.

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As you can see in this 1671 map by Joannem de Ram, the city is a veritable spiderweb of waterways. A number of maps like this are on display at Het Grachtenhuis (the Canal House), a very cool little museum that I discovered by chance.

Its multi-media exhibits tell the story of Amsterdam in a unique and entertaining way, incorporating video, holograms, claymation, physical models and projected images that create a sort of augmented reality to take you back in time. You learn why the canals needed to be dug, how their layout was chosen, why the city’s houses sometimes lean to one side and what lies beneath them. One of the highlights is a model of the Grachtenhuis itself with its rooms furnished in the styles of different periods from its history. It seems that a popular hobby among rich Amsterdam ladies back in the day was to have a dollhouse version of their own home made. I wonder, was it strictly for show or did they also play with their mini-house when no one was around?

Amsterdam is also a place where you can see a few species of very, very small cars. I remember the first time I saw a Smart Car, on one of my early trips to France—they’re so small compared to typical American cars that we took photos of ourselves next to them, even in the days of film cameras when doing so was arguably wasteful. But those are luxury sedans next to these little guys (the official term for vehicles this size is microcars). The first red car and the white car above are Cantas, developed in the Netherlands specifically as a mobility aid for disabled drivers. They run on gasoline, and when I encountered one going down the road its engine sounded like a lawn mower. They’re allowed to drive on sidewalks and you don’t need a driver’s license to operate them. And as you can see, they need to be secured to something with a chain, since just about anyone could pick one up and tuck it under their arm. The black cars are examples of the Birò, the world’s smallest electric car. See it in action here. So cute! You also won’t want to miss the Canta ballet.

Our wanderings through the city were sometimes random and sometimes purposeful, as we had come in part to find some of the space invaders installed back in 1999 by the eponymous French street artist. Those of you who follow my Instagram already know that we succeeded! Out of the original 26, we found 18, although many if not most of those had been “reactivated” (replaced) by fans due to destruction of the originals. Some of them have a small row of tiles installed underneath them, and we were thinking this might be to indicate that they’re reactivations.

After a morning of Invader-hunting, it was time to refuel at Vegan Junk Food Bar. I won’t say much here as I mainly wanted to share these photos and pass on the name before moving on to Van Gogh. Suffice it to say that these burgers were pretty much life-changing, and that those are sweet potato fries with scallions and a truffle mayonnaise. Yes!

So, of all Amsterdam’s museums, the most “must-visit” of them all is undoubtedly the one devoted to Vincent Van Gogh. It’s the largest collection of his works, and he was very prolific for a time before unfortunately slipping into madness. Among other works, you can see these very famous pieces. And also take the artist home with you in crocheted form. In an interesting coincidence, the temporary exhibition of the moment was The Dutch in Paris.

Something funny happened one morning when we were in search of food and realized that the coffee shop across from the hotel offered a vegan breakfast. Okay, we already knew what “coffee” shops in Amsterdam were really about, but were sort of thinking that if they also served food, maybe it was more of a restaurant during the day. And perhaps this one was, but that didn’t stop people from also coming in to smoke. It was a bit surreal to be sipping at your coffee and eating baked beans on toast while at the same time inhaling fumes of a most herbaceous kind from the next table (and baked beans on toast are already strange enough for me). Furthermore, as smoking in buildings has been banned for some ten years already in most of Europe—including in the Netherlands, for regular cigarettes—it was odd to have ashtrays on the tables. Not that I’m even opposed to this kind of thing… it’s more that it hasn’t come into my reality for a long time. Anyway, we saw the humor in it though and weren’t deterred from enjoying our breakfast. Well, as far as possible, since it was a somewhat underwhelming breakfast, especially since they had no plant-based milk and a coffee with milk in it is one of the cornerstones of breakfast for me. But it was filling enough and did the job. Looking more closely at the menu after eating, we noticed the “Happy English” option—an English breakfast “with Popeye’s spinach :)” and wondered just how this “spinach :)” was incorporated (space breakfast?) or if the dish came with a rolled combustible as a dessert course.

That evening, my friend bought a vegan space cake (actually a space cupcake) from the same place to have at the hotel. I was almost going to have part of it but then decided not to, as I’d heard something about unpredictable results and wasn’t in the mood for unpredictable things. The effects of this cupcake, however, were reportedly just as underwhelming as the breakfast, but we both enjoyed the drawing of the enthusiastic chef, so there was that.

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Speaking of weed, another culinary highlight of this trip was The Dutch Weed Burger, a fast-food restaurant fully in line with the spirit of its home city. But no, it’s not that kind of weed, not this time. Behind the provocative name is a culinary philosophy devoted to highlighting the virtues of another kind of plant—seaweed! From burgers and hot dogs to drinks and desserts, everything is made with a bit of added seaweed of one variety or another. We had a burger with kim chee plus the “wish ‘n’ chips”, a drink made with chlorella and a brownie (normal kind). It was all divine. I also loved their cute logo (a sort of partial Jolly Roger with a spatula and a trident) and the many clins d’œil to what people usually think of when you put the words “Dutch” and “weed” together—they refer to the restaurant as a burger “joint” for example, and their quarter-pounder is called the “extra high”. While waiting for our order, we paged through a book of plant-based, seaweed-added recipes called Groente uit zee that was written by one of the restaurant’s founders. It’s also available in English as Ocean Greens. I of course now want to get it, but luckily for my overcrowded bookshelves, it’s not so easy to obtain in France.

After the coffee shop imbroglio, we realized there was a better place to eat in the morning only a few blocks away. Vegabond is a little café that serves breakfast and lunch items, in addition to a range of hot drinks (with plant milks), and it also houses a vegan grocery store with a wide range of products including a locally made almond-based brie. I loved sitting there early in the morning before anyone else arrived, enjoying the ambiance of the sleepy street with a canal flowing lazily in front of it.

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On our second-to-last day, I decided to make a side trip on my own to Delft (one hour from Amsterdam by train) to visit the Royal Delft factory and museum. I’d been wanting to see this town ever since reading Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and seeing the film adaptation of it (although it was actually filmed somewhere in Luxembourg). And of course I also love all things porcelain, pottery and tile, and blue and white designs.

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The town of Delft has (disappointingly) not remained frozen in time in the days of Vermeer, but it was still fun to amble around and look at the old buildings and narrow canals, which run right alongside the houses in some places. I was rewarded in my explorations with some “Delftware” street art!

The factory and museum showcased old plates commemorating Dutch royals as well as large murals made entirely of Delftware tiles and a 17th-century Dutch dining room set up for dinner with period tableware. You can enter a part of the factory to see where the pieces are fired, as well as a workshop where artisans painstakingly paint designs on prefired porcelain—interestingly, the glaze is black when applied and turns blue with the heat.

Your path out of the museum naturally takes you through the gift shop, which I personally found quite enjoyable although most everything was far out of my price range and too delicate for an apartment lacking a china hutch. The tea services, vases and so on are arranged in descending price brackets as you make your way through the shop, so in theory there is something for everyone. Among the more unique items was a €4,150 hand-painted Delftware version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which in their defense is not actually that bad when you think about it. The work of painting it by hand to match the original must require a certain effort, and then you have a one-of-a-kind conversation piece bringing together two iconic Dutch things: Delftware and Van Gogh. Or maybe you could just sit at a Delft sidewalk café to draw the thing yourself in a sketchpad and tell people later how you did it on site. 😉 But anyway, those who don’t have the means for such a purchase can console themselves with a Delftware Christmas tree ornament (as I did) or rubber ducky (quite cute actually). A “Delftware” car was parked outside the gift shop, but didn’t seem to be for sale.

This little trip made for a fun afternoon, but it might not be worth the two-hour round trip if your time in Amsterdam is limited, since you can already find Delftware (or similar) and much more beautiful canals and houses in the capital.

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That evening, back in Amsterdam, dinner was at the exclusive, by-reservation-only Japanese restaurant Men Impossible. It was my favorite dining experience of the trip. Guests are seated around a single communal table, a set-up that creates a truly intimate ambiance, and given a warm welcome by the gracious and friendly Atsushi, the proprietor and chef. After directing you to a seat, he hands you a laminated manga (click on the photo of it above to expand) that explains how to order and eat his ramen dishes which, after a starter, are the stars of the show. Atsushi makes all the ramen he serves by hand the same day—you can see why guests must reserve in advance! You choose between warm and cold noodles plus a soup that doubles as a sauce (I picked mushroom) and a flavoring that gets added toward the end (I had black garlic). The process for eating the dish was very precise, so the manga really came in handy—for example, you’re supposed to eat the soup and ramen separately at first (only dipping the noodles into the soup/sauce), and then pour the soup over the noodles later on. I don’t know if I managed to follow all the directions correctly or not, but this dish was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. The mushroom soup offered rich flavors bursting with umami and the noodles were very fresh with an amazing texture. And despite manning the kitchen and dining room all by himself, Atsushi was very attentive to his guests. I cannot recommend Men Impossible highly enough. If you’re ever in Amsterdam, find a way to go there (you can make a reservation online). And if you’re into space invaders, you’ll find one on the same street!

The last thing we visited before returning home was the Anne Frank House, a place I’d been curious about for years, ever since reading The Diary of a Young Girl as a teenager. We were actually very lucky to get in, as we hadn’t thought to reserve tickets before the trip started and on the day I checked for openings, absolutely every time slot during our stay was full except one (a group must have just canceled). I reserved spots for us as fast as I could! Plan far ahead if you want to visit this house during your stay.

The tour through the building and its achterhuis (“house behind”), as Anne called it, where her family hid, was a solemn and somber experience. I should point out that the hiding place actually no longer has any of its furnishings—Otto Frank, Anne’s father, requested that it not be furnished again and the photos above are of a recreation in another place. But you can stand in the same rooms where they lived and try to imagine their experiences. To recreate the conditions of the time, the windows are covered with blackout curtains and the interior kept fairly dark. Photos of the family and their helpers hang on the walls, but the audioguide that visitors are given as they enter the site has no recordings to go along with the spaces in which the family had lived, as if to promote reflection. We silently shuffled forward through the small, crowded spaces in step with the other visitors, each of us lost in our thoughts, imagining perhaps the day when the police came to bang on the door of the hiding place and take everyone away. There was a palpable sense of unease in the air and one woman began to cry.

A few vestiges from the days of their hiding remain. Some of the film stars from Anne’s collection are still pasted to her bedroom wall, and the pencil marks where Otto marked his daughters’ heights as they grew can be seen on the wallpaper behind a plastic panel.

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As we exited the building at the end of our visit, it had just been raining and an enormous rainbow stretched across the sky over the rooftops. As if Anne were saying hello.

My friends are used to hearing me say I want to move to whatever European city I’ve just been to, and to avoid testing their patience I won’t do that this time. But between you and me, this is a city I could probably get used to.

If you’re interested in learning more about Amsterdam but can’t visit just yet, you may want to check out Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City (I’m about one-fourth through it and so far it’s been an entertaining read) or The Coffee Trader, a historical novel by David Liss set in 17th-century Amsterdam. I read it years ago and loved it.

Where will my travels take me to next? Stay tuned!

Stranger in a familiar land

After eight years living abroad, already well aware of the differences between Paris and Midwestern America, I usually still feel a shock when I go back for my annual visit. A culture shock, naturally.

It’s normally just details like the abrupt change in what people are wearing once I deplane in Chicago—a lot less black, way more baseball caps—and other things like hearing English all around me and noticing strangers striking up conversations with each other. Although it’s sometimes hard to distinguish true culture shock from the disorientation I feel after an eight-hour flight and no sleep.

This kind of reverse culture shock is usually but a momentary disorientation, fading after a day or two once I re-accustom myself to my former everyday landscape. I shouldn’t even really call it shock, since I know about and expect these differences.

During my last visit earlier this summer, though, the differences for some reason seemed greater. I also found myself paying more attention than usual to all the little things that had changed in my home city since the time I first left. Improbable new flavors of Mars Bars and M&Ms at checkout counters. A laundromat that had become an electronic cigarette shop and a parking lot that used to be a bank. New teenage clothing styles I hadn’t noticed before. And most disconcertingly, large flat-screen monitors at the train station playing mass-shooting survival instructions (similar to these) on a loop.

And then I had a strange experience that went way beyond normal culture shock.

I had been cozily isolated at my parents’ house in the Wisconsin countryside for a week or two, not venturing into town much but spending my time with family and taking advantage of the large kitchen to try out new recipes. A visit to my sister in Minneapolis was next on the agenda, and on the way I would need to stop by my bank to reset the PIN number of my debit card.

I felt fine when I entered the mainly empty branch office, where I was greeted by a tall, solidly built man in his 30s who looked inordinately happy to see me. A dark-haired young woman behind a counter seemed to share his feeling. To my surprise, this unnerved me. I stopped where I was for a moment, halfway between the door and the counter, to collect myself while the two of them smiled broadly in my direction as if I were a celebrity. This was of course completely normal, I knew, especially in a semi-rural area of the Midwest. But their attentiveness somehow struck me as aggressive. I went up to the woman to explain what I was there for, hoping I could get the PIN number changed without too much delay.

“How are you doing today?” the woman asked, before I could speak. I had a curious urge to back away and almost narrowed my eyes at her. How can she be so personal when we’ve never met until this moment? And yet, countless times in my life, I reminded myself, strangers had inquired as to my well-being and I’d never been bothered. In fact, it was nice that she’d asked. Feeling more and more out of place, I managed to react as a normal American would, telling her I was fine and returning the question before going into the situation with my card.

Using the word “you” to address her suddenly also felt odd, overly intimate. But there is no “vous” in English. I wanted to reach for a more formal equivalent that just wasn’t there.

For a debit card problem I would need to speak with Doug over there, the woman informed me. She motioned to a corner, bracelets clinking, and I turned to see the tall man grinning at me from the entrance to his padded cubicle.

After shaking his hand and going through another how-are-you-good-and-you, I dutifully sat down, with a growing sense of unease, in front of Doug’s desk while he called up my account details on his computer. This took a few moments, which gave him time for chitchat. “So, what are your plans for the weekend?”

What? My mind raced. Why would he ask that? The question took me off guard—it felt invasive and wrong, the way it would be if a casual acquaintance at a dinner party asked you to state your yearly income. I fidgeted with my cardigan, pulling one side up over the other. “I’m spending a few days in Minneapolis with my sister,” I confessed, unprepared to make up an alternate story but feeling a bit violated. Come on, I told myself, he’s just being friendly like everyone else here. I got more flustered and began inspecting my nails.

“Small world—I’m going there myself tomorrow to see some old college buddies,” he replied. “We’re going to the beer festival. Have you been to the Twin Cities before?”

Somewhere around this point, I felt myself sort of split into two. The American me recovered her senses and joined in the talk without missing a beat. Yes, I’d been there many times since my sister moved there ten years ago. Yes, I liked the city and we did have some fun things planned to do during my stay. The non-American me (I prefer this to the overly restrictive “French me”) was appalled at his presumption and mentally crossed her arms over her chest. What’s it to him if I’ve been there before? What’s he after anyway? Say you’ll be really busy so he doesn’t get any ideas. Say it!

Meanwhile, American me kept talking. She made a final few remarks about the size of the art museum and the nice restaurant scene in Minneapolis before moving on to the second order of business: finding out how to deposit a check remotely. Doug explained that I could download the bank’s app and just scan it. “Here, let me show you.”

American me turned on her phone and went to the App Store but remembered she had no network there with her French phone plan. “The coffee shop just next door has wifi,” Doug volunteered. “You can download it over there. I’ll go with you if you like.” Non-American me poked American me in the shoulder, a little too hard. Why would he go so far out of his way to help? We’d better get out of here.

The encounter ended without incident and I was soon on the train to Minneapolis, musing over my bizarre experience. It had been like inhabiting two sets of consciousness at once, with two simultaneous sets of reactions. Two identities superimposed in the same body. Clearly, the bank representative hadn’t had any ulterior motives in my regard and was just being friendly. If he’d been after something else, American me would have detected it. But non-American me was taken aback by his approach, automatically filtering it through the prism of what would be normal in France, and couldn’t help wondering what he was up to. At the very least, she was so unused to a stranger showing an interest (however transient) in her personal life that she was disturbed by it.

For the first time, I had experienced American culture directly through foreign eyes, having the visceral reactions of a non-American myself rather than just imagining what someone would think or feel in a given situation. The new identity I had developed over the past eight years could not so easily be set aside.

Even if unfamiliar with French culture, you will have deduced from this story that customer service in France, where I live, is quite different from the American approach. In France, the default behavior of people working with the public is one of businesslike straightforwardness largely devoid of emotion, an attitude that often strikes Americans as cold or rude (but actually is not). In your everyday life in France, whether you’re buying bread at the bakery or trying to return the wrong size shoes at a department store, you’ll usually be assisted by no-nonsense individuals who greet you courteously but don’t act like they want to be your friend. There’s no “How are you?” because that’s perceived as nosy.

Customer service people also don’t fall all over themselves to assist you. They’ll help you when they’re good and ready. If you’re standing at a grocery store check-out, your items on the conveyor belt in full view of a cashier already busy stocking a shelf, they might come over only once they’re done. And this isn’t meant to offend; there’s just an understanding here that customers need to be reasonable and patient.

Smiling is purely optional. Even catcalling men on the streets of Paris have never told me to smile. (What do they say, you ask? Just last week, one of them trampled upon all the rules of civilized society and yelled Bonjour! Ça va? in my direction.).

To be fair, most of my experiences with France are concentrated in Paris, and as any non-Parisian will tell you, this city is not representative of all of France. Like in most countries, attitudes in smaller towns tend to be friendlier than in large cities. Parisians themselves are aware of their general reputation for unfriendliness. In this short comedy sketch from 2003, French actor Omar Sy (The Untouchables, Mood Indigo) plays a Malian immigrant who quickly learns that his natural friendliness is not welcome in Paris. He decides to assimilate to the culture of his new home, becoming just as grouchy, unhelpful and unapologetic as everyone else—a move that earns him the approval and respect of his next-door neighbor.

In the US of course, people working in customer service are encouraged and expected (by their managers, by society) to be very friendly, smile a lot, and make small talk. This is famously interpreted by many non-Americans—not just the French—as fake and superficial, as they suspect these people are not really so happy to see them. Yet when you know the culture, you understand that there isn’t any duplicity in it because the other players of the game (other Americans and people living in the US) already know that it isn’t meant to be genuine, that the friendliness is intended to last for the duration of the encounter, to create a cheerful ambiance.

Of course, these tendencies are merely the default; exceptions can always be found. Smiling customer service people do exist in Paris, although this is more likely to reflect their genuine mood of the moment, and I certainly encountered some gruff, grumpy characters during this stay in the US—most notably, and just as genuinely, at the DMV.

I had a few more culture-difference annoyances during this stay, particularly at restaurants. I myself worked as a restaurant server in the US for years during my university days and completely understand the reasons behind a waiter or waitress’s accommodating—some might say obsequious—manner. But I was more irritated by it this time than during other visits back. I just wanted to be left alone, even if it meant I would have to chase after the waiter in the event of a problem.

And now I will reveal a paradox. In spite of my reactions at the bank and the restaurants in the US, in spite of what I’ve grown accustomed to here in France, friendliness among strangers (to a point!) is one of the few things about the US that I miss.

My context-independent, innermost feelings about smiling and being friendly are complicated. Despite my nationality, I am by nature a rather solemn, poker-faced individual and an introvert, a condition that’s only exacerbated by working as a freelance translator. So on the one hand, my natural disinclination to smile too easily means that I’m comfortable (to a certain degree) living in a non-smiling place. But on the other hand, I’m aware that smiling can be good for you, physiologically speaking, as long as you don’t feel forced. And it can be contagious, helping lift the moods of people around you even if just by a little. When I’m in the US I find it’s good for me to be prodded by social situations into smiling and opening up a bit rather than staying encased in a shell as I would otherwise, or as usually happens in Paris.

I will admit I’ve sometimes given in to the temptation to make small talk in France (strategically, to the right type of person—recall my reaction to Doug), partly out of a real need to talk to someone besides my cat.

If it were up to me, I would probably dial American effusiveness down a bit and turn up the volume on smiling and small-talk in France. Some people are just never satisfied. 😉

Just how American am I now? How French/non-American have I become? I’m sure that my inner core is still quite American, having been forged in the US over several decades, and that if I were to move back I would shed my non-American reflexes after a while. But for the moment they’re still firmly in place.

The very last day of my five-week visit, I was back at that same train station with the mass-shooting video and nearly collided with a woman coming the other way around a corner. At a speed exceeding that of rational thought, an apology in French rather than English burst out of me. Whatever my cultural behaviors might be, the default public language of my operating system has clearly been reset to French.

Cathedral spires and Jules Verne

A couple weeks ago, to celebrate a good friend’s birthday, I took him on a surprise day trip to the town of Amiens, just an hour north of Paris by train. Actually, it was only a partial surprise as I’d told him we were going on a day trip, but hadn’t said where to… only that it would take under two hours to get there by train (to throw him off the track a bit, since that encompasses a lot of destinations). He was pleased when he heard the train conductor announce that we were headed for Amiens, since (as I knew) he had never yet been there.

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Luck was mainly on our side, this day. The weather was nice—suitably sunny and warm. We got out of the train station and began heading toward the city center. As we walked, I took a few shots of some cute old-timey building façades. On the white building, in beautiful Art Nouveau lettering, it says North Train Station Seed Company.

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As soon as we started heading toward the river, we began to see the spires of the cathedral appear above the rooftops. A block or two later, after a turn around a corner, the enormous building emerged as a whole.

But before visiting it, arriving as we had at 1 pm, the first order of business was to have lunch. After the Lebanese restaurant I’d planned for us to go to disappointingly turned out to be closed during its normal business hours (the one thing that went wrong on this day, so I can’t really complain), we headed for another one on my list. Fuji Yama, listed on Happy Cow as an especially vegan-friendly eatery, turned out to be a good source of tasty maki, temaki and glazed mushroom skewers. As we savored our postprandial pot of green tea, my friend speculated as to the rest of the activities I had up my sleeve.

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One of the sites we would see was nevertheless easy enough to guess: the cathedral. We paid our check and made our way to it through some narrow streets full of old houses that were very charming indeed—especially to me, the non-European who is still in awe of such things even after eight years here.

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A network of narrow canals criss-crossing a section of town connects to the River Somme, which divides Amiens in half. Here, a canal flows along a street near the cathedral. It made me think of the film version of Girl with a Pearl Earring.

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Built remarkably quickly between 1220 and 1270, the Amiens Cathedral is the tallest complete cathedral in France (at 112 m/369 ft)  and the 19th largest cathedral in the world. It has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1981.

A documentary about this cathedral can be seen here.

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I didn’t take many photos inside (to see the interior, check the documentary linked to just above), but this enchanting play of stained-glass-filtered light and shadow deserved to be remembered.

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I also happened upon these three gilded feathers, which took my imagination to some fanciful places as I imagined cherub statues coming to life and flying around under the vaulted ceilings at night. Perhaps they soared a bit too enthusiastically and lost some plumage along the way.

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I am not overly fond of either heights or very narrow, endless stone stairs in a spiral configuration, but Birthday Guy is, so I indulged him and we went up the tower for some panoramic views of the city.

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There are about 300 steps up, in total. But don’t look down before you reach the top!

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Some people from bygone days (to whom the cathedral was already ancient) left names and dates on the staircase walls.

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Views from the first level. Already quite high enough for me… but there were still more steps to climb.

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At the very top, we walked around among the tower’s uppermost stone encrustations under the watchful eye of a guide. In any case, it would have been harder to fall from this level than from the lower (but still lethal) one.

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A view of Amiens and the River Somme.

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I had to admit the views were rather worth the stomach-fluttering climb up those steps (and the seemingly interminable descent).

Next, we moved on to what I knew would be the highlight of our visit to Amiens: Jules Verne‘s house! Although born in Nantes, the prolific and visionary proto-sci-fi author lived in this house with his family for eight years just before the turn of the century. Today, it is a museum honoring his life’s work.

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A globe structure sits atop the building’s tower in homage to his most famous work, Around the World in 80 Days (1873). In front of the home’s winter garden, an elegant Art Nouveau verrière stretches out to shield visitors from the elements.

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Beautiful tiles on the house’s façade featuring the typical colors and organic floral shapes of the art movement.

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The music room.

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An imposing fireplace in the dining room.

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Jules Verne’s own personal shoebutton hooks, nail buffer and… toothbrush?

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Another impossibly elegant room.

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A parlor with sofas that were graced by the bottoms of many famous Victorians, back in the day. George Sand was one of them, but I have forgotten the others.

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Copies of Verne’s writings on his desk.

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A recreation of the interior of one of Verne’s boats, which may have inspired the vessel featured in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1871).

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An undated letter accompanying the gift of a gold-handled walking stick from the Boys’ Empire League in England. My favorite part, from a description of how the funds to buy the gift were raised: “Boys are not much burdened with pocket money, as you know…”.

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A set of Around the World in 80 Days dessert plates! What I wouldn’t give to have one of these.

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Period Around the World in 80 Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea board games.

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Around the World in 80 Days trading cards.

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I couldn’t help taking a moment to admire these embroidery-upholstered chairs!

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Here, we have a framed section of some Around the World in 80 Days wallpaper from the time of the book’s first success. Who wouldn’t like to have a room papered with this?

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An 1881 essay titled Ten Hour Hunt, in which Verne describes the trials and tribulations of his first and only experience hunting. “There are some who do not care for hunters,” it begins, “and perhaps they are not totally wrong.” Verne was a visionary in the realm of science; perhaps his forward-thinking extended to other areas as well.

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A wheeled lobster with bat wings… or, alternatively, a model of one of Verne’s imagined flying machinges.

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Cross-section of a model of the rocket used to travel through the heavens in From the Earth to the Moon (1865). A top hat is a must when exploring space—especially if you expect to meet with high-ranking representatives of moon people. You’ll also be glad of the table lamps, wallpaper and velvet-upholstered chairs when they come round for tea.

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A poster advertising an 1892 theatrical production of From the Earth to the Moon in Reims. Those moon women look suspiciously corseted.

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Ten years later, cinematography pioneer Georges Méliès would make a silent film adaptation of the story. You can watch it here in a restored version with a wonderfully otherworldly 2012 soundtrack by French band Air.

Visiting this house made me realize I haven’t yet read much Jules Vernes at all. Only Journey to the Center of the Earth, ages ago, and in English! This lamentable oversight is something I hope to correct in the very near future. One book that I’m especially eager to read is Paris in the Twentieth Century. Written in 1863, its depiction of the dystopian world of 1960 was deemed too unbelievable by Verne’s publisher and so was never published during his life. It was finally released for the first time in 1994 and the predictions apparently proved remarkably prescient. Still waiting for the monorail at Bastille though…

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The end of the house tour. Time to head home!

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On our way back to the train station, I noticed this decidedly modern building, which provided a curious kind of contrast to all the 19th-century (and Victorian retrofuture) images I had just been steeping in. Also, it strangely reminded me of a cute United Nude shoe, which has nothing to do with anything else I’ve been talking about. 😉

But I digress. What I wanted to say, to conclude this post, is that Amiens is well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Paris for a longer stay or are just a huge fan or cathedrals, Jules Verne, or both! If you reserve your ticket a couple of weeks ahead of time, train fare is only 10 euros each way.

A visit to rural Burgundy

Those of you who follow my Instagram may have noticed that I recently went away for a short visit to the countryside. More specifically, I went to a tiny village called Les Deschamps in Burgundy, one of France’s winemaking regions. It’s about a half-hour away from the smallish city of Mâcon in east-central France, which itself is 70 km north of Lyon and 150 km west of Geneva, Switzerland. This is where my friend Yukiko (the one who taught me how to make that amazing ramen dish) and her boyfriend were staying temporarily while housesitting for some friends. As the first blossoms appeared on the trees and a definite hint of springtime began to infuse the air, they invited me (with the owners’ blessing) to come and spend a few days with them surrounded by nature. Living as I do in a city and with zero green things visible through my windows, I could not resist!

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You will undoubtedly remember how much I love traveling in Europe by train (less so in the US, but that’s a story for another time). The ride from Paris to the Mâcon-Loché TGV station took only an hour and a half, the perfect amount of time to read a few articles in the new Véganes magazine. My friends then picked me up and we headed for the house.

I was captivated by both the old-timey charm and immenseness of this home, which is composed of two wings each with two or three storeys and an uncountable number of rooms. For someone like me who lives in a tiny city apartment (frustratingly without even a closet or storage space), it was somewhat disorienting, but in a thrilling way, to suddenly be surrounded by so much space. For perspective, my entire apartment could have easily fit into this house’s combined kitchen and dining room. It was a nice change.

The owners are in the process of preparing the house for sale, so I of course began daydreaming of what it would be like to live there.

Here are a few shots of the exterior.

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I believe the plaque in the above photo means that one of the previous owners of the home won 1st prize for their Beaujolais. About 95% of the land in and surrounding this village is covered with grapevines. The rest is covered by roads and random grassy plots. You’ll see the vineyards in a moment—first, let’s take a peek inside the house. I didn’t take too many photos indoors, but here are a few of the details that caught my attention.

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A beautiful old rug…

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The guest bedroom I occupied, with its beautiful ceramic tile floor and a spacious built-in armoire that took my breath away (remember, I’m someone without a closet at home). All these vintagey details made my heart sing.

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Sésame would have liked this regal chair, which has a certain air de famille. He’s not big on traveling (or even leaving the apartment at all), so I left him in Paris with a mountain of dry food and a friend coming to check on him.

During the house tour, we took a quick look into the house’s attic, which was suitably timeworn and full of antique things. It’s mainly a finished attic, with a series of rooms that seem to have been used as bedrooms at some point. The patterns of the fading, crumbling wallpaper suggest that this continued up until about the 1950s or 60s. Indeed, stepping into this attic felt like entering a time portal back to another era. I think that if I were to buy this house, I might leave these attic rooms as is, to preserve this window onto the past.

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If these walls could talk, I wonder what tales they could tell, and how many years of life they have seen…

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After a very delicious lunch of spinach soup seasoned with cumin and accompanied by potato salad, green salad, whole-wheat bread and various homemade tapenades, we set out for a walk among the vineyards.

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The overcast sky and misty hilltops created an interestingly ominous mood, as if nature were not quite ready to let us enjoy this early bit of springtime. The moors of Wuthering Heights somehow came to mind, and rambling along the paths in spite of the slight chill in the air and the threat of rainfall became a defiant act of adventure.

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We happened upon this friendly horse in a nearby field. We weren’t sure what she was being kept “for” and speculated that it could be to pull a plow through the vineyards, but a neighbor later told us that tractors can do all of that these days, even on steep slopes.

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A bit later, the sun decided to poke its face through the clouds for a bit, allowing me to get some warmer shots.

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Looking back at the entrance to the tiny village, which is composed of only some 20 houses. You no sooner enter it by car than you go past the “leaving” sign, which is the same sign with a red cross through it.

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To my great delight, this house (which seems also to be a winery) had a miniature replica of it out in front, complete with real terra-cotta steps and the frame for a gate without any gate. The only difference between the two is the addition over the garage on the life-size one. Can you guess what this little house was doing there?

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That’s right! It’s the mailbox.

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I now have a new reason for not being able to wait to have a house of my own: to create a miniature version of it!

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Strolling down the village’s mostly empty streets, we happened upon this sociable orange fellow. Shortly after shooting us this rather grumpy look, he flopped down on his back to show his readiness for belly scratches.

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The next day, after spending the afternoon working on our respective freelance projects, we began to prepare the evening meal. A neighbor was invited to join us, so we wanted to be sure it was extra-nice. Yukiko made pasta with a homemade red sauce and a vegetable soup for the starter (they were divine).

No ideas for dessert that matched our somewhat limited ingredient supplies were coming easily to mind. But we did have a lot of bananas, and I recalled a photo of a dessert with sliced bananas on top that I had seen somewhere in the meanders of social media. Chocolate was another thought, since we had cocoa powder, so we decided to combine the two. It was something of an experiment, as I had never actually baked anything with bananas in it like this, and we were also working with certain restrictions because we had less sugar than we initially thought and no vanilla. But the main ingredients were there (whole-wheat flour, baking powder, cocoa powder and oil), and with the addition of some chocolate chips, the outward appearance at least was quite promising.

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To our relief and satisfaction, it tasted pretty good too! The banana chunks inside the cake (barely visible in this shot) helped add sweetness and are probably a good solution for using even less sugar. I may recreate the recipe for a future post if people are interested.

We asked the neighbor about the area’s special attractions, to see if there was something we could do the next day before my departure. He told us there was a wine museum nearby, but also mentioned a rocky hill where some prehistoric remains had been discovered in the late 19th century. There was a small museum of prehistory there, he said, and a hiking trail. As we’d all been on winery tours before and are not much into wine these days, the choice was clear: the prehistory place!

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La Roche de Solutré is located in the municipality of Solutré-Pouilly (you might recognize the second part of this name—this is indeed where Pouilly-Fuissé wine is produced). The limestone escarpment visible for miles around is famous both as a geological curiosity and as the site where, in 1866, vestiges of Upper Paleolithic homes, tombs and animal bones had been discovered. The site has even lent its name to a span of time in the Paleolithic era, the Solutrean period, and a controversial hypothesis suggesting that Europeans, not Native Americans crossing over from Asia, were in fact the first humans to settle the Americas (!).

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At the foot of the rock, built right into the hill, is a small bunker-like museum of prehistory. Staffed by a very pleasant receptionist, the museum offers a number of artefacts inside glass cases, an audioguide in several languages and a series of short films showing excavations over the years. There’s an outdoor area behind the museum where you can stroll among some orchids if you’re there at the right time of year (we weren’t, but we didn’t mind).

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After the museum, we set off on the hike up to the top of the rock. As we climbed higher and higher, we enjoyed increasingly beautiful views of the countryside below, all vineyards and cute houses. They looked more and more like a toy train town as we ascended. These photos sadly do them no type of justice.

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I’m such a city-dweller that I cannot even guess at the names of the plants we walked among as we made our way up and down the paths, but the air was scented with a lush fragrance of fresh balsamy vegetation that did me a world of good.

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The view from the very top, more or less. So beautiful. The top is as pointy and slippery as it looks from down below, by the way, and is actually a bit dangerous if someone is not completely looking where they’re going (a sheer drop on one side, and no guard rails on this kind of thing). Don’t let that stop you from visiting, but be a bit careful if you do.

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Solutré is also famous because former French president François Mitterrand (1916-1996) made a vow at the end of the Second World War to climb it once every year, around Pentecost, and kept this promise from 1946 until 1995, the year before his death. The hard-to-read monument above testifies to his pilgrimages. In this video, you can see some parts of his 1976 climb. Note that he is climbing the very steep path; today there is also a longer, much more gradually ascending path for less avid hikers and those of us who arrive without the right shoes.

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The rock viewed from another side.

Soon after we descended, it was time for me to get on another train and return to Paris, where an impatient Sésame awaited. It was a very relaxing and re-energizing little trip, exactly the kind I’ve been telling myself I should make more often. 🙂

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.