Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Dénouement de L'été Parisien

The weather in Paris has been embracing the final days of summer, holding onto that last gasp of temperate air before propelling forward into the potential doldrums of European winter... Winter... Something I can pseudo-tolerate through the holiday season after which I submit to anguish via its lamentable clutches. But in the meantime, I have found as much reason as possible to frolic in the fading glow of festivity as the fall proceeds to sweep in. I have a notion that we won't be seeing much of the fall, since the leaves have already turned and are carelessly detaching from the trees while the temperature remains in the mid-70's. (Sorry, I just can't go metric yet!) With the school year already fast underway, Parisians continue to cling to their weekends outdoors and I was much the same. On Saturday, I had a few students in the morning but since I was just finishing up my last feeble attempts at detox, I spent a lovely hour lounging in a nearby park and reading a book before heading home and relaxing in my abode for the evening. 

On Sunday, however, I made definitive plans to go picnicking in a more prominent park so that I could really feel the Parisian spirit while the weather remains fine. One of the larger parks in Paris is called Buttes Chaumont, which is in the northeastern area of the city. I went there once three years ago because I was told it was such a delightful spot, but was only able to stay for a brief time as it was one of my last minute stops before heading back to the U.S.! This time I wanted to at least spend more time there, though picnicking is certainly not synonymous with exploring. I met my two American friends, and a new French friend who I invited so he could practice his English skills plus he doesn't live too far from the park. The park has many steep hills, so we set up camp on a small peak overlooking the lower lanes and created our feast. It was a lovely evening of wine, cheese, and various nibbles. We did manage to speak in French for part of the time, a good workout for us Americans. I made my way home slightly more "pompette" than I had intended, but thrilled with the glimmering haze of summertime in my soul.

Monday brought back in some of the rains that one would normally expect from the autumn change, and while my evening plans were not what I would consider typically summer, I do think the hijinks are worth noting. I met some of my friends from the Sorbonne for drinks at a Scottish pub near Saint-Michel. It was a Monday night so we weren't expecting rowdy crowds and were mainly looking forward to a night of catching up. Another thing to note? Cocktails in Paris are almost ALWAYS expensive, so when there's a sign behind the bar for €5 whiskey sours it just seems like a good idea to roll with the punches. Circa our second cocktail, the Irish bartender came over and borderline pleaded with us to take part in the pub quiz they were going to hold since there weren't many people around to play. It was a music pub quiz, so we had to listen to songs and name artists or titles, etc. About halfway through the game, we realized that our knowledge of American pop culture was coming in quite handy since we collectively knew about 90% of the answers without breaking a sweat. In the end, we won by a landslide, but not without incurring the wrath of several French folk round the pub who felt we had an unfair advantage. I would like to suggest it was because we are awesome, not being we are American.

That being said, as we sipped our overly sweet and acidic pitcher of whiskey sours on the house, I was reminded of summer days gone by. Perhaps we are saying our final farewell to the idyllic weather for a time, but cheers to the seasons and many more to come.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Interdit InterDIET

Living in Paris means that you are surrounded by a culture where food and wine is worshipped as some of the most important things on earth. It also means I am surrounded by people slash women specifically who look like they eat nothing but do in fact consume the mountains of baguette you are offered with any meal, even if you have a breakfast plate of croissant and baguette. There's always more baguette... Always. That is not to say that all French people are slim, nor does it mean that  all French people house the entire basket of bread on the table. But it's an important part of life from breakfast to lunch to the "goûter" that almost everyone indulges in by way of afternoon snack... Throw in some elevensies and they might as well be hobbits... Except that Parisians rarely resemble short, plump, happy-go-lucky folk heralding from the Shire. Instead, they embody the slim, polished, austere demeanor of the Elves. But enough LOTR metaphor, I digress...

The point being that after months of wine and cheese and baguette washed down with a big ole serving of Eastern European meat and dumplings, my poor little body was ready for a bit of a well-needed detox. I found a 7 day plan online that I thought would suit me, partly because it involved foods that didn't make me gag and partly because the general ingredients were things I can easily acquire in Paris. The idea was to basically reset my system a little so that I could end the week with a taste for healthier things and having gotten used to a slightly better regime. 

Of course the first three days were pretty gruesome. When told to eat primarily fruits or vegetables, I tend to therefore not eat enough of anything. This is the main reason why I was in such an extra special mood when I went to hear some live French music earlier in the week. However, as the days sallied forth, I felt increasingly better, really embracing the results of a diet without most of the usually disarming suspects. That is, of course, when ultimate temptation walked through the door...

I was invited to dinner at a wine bar in central Paris. Though I told my friend who extended the invite that I wouldn't be able to eat or drink, I promised I would come and sip some sparking water in unison because it was meant to be a ladies night in support of a future challenge. I ate the appropriate dinner before I went and had every intention of keeping to my plan. After an hour and a half of waiting for a table, however, my resolve was quickly deteriorating. As food was parading past me, smells were enveloping me in delicious fumes, and the laughs were rollicking left and right, I finally caved and had some wine. I didn't eat anything, mainly because even if I had wanted to the prices were a bit too outlandish for my pocket book at present. But I did imbibe in the ritual of refreshment because that is truly the Parisian way. You can eat healthy, you can refrain from going overboard, but you cannot live in Paris and escape wine and eclairs for very long. The point of course being that when in France you must the embrace culture, and spending an entire evening staring at food and wine without partaking is not only difficult, it's downright against the laws of decency.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Musical Interlude

The spirit of music has been abounding lately, as I have found myself back in the swing of listening and playing alike. Last week I began guitar lessons once again, after several years of putting it on the back burner and only pulling out my, one of many guitars I've bought and gotten rid of over the years, I finally took the plunge and found a lovely Irishman who teaches in English from his home on the east side of Paris. The good news is that, while always a petulant student at heart, I've learned to be much less stuck in my head during lessons. The bad news? I'm still suffering from lack of callouses as my fingers attempt to play on a cheap guitar I bought in Paris over the spring. Unfortunately, I was unable to bring my nicer guitar from NYC when I first came here because the cost for extra baggage was astronomical compared to what I actually paid for it. I hope to retrieve it when I'm home for the holidays this year, but in the meantime, I have my sturdy and stubborn substitute guiding me to musical magic, Maximus. Yup, that's his name... 

Meanwhile, last night I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to a concert at the Olympia, which is a famous music venue in Paris. I went there a few months ago with Hot Blonde Cousin when she visited, and once before when in Paris almost three years ago. This time I was invited by a new friend and language partner who had won some free tickets last minute. As the bands playing were all French, it was to be a learning experience as well as an entertaining one. The only regrettable part of this evening is that I am currently participating in a bit of a 7 Day Detox (more on that in a future post). But as many people may know, I don't do particularly well when deprived of food... Cranky, bratty, irrational, testy, bitchy, childish... all of these adjectives may describe the repercussions when trying my patience sans food. I give my friend some gold stars for not smacking me in the face.

On the other hand, it was a fascinating journey through 4 different French bands, currently playing the Parisian circuit. The first performer was a female singer/pianist, using her husky whisper to create an ambiance of mystery, and let's just say it... pretentiousness. I was told the lyrics were rather poetic, but I tragically couldn't really understand most of them in her style. The second band commenced their act with abnormal amounts of technical difficulties, leading my friend to believe that it was part of their gimmick. They were in fact disarmingly unconcerned by having to begin songs 4 times before getting it right, and since the lead singer had a fetish with throwing his instruments on the ground, I am tempted to believe him. In addition to which, they apparently sang a song all about Steve Jobs, but since I couldn't understand them either because their voices were all muffled and low, this piece was lost on me. After that, a massive band appeared for the 3rd act, not only involving several guitars and drums, but a cello and trumpet to boot! I wasn't overly keen on their musical stylings, I think the lead singer barked like a dog a couple of times, but I was a big fan of the cello. Finally, there was a performer that many people in the audience seemed to be anxiously awaiting. A girl called "Christine and the Queens". I found this performance simultaneously intriguing and annoying. This small, awkward looking white girl with a brassy belt I will say, was flanked on either side by two black men who were really stellar dancers. She sort of reminded me of a mix between Annie Lennox and Beyoncé, quirky and serious but then trying to be hip hop and cool. Apparently she considers her genre "freakpop", inspired by drag queen culture. I felt myself inspired by her moxy while also not having any idea what she was trying to accomplish. She also sang way too many over-emotive Celine Dion-esque ballads... Enough said. 

Either way, it was a lovely evening of modern French music culture and a delight to be frolicking in musicdom as I look forward to working on my own opuses soon.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Happy Talk Like A Pirate Day!

Pirating Through Europe means a life of fancy free,
From arrrrs and swash and buckles to the tricorns worn at sea.

A daily dose of grog is not the only thing at hand,

For wine and all the others flow so quickly on the land.

It stands to reason running round the decks of any ship,

Whilst drowning in the drink could end in falling from a slip.

But never fear for piracy is unexpected bliss,

Each brand new port brings stories of a pillage or a kiss.

The victor of the spoils need not brag about his fate,

Especially when wenching, not a gentleman to date.

Beware the lady pirates who will snuggle in your bed.

But when betrayed in battle find they slit your pretty head.

From country onto country snagging bounty from the shore,

Great piracy abandons life of melancholy bore.

So scallywags and scurvy mates be sure to wander wild,

When taking to the oceans, often dancing like a child.

Today we celebrate pirates from Prague to Montpellier,

From castle tops of Europe, aye avast it's Pirate's Day!

(And for the uninformed landlubbers who don't fully comprehend this momentous day... Walk the plank!!! Or just read up here http://www.talklikeapirate.com)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Prague Promenade

Our final full day in Prague was one of those ultimate tourist experiences. Despite having had quite a full day of sightseeing and partying the day before, we created a jam-packed schedule for ourselves, beginning with a tour of the Jewish Quarter. We had heard this was a good cultural thing to explore, as there are many beautiful synagogues and cemeteries to explore, though of course the old Jewish ghettos are no longer in existence here. It was admittedly a long tour and the guide, while incredibly knowledgable, was not incredibly engaging. I did realize that the group was mainly comprised of Jewish people, interested in their history around the world. This did not make the tour any less interesting to me but did make me realize that there is so much to the legacy that I will never truly understand, having been raised a Roman Catholic. My sister, however, was raised Jewish, so I was exposed to the religion and culture from a young age and felt happy to know as much as I did while we walked through the different spots on our tour. The architecture was masterful and the impact of a wall filled with the names of those Czech citizens lost in the Holocaust was profound. (A bit of explanation if you're interested: http://www.jewishmuseum.cz/en/a-ex-pinkas.htm) Because the tour guide was a bit insecure, it did last much longer than necessary but overall I was pleased with how much I learned.

From days bygone to Bohemian beer, we had just about an hour to grab a quick lunch (imperative to our afternoon plans) before hopping on our next adventure... a true Prague necessity... A Beer Tour. This was another recommendation from cute Australian tour guide in Vienna, something that I'm surprised we actually didn't come to on our own while planning the trip. Just like the Austrians are proud and protective of their wine, Czech natives live and breath for their beer. It's a true staple of the culture, something no one would bat an eye at if seen drinking a bit on the way to work in the morning. It's not about the alcohol, it's about the taste and Prague is quite a mecca. We ended up being the only two participants on this tour, making it slightly less ridiculous but certainly more informative. Our guide was a young Irishman who knows quite a lot about his craft. We tasted about 11 different types of beer, stopping at three different breweries around the city. Some of the beers were flavored like banana, cherry, or nettle! We also tasted what is supposedly the strongest beer in Prague X33, which has an alcohol content of 12.6%. While the tour was really a great time, I think my body decided it was pretty much done with beer at this point. As we walked around after the tour in search of a quick bite to eat before our evening engagement, I felt increasingly sick, similar to the effects of food poisoning... Perhaps it was beer poisoning? Perhaps it was extreme dehydration? Perhaps it was the fact that I had been partying daily for the past week? One can never tell, but I was not in top form.

Luckily, our final plans for the day were calmer than most. We had purchased tickets to see the Black Light Theatre of Prague, what promised to be sort of a modern dance performance very popular around the city. Though I was rather uncomfortable via beer sickness, I did enjoy the spectacle of costumes and dancers brought to life by the effects of a black light. There was a mime act in between the dance numbers that was a bit too cheesy for my taste, however. Two guys and a girl playing the cliché story of a police officer consistently thwarted by the hijinks of two wily thieves who all engage in merrymaking slapsticks along the way. It was tolerably amusing the first three times they came out on stage then became progressively more irritating, especially as all I really wanted to do was eat some food and go to bed.

Still, it was a truly satisfying day in this magical city. We decided to hang our party shoes up for the evening and relish in the aftermath of a day filled with accomplishment. The next morning we woke up feeling much better, had our final breakfast at our lovely hotel, and hit the town for some last minute shopping and promenade through the streets. We did a lot of walking in Prague, more than either of the other two cities, and we were very pleased to have had such lovely weather to accompany us. As we sipped our aperol spritzes in view of the Astronomical clock while a jazz band played in the background, we said our farewell to Eastern Europe and clinked our glasses to an amazing holiday.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Prague Birthday Princess

September 4, 1980... The day unicorns and merbabies danced in unison while mythical beings bowed their heads around the universe to commemorate the birth of a true soul-sprite... Me... Sure, perhaps it wasn't quite that ostentatious but it was certainly magical. And so to celebrate my 34th year on Earth, I decided I must needs be globetrotting as I so love to do. I had been told that Prague was beautiful, filled with castles, and with a great night life, so it seemed a delightful choice for birthday splendour.

While our Prague hotel tragically didn't have the chocolate and coconut cakes I became so devoted to in Vienna, young Cousin with her keen eye for spirits brought over some sparkling rosé to inaugurate the beginning of my celebratory day. From there, we made it our business to see as much of Prague as we could, specifically heading toward the Castle district. Our neighborhood was a small bit further from the main attractions than we had originally thought, but it gave us reason to insert a whole lot of exercise into our daily regime. As we got closer to the river, the avenues and architecture became more and more enchanting, opening up onto a dazzling view of the famed Charles Bridge. It really is a miraculous feeling to stroll across such a stunning pedestrian walkway, lined with artists, musicians, and tourists galore. One of our first stops after the bridge was The Lennon Wall, a tribute to the words and ideals of John Lennon and The Beatles. Apparently during the 1980's this wall became a refuge for the feelings of those combating the reign of Communism. For me, it was not only beautiful but a reminder of one of my greatest idols and the messages he often put forth. Alongside many others throughout the years, I signed the wall with a quick message for the ages. Eventually, because we decided to skip taking the funicular up the steep incline to the peaks of Prague, we had quite a day of baking in the sun. Along the way we saw the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, Petrin Lookout Tower (a miniature version of the Eiffel Tower), Prague Castle (of course!) and the Prague Astronomical Clock, amongst many other things. After a day of such rigorous tourism, we felt we quite deserved an evening of birthday absurdity.

As I generally feel the need for a change of costume before the evening begins, a birthday being no exception, we went back to the hotel to primp and prepare. Quite happily, we discovered upon entering our room that the hotel had provided a complimentary bottle of sparkling rosé as a birthday gift! While we put on our requisite ball gowns we drank bubbly and anticipated a fantastic evening out. First stop? A castle and garden adjoining restaurant I had found on google and made a birthday reservation for before we left on our trip. We really had no idea what to expect, but were very pleased when we discovered a lovely setup for our dinner. The food was actually one of the best meals I had all week, veal cheeks so tender you could use a spoon, the most delicious dumplings, and a perfect red wine to accompany. The younger Hot Blonde Cousin treated the older and I was very appreciative of such a birthday party gal to spend the day with. We had reserved tickets at a jazz club for after dinner, which turned into a rather hilarious excursion. While the band was really great and truly talented, I'm pretty sure the lead singer actually fancied himself Frank Sinatra reincarnate. Or maybe more like a clone of Wayne Newton. Either way, he had quite a personality. Since I am not one to be fooled in a crowd, when he tried to croon some ridiculous love ballad while sitting across from me at our table, I clearly gave some attitude right on back. My dearest Cousin was able to whisper that it was my birthday, so not long after I got a roaring rendition of Happy Birthday Angela for the whole venue to share. They were supposed to have three sets, but we skipped out after the second so we could get to our final stop of the day before I succumbed to wine euphoria.

The Propaganda Pub. A perfect place for partying in Prague. Not only were there posters and logos and all sorts of appropriate propaganda parading around the bar, but there was also a communist map lighting up the ceiling. It was a dark, dive-like bar, but the best part was their range of flavored vodkas, from peanut butter to bounty bar to jalapeño and many many more. I ordered a peanut butter shot myself and drank it as I would a milkshake, sipping it for far too long because it was just that thick. And since two Hot Blonde Cousins simply cannot last long in a bar before being pounced upon, a young gent soon found his way to our side. Of course the very best part of this scenario was that while we knew he was far younger than we were, it wasn't until he said he was a whopping 19 years old that we realized just what a wee small baby he was. Hilariously, he had assumed we were both in our early twenties... So... Funny... Can't... Stop... But seriously, quite a confidence boost on your 34th, however wild his imaginings. It was a lovely and fulfilling birthday, just one of a week's long worth of amazing experiences abroad.