Monday, January 25, 2010

Who needs sleep?

Most of the time, it is awesome to live within a 10 minute walking distance of the city center. It's easy to meet up with people, get emergency chocolate, and decide to see a movie 10 minutes before it starts.
Other times, you wonder exactly why a full choir has installed itself right outside your window at 10pm. Yes, at about 10:00 on Sunday night, I heard singing. My next door neighbor had had her television on at an ungodly volume, so initially it sounded like she had switched from the murder movie of the week to the Mass channel. Then I realized it was coming from the other side of my room, the window side. The choir proceeded to sing church-style arrangements until nearly midnight. It would have been nice, but it was late and kept me from concentrating on my lesson plans. Towards the end it sounded like some of the audience got a little rowdy: there was yelling and what may have been bawdy lyrics sung back to the choir. Then there were some very strange noises that, for some reason, made me think of a sacrifical gang initiation.
I can have an overactive imagination, though.

Anyway, it suffices to say that while I am not one to oppose free and public arts events, I will always oppose them if it interferes with what I believe to be a reasonable sleeping schedule.

My frustration was probably magnified by the fact that I have had very few nights of decent sleep since I returned from vacation. I have a new neighbor in the room above me. The first week that she was here it sounded like she was rolling her suitcase around her room (which is not exactly a large space) beginning at about midnight every night. She also likes to slam her shutters open and closed about 15 times perday.
Actually, at the moment it's 8:30 in the morning, and she might be hammering.
My next door neighbor has also taken to late-night movie watching in 2010. Last week I finally knocked on her door at about 2:00 in the morning, after which she did kindly switch it off.
But, I have to ask, what is wrong with these people? Am I the only one that likes to have more than 5 hours of sleep before work?
I will also mention here that these are not French girls, they are international students. So, this complaint cannot be with any of the authorities who pay me. I do need to complain to the foyer; they might stick a note under everyone's door.

All of this reminds me of the Barenaked Ladies' song, Who needs sleep?, which I never realized features such a prominently awesomely 90s flute solo. Ha, beautiful!

New Year. New Look

So, I made some pretty obvious changes to my blog. I might continue to mess with it over the next week or so, but just so everyone knows: This is still Al Abroad, and it will continue to be Al Abroad. So if you are still interesting in my European Adventures/Maladventures, keep reading!

The blue background just got too busy for me. If you know anything about HTML, changing backgrounds, making pretty colors, please please please tell me. I know nothing about this, and my blog would probably benefit from fidgeting. A lot.

Here's a picture from Amsterdam:

we can edit blogs, yes we can!!

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Does anyone have any yeas or nays against changing the background?
I'm tired of it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Teach, eat, sleep, repeat

I have been eating like the very hungry caterpillar!

After three weeks of composing an entry on Food both in my head and in a draft on here, I've decided to go ahead and post part of it and do another one as ideas occur.

Food has been on my brain a lot lately; I've just been really hungry. Not sure why. Perhaps the two main reasons are:
1. I just read Julia Child's My Life in France
2. I made my kids watch The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Actually, this morning, my last two classes watched the movie. I have been sick and even missed work yesterday. I just found out, however, that Luc DANIEL (conseilleur pédagogique) and Lydie MORANGE (resident crazy french lady at the inspection academique who is most of the time incredibly useless and waited until december to provide useful information about registering with the office of immigration, getting social security, and other slightly necessary to-dos) will observe my classes next week at Marcel Pagnol, so it seemed best that I should work this Friday in order to make sure those kids can say some English words come next Thursday.
Anywho, my morning school is Jules Verne, which is also, I have to say, my least favorite. Why? The kids are pretty bad. They talk constantly; they don't listen. They've probably retained the least of all my kids at all my schools.
This morning, however, my least favorite class (M. LeCompte's) at my least favorite school surprised the hell out of me. They remembered the words for fruit that we have been doing. They watched the movie with rapt attention and responded when I paused and asked them to repeat what the narrator was saying en Anglais!! It was just great. After the movie, with just a little prompting, they raised their hands and told me the story as it progressed. And they remembered it! It really made my day...
...especially since I've been run down and tired since last Friday, which finally resulted in a sore throat and slight fever this Tuesday. After lots of rest on Wednesday and Thursday, I'm feeling better, although my throat's still sore, and I'm still a bit tired. I really can't imagine being a full-time elementary school teacher. At least in France, it's pretty acceptable to call in sick. They don't seem to be as caught up in working-at-all-costs. Rather, if you're ill, you should take the time off to rest and keep others well too.

Soo, On y va! La nourriture! (Let's go! The food!)

I recently finished reading Julia Child's book My Life in France, which my mom sent me for Christmas. The book is fabulous; it's well-written and interesting, and it paints a beautiful portrait of France, particularly from the culinary point of view. Additionally, Julia Child herself is fascinating. She loved food but had no real background in it before coming to France. She enrolled in the Cordon Bleu in Paris and learned the basics of cooking, from there she took it upon herself to sample and create anything and everything having to do with French cooking. But above all, the best thing about Mrs. Child was her attitude. Even in her book, written in her 90s, she positively exudes life. She was passionate about food and had unabated energy. The book is worth reading simply for her outlook.

The book also made me very hungry and wish I had Julia Child around to cook French cuisine for me. Unfortunately, I don't, and I can't really afford to eat out every night in order to sample the minutiae of French food. I do, however, have some commentary on food and grocery shopping and just plain old shopping.

Here are some moments as a eater and shopper in France:

1. Cheese -- one of the first things I bought upon my return to France was Camembert cheese. Camembert is one of those cheeses that takes a little getting used to, especially if your idea of cheese is mild American cheddar (or worse, American cheese). It makes your whole refrigerator stink and has a funny-textured rind. But it is absolutely delicious.
In France, cheese is consumed after the main course, usually with fruit. Most cheese that you buy even suggests that you remove it from the fridge at the start of the meal in order for it to warm to room temperature and thus reach its flavor-potential.
I'm trying to buy a new cheese on each grocery expedition. It's difficult not to buy the same things that I know that I love, but living here is an adventure. And, yes, even buying cheese qualifies as an adventure. I have no real basis for selection, so I just find one that says "Special Offer!" and go for it. Recently this ignorant purchasing procured Saint Marcellin, a cheese which came in a package as two small 80g rounds. It appeared to be a softer cheese, but I didn't know how soft! Each round was in its own plastic ramekin, not just nice packaging, but a preventative measure against the mess it makes. At room temperature Saint Marcellin practically melts. It's quite good and very creamy, but rich. Who knows if I know what I'm doing, but I ate it with bread, which was delicious. The strangest cheese I've tried recently, also on sale at Carrefour, is Gouda with Cumin seed in it. I'm pretty sure it's actually a Dutch cheese, but it's pretty good. The cumin gives the cheese an interesting kind of round spicy taste. I don't have any kind of master palate, so that's the best description I can give!
Interesting fact: there are traditionally 4 or 5 hundred types of French cheeses, but to-date one can find over 1000!
2. Chocolate - It is a fact, not an opinion, that chocolate in Europe is better than chocolate in the United States. Now, many of you who know me well know that I do not like chocolate. And it's true that when I was a kid and in school, I didn't like chocolate. It gave me headaches and left a bitter taste in my mouth. My mom and sister LOVE chocolate, but I never really knew what all the fuss was about. I did like Reeses and Snickers, usually because of the ingredients other than chocolate. Now, I'm about to sound like a snob, but bear with me: I love chocolate in Europe. In fact, around November, I started to crave it like a crazy person. I actually bought a bar of chocolate when I went grocery shopping. I don't think I've ever in my entire life bought a bar of chocolate. I'm serious. I went through that bar and bought another. What was wrong with me?? It did taste better, but I've never been big on sweets in general. It was a mystery.
Then I went to Germany and hung out with Franzi to whom I mentioned my bizarre cravings. According to her, a lot of people crave chocolate around November because they start missing the sun. The chocolate gives you the endorphins that help you feel better when you're lacking sunlight. I consider this a full endorsement of eating as much chocolate as I like. She's right, though, and the lack of sun is totally depressing.

3. Fruit - Produce, due to our shrinking world, seems to be pretty universal. But I've had the opportunity to try some things here that I may not have tried at home.
Most boringly, apples. At home, every fall, I look forward to McIntosh Apples. Not the computer, though I love my mac too... McIntosh Apples are also a real fruit, and one of my favorite. Wikipedia says they originated in Canada. They're small, red, and crispy. The insides are very white, and McIntosh have a sweet tartness. Delicious. This fall, I discovered the European near-equivalent, Elstar. The texture is very similar, although the skin has more green in it, and they might be a little sweeter. They were so good that I kept buying them past season, which resulted in some very disappointing lunches.
Franzi has introduced me to a couple fruits that probably exist at home, but I would never think to buy and try them. One of these she called a "Sharon" fruit, which took me over a year and a half to identify as a Persimmon. Both names are nice, and perhaps you've tried it. It's very sweet and has a really strange texture: it's kind of like a very firm tomato. Also, I just read that there is medical precaution against eating the fruit unripened, apparently it can
"contain the soluble tannin, shibuol, which, upon contact with a weak acid, polymerizes in the stomach and forms a gluey coagulum that can affix with other stomach matter. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy notes that consumption of persimmons has been known to cause bezoars that require surgery in over 90% of cases." Interesting. haha.
The second fruit was something I ate over Christmas at the Roth's; it is called Physalis fruit. It is small with a husk and also kind of looks like a tomato, a orange cherry tomato. It's sweet, kind of like a berry. I also bought some when I was in the Netherlands, and we maturely referred to them as the Syphilis fruit.
physalis fruit

4. The French celebrate Epiphany on January 6 with a cake called gallette des rois, king cake. Like the King Cakes during Mardi Gras, there is a small trinket inside and whoever receives that piece is king for the day. I guess I should say the Mardi Gras cake is like French gallette, surely the Louisianan tradition comes from the French, non? Mme. Goupille, whom I think I am allowed to call by her first name, Geraldine, made one for Epiphany and brought it to Marcel Pagnol. It was flaky like a pastry and had a kind of almond paste in the middle; it was, of course, buttery and delicious. It was also a mess; I struggled not to spill any crumbs and watched in sheer astonishment as none of the female teachers dropped a single flake of the cake! However, the men were not so neat, and I was glad because I made a little bit of a mess. Just a little.

That's all on food for now. It's the weekend, and I plan to do a lot of sleeping. My body is still telling me it's not entirely well, which is a shame since I just got back into the habit of running... c'est la vie!

Oh, and a final moment in the life a Teachair:

I mentioned that I missed the first Monday of school after winter vacation. The next day, some of my kids were asking where I had been. J'avais mal à la tête - I had a headache, I said. One audacious little CE1 at Jacques Prévert (who, I will add, never NEVER pays attention, at all.) said to me Quand on a mal à la tête, on doit aller à l'école - When you have a headache, you have to go to school. I didn't really know what to say back to him, so I just told him to stop standing in his chair, which is what he was doing. Oh, children.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Trains, planes, and automobiles pt III [i need to get on with the new year, huh?]

(another of E's pics, that's her and victor on the evening of the 30th; when we saw it during the day time, there were a million people all over, so it was impossible to get a picture without someone else in it. we beat the system.)

Before I begin the last part of my trip, I have to tell you about the weird bus ride and old lady SMACKDOWN I witnessed on the bus today.
I boarded the number 4 bus back to my bus stop. I walked through the entire bus, where there were approximately 6 seats available, but, due to crotchety old French ladies, I could not sit down. For some reason -- and this is almost only older women, men and students are normal about it -- older women sit only on the aisle seat, which prevents other people from sitting in the window seat. It's annoying, and when you look at them like, hi so sorry to inconvenience you but i'd like to sit down, they only stare coldly back at you. So, I made my way to the very back back seat where I had to sit by a strange man. Another thing about these crotchety ladies: (I realize this represents only portion of old French ladies, there's a large portion of perfectly amicable women who smile and move over, or get up so you can sit on the inside) the crotchety ones are terribly unapologetic. They'll push you over to get a good seat and whack you with a cane to get off the bus first.
The 4's route has recently changed a little due to tramway construction in the city, so I didn't notice when he went the old way, rather than the new way. Neither did anyone else, I imagine, just until the point when Mr. Bus driver swerved around a roundabout and went back in the direction we came from. We all kind of looked around -- by this point one crotchety lady had gotten up to get ready to get off the bus and I had taken her seat. I wasn't too worried about his crazy driving because I got out of work a little early and was up for an adventure.
Anyway, Mr. Bus driver got back on route and picked up some people at stop. Then, we were riding along Foch, crazily swerving bus all but forgotten, when a man who looked like he was probably a drunk boarded the bus. He was old and had a red face and dirty looking brown hair. He kind of stumbled on the bus and fell this way and that until he sat down, across from another crotchety old lady. The old lady got up at the next stop, and I'm not sure what happened, but it looked like the drunk was trying to help her. She had a cane. He kind of grabbed her arm and pushed her toward the door, but by the time she had shaken him off of her, the door had started to close. She pushed the button, but it wouldn't work.
"La PORTE!!" she yelled at Mr. Bus driver. "La PORRRTE!!" (la porte = the door)
The bus driver said something that I couldn't hear; I may have caught the words deux fois. Maybe he was trying to say he had pushed the button two times. I dunno.

Well, he did stop the bus, but this other old lady who I had assumed was another crotchety old lady, as she was sitting in an aisle seat with no one next to her, said to the first lady, "C'est pas difficile à dire s'il vous plaît!" (It's not too hard to say please.) I was like yeah! crotchety old lady #2, you tell her! She kind of repeated it to herself, and the first crotchety old lady got off the bus very huffily, and everything carried on as usual. It was a sight.

So, Amsterrrdahm Centrrraal:
In Dutch, there's a kind of roll-y "r" sound you're supposed to make. Victor told us about this at some point. But, a couple days earlier, on my train to Amsterdam from Köln, the conductor said everything in three languages: German, Dutch, and English. And every time he said the Dutch bit, he rolled his Rs in the most extravagant manner, so we all laughed whenever he would say Amsterdam Central, because it sounded like Amsterrrdahm Centrrraal!

So after the trip of a museum, Electric Lady Land, we were supposed to meet another friend of mine, Florie, for dinner. I met Florie when I studied in Lille, but we were having a hell of time getting in touch. I kept losing my signal, and my phone died. So I sent her Victor's number, and we went into a bar and had a couple of beers and played pool, only to discover that Victor didn't have a signal the whole time we were there. Luckily, I called her as she was boarding a train back to her parents'. She hopped off, and we waited in the main square for her. Meanwhile Victor's friend K tried to convince us that he knew about this awesome restaurant not too far away. "Convince" because he couldn't remember the name or what kind of food it served, and while he claimed he did know where it was, we couldn't help but remember our 40 minute out-of-the-way walk to Electric Lady Land. As we were waiting, a homeless looking lady did convince us to give her change for something or another.
Florie found us, and we decided to give K's suggestion a go and headed toward a side street. We found ourselves outside a standard-looking pub-ish type place, and Florie thought it was cool because she had wanted to take us somewhere nearby. We went in and up and found a cozy table for 5.

Then I had one of the best meals I've had in Europe.

Four of the five of us ordered chicken skewers covered in peanut sauce. It came with a side salad and shared fries. It was delicious. Among the many interesting facts that I read in my Let's Go Amsterdam travel book was a sidebar about Indonesian food in the Netherlands. The short version: due to Dutch colonialism, there is awesome Indonesian food in the Netherlands. We weren't at an Indonesian restaurant, but it was tasty and totally worth the €10ish it cost. We had a nice time discussing whether or not prostitutes are paid enough. Florie had to catch a train back home, so she headed out. The restaurant had board games, so we attempted Trivial Pursuit in Dutch for about 30 seconds before switching to Jenga.

(Picture courtesy of the lovely Elvynia! don't want to be too narcissistic, but I thought it was a good one.)

It had been a lovely, if not totally packed, day in Amsterdam. So after a little Jenga, we braved the cold back to the car. Back at the apartment, we blasted the heat and played some Uno before hitting the sack. One thing I haven't mentioned: I had this terrific sleeping bag in Baarn. I guess it was Victor's family's arctic camping sleeping bag of awesomeness. As long as I kept my entire body within its confines, I slept well and warmly. I almost stole it. Almost.

On the 31st we slept in. Our goal for the day: buy chocolate. We weren't really looking for Dutch chocolate in particular, just chocolate. I had noticed a recent surge in my craving chocolate (from zero to all the time) and had been given the okay by Franziska (to be discussed in a future entry) to eat it constantly when I was in Germany. So Victor, Elvynia, and I finally rolled out the door around 3pm to enjoy our last hour of sunlight (sunlight-ish, it was very overcast) of 2009. We went to the grocery store in Baarn where we sipped on free coffee like real Dutch people. We also didn't pay too much attention to the man standing next to us. Elvynia and I bought chocolate and stroopwafels and other snack-foods for our bus ride on Saturday because we figured nothing would be open the 1st. As the last sun of 2009 set, E and V bought long underwear, and I bought a warm fleece scarf. Nothing says a New Year's Party like long underwear.
Back at the apartment, we got ready to go to V's friend's apartment to commence the New Year festivities. While E and I were keeping warm in the living room, the door bell rang. V went to get it and had a discussion with the person. When he came back, he said that it was the same man who had been standing by us at the free coffee place in the grocery store. He wanted bread. V said he had given him some, and the man left. E and I were a little freaked out by that and hid our valuables in our suitcases, in case the man should decide to enter after we left.
Then we met V's friends at their apartment, drank a little wine, and ate a little (too little) pizza.

Next stop: the Red Light District.

We had plans to go to a bar with a 90s cover band, but I insisted that as true tourists we had to at least see the red light district. Plus, we weren't planning on going back into Amsterdam until our bus on the 2nd.
So, as intrepid as the millions of other Brit and American tourists in the city, we headed for the Red Light district. I have to admit here that I had had a little to drink, so the whole thing has a kind of hazy dream-like quality to it. But here it goes:
We walked through the red light district, holding onto one another, pushing through the crowds, and saw the prostitutes in their windows. We were like kindergartners holding hands and looking at boobs.
Seriously, though, the streets were packed. And there were all these windows with these scantily-clad women in them. The buildings were tall and brick, and there were just tons of people, mostly guys, coming at us, and mostly wearing those winter hats with braids on the sides and theirs had Amsterdam printed on them in big letters. (I was sh**-talking those hats to Fabiola when I got back. Apparently, she bought one. Oops. She loves me.) There were sex shops in between the brothels. We went down one street called something like "Alice in Wonderland," The path gets more and more narrow because the buildings' walls are kind of at an angle, and, again, all of these people were just coming at us.
Semi-interesting fact that may not be entirely accurate: These days there is a push against the legalized prostitution in the Netherlands. Apparently one manifestation of this is the reduction of actual brothels, rather the prostitutes are self-run. Another thing to know is you have to knock on the windows to ask the prices. I joked about doing it, but I was too scared of the prostitutes. Fabiola told me that when she was there, only a couple days after us, her friend was taking pictures, which is totally not allowed. One of the prostitutes went after her!

Then we left and went to the bar. We had a lot of fun; the band didn't play a single 90s song. But we danced as it was. I tried to help the band out by singing a little on their break, but the stage guy didn't like that. At midnight, we went outside to scream in the New Year, but it was freaking freezing, so we went back inside. We finished the night with some fries and took the train back out of town.

(The only picture I have of the six of us, sorry Elvynia! Not really too flattering of me either)

I rang in my first morning (afternoon) of the New Year by not feeling too well and laying under my super sleeping bag much too long. V's parents had invited us over for a New Years chili, so we slowly made our way over there. Mrs. Van Ommen offered us some mulled wine, and my face must have said something like "God, no, anything but that." So, she offered us some sparkling water (frisky water, as Carolyn would say), and we had a nice afternoon of chili and cheese and other tasty things. After that it was a quiet night in, so we could make sure to get up early for....

the BUS!! (planes, trains, and AUTOMOBILES!) Elvynia and I booked a eurolines bus from Amsterdam to Paris for the whopping price of €44. We were kind of excited because, well, I've never really traveled by bus before, and I don't think she has either.
Anywho, V drove us to the station where a lady yelled at us for lying about how many bags we had (we didn't mean to); then we gave V a hug and thanked him for being a superb host and boarded our first ever inter-European bus! From Amsterdam to Brussels, there were only a handful of people, so we took advantage and spread ourselves out a little. It also started snowing, a lot, which was really cool to see. All of the sudden in Brussels, a million people boarded the bus; we didn't even have time to move together. The ride was easy and uneventful. We got to the Gallini station around 4:45 pm and made our way to Montparnasse for our final train of the holiday. Sigh.

We got to Angers where it was a balmy 4˚C, lovely compared to the Netherlands. It was nice to be at foyer du bon conseil in my own space, but, honestly, I had had such a great holiday I wished I was still traveling. The semi-real world of work did not appeal at all.

(Thank you so much again, Roth family, Franziska, and Victor. It was awesome.)
Next up: food shopping in France and maybe some regular shopping too.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Trains, planes, and automobiles pt II [or too many trains to Amsterdam]

How's the New Year going for everyone?
I kicked off 2010 by calling in sick to work on Monday. Then I forgot it was Tuesday, the only day I have to leave for work at 8:30, and I missed my first class. The beautiful thing: no one seemed to care in the least. Christophe practically scoffed when I mentioned I felt bad about it.
Vive la France!

So Germany for Christmas... It was the perfect combination of resting and having fun. I didn't want to leave. Especially not at 8am or at whatever god-awful hour I booked my first train. Someday I will realize I am not a morning person, and I will pay more for later tickets. This will be after I marry a rich man.
So with a heavy heart and happy tummy, I ate a final breakfast in Melsungen before the sun even rose. Franziska and her dad took me to the train station where I immediately got nervous about all of my connections.
A tip on booking trains: always familiarize yourself with the geography of the region you're traveling in before booking trains. The journey could have been shorter.
Then again, happy mistakes can often give you the most beautiful view.
In this case, I went on a little bit of a German tour before heading on to the Netherlands, you can see an approximation of the route here: Allie's convoluted German travel. But, I saw some of the most beautiful landscape in Germany. The train from Frankfurt to Köln was not ICE; it was IC, which meant it was quite a bit slower. Buuuuut, this train travels along the Rhine river, and if you ever have to travel from Frankfurt to Köln, TAKE THE IC TRAIN. It is hill-y with vineyard after vineyard after quaint village after castle. The sun even came out from hiding and shone on the fairy tale landscape. Unfortunately, my seat was on the inland side of the train, so I spent most of the journey craning my neck to see across my neighbor. I also didn't take any pictures. But, believe me, you, it was gorgeous. A feast for the eyes: I'm trying to figure out when I'll have to take a train from Frankfurt to Köln again, just to sit on the waterfront side of the train. But I digress.
I took the ICE train from Köln to Amsterdam, which was only slightly eventful. First this family kept sitting in all these other people's seats (including mine) thus backing up the boarding process. My seat was awesome, though, because it was a window seat AND by itself. I had lots of room to spread out. The train also stopped about an hour away from Amsterdam Centraal due to "fnadnf akdjnfjknd." The speakers cut out when he said it in English. The problem was resolved, but we ended up sitting on the tracks another 30 minutes because another train was stopped in front of us. The conductor said, "We are stopped. We don't really know when we'll move again." Awesome. But, we moved again not too long later.
In Amsterdam, I caught a local train to Baarn where my friend Victor lives. Baarn is 30-ish minutes from Amsterdam. It is also adorable. Small streets and quaint buildings. I think I will now stop using the word quaint, even though it applies to many things I saw. (Carolyn, you still use that word incorrectly.)
Victor picked me up at the train station, and we rode a car to his apartment, his very cold apartment, with the strangest (really just old and outdated -- sorry Victor, it is) heating and hot water system I've ever experienced. I was so glad to hang with another Memphis friend so far from home. We caught up and set up mine and Elvynia's camp in the living room then headed out to pick her up at the Amersfoort train station. Victor made a fabulous spaghetti accompanied by a Dutch cheese the name of which translates to "Old." We gobbled it up, formulated a tourist-tastic plan for the Netherlands, and crashed.

The 29th we rose early (11am) had some scrambled up eggs and headed out and up. North, that is, to the quaint (oops) Zaanse Schans. A quote from the website:
"This enchanting village has been lovingly established by relocating local houses,windmills, storehouses and barns to form a remarkable replica of a typical Zaanse village of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Apart from the cluster of windmills, characteristic wooden houses and delightful shops to visit there are intriguing traditional Dutch crafts such as wooden shoes, pewter and cheese making, several fascinating museums..."

Yes it is probably one of the most tourist-y locations in the entire country. And we loved every minute of it. There is a museum you have to pay for, and three that you don't have to pay for. Ignoring the advice of the welcome man, we skipped the obsenely-priced museum and headed straight for what he called the more "commercial" museums. Well, he wasn't lying, but we got to see someone make a wooden clog. With a handy whittling-y/carving-y machine, a wooden shoe was created in 5 minutes flat, before our very eyes. One man in attendance was wearing his own wooden shoes. Victor talked to him -- in Dutch so we made him translate afterward. Apparently he wears them everyday because he works with horses. According to horse-and-wooden-shoe man, they are warmer and more comfortable than regular shoes. We took his word for it and made a beeline for the Cheesefarm Museum, rumored (clearly printed in the brochure) to have cheese samples. Museum it was not. When you enter Zaanse Schans' Cheesefarm building, you see a glass wall with cheese-making-looking apparatuses (I really wanted to use apparati just then, but I looked it up. It's not the correct plural form) and some wheels of Gouda. There was no explanation. No helpful museum guide. Just some cheese behing a glass wall. Oh well, in the cheese store, many times the size of the museum, there were plenty of samples. And sample we did.
Next we went to the Sawmill Windmill. We paid €3 to get in and watched the least informative documentary on the making of a windmill. ever. Then we explored! We read about the history of the logging history, learned how to tell trees apart (look at the bark and leaves of course), and climbed up the windmill. It wasn't that tall, but it was cool to climb around in it for a bit. A good bit of climbing around is healthy.
We wandered around the area a bit more, then headed back to Baarn where Victor made Indonesian chicken and rice something. It was tasty. We met some of his friends in the next town, which was very fun. We made friends with these two guys -- c'est à dire that they sat down at our table and kind of forced their friendship upon us. Elvynia and I became Stephanie and Claire, and I tried to force the life story out of one of the guys. The other one was wearing a Yankees hat.
Then we learned a very interesting Dutch fact.
In bars, all over the Netherlands, there are bells. If you ring the bell, you have to buy everyone in the bar a drink, a tradition taken very seriously. Yankees fan did, of which we reaped the benefits.
It began to snow. On the walk home, Elvnia, Victor, and I enjoyed sliding in Baarn's cobblestone streets.

On the 30th we rose earlier and went to Amsterdam! We had every intention of going to a free piano concert at the city's concert hall, but we had to wait in a very long line for a parking garage. I entertained everyone by reading out of my Amsterdam guide book. I say "entertained." They might use a different word. Anywho, we parked at the 1928 Olympic Stadium, so we kind of saw that.
Here's what we did in Amsterdam: wandered freezingly through a market and bought freshly made stroopwafels, took a boat tour through the canals, went to the Van Gogh museum, ate Burger King, went to Electric Lady Land, saw a coffee shop, went to a bar, had a delicious dinner, played Jenga.
Stroopwafels are two flat layers of waffle-y deliciousness with syrup in the middle. The boat tour was heated and covered, and we learned more interesting facts. For instance, all along the canal there are low metal bars installed by insurance companies to keep cars from just driving on into the canal. Very often these metal bars are not effective. Victor also contributed his share of facts. Among the many sites, we saw the bridge where he met Dave Grohl one time. Elvynia took some awesome pictures. Here's one of them:

The Van Gogh museum was totally packed. But I saw lots and lots of his paintings, including Branches of an Almond Tree, Wheatfield with Crows, and Vase with 12 Sunflowers. I was quite happy.
We then met V's friend Krijn (?). I don't know how to pronounce his name. K took us on a roundabout tour of the city with the goal of reaching Electric Lady Land. Electric Lady Land, not only a Jimi Hendrix album, but also the first museum of fluorescent art. Basically, we paid a crazy French hippie €5 to take us into a basement to interact with fluorescent art. We didn't understand a word she said, and at one point she turned off the lights to get us out of the interactive exhibit. This same woman also has spent a great deal of her life living under a black light and has a plastic skull that she found on the street the day she heard that Jerry Garcia had died. We also saw some rocks glow under UV lights and some freaky pictures of animals genetically altered to glow. It was toally worth it.

(this picture also courtesy of elvynia... well, actually the crazy french hippie took the pic, but it was e's awesome camera)

There's lots more to say, but I'll leave off here for now.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Trains, planes, and automobiles

Happy New Year!
I am back in France after a whirlwind of a vacation that was both totally awesome and way too short.
I'd like to begin this story with another story... of long long ago:
On November 27, 1987, my parents went to see the movie, Trains, Planes, and Automobiles, starring Steve Martin and John Candy. The next day I was born. It was a beautiful day.
Anyway, having heard that story a number of times, I've developed a bit of an affinity for the phrase trains, planes, and automobiles, if not for the movie itself, most assuredly for the idea of taking every means of transportation possible from one place to the next.
So, thanks to the ridiculous cost of air travel to the United States, I booked a Christmas-New Years extravaganza, which included more trains than I care to mention, one plane, and one giant bus. I also managed to ride in a couple cars, a taxi, a roller coaster simulator thingy, and a tram or two.

So, without further ado, Trains! Planes! Automobiles!
Setting the scene: December 22, in desperate need of new music for my journey, I downloaded the album Up From Below by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. (I am typically against downloading from itunes, but... I was desperate.) The song "Home" was on a free playlist I had previously downloaded, and the album's awesome opening song "40 Day Dream" became the official anthem for my jouney. Click on either song to listen while you read! (I, by the way, am obsessed with random hyperlinks. If you haven't noticed, look through my previous posts.)

On December 23rd I took a 6:45am train to Paris, in order to make a 3:30pm flight. I arrived not-so-bright but very early, around 8:30. The sun was not yet out. I did what any reasonable person would do in Paris at 9 in the morning in the freezing cold. Walked around Paris. Saw the Louvre. Saw the bazillion other tourists at the Louvre. Left the Louvre. Sat in a café. Went in some shops. Went out of some shops. Nearly died of frostbite.
I probably should have spent the extra €20 on a later train. Oh well.
I made it to CDG with time to spare. Here it comes: Planes! It was cheaper for me to fly to Frankfurt than to take a train. The plane ride was run-of-the-mill as can be, and praise be to God, I made it to the train station 30 minutes before departure. The train was the ICE, the German equivalent of the TGV, and it was also packed. There were people sitting in every seat, people making other people get out of their seats, people sitting on luggage, people napping in the aisles, people standing in the doorways, luggage lying all over the place. It was a mess, and it made me nervous. But again, praise be to God, I got off at the right stop and caught the local train to Melsungen.
I'd like to mention here that I was extraordinarily lucky, throughout this trip. Virtually none of my trains were delayed, and as such I didn't miss I single connection. Oh yeah, did I mention that trains and planes were being cancelled out the wazoo the 21st and 22nd? They were. I am knocking on wood as I write this.
Anywho, at about 9:00 pm, I arrived at Melsungen where Franziska was waiting at the station. After over 15 hours travel time, I was never so glad to see anyone.

Now, I know Franzi is reading/will read this, so I'd like to address a couple German stereotypes: Germans drink beer all the time while wearing lederhosen and praying to David Hasselhoff. Keeeding. (We drank wine and champagne, mostly wore pajamas, and went to the regular church with the hymns and the baby Jesus.)
Here's what I will say about Germany (and this is 100% a compliment): If I didn't know the Roths, I would have thought they were trying to fatten me up to cook me for New Year's dinner.

Here's what I ate: potato soup, cheese, bread, vodka-soaked fruit, bread, cheese, fish platter, lobster, star-shaped ice cream, champagne, bread, cheese, a dutch farmer's pancake, champagne, roast apple, bread, cheese, deer, pork roast, polenta (franzi's fave hehe), knoedel, red cabbage-y stuff, wine, salad, petit-fours, raspberry desert, champagne, roast apples with star-shaped ice cream, bread, cheese, salami, salmon with broccoli and peppers, rice, lemon desert, black forest cake, wine, champagne, roast apples with star-shaped ice cream, bread.

I loved every minute of it. Franziska's mom loves to cook, and I think she was glad to have three daughters to (and someone can correct my german) bemuttern. In addition to me and Franzi, her older sister Juliana was staying for the holidays.

Here's what else happened: a lot of speaking German. Here's a habit I've developed: pretending to understand languages I do not speak. Usually I could pick up a word or two that indicated the general theme of the conversation, from there I'd invent the dialogue as I saw fit. This made for an entertaining, if not completely false interpretation of the world around me.
Then, someone would explain what they were actually saying. It was kind of fun. By the end of it, I amazed everyone by answering yes or no to questions posed in German. It's all about the key words, baby.

A run down of the events: the 23rd we met some of her friends and drank a very tasty vodka fruity thing. The 24th, we slept in, and I learned that my French migraine medecine also functions as the perfect hangover cure. (Paracetamol, Caffeine, and a pinch of Codeine, how could you go wrong?) We went to the Christmas Eve service, where Mr. Roth ended up being the minister because the minister was sick. For dinner we had a platter of assorted fishes, a tradition in their family, drank real French Champagne -- it was really good -- and opened presents. The Roths in their unending hospitality had a few for me, which was a really nice surprise. And the cinnamon pecans from my family were a hit.
Christmas day we took a CAR the 1.5 hour trip to visit their oldest sister and her family at a family vacation home place. We visited with the kids who ripped through their presents then had dinner at the Centerpark, which I can only describe as a mall with lots of different restaurants, no shops, a couple small arcade-y things, a jungle gym, and a pool. We also went on a virtual roller coaster with Franziska's nephew.
The 26th we ate and hung around. Then Franzi and I went out with her friends in Kassel. When we left, the ground had frozen, and I got to slide on the ice with my heels. On accident.
The 27th we ate and hung around. We also went into Melsungen and walked around. A picture will do it more justice than I can:

The thing about Christmas in Germany, or maybe just Christmas with the Roths, was that we didn't run around like chickens with our heads cut off. Really. We just sat and talked and ate and relaxed. I won't say it was better than being home, but it came damn near close. I would have loved to be with my family and Kevin for the holidays. But, with as much running around as I tend to do, spending the holiday doing nothing was wonderful. The Roths were so hospitable and welcoming to the weird American. Plus, I got to hang out with one of my favorite people for 5 days and do nothing, who could ask for more?

I'm tired, this post will have to have a part two: too many trains to Amsterdam. For now, I'll leave you with this: