Italia

Last week a friend and I took a trip to Italy. I say that casually, but actually I find it amazing that in one and a half hours I can be in Italy.

Our first stop was Pisa. We saw the standard tourist sites, like the duomo (church) and Leaning Tower. I had been to Pisa before, but on a whirlwind nighttime trip, so this was my first time seeing it during the day.78.pisa.2014a78.pisa.2014b 78.pisa.2014c My friend quite liked this small Gothic church, Santa Maria della Spina, nestled along the Arno River.78.pisa.2014h 78.pisa.2014gI was taken by the late afternoon light on this building. The walls in Tuscany were superb.78.pisa.2014eA smiling girl and her pup charmed me. I was angling my camera up to take a picture of a dog looking out the window when she emerged with a big smile.78.pisa.2014fOur lodging’s décor wasn’t minimalist, but the spacious room somehow felt sparse and had the feeling of a convent. The sheets were pale blue and the floor was tile. There was even a picture of Mary and the baby Jesus on the wall. It was peaceful. We had a balcony that overlooked a quiet street.78.pisa.2014dThe last site we hunted down during our 24 hours in Pisa was Keith Haring’s mural. Bang.78.pisa.2014i

Blue, White, and Red

The other night I was biking home and saw the Assemblée Nationale lit up in the colors of the French flag for the upcoming Fête Nationale, or Bastille Day, as we call it in the States. This classic-looking building contains the lower house of the Parliament.77.assembleenat.2014Every year on July 14th crowds of people gather on the Champ de Mars to watch fireworks in honor of the holiday. Last year a friend and her visiting friend and I picnicked on a small side lawn for about five hours before the fireworks started around 11pm. As the fireworks began, the Eiffel Tower sparkled, but with the regular golden lights off so that you only saw a silhouette of sparkles.77.fetenationale.2014

French Ikea

For a long time I have been curious about how Ikea in France compares to Ikea in the United States. When a friend asked me if I wanted to join her in her shopping expedition in the suburbs, I jumped at the chance.

I have good memories of Ikea. When I was a kid, my family would go there not only to shop for furniture and household items but also to eat Swedish meatballs with lingonberry sauce and buy ginger snaps. The location we went to was next to an airport, and since the eating area had large windows, you could watch the planes take off.

Even when my sister and I became young adults, we had fun poking around the showrooms and picking up the quirky stuffed toys available.

The French Ikea experience was… almost identical to the American Ikea experience. The layout was exactly the same, so I knew where to find everything. It was even a bit strange to hear the cashier speaking French because I could have believed I was in the United States.

There was one marked difference.76.ikea.2014aMy Ikea back in the States doesn’t offer croque monsieurs, crêpes, macarons, or cafés gourmands.

My friend bought quite a few things for her apartment. While I didn’t get anything household-related, I went a little crazy in the food section, or épicerie suedoise. It wasn’t so much that I crave these items, but they reminded me of home. Funny that a Swedish furniture store could hold so much nostalgia for an American in France, isn’t it?

As a bonus surprise, the cashier gave me a cute green insulated lunch bag for each almond tart that I purchased.

After we went through checkout, my friend realized that she had forgotten to get two items. While she fetched them, I sat with her bags in the area where customers wait to be called to pick up the furniture they ordered. After a while, an employee came by and offered me a piece of chocolate for waiting patiently. That has certainly never happened to me in the States.

On the platform waiting for the train back to Paris from Plaisir, I snapped a photo of these extremely regular trees in the distance.76.ikea.2014c

Look Twice

75.eiffels.2014Yesterday evening some friends and I had a picnic to celebrate the Fourth of July. We were a mix of American, French, and Canadian. It was also the night of the French versus Germany World Cup match. I am sure that anyone who noticed I was wearing red and blue assumed I was coming from watching the game rather than on my way to an Independence Day get-together.

When I arrived at the Champ de Mars, there was an international horse show going on at the end of the green in front of the Ecole Militaire. I stayed for a few minutes to marvel with the crowd every time a horse leaped over a jump.

Moving on, I made my way around picnickers to find my friend, who had said that she was sitting in front of the red Eiffel Tower, to which I thought, “Red… Eiffel Tower?”

True enough, there was a replica of the Iron Lady surrounded by velvet ropes. Another friend later explained to us that it is built of chairs to celebrate the 125th anniversary of this type of bistro chair (which he has never seen in a bistro, he added). A French furniture company commissioned this sculpture of 324 chairs, a nod to the 324-meter high Eiffel Tower.

I had to agree with our friend that cafés here typically have traditional cane chairs rather than these metal foldable ones. Yet they looked familiar to me. I read a bit more about the sculpture on the Paris city site, which said that this chair had been adopted internationally, and suddenly it was clear to me. They are all over Times Square in New York City.

On this Friday evening, just another fourth of July in France, there were no fireworks or barbecue or patriotic songs, but Mexican dip and cheese and friends and two Eiffel Towers.

Sweet Tooth

This week I had a rare dinner out with colleagues. It was fun. When I worked in the U.S., my colleagues and I would go out for happy hour every time someone joined the company, left, or got promoted. Add in major life events, and there were times when it seemed like we were going to happy hour all the time. I miss that camaraderie, so yesterday evening it was nice to leave work together and kick back on a warm summer day at a bar/restaurant in the coin.

For dessert I ordered a café gourmand. It was the biggest café gourmand I had ever seen. A café gourmand is composed of an espresso and three small desserts. A typical one would include a macaron, a small cup of ice cream, and a little chocolate cake. This one featured three small chocolate cakes, three crepes, and a crème brûlée on a flat stone planche. It was garnished by a mysterious fruit that my colleagues sussed out the name for: physalis, or ground cherry.

74.cafegourmand.2014

Whoever thought up this concept was a bright fella.

Sell Me Something

Last Wednesday was the first day of the summer soldes. Twice a year, most stores—clothing, shoe, cosmetics—mark down their products. Unlike in the States, where sales are advertised for every holiday, from Labor Day to any excuse you can think of, in France there aren’t any great reductions until these big soldes.

I already bought a dress on the second day.

The product description on the store site says, “On aime aussi beaucoup les emmanchures américaines.” What are American armholes?

Now I just need a party to go to…

Welcome, Summer

Fête de la Musique is my favorite day of the year.

Fête de la Musique takes place every year on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. It started in France and now is celebrated in other countries around the world. In Paris, musicians perform free outdoor concerts all over the city from late afternoon to the wee hours of the morning. There are so many performers that you could walk down a small street and see several groups playing.

This year, I felt like we lived dozens of nights in one night. My friend and I started out at the Centre Culturel Irlandais and watched Moxie, an Irish band, perform. I love Irish music, so I was in heaven.  72.fetedelamusique.2014a 72.fetedelamusique.2014b

They were followed by Gavin James, an acoustic guitarist and singer-songwriter. He had a sweet voice. In addition to his original songs, he sang classics like “What a Wonderful World” and “La Vie en Rose.”

Later that night, we saw:

- a male brass band in funny uniforms performing covers of popular songs in the Luxembourg Gardens

- a cool Christian band in a dark church courtyard strung with colorful lights

- a huge outdoor gay nightclub with smoke coming out of surrounding buildings’ windows

- a band outside a restaurant where we watched old and young people dancing for a while before joining in (I asked my friend if he wanted to go dance, and he said no. A few songs later, I asked if he was sure. He said yes. He looked at my face and astutely realized that my actual question was, Can we dance? He asked if I wanted to. I nodded my head enthusiastically. He said, Okay, let’s go. I figured he was humoring me, so I was surprised when he began to dance like crazy. If he really doesn’t like dancing, he did a good job of pretending he does.)

- a group of musicians sitting in a circle and playing traditional Irish music in only the glow of lamplight—magical72.fetedelamusique.2014cI went home humming.

Does your city participate in World Music Day?

Craft Night

On Friday night my current favorite library hosted “Craft Night : soirée bricolage autour du livre” for the first time. To participate in this free book-themed crafting event, I simply RSVP’d by email.

On the lovely airy second floor of the médiathèque, library employees guided participants in four activities: making ink prints, constructing small notebooks, practicing calligraphy, and creating paper butterflies. A generous spread of hors d’oeurves, fruits, sweets, and drinks added to the soirée atmosphere.

I would have liked to do all of the projects, but since I took my time on my string of butterflies, I only tried my hand at calligraphy afterward. Recently I’ve felt rushed in my professional and personal life, and this evening I refused to let myself be rushed by anyone. The peaceful space was perfect for relaxing and quietly creating with fellow crafters.71.craftnight.2014a 71.craftnight.2014bUsing clear plastic shapes the library had provided, I traced butterflies of different sizes onto old sheet music. The lyrics of the piece I picked up happened to be quite romantic, so I took advantage of this luck and deliberately positioned my tracings over specific phrases that struck my fancy. I cut them out and strung them on a nylon thread. They now flit across my wardrobe.71.craftnight.2014c 71.craftnight.2014d 71.craftnight.2014e 71.craftnight.2014f 71.craftnight.2014gThe most interesting part of the calligraphy table was the man who explained the art to me. It’s always a delight to see someone passionate about their craft. When I sat down and expressed interest in trying it, he showed me how to fill the ink pen, blot it on the paper to reduce the ink at the point, and position it at a 20 degree angle to the paper. He set down a piece of paper that displayed the alphabet in Carolingian, a font from Charlemagne’s time. He then proceeded to demonstrate the technique by writing commonly-used letters—‘a’ and ‘o.’ There is a specific order and direction in which you make each stroke. Much like other arts, the result appears to flow freely but is actually very precise in practice.

After his detailed presentation, he invited me to give it a try. I picked up the calligraphy pen, and he immediately reacted in dismay, “Vous êtes gauchère ?” (“You’re left-handed?”) Yes, I said with a laugh, Does that change everything? Well, it changes quite a bit, he said. This font, all of the order of strokes that he showed me—they were made for right-handed people. He showed me a couple of options, one of which was to turn the paper at an angle and write that way. I guess if I lived in Charlemagne’s time, I would have worked as a butter churner.

Peel, Boil, Chop, Repeat

Last Friday night I made chicken salad for a picnic the following day, which involved boiling chicken breasts, then potatoes, then carrots, then pasta. Keep in mind that I only have two burners and one good pot.

Life in a little apartment in Paris: not always romantic.

On the plus side, I made so much that I had several lunches prepared for the next week.

Coupe du Monde

You might be familiar with the typical Parisian café scene. People sit on chairs facing outward and people watch.

69.cafe.2014aLast night I saw a funny reversal of that. To accommodate World Cup viewers, Häagen-Dazs had set up chairs facing away from the street and toward a wide screen TV.69.cafe.2014b